El Camino de Santiago: a volunteer shares his story

Hiking Boots Camino de Santiago

Hiking Boots set outside for the night to keep the bedroom better smelling.

As I got on the plane for Orlando, Florida, and again as I got off the plane, I spoke to a man who resides in Orlando and works in Montreal. Our first conversation was typical chit chat. Our second was dynamic, far-reaching and quite extraordinary. This is the thing about solo travel. If I had not been alone, I would never had had such a conversation.

During our chat, Rick told me about cycling El Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2009. He then told a followup story about going back this past spring, to volunteer on the Camino – a great solo travel activity. He has kindly agreed to share a missive he sent back home with us here.

A big thank you to Rick.

Closing Field Report of Rick Baldwin from Rabanal del Camino, Spain – June 15, 2010

To refresh, I have served for the past 15 days as a volunteer hospitalero in Albergue Guacelmo located along El Camino de Santiago, at Rabanal del Camino, Spain.  The job of the four volunteer hospitaleros (Bob, Rowena, Chard, & Rick) stationed here is to man the albergue 24/7 during their duty weeks – attending to whatever comes up. Pilgrims of El Camino de Santiago have been walking this trail, for multiple personal reasons, since about 920AD and they continue today.

Because our duty ends tonight at midnight, we are departing the first thing in the morning and all heading back home.  I find myself sad to leave but feeling fulfilled.

Volunteering on El Camino
Albergue Guacelmo is a ‘donativo’ facility, where pilgrims give what they can to cover the cost of their stay. It contains 44 beds, and is occupied exclusively each evening by ‘pilgrims’ walking El Camino de Santiago the 600ish miles from Roncesvalles (in far north-eastern Spain) to Santiago de Compostela (in far north-western Spain). Manning the place means getting up each morning at 6:00am, serving breakfast from 6:30am to 7:30am, and then swabbing, sweeping, mopping and otherwise cleaning the whole place out.

Scallop shell (the logo of the Camino) with cross of St. James

Scallop shell (the logo of the Camino) with cross of St. James

Next, because pilgrims may stay for only one night, a new crop of them arrives by foot each afternoon at 2:00pm and the work begins again.  In the afternoons and evenings, we checked them in, doctored their feet, conducted a group stretching class, served afternoon tea, helped them prepare their dinners, listened to their stories – and then herded them to bed by no later than 10:30pm.

Sorrow Stones
Most pilgrims are carrying what are named ‘sorrow stones.’  Those stones, usually small and carried from back home have been carried by pilgrims since time and memoriam.  The stones generally represent a great and irreconcilable burden (or sorrow) in a person’s life – that needs to be ‘laid down,’ and not picked back up.

The practice of laying down one’s sorrows in the form of sorrow stones is especially important here at Rabanal del Camino because they will be laid down at Cruz de Ferro, the highest place along El Camino – and about two hours’ walk from our front door.

Rick cleans toilets

Cleaning toilets was one of the duties of a volunteer.

While I heard many stories about the origin of people’s stones, the most poignant came from a woman from Hamburg.  She told me that she was 45 years old, married with a good husband and a good job, but finds herself, to her great sorrow, childless.  It also seems that she has finally accepted that she will never bear her own child – and will therefore at long last release, tomorrow at the Cruz de Ferro, the extreme personal melancholy she has carried because she is barren.  In the place of her sorrow she will, upon her arrival back home, begin tutoring young children who are struggling to learn to read – as a volunteer – and those students will become her own.

She wept in silence when telling me her story.  I held her hand.  My judgment that night was that she was ready to at last lay her heavy yoke aside.  I was pleased for her.

Conversations like this, and personal stories like these, are what have made this a rich experience for us.

Scrubbing Toilets
We had one near emergency:  After four days on the job, my supply of clean clothes was exhausted – and I thought I was going to have to do my own laundry.  But thankfully, Rowena tired of my whining, agreed to throw them into the washer for me – and the disaster was averted.

I came here because my sister told me I needed to scrub more toilets in my life, and in the process, become more humble.  I have surely scrubbed toilets for the last two weeks.  I will hope to have become more humble.


Rick tending to a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago

Rick tending to a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago

  • Jade

    I walked the Camino Frances in May 2013 and met Rick while he was again volunteering at Albergue Guacelmo. I remember that he treated the blisters on my feet and confirmed that I had tendinitis. Chard was also volunteering again and he led the helpful afternoon stretching class. Guacelmo was one of the best albergues I stayed at on the Way, largely due to their tireless work. I hope to return there one day and
    complete my own hospitalero duty.

  • Johien

    What a lot of people saying I want to, it is a goel of mine or maybe one day. Don’t delay – DO IT!, I have done it after reading and listening to a lot of stories of people who wanted to do it but died before they could do it or had an operation or illness taht will prevent them for ever of doing it. Life is short and even scrubbing toilets can be an adventure.

  • Yolunda Walker

    I have been wanting to walk the El Camino de Santiago for four years and this year it is going to happen, probably September. I am so so looking forward to it and happy to read about being able to volunteer working, what a fantastic experience this would be.
    Roll on September :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/cindy.fernandezmartinez Cindy F Martinez

    I am planning on walking the last 100km starting in Sarria in April 2013. This will be my second solo experience in Spain. My first was 2 yrs ago teaching english to Spaniards through a school called Vaughan and that was so much fun. I am so excited planning this trip for the spring. Thanks for your cool story. I would seriously consider volunteering.

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Good for you. That should be a fantastic trip! Best of luck,

  • Christina

    Great article. I am planning on walking the Camino June 2013. I now have a better appreciation for the volunteers I will soon meet. Thanks for the new insight!

  • WC

    Cool, I really want to do the walk, mostly since St James is my patron.
    Wonder if I should wait and see if I can go alone, or maybe with my bro… 😀

  • Eileen

    Russ, just read your post and wondered if you had any luck with the volunteering? I am planning a trip for Aug/Sept and really would like to extend and do some work there.
    Would appreciate any advice you may be able to give.
    Thanks! e.

  • Eileen

    Yep, this is on my list to do solo in September and if I can figure out how to volunteer I will stay much longer! 

  • http://traveldestinationbucketlist.com/ AnitaMac

    Great story!  I hope to walk the Camino myself one day (soon??!!!)  I love that you did some volunteer time – sounds like you met some incredible people.  That is one of the things that inspires me most when travelling – the people you meet and their stories.  Perhaps some time volunteering will become part of my experience – I think it is great that you were there and met so many people, was able to share their pain and relieve some of their burden.  Thanks for planting the idea – I may not have thought of this on my own.

  • http://hotelsneardelhi.com/river-rafting-rishikesh/ River rafting

    Interesting story…Cleaning toilets is a noble task I think…It may be troublesome for you but it is relief for others.

  • Irene

    I’ve never done the walk, I hope to one day though, but I can so identify with the woman in your story. I am 52 years old, have a wonderful husband and a job I love, but I’ve never had a child. For years Mothers day was a nightmare, and as for friends announcing their pregnancies – for me that was harrowing. This year though my friend and my niece have both had daughters and for the first time ever I didn’t sob my heart out. My help was the Angel Raphael. Someday maybe I’ll get to do the walk in thanks for the wonderful things I have in life, instead of what I have not. How wonderful that a walk can change lives and open our eyes to what life is really about. Stop sometimes and smell the flowers, we all need time to escape.  

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    I have yet to go but it’s on my list.

  • http://www.fotografiasdelmundo.com.ar/ Another photographer

    Great story! I admired the hospitaleros all long the way. Great people!

  • http://www.soyperegrino.com.ar/ Peregrino Fotografo

    I really liked your story and it reflects the true spirit of the Camino. I did my first camino in July 2011 and I’m hoping to come back again this year.

  • Fred Bovenkamp

    I stayed in this albergue in August 2011.  The volunteer hosts were the most hospitable and friendly of my entire journey from Saint Jean Pied de Port.  Thank you for your service to the pilgrims!

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  • http://twitter.com/thatbackpacker Audrey Bergner

    Wow, it’s so inspiring to hear about the people who volunteer along the Camino. Thanks Rick!
    I’m hoping to walk the Camino in the coming year, I feel it’s something I need to do.

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Yes Linda, it would be rare for information like her experience as a slave to be shared if you were in a larger circle of people – even one person larger. That is an extraordinary experience. On another note, how exciting for you to be planning the Camino. I have hopes for making it there next year myself.

  • http://islandmomma.wordpress.com Linda

    Wonderful story and very inspiring.  I’m hoping to do the Camino next year, so doubly interested.

    I so agree about meeting people being a totally different concept when you travel solo.  I’ve met really interesting people too.  The most interesting being a young woman who had been a slave, which was four years ago and I still can’t quite get over.  I’m very sure I would never have known that had I been with someone else.  She was a delightful and friendly travel companion, but quite shy.  It was a privilege to have spoken with her.

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  • Russ kenny

    I have walked the camino 3 times now complete up until june/july 2010
    now i want to work in one or many of the alburgues for 2011
    how do i found out about volunteering?
    i come from england so its not too far away
    and advice from anyone would be good

  • Liz

    Rick you are an inspiration ! Love your work !!

  • http://pinaytraveller.com Pauline

    Hi Rick! What an inspiring post. Walking the Camino de Santiago is one of my goals in the next year or so and your short article made my resolve stronger. Cheers!