I’ll just know it
That was what I told everyone before I left.
“I hope that when I walk into the town I’m supposed to be in, I’ll just know it.”
I was hoping for that feeling. I was praying for it. And if that prayer was not answered, I don’t know of one that was.
Let me back up.
Way back when, I heard about this walk in Spain that people went on. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. And there was something about Saint James. My friends Julie and Claire had volunteered at a place that hosted these pilgrims that was run by Campus Crusade back in 2003, Fuente del Peregrino (Fountain of the Pilgrim). I did not understand what they were talking about when they talked about “The Camino.” In the last few years, I typically ask people if they have heard of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, or a trek across northern Spain. If all those answers are negative, I opt for, “Have you seen the movie called ‘The Way’ by Martin Sheen?” If that does not ring a bell, I know they feel just as I felt when I first heard about it. Little did I know how familiar I would become with this peculiar experience or adventure or place or whatever you want to call it.
When I decided to leave my pleasant life in Edwards, Colorado and teaching at Eagle Valley High School, where I had spent 10 years in the social studies classroom, I did not set out to change me. However, I knew there was no way to take off on 9 months of “round-the-world” travel and not be changed.
The reason for leaving was simple: I had loved my time teaching but there were more things I wanted to do with my life, namely, open a bed and breakfast. I knew if I stuck around teaching a few more years that I would most likely become a victim of the “golden handcuffs” (a retirement so good that I’d stick around for 20 more years of teaching whether it was in my best interest or not… or my students’ interest for that matter). In the end, if I discovered that hospitality was not all I had hoped it would be, I would happily go back to the classroom. But I would not know if I did not try. So before pursuing this big career change, I decided a little travel would be fun and a great way to do some “market research” in the hospitality industry.
Somehow, 9 months of travel turned into 2 years, something that seems quite common among long-term travelers. During those 2 years, I traveled to 19 countries on five continents and slept in upwards of 170 beds (including a few buses and airport floors) and not one incident of bed bugs – which I would consider quite an accomplishment considering the conditions of some of my accommodations. After all that “market research”, it started to become more and more clear what direction I would be heading.
On September 10, 2013, I began walking on the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek across northern Spain. Since Julie and Claire first talked about it, I have learned that the Camino is a tradition in the Catholic faith that dates back to the 9th century. The tradition holds that the remains of James, disciple of Jesus (a.k.a. son of Zebedee and brother of John), are buried in Santiago de Compostela. Since this discovery, people have made pilgrimage to Santiago, much in the same way as Christians have made pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem throughout the centuries. Although the trek is typically completed in 30 to 40 days, my itinerary only allowed for a few weeks of walking, so at the request of my travel buddy at the time, Annette, we started at the “beginning”. Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, France (SJPP) is the “first” town on the traditional route of the Camino called the Camino Frances. There are routes all over Europe that can lead you to Santiago but many modern day pilgrims choose to begin there. On the first day of walking, pilgrims hike over the Pyrenees and spend the night in Spain in a town called Roncesvalles. This means about 25 kilometers of walking including an elevation gain of 1,265 meters.
(All distances are measured in the metric system, logically. However, we Americans like to convert it back to “our” system, which translates to 15 miles over 4,150 feet of elevation gain. There are MANY guidebooks, website and apps but my favorite became the Camino de Santiago website maintained by Eroski, a Spanish supermarket. The only drawback is that it is in Spanish but you can still get the main idea given the charts, graphs and maps.)
To make a long story short-ish, I fell in love with the Camino. You can read about all of those things on the links to my blog included in this post but I truly believe there is nothing like it in the world… and I think that is quite the statement considering all the places this adventure took me. I knew I would be back to continue on my Camino but I just was not sure when.
And then my best friend from high school, Kristen, gave me a good reason to come back to Spain in May of 2015 – much sooner than I anticipated. I took the opportunity to walk another 8 days on the Camino. Previously I had walked for 13 days, ending in Burgos. So I picked up where I left off and was back on the trail.
Prior to continuing my Camino, I was entertaining the thought of opening an albergue (a hostel where pilgrims sleep – typically in bunks for somewhere around 5 to 15 Euros a night). But it was in Carrion de los Condes that this thought began to take root and I formulated my plans to turn my hospitality dreams into a reality. In Carrion de los Condes I stayed at a monastery called Espirtu Santu and was greeted by the most precious little nuns I ever did meet. The sister who opened the door for me the morning I arrived was MAYBE 4 feet tall. Then sweet Sister Aurora led a small vesper service where she asked me to translate for her. (My Spanish had drastically improved in a year but I am not sure it was worthy of the request for translation services. Regardless, I did my best.) Earlier in the day, a fellow Pilgrim asked me to help her with some online banking problems she was having. Then that evening, when I was already in bed at 8 pm (a time not uncommon for Pilgrim Bedtime), a woman from France needed help booking a last minute train ticket back home to be with family after news that her brother had suddenly passed away earlier that day. I was happy to help. After this day, it became more and more clear that helping pilgrims on the Camino was something that I wanted to do on a regular basis. I was beginning to think that this was my “calling.” It seemed that all of my interests, gifts and abilities aligned with what I could offer people who were on the Camino.
And so the plan became this: Upon returning to Colorado in July, I would sell my condominium and most of my stuff that was filling my home. Whatever I had left, I would move back to my parents in Illinois. Then I would head back to Spain in mid-September to finish my Camino and find a place to open an albergue. My return flight was booked for October 31 so that I could spend the winter helping to take care of my twin nieces who are to be born any day. (I am literally checking my phone every few minutes to see if I get a call that I need to stay with my nephew Hudson so Zack and Carolyn can go to the hospital! Exciting!)
You could say that all of these plans required some serious steps of faith. Over the past few years, I have continually experienced the Lord’s provision in my life. And I was trusting that He would not stop now. I was also beginning to love this type of adventure that my journey was taking me on. It has truly become a faith adventure and I cannot think of a better kind, nor a life without it.
Where the future home of my albergue would be, I did not know, but I was hoping that when I walked into the town I would know.
And so I had been walking for 10 days on “Stage 3” of my Camino. This was Day 31 of walking since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port. I had slowed my pace considerably since I began walking 2 years before. I was regularly clocking 25-kilometer days at the prompting of my Camino Amigos during Stage 1. However, recently I had the revelation that I had no reason to walk so long each day. So I decided to take my sweet time and live up to my Camino nickname of “Tortuga” aka “The Tortoise”. As a result, I walked three glorious 10-kilometer days in a row. To say it is humbling for 70-year-old pilgrims to pass you is an understatement, but overtime I got used to it. Very used to it.
At about 7 in the morning, I left the town of Triacastela. The first 4 kilometers of the morning were more or less on the road, something that is not quite enjoyable but considering it is a remote area and Spanish people do not tend to get rolling in the morning until 9 or 10, it was a peaceful walk. Then I began what was quite possibly the most pleasant walk I had taken to date. I was walking on soft and quiet, wooded trails, something that made my feet very happy. A few hours later, I came to a bluff that looked down into a valley. A giant monastery was peaking out through the trees and a simple marker indicated I had arrived in Samos. I was strongly considering making this my stop for the night. As I wound down into town, the church bells were ringing. I was thinking this could be the “sign” I was looking for that this was the town I should be in – but I quickly realized the church bells ring every 15 minutes. I walked across a beautiful bridge with the tranquil Rio Sarria running underneath. My mind was made up. Samos would be my home for the evening. Maybe even longer.
Before the albergue opened, I found myself “translating” the tour of the monastery. (See Brian’s “Story” on this site). Then I checked into the Benedictine Monastery, where monks have been hosting pilgrims for over 1000 years! I snagged the first bunk and waited for the rest of the 70 bunks to be filled by my closest Pilgrim friends. I did not anticipate having one of my most restful nights on the Camino.
Later, I made my way to the other end of town for delicious lunch at the Hotel A Veiga. As was my custom on this stage of the Camino, I pulled up my app, Idealista – think “Zillow” in Spanish. In every town, I would look to see what properties were for sale. There are many across this region of Spain. Throughout the economic crisis in Spain, the trend has been for young people to leave for Madrid to find jobs, as the Camino seems to be the only thing going in many of these towns.
I was strolling back up the Camino to check out one of these properties. A man across the street greeted me with “Buenas Tardes.”
I replied with “Buenas Tardes.”
He continued by asking “De donde eres?” Where are you from?
I told him and then proceeded to inquire about the plaque on his house that said “CH”. I asked him what the “CH” stood for.
He responded “Casa Hospedaje” but did not know what that translated to in English.
I informed him that I was sure it was like our version of a Bed and Breakfast. I then mentioned that I had an interest in opening an albergue somewhere on the Camino.
By this time, this friendly man had crossed the street and proceeded to inform me that he and his wife are retirees. (The word is “jubilado” in Spanish – the root of which is jubilee – which could have the coolest significance of any word I have learned in the Spanish language.) He continued that he and his wife are interested in renting this house out. Would I like to come see it?
Twist my arm.
As we walked back across the street, my new best friend, Licerio, inquired as to how big of a place I was looking for. I explained to him that I was looking for something small, just 10 to 12 single beds. He responded that his place was 12 to 14 beds. After an hour of touring the house, I was pretty sure that this house was EXACTLY what I was looking for. We talked numbers a bit and then Licerio closed the conversation with this recommendation: Finish the Camino. If I was still interested in pursuing an agreement with him, come back and see him. Deal.
I walked seven more days to Santiago de Compostela, then 5 more days to Finesterre (“The End of the Earth” where the Camino meets the Atlantic Ocean).
I found some cute places along the way but no potential opportunities that seemed as ripe as the one I encountered in Samos. So I called my friend Licerio. The conversation went like this...
“Licerio! This is Ashley, the American girl who stopped by your casa hospedaje a few weeks ago. I was wondering if I could come back and meet with you.”
Thankfully, he remembered me and responded emphatically: “Cuando tu quieres! Cuando tu quieres!” Whenever you want. I told him I would be there in a few days.
I made my way back to Santiago and rented a car. However, I had to wait all day for an automatic car to be returned to the office. (I cannot drive a stick – yet. This skill will be acquired this winter.) I was grateful to spend the extra time that day in a coffee shop, composing my thoughts, ideas, recommendations and observations that I had collected over the previous two years as I considered my “Bed and Breakfast Dreams.” Part of my pondering was to write out a “best case scenario” that I hoped to present to Licerio if the opportunity presented itself. By 5 that evening, an automatic car had been returned. I was Samos-bound.
When I arrived a few hours later, Licerio warmly greeted me. There were only two other guests in the house that evening. In reality, Licerio is not looking for business these days, evidenced by the fact that the front door is locked and there is a sign on the door that informs interested guests to call the number listed if they would like to stay there. As he showed me to my room, he politely asked what I was doing there. I reminded him of our previous meeting and explained that I was interested in talking to him about a possible arrangement. He suggested we meet in the morning. It was a date.
The next day, Licerio and I met four separate times for about an hour each time. I took another tour of the house, looked over utility bills, asked lots of questions and then we talked numbers. By the end of the day, Licerio had presented me with my best-case scenario… and then some, without me even asking. To say I was excited was an understatement.
But that was just compounded by the following incident.
I have a thing for figs and fig trees. I love them! Even more so after my time in the wine region of Chile where I was able to pick figs outside of Hotel Vino Bello, the bed and breakfast I was working at. So I was curious if this casa hospedaje had figs. A week after first passing through Samos, I scrolled through the pictures I had taken to see if I could spot any fig trees. Alas, I could not. However, I said to myself, “If this house has a fig tree in the yard, I know this house is from the Lord.”
During my second tour of the house, as we were overlooking the giant yard, I asked Licerio if there were any fruit trees in the yard. He was excited to tell me that they have a kiwi vine that I had to see! So we headed out to the yard. As we walked toward the kiwi vine, I scanned the yard for a fig tree. There in the corner I saw it, but asked Licerio just to confirm.
“Licerio, is that a fig tree?”
“Oh yes! It has a very special kind of fig!”
Really. What do you know?
I spent the next few days in Samos, continuing to work through a plan and process of how this might work out. Licerio arranged to meet with a lawyer in the nearest city of Sarria a few days later. I took the opportunity to revisit albergues earlier on the Camino. I spoke with and spent the night with experienced and helpful hospitaleros Ollie, Rebekah and Paddy at Peaceable Kingdom in Moratinos (on the Meseta). They recommended a stop in Vega de Valcarce to visit with Matt from La Magdalena. He was super encouraging and someone who is running an albergue with many of the same ideas that I want to incorporate at my own place.
The next day I made a stop at La Faba, where I had to make a sincere apology for being a no call, no show as a volunteer a few weeks prior. Nevertheless, Richard graciously accepted my apology and was encouraging as I explained the hospitality path I was exploring.
I would be remiss if I did not recount the story of driving the rental car on the Camino that suddenly became precariously narrow as well as muddy on my way to La Faba. I may or may not have become stuck in a big field on a particularly significant incline but was amazingly rescued by Warren and Sharon from Australia. But that story deserves a post of its own – and a “half page in my book” as Warren requested and I hope to fulfill someday. It truly is one of “Camino Legend.”
That evening I spent at El Beso in A Balsa, on the alternative route from Triacastela. That experience also requires a post of its own but turned into one of the most incredible times of sharing among pilgrims and a time of healing and transformation for my new friend Aleksandra from Poland, by way of Afghanistan. Her story was radical and I am thankful to have crossed paths with her… twice! Truly a blessing!
Then it was back to Samos to iron things out with Licerio. I spent a few more nights there, one with the funniest pilgrim I have met to date, Rebecca from Australia. She brought with her Paul from Canada. We had a wonderful evening of tapas and swapping stories. I think Licerio was excited to host again as he ran down to the cellar to bring up a bottle of wine (that he makes himself). He also picked up a loaf of bread and some canned mussels from the grocery store across the street to share with his guests. Even though his sweet wife, Celia, had dinner waiting for him, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the camaraderie of the pilgrims.
On this evening, I began to get a glimpse of what it would be like to fill up this casa hospedaje in the season to come.
So we are a “go” as long as the Spanish government will grant me a visa. I am in the process of applying now and hope to know by March if I am approved. If you are the praying type – this would be one thing you could pray for – favor from the Spanish government. If the Spanish government says “Bienvenidos,” I will take over operations of the casa hospedaje on May 1! This incredible dream seems like it could be so close! But as I’ve said all along, if the Lord has another plan, so be it. Until then, I will continue to walk through this open door as long as the welcome mat is out.
I am also excited to report that in addition to the 11 pilgrim beds that I have available, I also have a Friends and Family Volunteer room that I am eager to fill up! Considering that I will be running this place on my own, I am seeking out some servant-minded folks to help me change beds and chop some veggies for about 4 hours a day. In exchange, you would have a bed, some delicious food, and the opportunity to experience the Camino from a completely different perspective! I have already been blown away by the blessing of four special pilgrims who have preliminary plans to help me in May, June and September. To say I am thankful for Karla, David, Carl and Karen would be an understatement! When Karla emailed to tell me she could give 2 months of her life to help serve pilgrims, my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude. Who does that? Incredible!
Of course, it goes without saying that I am extremely blessed by the support of my parents who will also be making the trek to Spain to help get me started. This experience could be vastly different if they were not on board with this crazy idea that their daughter is attempting to carry out.
If you have any interest in helping to serve pilgrims, whether you have walked the Camino or not, know the door is open! Let me know if you have a few spare days or weeks in July, August or October! (But don’t plan on booking flights until I have visa confirmation!)
If you just want to know more about the Camino in general, I am happy to answer questions and point you in the right direction to get you walking on this incredible route. As I said before, there is nothing else in the world quite like the Camino de Santiago, and I am excited to be a part of something so special.
Thanks for your continued support, encouragement and interest. Until next time, Blessings and Buen Camino!