When walking the pilgrimage across Northern Spain known as El Camino de Santiago, pilgrims grow intimately familiar with Albergues de Pergrinos, “hostels for pilgrims.”
The history of the Albergues stretches back to the Middle Ages, when residents along the way offered aid, comfort, shelter, and mercies to the pilgrims. (Believe me, if you’re walking the Camino wearing sandals and rags, you’re gonna need aid, comfort, shelter and a whole lotta mercies). Churches ran many of them, and asked travelers to pay what they could. (Note to the skeptical: This qualifies as true altruism. If your clientele’s worldly possessions consist of sandals and rags soaked in plague, odds are you aren’t exactly rolling in donations.)
Some of these ancient Albergues, however, provided higher-class accommodations because folks of all socio-economic levels walked the Camino.
Inn Keeper: Ah, Sir Ridesalot! Welcome!
Sir Ridesalot: Hello there, my good man!
Inn Keeper: I heard tell you would be coming this way. It is most noble of you to sit atop your steed and not walk a step across Spain to pay tribute to St. James. I see you are traveling with a team of only eight squires and 14 horses. Quite a sacrifice and a testament to your faith.
Sir Ridesalot: It is a difficult journey — too difficult for my full party of servants. Why, not three leagues ago I had to lead my men around the bodies of three starving pilgrims, then a female pilgrim gave birth in the road.
Inn Keeper: Most inconsiderate of them.
Sir Ridesalot: I felt for them, of course. I may be a Knight, but I am a man of the people.
Inn Keeper: Of course you are, My Lord. Will you be staying with the people in the Alburque?
Sir Ridesalot: Hahaha! That legendary Basque humor! But … do tell me, how bad is it amongst the peasants?
Inn Keeper: It’s hard to tell whether it’s the plague or the smell, but it is most disgusting in there. Horrifying. Not fit for man nor beast.
Sir Ridesalot: Good to know. My horses and I will stay in the Royal Pilgrims Inn, Suites, and Spa. Put my Squires in with the peasants.
Inn Keeper: They may die, My Lord.
Sir Ridesalot: True, but they’ll survive until we get to Santiago. Then I can collect their Plenary Indulgences and sell them on PopesList.
Today, the Albergues stretch from end to end, and at no point are you further than 10 miles from the closest one. The cost is a mere $7-10 per night and they are generally clean and well kept. Were I an active-duty Marine on temporary assignment to Berserkistahn, I’d view them as not-bad housing.
Please note: I am not an active-duty Marine.
My first two nights on the Camino were spent in a tiny-but-private room. I simply couldn’t stand the idea of a group of 65-year old female pilgrims listening to me rub my feet and sob. On the third night, I checked into my first Albergue, feeling very much like traveler of centuries past. Here would be interesting people, with great tales to tell.
After paying the tariff of a mere $10, the Hospitalero showed me to my bunk. It was a bottom bunk, and I immediately sat down and leaned back to rest my weary bones. This wasn’t bad.
“Clunk” went my head on the bunk above.
Auspicious beginning. A bunk so low you cannot sit on it seemed a bit unnecessarily frugal, but surely a shower would cheer me up.
I gathered my clean clothes, micro-fiber towel and shaving kit, and limped down the hall. The bathroom turned out to be a multi-toilet-stall and shower-stall facility, all side-by-side. The laws of nature ensured the business from toilets would, well, “participate” in the activity of cleaning oneself in the shower. Even the extraordinarily Spartan facilities at Officer Candidate School placed the toilets and showers in different rooms, likely because of a health regulation made law in 1906 after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle.
After this first impression, the next sight to greet me was a man in his late 20s using an electric razor to shave his very hairy chest into one of the sinks. Next to him stood a woman, plucking errant hairs from her chin. That was my very first introduction to the co-ed bathroom — an idea that didn’t make a great deal of sense to my American brains. The Albergue offered two identical bathrooms, and for the cost of a Sharpie one could write “Men” on one door and “Women” on the other. The Sharpie would still have enough ink to write those words in 400 additional languages.
Sure, when in Rome one should do as the Romans, but it says nothing about time spent with chest-shavers.
Those who’ve been to Europe know facilities are more “economical” in size, and the shower stalls are clearly designed for individuals representing the Lollypop Guild. I jammed myself in and looked for the hooks to hold my shaving kit, and towel, and clean underwear, and clean shirt, and clean shorts. Hooks are apparently uneconomical, thus they were absent. As a result, everything was hung over the door, and I spun around carefully to turn on the water. One must envision all of this occurring in a stall the size of a refrigerator box.
The economical nature of things continued, as the water system worked like the basin in a truck stop: Push the button for water and the water comes on … until you take your hand off the button. Then, nothing.
I showered with one hand on the button and one hand working the shampoo and soap. Even with this zesty and refreshing event, one issue gave me a bit of a thorn in my flesh: Given the cubic specs of the shower chamber, only a Master Ninja Yogi would be able to pretzel into the position to needed to reach down and wash ones feet. When on the Camino and sleeping in dorm, well-washed feet would improve the overall livability rating significantly.
After the vigorous shower, I swiveled again to dress, and once again the laws of nature ruled against me: Droplets of water raining down on ones head bounce in every direction, and 180-degrees of that compass lead to the place where ones clothes are hung.
Water, please allow me to introduce you to clean clothes and towel. Clothes and towel, please say hello to water.
I approached the sink to brush my teeth, only to discover the chest shaver felt his hirsute offerings were truly admirable, and thus left them behind for others to admire. I wondered if these Albergues would be an every-third-night place to rest my head — and that only because it seemed important that I experience it.
What would Jesus do? Would he stay in the Inn with Sir Ridesalot and stay sane, or would he settle in among the people?
I decided to go sit in my six-foot-by-three-foot personal space and ponder the question.
“Clunk” went my head on the bunk above.