They are in their 20s and 30s, they are Europeans, singles. They are university-educated, from good families, they speak three or four languages.
Their clothes don´t fit. Their skin is pale. Sometimes it´s evident they haven´t bathed in a while.
But they want to come in, they want to visit, they want to stay. Can they stay?
They´ve got to stay. They´ve got no place to stay yet this winter. December is coming, then January. Then things will get better, the pilgrims will come back the albergues will open up, they will find a place, they know somebody.
They are a camino phenomenon, perhaps an outcome of the economic crisis. They are former pilgrims, young people who left behind their lives in Seville or Germany or Czech Republic to find themselves along the trail in Spain. They walked the pilgrimage, they made friends, they found what "community" means. And when they reached the end of the road, they did not get on the plane or train and go back home. More often than not, they´d run out of money.
They felt a calling. They couldn´t go back. They decided to stay, to live on the camino.
They fetch up at an albergue and volunteer to help out, in exchange for room and board.
Lots of former pilgrims do this. They feel moved to "give back" to the camino. The usual term is two weeks. For these nomads, it goes on indefinitely.
For Alice, it´s been three years.
When I met her, Alice lived in the windowless back room of a cement-block pilgrim hostel. It was mid-winter, and the place was barely heated. Alice made no wage. She worked for room and board, an agreement supposedly set up to last through the winter. She ate the same kind of sandwich for her lunch each day, and a cheap pilgrim meal each evening. When she could catch a ride to the store she bought fruit, which she sold to pilgrims to raise a bit of cash. She fed stray cats, and left the open tins of food on the windowsills. The boss did not like her cats, or her moneymaking. Things unraveled. The boss found a new guy to run the place. He moved into the hostel and simply took over, Alice said. She packed up her things and left.
She always goes. She does not always leave a good impression behind her.
When she stayed here, she did not get in the way. She was quiet. She petted the dogs and chattered to the cats. She did not cook or clean or help with the housework unless she was asked first. She did not give a donation, unless you count the cans and boxes of food she brought from the last place. She was on the run from a stalker, she said.
Someone had stolen her cats. Her little dog had vanished. And her shampoo.
She found a place farther down the trail that needed some help, and she was gone.
Until this week, when things unraveled again.
Johnnie is a similar sort. He pops in now and then to say hello. He is a grinning 30-something boy, a very competent hostel-keeper, a pretty good cook. He´s held jobs at albergues all through Galicia, and has now landed a sweet position in the mountains of El Bierzo, a live-in, year-round pilgrim host at a municipal albergue. He has his own room. There´s no kitchen, and it´s pretty cold up there, and he has to share the showers with the pilgrims, but it´s his dream job, he says: no boss to fall out with.
The pilgrims are not always kind to him, but he smiles and nods and shows them the door if they get too nasty. They hurt his feelings when they´re mean. Sometimes one or two will stay for a day. They help with bigger projects, they recharge their batteries, they keep him company. He gets lonely, he says. You can´t make lasting friends when each night´s customers move on the next day.
Johnny´s teeth are bad, but he has no money for a dentist. When comes to visit, we fill his pockets with Tylenols and vials of Listerine.
Many of the nomads are perfectly competant. They stay as long as they are needed, or as long as they like, and then they move on. Others seem more needy, more desperate. We get the phone calls now and then, usually from somewhere far to the west: do we need some help with anything? Can I volunteer at your place? Do you know anyone who needs help? I will work for food, for a room. I don´t want to go home. I can´t go home. I have no home. The camino is my home. So can I come over? For Christmas? For January?