I’ve never quite had a home coming like the one I had yesterday in Güemes. After my 12-hour bus ride I arrived in Santander just before 9am, but missed my next bus to Galizano because I desperately needed phone credit and all the shops were closed. This meant by the time I reached Galizano it was almost noon, and the 4km walk from there to Güemes felt more like 10km in the heat of the day, carrying my two heavy back packs and an additional bag.
I had debated making a call for someone to come and collect me, but stubborn independence forced me to shuffle up the rolling hills with more weight than I carried on the PCT. When I was within sight of the Albergue, I automatically had the feeling I was coming home, and the rush of excitement from the familiar surroundings helped me pick up the pace for the final push up the hill.
Half way there, the main chef Omar passed me in his car in the opposite direction, and spoke excitedly to me in Spanish about numbers. All I could understand was ‘one more’ and something about thousands, so I smiled and nodded, and carried on up the hill wondering what all the fuss was about.
As I neared the house about four people rushed towards me with cameras, including Ernesto; and when they realised it was me, they erupted into cheers and began hugging and taking photos of me. I wasn’t quite expecting this kind of a welcome, until I discovered I was the 8,000th pilgrim to arrive at the Albergue in 2014, which is the highest recorded number of pilgrims they’ve ever had in one year. There was some debate about whether or not I was classified as a pilgrim, but technically I had walked the Camino to get there, I had been a pilgrim before, and I was carrying my huge backpack. So I’m no longer known here as Rozanne, I’m solely referred to as ‘ocho mil’ (eight thousand).
When the hugs and photos ceased I thought the excitement was over, but later in the day I was taken to the neighbour’s house for an introduction to the first ever volunteer of the Albergue who is now 96 years old. I then had to pose for more photos before they set off fireworks, hosted a special meeting with all the pilgrims where I was asked to speak about my PCT and Camino experience; then after dinner they brought out bottles of champagne to celebrate. Three pilgrims stood up to sing me a song in French, which prompted more singing by the two female cooks who sang three songs to me in Spanish.
I had initially hesitated returning to Güemes because I’d left on such a high at the end of August, I couldn’t possibly imagine being able to top the experience. But like my initial return two months ago, I felt there was a force stronger than my own will pulling me back, and perhaps indeed there was a good reason for it.
I barely slept on the bus during the night, but was carried through the whole day on pure adrenalin. Then today when I thought Albergue life had gone back to normal, I was relieved of my cleaning duties and raced upstairs to the library for a live radio interview over the phone. They asked me about my hike along the PCT, the Camino de Santiago back in March, and my experience at the Albergue as ‘ocho mil’. Fortunately I had another volunteer able to translate the questions into English, and repeat my responses in Spanish back to the host.
Afterwards Ernesto told me the prize for being the 8,000th pilgrim is a trip up to Tresviso, the small village where he used to be the priest. This time we’re planning on taking a ‘special’ route up the mountain, which is meant to be more difficult than the one I’ve taken before. Looks like I might get some more hiking in after all!