I’ve been reflecting over the last few hours just how difficult it is to sum up my experiences during the final month I spent in Spain. Life in the albergue was once again all consuming, but so unique, that it’s almost impossible to put into words that would do it justice. I made new discoveries daily, through talking to the people I lived and worked with, the pilgrims who visited, the friends and family of Ernesto, the numerous field trips we were taken on, and of course Ernesto himself; a 76-year-old Catholic priest who has seen more of the world than most people could ever comprehend. He has lived a life so rich of experience, yet so humble, travelling to meet and serve others around the world, that I feel extremely privileged to have become part of his extended family.
Ernesto understood from my first visit in August that I don’t follow a particular faith, but despite this, every Wednesday in October he welcomed me to join him and a gathering of his closest friends for an early morning mass inside a monastery in a nearby village.
The monastery is set on a huge plot of land stretching 2.5km in length, and from what I understood from the explanation I was given in Spanish, the building was once a palace that belonged to the representative of the King of Spain in Mexico. It was transformed into a monastery about 1,000 years ago, but the last of the monks are now so old they’ve abandoned it, and no one seems to know what the future of the beautiful estate will be.
It looked like the set of a real life Harry Potter movie. Within the monastery there were rooms leading off rooms, and a huge wooden staircase that led us up to numerous bedrooms four storeys up. The view across the grounds and the rolling hills beyond the stone boundary of the property was breathtaking, and I was amazed at how clean the place was, as I’m now hyper sensitive when it comes to noticing the tiniest specs of dust on any surface.
The first time I visited the monastery, Ernesto explained to the group that although I don’t have a religion, I’m living proof of the gospel by returning to Güemes from Australia to volunteer for two months during this year. Though Ernesto would lead the mass in Spanish, I would follow the songs and prayers in the book I was given, while a professor of philosophy, who also spoke English named Thomas, would sit beside me and translate the prayers into English. What I loved most about the weekly ritual was celebrating humanity with the people I met there, and how they welcomed me into their fraternity with open arms despite any difference in belief.
I learned a lot from Thomas, who reinforced to me that you can travel around the world so easily in 24 hours these days, but the different places mean nothing without the people. What’s important in life are the people and relationships you make along the way. Not the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the size of your house or the number of countries you visit; it’s the people you share your life with.
Over the two months I spent at the albergue, I met hundreds of people leading nomadic lifestyles similar to mine. It never surprised me when I would ask people to fill out their contact details, and they would hesitate before writing down an address. The reaction was similar when they were asked to state their profession. So many people I met were both between jobs and postal codes. It made me laugh when people would write ‘traveller’ as their profession, but you wouldn’t believe how common it was. There were varying degrees however, some people were simply taking a few months off from life’s routines, but others were leaving the routines behind altogether in search of a new way of life.
It was comforting to realise I’m not the only one who finds it hard to stay in one place, but the interesting part of it all is that living amongst these influences has actually cemented the fact that I’m in need of a base, or perhaps some kind of consistency in this world. I’ve become an expert at adaptation, but the happiness I discovered in Güemes was based on having new experiences mixed with consistent weekly routines, consistent people around me each day, the same bed to sleep in, consistent meal times, and thriving on the relationships and familiarity of the friends and family of Ernesto that would flow in and out of the house each day.
Ernesto made an interesting observation when I came back for the month of October to once again volunteer at the albergue. He often mentioned my PCT hike, especially to the new pilgrims during his nightly speech; but one day he asked me why I chose to hike the El Camino del Norte after such a big adventure. I told him that while I was hiking the PCT, I was so preoccupied with basic survival that I didn’t have much time to think about life off the trail. I decided to hike the Camino del Norte because I desperately needed to walk again after two months working 15 hour days in Abu Dhabi, and because I needed space and time to reflect on the six months I’d previously spent hiking from Mexico to Canada. It was the first opportunity I had to really think about what kind of life I wanted to lead after the trail.
He contemplated my response, then told me that I’ve now completed three Caminos. The PCT was the Camino of Survival, the Camino del Norte was the Camino of Reflection, and now my third Camino volunteering at the albergue in Güemes has been my Camino de la Vida (Way of Life). During my final night at the albergue (Oct 29), I gave a presentation about my PCT hike to about 30 of Ernesto’s closest friends and neighbours from the village. Though many were lost for words afterwards, I then went on to explain that since that experience, I’ve now completed two more Caminos. Below is the final video I screened at the end of the evening to sum up my experiences in Güemes, my Camino de la Vida.
When I was offered work back in Abu Dhabi at the end of this month, I felt it would tear me away from the utopia I’d discovered in Güemes. Most people at the albergue had no idea where Abu Dhabi even was. But sometimes in life when you go with the flow of the tide, you discover there is a right time to move on. There are very little pilgrims arriving at the albergue at this time of year, and although there is still work to be done, it’s a lot less demanding than it was in August. On a few days this month we had more volunteers than pilgrims, and so my time at the albergue has now come to an end.
It’s time to move on and create my own utopia on this planet somewhere, somehow. I’ve got four months in Abu Dhabi to think about where I want to be, and then see where my new Camino will take me. Though I still don’t have a religion, and I’m yet to sew routes in one dedicated place on this planet, at least I’m one step closer to discovering what makes me happy.