Category Archives: Spain

El Camino de la Vida

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.


Pilgrim number 8,000 in Güemes

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!


Ground ‘Dog’ Day

I’m on yet another 12-hour overnight bus ride heading back to the north of Spain. I still haven’t figured out why I insist on torturing myself with the cheapest form of transportation possible at such an ungodly hour, but it does save me from having to find a room in between. I’m also wondering how I thought a bag of salted popcorn and half a packet of crusted sweet bread would suffice as food for the journey. I’m already three quarters of the way through the popcorn and I still have eleven hours to go.


I spent a lot longer in Gandia than I first anticipated. My one-to-two week visit turned into an entire month after I agreed to house sit my friend’s place and her five-year-old Alaskan Husky Yogi, who became my best friend and worst enemy during the two lonely weeks we spent together. Technically the dog speaks French as my friend Kelly is from Quebec and brought Yogi up speaking Québécois. But I think even if I did speak French, he would have ignored my desperate attempts to keep him from chasing dogs, rabbits, birds, and invisible cats on our daily meanders around Gandia.

Without human interaction for two weeks, I lost some of the little Spanish I had picked up in August; but more importantly, I started to completely lose my mind. After a month surrounded by hundreds of people each and every day in August, I experienced the polar opposite during September, with no one but Yogi to speak my broken Spanish to.


After years of wanting a dog I’m starting to rethink the idea. People say having a dog is like having a child, except that it’s actually more limiting to have a dog; especially when they’re seven times the size of the little fluff balls that prance around the streets here. I couldn’t go into any stores, and when we did go for coffee together, he uprooted the table as a small dog walked past, sending my coffee cup and hopes for a repeated outing straight into the air.

In a city where there’s more dogs than people, I built my days around finding three hours with the least amount of dogs on the street; early in the morning, in the afternoon when people took their siestas, or late at night (which is after 11pm for dog walkers). After about a week I became stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day scenario where everyday seemed like a repeat of the last. I had no idea what day of the week it was, only that each day was the same (except for Saturdays when there’s more dogs out, and Sundays when everything’s shut).


I began to notice small nuances like when the woman I passed at 7:20am would carry her handbag on the opposite shoulder, or if the man with the black and white pug dog was running late depending on where I passed him. For some reason, which I attribute mainly to being lazy, I also began eating the same food each day. I’m not much of a cook, so I would make up a large bowl of pasta salad that would serve as lunch and dinner on most days (except for the one night I cooked a BBQ for Yogi and I, and the one occasion we went out for the most revolting hamburger I’ve ever consumed).


There were times when I actually felt like I was back on the trail with the amount of walking I was doing, bland, repetitive food I was eating, and the desperate feelings of loneliness I was experiencing. I even wore the same clothes most days, didn’t always shower, watched the sun rise and set each day, talked to myself a lot, and sat on the ground outside to enjoy my daily cup of coffee.


But the big difference was, I had a beautiful view of the mountains with no real way of getting to them. I grew incredibly tired of the concrete pathways that were the only trails I had to explore; and on the day after I discovered a hole in the fence that had locked me out of the most beautiful track along the river to the port, they fixed the hole and locked me out again. I don’t know why the most beautiful part of the city is fenced off, but I’ve simply added it to my growing list of things in this country that I simply don’t understand.


Today as I was packing my things back into my backpack, I reflected that it was two years ago that I decided I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Two years since I imagined wandering the world with nothing but a backpack. As I walked to the bus station this evening with exactly that (well actually my accumulated items now spill into a front and side pack too), I realised I’m still fulfilling that dream I had on the cliff tops on the island of Gozo in Malta. Back then I wished I had a dog by my side, but I think the last two weeks have helped me get that longing out of my system for a little while.


I certainly haven’t done as much hiking as I’d hoped to since I arrived here, but I guess there’s still time. Only I may be whisked away for work soon, so my priority now is to get back amongst the people for some healthy social interaction and some much needed Spanish practise!

The next chapter begins

I spent my last night in Güemes suffering from some kind of bug that affected me for the good part of five days. I don’t do ‘sick’ well. I’ve always tried to push past feeling ill, determined not to let a sore tummy stop me from doing the things I would normally do. But on this occasion my body forced me to stop. Not only that, during my second day in Gandia, I injured my lower back while stepping awkwardly off a curb while walking my friend’s dog. Imagine that, walking 2,650 miles through the wilderness of America with a 30 pound pack relatively unscathed, then coming to Spain, stepping off a curb, and being housebound for days.


Gandia is just south of Valencia, a party/beach town with high temperatures and 1000’s of half naked teenagers whizzing around on scooters. My idea of some quiet respite with my close friend and her husband has been very much limited to the four walls of their home, but last night my back and belly were able to make an excursion to the infamous beach where we witnessed brass bands leading scantily clad women on their hens night, over excited, shirtless football fans chanting obscenities regarding their rival teams, large men on tiny scooters, tiny women on large scooters, people carrying their friends, dogs and shopping (all at once) on their scooters; tourists, tourists and more tourists. It’s a busy but beautiful place.


For a brief change of scenery I’ve decided to head 10km south of the city to an ecological farm owned by a woman who speaks about three words of English and fluent Spanish at a rate I doubt even locals can follow. From the few words I can now string together I believe she thinks I can understand her, which has already got me in a few situations where I wasn’t sure of exactly what I should do. At one point I didn’t know if I was on the search for a chicken or a bucket, and when I went on an evening stroll she suddenly unleashed the dogs from their kennels to join me. We’ve shared hours of conversation over lunch, coffee and dinner in less than 24 hours, and the topics I imagine we’ve talked about are probably nothing close to the truth. Regardless, we’re getting along just fine.



Pilar grows most of her own food including bananas, avocados, kiwi fruits, hazelnuts, and all sort of other fruits and vegetables. She makes her own jams, mayonnaise, yoghurt and soaps. She owns 12 chickens, sews everything from handbags out of jeans to personalised bedspreads, and makes incredible home cooked meals from the comfort of her own slice of paradise.



Tonight, after growing too allergic to play with the cat, I walked Pilar’s two dogs in the direction of the mountains. Upon my return, we sat down to a feast of vegetables and fish, watching the sky turn a glowing shade of orange and pink as the sun went down behind the peaks.




Fifteen minutes later I saw clouds move across the sky faster then ever before, engulfing the mountains and blanketing the sky. The previously calm atmosphere turned into a near cyclone of wind before the most impressive display of lightning decorated the clouds. I’ve never had the fortune of witnessing a spectacle like this from such a close but relatively safe distance. There were constant strikes across the sky and down behind the mountains for over half an hour. Eventually the wind became so strong we had to move inside, but not before I stood in wonder with my iPhone recording the event. It was at that point I wondered if my sore back had actually saved me from being in those mountains. I didn’t bring my backpack to Pilar’s house because I couldn’t carry it, plus I hadn’t ventured into the mountains to hike today because I’m still experiencing pain. Maybe someone’s looking out for me!






I’m staying here for the next four days before returning to Gandia to house sit my friend’s four storey home and Alaskan Husky, who had the same stomach bug that I experienced last week. I hope he and I are both fully recovered by Thursday!


Go with the flow

My first month in Spain has been full of varied experiences. I didn’t know what to expect when I landed here. The work I’d be doing, where I’d sleep, what I’d eat and if I would be able to communicate with anybody was all a mystery. What I discovered since arriving here was the sense of community and simple way of life I’ve been searching for over many years. I discovered an extended family that welcomed me with open arms, hundreds of unique individuals, new friends, and more about the kind of person I want to be and the sort of life I want to lead.



On my first morning after surviving three flights and an overnight bus trip I watched the sun rise on a beach in Santander. It was a glorious moment where I was able to appreciate the feeling of complete freedom. Hours later after walking the Camino backwards from Santander, I found myself washing dishes, preparing dinner, then sitting down for a meal with my new family at the Albergue in Güemes around 10pm, true Spanish style.



In the morning I was exposed to the routine the next month would hold; breakfast duty, eating, cleaning, welcoming hikers, preparing and serving lunch, cleaning, eating, welcoming hikers, siesta, preparing and serving dinner, cleaning, set up for breakfast, eating, then sleep. For the most undomestic person on the planet this was certainly a shock to the system, but as time went on, cleaning became therapeutic, much like walking. Sweeping, mopping, collecting water from the fountain down the hill, scrubbing bathrooms, drying dishes and looking after tired, hungry hikers was some of the most satisfying work I’ve ever done.



As a volunteer I had no expectations outside of a bed and being fed. What I received in return for my hard work was far beyond my imagination. Hiking trips into the mountains, local festivals, concerts, baptisms, a visit to the prison where some of my short term colleagues are released from to volunteer, trips to the beach, bursts of improvised song and dance, and the best homemade meals I’ve ever tasted (second to my father’s of course!)









Güemes is not a regular Albergue along the Camino del Norte. The property belongs to Ernesto, a 77 year old practising priest who was born in the original house which belonged to his grandfather. The family fled the house during the civil war, and Ernesto retuned after completing his studies in theology, working in the mines and as a priest in the tiny village of Tresviso high up in the Picos de Europa, and after travelling through Europe, Africa, Central and South America for 27 months with three of his friends in a Land Rover to experience what he calls the ‘University of Life’. Upon his return he restored the house alongside numerous volunteers, who bit by bit, built the sheds, cabanas, bedrooms, library, bathrooms, meeting space and hermitage that now exist on the property. The Albergue is open every day of the year and has become a well known stop along the Camino. On more than one occasion we had over 100 pilgrims stay the night. There is also no fixed price for the Albergue, visitors are simply asked to judge what the experience has been worth to them and to take responsibility for the continuation of the project for other pilgrims.





One of the greatest lessons I learned during my time in Güemes was to go with the flow. Although my Spanish improved considerably, it was impossible to know what was going on most of the time. I would suddenly be whisked away in a car, dragged into the kitchen, sent to collect bread, asked to peel vegetables, told to move bedrooms, taken to a monastery to pray with nuns, sent to the beach, told when to sleep, when, where and what to eat, and where to clean. I witnessed those who tried to swim against the tide struggle. Like pilgrims, the Albergue attracts volunteers from all over the world. There were people from Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Italy and of course Australia there to help. It was fascinating for me to witness how each individual adapted to the environment of the Albergue. Those who swam with the tide had a much more positive experience than those who swam against it. After one month I bid my colleagues and new Spanish family farewell to begin a new chapter. Though I’m not exactly sure where this tide will take me, for now, I’m just going to go with the flow.