del Norte Day 14
Albergue Aves de Paso, Pendueles

Pilgrim accommodations along del Norte cost 10-20 euros per night. They're mostly hostel-like spaces, basic facilities, occasionally an historic convent or monastery. Your ID gets scanned, pilgrim credential stamped, a bed is assigned. A hot shower to a desiccated body is a religious experience after a long day's walk. You're tired, hungry, dehydrated, grateful, you inhale the nearest few thousand calories, slather on Tiger Balm, and finally, rest.

And other times – exceptional times – you crest a ridgeline into a sunlit valley where a nothing little town has a nothing little street and on that street you're welcomed home.

Anna only opened Aves de Paso some three months ago. Yet she managed to impart a generosity, an ardor, a warmth with such alacrity, such readiness and intention, it nearly knocked me over as I walked in the door.

Her kitchen, crowded with fresh fruits and vegetables, jars of off-white grains and rich spices lined the backsplash. Two pots babbled subtly, steam billowing up to the ceiling's crossbeams. A long mahogany table was set for 11 over candlelight. Laughs ricocheted around the room.

Here was a woman, present with her experience, consciously embodying the spirit of the Camino, and shining its light onto passing pilgrims, onto perfect strangers.

A few years ago, the love of Anna's life died suddenly from heart failure. She couldn’t process it, couldn’t recover. It extracted almost all sense to carry on. And so for awhile she walked along the edge of life, evincing relief in the void. A Hail Mary brought her back to the Camino, some nine years after her first. She began walking the Portuguese route – a two-week stretch north from Porto – on the anniversary of his death.

It defibrillated her, she said, shocked her back into herself, her connection with the world, with people. "It really saved my life."

Afterwards she returned to Rotterdam and her old life felt flawed, fallacious. She up and sold everything. Ended a long career as a journalist, sold the house, began looking at listings in Spain for homes fit for albergues. Came to see Aves de Paso on a whim. A stone structure, dirty, dilapidated, rewilding. She walked in and knew instantly, and bought it on the spot.

Her daughter was visiting for the first time during my stay, on holiday from the Netherlands. This young lady was an angel, elegant, a perfect co-host, never a dry glass or empty plate in the house. How a smile so genuine can stay on a face I do not know. She came to “help her mother out”, but really – I think – she came to see first hand how things become other things, how grief becomes grace.

Most albergues like this are donativo — donation only. One gives what one can in a priceless exchange, in a gift-based economy. We existed for a long time pre-money systems, when access to ancient sensations of belonging and community were not packaged and priced. To spend a night in a home like Anna’s is to feel that primality directly.

On my way out in the morning, I asked Anna if I could take her portrait. She was already darting around the kitchen, preparing that evening's pilgrim dinner. “Of course you can,” she paused without looking up, stirring homemade pesto with a spoon as a pestle. “But first..." she said, and extended her hand. "Are you hungry?"

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PR-CDN01 :: 14 (Part 2) — Donativo