You can read Part One here.
As my Spanish is not yet fully conversational, I do not write Compostelas. I can do the one-on-one interview at the counter very well, as long as the pilgrim sticks to the anticipated standard questions and expected answers, Because I have also authored as script of standard questions and answers for the volunteer staff in several languages, I can get through the interview in multiple languages that I do not actually speak. While I am a native English speaker, I speak a little Dutch from having lived in Flanders for two years; French from four years’ in high school many, many years ago, and my ever-improving Spanish.
So, not being allowed behind the counter to process Compostelas or Distance Certificates, I do literally everything else that one can imagine. Earlier, I referred to my role as “Cinderfella”. Those of you familiar with the child’s story of Cinderella will understand. Whatever, can be done to keep the staff behind the counter continually processing and writing Compostelas is basically what I do.
Each day, I arrive before my 10:00 start time. No one ‘punches a clock.’ But, I know what is expected of me. We are all, indeed adults. We are all focused on helping arriving pilgrims. This is what we have chosen to do. As we have all been on the other side of the counter as pilgrims, waited in these queues, as do currently arriving pilgrims, we well understand everything they are thinking and experiencing. So, we get on with it.
The first thing I do is walk a patrol of sorts throughout the entire office, observing things that need doing. I greet all the staff people and other volunteers by name and introduce myself to those I do not know. This is part Spanish tradition and practice and part good manners.
This walk through might include removing trash from the previous evening and early morning’s work, collapsing and consolidating empty corrugated boxes, picking up trash bits from the office floor, the hallways, and even the courtyard outside. I am not proud, and just get on with doing what needs doing.
In this regard, I obtained a clever picker upper grab tool this year and donated it to the office. It is very handy to use to pick up any number of things pilgrims toss on the floor. Once you practice with it, you can even pick up coins. I like to show pilgrims that I can pick up a one Euro cent coin with ease. It amuses them while they wait…
Anyway, once the detritus from the previous day is cleared from view, I determine if all the people working to produce Compostelas have adequate office supplies. Any time they need to take to leave the counter to search for something is wasted time. So, I review the forms supply, pens, ink, stamps, whatever to ensure they do not have to interrupt work to look for something. I know where all the supplies are stored, so I replenish low items before they are needed or requested.
Once the counter, the cash register area, and the group processing office have the supplies they need, I turn my attention to the retail side of things. For more than one thousand years, the Cathedral and ultimately the Pilgrim Office has been issuing the Compostela to eligible pilgrims, for free.
So, after the trash patrol and consolidation, and office supply refills, I turn my attention to making sure that all the souvenir items are properly fronted, faced and full inventories are in sight. If the customer cannot see the items, they cannot buy them.
I know where the inventories are kept and make sure that everything for sale is actually in sight and presented professionally. A very early background in retailing, before my main professional career, taught me several tricks to do this.
Once the retailing, inventory and merchandising role is fulfilled, I turn my attention to the building queue of arriving pilgrims, both individuals and groups. On a typical day, all of the forgoing takes from 30 to 90 minutes.
This also works wonderful to entertain young children who were dragged on Camino by their parents. I always have extra Red Noses to give to the parents for the children who are old enough to not present a choking hazard. I do this at my own cost, but people remember this. So, it is an important part of “my ministry” to pilgrims.
- I also fix things that need adjusting or fixing. After my first go at volunteering, I found myself brining hand tools from home and learning where the best hardware (DIY) shops (ferreterias), and where in Santiago I can buy whatever I might need to make repairs or improvements to things around the office. I always do this at my own expense…and by my choice.
Over the years, I have unplugged clogged toilets, repaired running toilets, repaired broken office furniture and crowd control stanchions or fabric tapes, fixed signs to hang better or not fall over, hung photos and maps, fixed cabinet locks, and even assembled a 1.5-meter high stack of IKEA flat pack furniture for the Dutch Pilgrim association. That took some five days but was a hoot and a half. Amazingly, after 4 years, the furniture is still like new.
The joke about the office is that Tom will do anything you ask of him. If it is not exactly legitimate, be nice when you ask… Like I said…Cinderfella… If it needs doing, I do it.
My daily shift is about five hours. However, I frequently will come early or stay late if needs must. About 30 minutes before quitting time each day, I re-run my initial circuit checking for trash, office supplies, souvenir stockage, etc. Before I leave for the day, I leave the place sully stocked and ready to finish the day.
Sometimes, during the summer months, there might be another volunteer coming behind me to pick up my activities from 15:00 until perhaps 20:00. But this is not always the case, as obtaining volunteers to process Compostelas remains the prime directive.
I just know that one of these years, I am going to walk into the on arrival at Santiago, greet my friends and ask what they want me to do. The answer will not be the usual (until now) “todas las mismas otras cosas” (all of the same other things), but simply “Compostelas…” It works for me. Whatever they need done, I will do it.
And THAT my friends is a basic day in the life of El Sherif…whew! I am usually tired when I leave, but it is a very good kind of tired…
Do consider volunteering…
I said at the outset that I was going to make a polite case for you to volunteer to work in the Pilgrim Office at Santiago. And, so I shall…
I mentioned earlier that the Pilgrim Office cannot function without a robust supply of willing volunteers. Especially during the peak summer months of June, July and August, it is ‘al hands to the pumps; on most days. There is a camaraderie among the paid staff, local and distant traveling volunteers (like me…and hopefully you). Moreover, you always find you get more out of the experience than you invest in it… at least I do.
Tossing your hat in the ring is very easy. The Camino Society of Ireland has a scheme to ‘front end’ members wishing to help out. If you are a member and make a request that you wish to volunteer, we will coordinate with ACC (Acogida Cristiana del Camino), the organization at Santiago that coordinates all volunteers for the Pilgrim Office.
What I can tell you is that qualifying is easy peasy. You must have done at least one Camino. Any full Camino that qualified you for a Compostela will do. Walking from Sarria, Ferrol or Tui is fine. The other thing is that the ACC requires a two-week commitment.
The standard tour of duty runs from a Monday through the second Monday afterwards. So, technically, it is 15 calendar days. You would need to travel to Santiago to arrive not later than Monday morning. I usually arrive a couple days early to get my bearings before reporting for duty. On the ending Monday, you could depart Santiago in the afternoon.
If you are accepted, ACC provide a place to live while you are in Santiago. You must get yourself there and home, and pay for sustenance (food, laundry, ground transport) while at Santiago. However, the pilgrim flat has a fully equipped kitchen (no oven). You share a bathroom, but will have a private room to yourself. There is even a washing machine that sort of works.
If interested in volunteering in the Pilgrims Office, please let us know. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.