The very nature of an “unspoken” code is that it defies definition. When Geof and I walked our various Caminos, we experienced first hand the deeply -rooted ethics of trust, honesty and respect. We unconsciously came to realize that walking through unfamiliar terrain, bedding down with strangers, and finding ourselves in countless moments of raw bewilderment were only possible when the inner journeying was made safe by the outer experience. As the mysteries of the Camino unfolded before us, we became aware that we were safeguarded by the implicit principles that no one explicitly states; yet everyone lives by on the way.
Our exposure, however, until this spring, was limited to our fellow journeyers who shared with us the common sense of timing, route, weather, and direction on each of our respective Caminos. As we began our first season as hospitaliers, Geof and I wondered if and how this silent code would be evident through months of Camino experiences and well over a thousand visiting pilgrims.
With 18 beds and café /patio seating for 30, we would be considered a medium size Albergue. Our aspiration from the very beginning was to be a “home away from home” for our guests. This was the reason why we built pilgrim-friendly sleeping quarters, bathrooms and an intimate café with a “home-cook” feel. But most of all, we were committed to hosting with love – love of the Camino and the people who take it on.
They say that respect begins at home – and in our case, it did indeed. Throughout the past six months, our Albergue has been universally treated as a well respected home. Without direction, nor instruction, boots were routinely left at the Albergue door, beds were made, help given in food preparation and dish washing, and not an item broken – okay a couple of wine glasses but that was it! The atmosphere was one of friendship, excitement, and gratitude. Everyone was welcome – not because of any marketing strategy; but because we deeply believed it to be a privilege that people would choose to stop at our Quinta on his or her way to and from Santiago. We never doubted that we were the ones blessed to share our home and our story.
We discovered that this particular belief enabled Geof and I to transcend language barriers. Our inability to speak Portuguese and Spanish was in the vast majority of cases, an opportunity to use common human gestures as a means to communicate needs and offerings. (Of course, our main gal Jessica, who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, was there to rescue us if we appeared completely bewildered.) As I became increasingly comfortable with my role as host, I found my French coming back to me from my childhood in Quebec, Canada. As I transcended my fear of appearing stupid, my memory opened up like a floodgate.
But regardless of the spoken word, we found that the universal language of the Camino seeks to connect – regardless of language. As most pilgrims will tell you, the implicit code of the Camino overcomes superficial linguistic challenges. The human desire to bond and belong has its own heart-felt language that overrides nationality, cultural differences and dialect. Such was the case when laughter and appreciation were often the outcome of Geof’s multi-linguistic attempts – stringing together French, Spanish, Portuguese and English words (with an accent) in sentences that were completely unrecognizable to anyone. The message was simple – he just wanted to engage. His heart was louder that his voice. And he was understood!
We seriously put the code to the test when we decided to operate solely on donations for everything – from a coffee to our nightly accommodation. While the details of this will be the subject matter of an upcoming blog, we can say that we were most often stunned by the generosity that showed up in our Donation Box. We came to learn that there was a significant correlation between the time we were able to spend with individuals and the nature of their contribution. It seemed the more our walkers came to know us and the underlying reasons why we had chosen to significantly change our lives, the more we sparked their fearlessness and willingness to reflect on their own dreams. Their recognition of the Camino’s code in action, as evidenced by the spirit of this phoenix farmhouse (from a barn to a home for hundreds) showed up in our Donation Box.
Lively conversation would easily arise around our tables, inside and out, as soon as a new pilgrim inhabited a chair. Common ground was unanimously sought across national boundaries, cultures, ideologies, generations, gender, and beliefs as a means to further the shared experience of the Camino community. We never experienced an outburst of anger nor any conflict, even as intense dialogues mined the depths of people’s emotions, motivations, and experiences – personal, professional, political, economic and social.
No lockers or safes were provided in our hostel, yet not a worry was expressed as up to 22 people a night shared their living arrangements. Backpacks with all of one’s immediate worldly possessions were left untended throughout the Albergue. Our fridge filled with beer, wine, drinks, and food was made openly available to pilgrims with the request to use the “honour” system of placing their respective donations in the Donation Box. This box sat on the serving buffet, unguarded so as to be openly available for giving. Since part of our offering was to wash our walkers’ clothes, our drying lines were continually full of clothes hanging in and outside of the Albergue. These lines included everything from the very best in walking gear to the most basic in pilgrim attire. Every morning, our Camino trekkers removed their clothes from the line and packed up – never once missing an item.
Over this season, we began to understand why all of this was possible. It is the underlying principle that underscores the unspoken code – the Camino is an inherently safe place- made safe by the thousands who walk it every day across Portugal, France and Spain. They make it so with their resolute commitment to walk in trust, honesty and respect. These living values are the very ingredients that sponsor one’s ability to travel internally while transporting oneself through external landscapes. Such a powerful ethos releases the fear that undermines one’s ability to find inner wisdom. It triggers one’s deepest hopes to surface. This way of life unfolds without any explicit media or mention. There are no posters, billboards, pamphlets, orientation programs or education seminars used to instil these values – simply an unspoken and inherently created safe, deeply human environment.
So what, you might ask? For me, these realizations have led me to question some of the most perceptively successful practices I routinely performed over the past thirty years as a management consultant. Organizations have spent billions of dollars hashing out and inculcating vision, mission and values statements. During the latter stages of my career, I began to question the validity of such significant investments in money, time, and most importantly human emotion. I have come to think that such grand gestures are the misguided fabrication of leaders who are unable to create and sustain safe environments.
The concept of safe havens goes well beyond organizations. Truly safe neighbourhoods, which are not policed to be so, are even more important to our well-being. And where does such a notion sit inside our family lives? How do we enable our members to intrinsically experience such a deep sense of security that they are able to function without fear? How do they sustain unconditional safety and the unspoken code of trust, honesty and respect evident in the symbol of eternity in which each creates the other?
Only then can this natural, yet magical energetic power empower people to garner the courage to undertake what they once thought to be impossible? Isn’t that the quest of our new world order – to find solutions to what have become crippling social and economic issues?
These are the very topics that found themselves central to the dialogue around our dining room table over the past several months. Yes, indeed, it has been an incredible season. The experience has been both humbling and inspiring.
We did not go into this adventure with any explicit expectation of witnessing such enlightened behaviour, nor such deep investigations into the world around us. But on the other hand – I doubt we would have set off on this journey if we hadn’t believed it to be so.
Please stay tuned to future blogs on subjects such as “The Quest of Youth Walking”; “The Economy of the Camino”, “Our Wishing Tree”, “The Tales of Wellington Boot”, and “The Elixir of Love on the Camino”.