Community. Such an interesting and complex word. I wrote a few words on community years back, trying to break down and open up the pieces of belonging that community generates. For the purpose of this discussion though, I’d like to tell you a short story about a hostel I experienced in Madrid, Spain. And then a few quick tidbits about a trail family I met on the Camino De Santiago, a pilgrimage through Portugal, France, and Spain. A voyage in learning more about transient community.
I recently took a one month expedition, out of the country to see a few friends, get out of my comfort zone, and basking in new experiences. Since I was flying to Europe for a conference anyway, I thought why not make a trip out of it. The Camino quickly came into view as something I absolutely needed to do. And along with that, flying from Munich to Madrid seemed like the easiest way to get into Spain.
Sungate Hostel in Madrid
Upon arriving at 1:30am in Madrid at the Sungate One hostel, I encountered a culture unlike anything I’ve seen before. A culture of care, interest, family, love, warmth, possibility, and excitement. How could this be? I was at a cheap hostel, not a community house. Not with friends. And certainly not with family. And yet, when I arrived, I quickly noticed how attentive and open the staff was. And then I began to see how this wasn’t just the staff, but also the people staying there. For those of you that have visited hostels in various countries, you may know that people are typically friendly when you say hi to them, but that in most cases, you’re going to have to put in the effort to be overly friendly, especially if you’re a solo traveler. In this case, the manager of the hostel offered to walk me to a local pizza shack when I told him how hungry I was. He said it was the only thing open, so we proceeded to have beers and pizza in the middle of the night.
In the morning, the staff makes cakes for everyone. At approximately, 9:30am, freshly made churros and chocolate sauce show up. Later, around 10am daily, a tour guide enters the building, offering to take guests on a tour, at 8pm, the staff begins making a dinner for the ENTIRE hostel, every night. Then at 10pm, we eat. Nearly everyone in the whole places shows up in a jovial manner, some bring wine, others witty conversation. After dinner, at 11:30pm, yet another staff member takes the hostel out on the town – whether it be to a club, live jazz, dancing, or some other local event.
After the first night of this, I woke up the next morning to grab some cake. Not one, but five different people said hello to me. They were all friendly, talking about what they were doing with their day and by the time it was 11am, I had multiple invitations and fast friends.
When I asked Angel, the manager of the place how this kind of space is created, he replied with, “We are family here, Chelsea.” By the way, he easily remembers everyones name and authentically addresses them with their first name, followed by “my friend” anytime they enter a room.
There are so many components to belonging and community, but I think there is a lot to learn from all of this. I’ve learned how important ritual, shared meals, leading by example, and giving first are to building thriving ecosystems. These are just a few of the many variables that give a community like this, life.
Deciding to do the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage was a confluence of factors. I wanted to be closer to my aunt who’d passed away and did the Camino shortly before being diagnosed with bone cancer. And boy did she love to walk. Anytime I went to her house, we’d go for a walk after dinner. And I hate walking. Like, I really hate it. I think my childhood was riddled with hikes too long for my short little legs. But, I’ve had a few wonderful teachers, including her, show me the strength of embodiment in moving your feet, your person, to the rhythm of what’s around you. My aunt was director of the Santa Clara park system, so that means she had some 28 parks and over 200 employees in her court of management. She knew every tree, flower, and rock. I never really appreciated her interests until I gave myself permission to walk as a means of transport on this trip.
I didn’t really know what to expect. Since I wanted to go to Portugal, the Portuguese Way seemed to be the most logical conclusion. And yet, I was afraid to go it alone. Everything I read told me that this was the 2nd most popular route, but that there weren’t that many people, especially this time of year (April). I choose to do the last 100km, which seemed easy enough. A friend lent me her backpacking backpack and I had all the gear that I needed.
The first day of the hike, I bawled my eyes out. I felt the wonderment of walking and desperately missed my aunt. There’s something really wonderful about giving yourself room to truly grieve. With hardly anyone else on the trail the first day, as I left extremely late, I felt held by nature. I cried through many memories, regrets, feelings, deaths, and subconsciously blocked thoughts. I felt space to think. Space to feel. Space to be. And that’s all that mattered. Perhaps, that’s all that ever mattered.
The second day, I walked for what seemed like forever up mountain ranges, down through valleys, villages, and eventually through what looked like a never ending enchanted forest. By the time I reached the end, my foot had a sharp ache, which shot pain all the way up to the top of my leg. I wondered if I was even going to be able to make it to the alburgue (pilgrim hostel). When I arrived, I met a sweet German girl who invited me to dinner. There was a group of them, a few Polish friends and two German girls who had just met that night. While I enjoyed dinner with them, I still felt out of place. One woman in particular really wanted to be alone on her journey, but you could tell that she also wanted to share the experience. I definitely felt her struggle. The others seemed to like me, but I felt like an outsider, in a way – probably because I have so much west coast lingo. Often, they couldn’t understand me, even though I tried to slow my pace of speaking.
The third day of the Camino, I woke up in a municipal pilgrim hostel, which was 6 euro per night, btw. Upon waking, I made breakfast and was again one of the last to leave. I like my sleep, what can I say?! While in the dining area, I overheard some very American sounding English. My ears perked up and I immediately blurted, “Hello, where are you guys from?!” Quickly, this conversation led to an invite to walk with them. The group was mostly from Washington state with a family member from Ireland. Two of the women are roughly my moms age and nurses and another woman turned out to be my age.
Before walking together, we had coffee at a cafe across the street and I felt the warmth of the woman who had invited me, permeate me. I, again, felt held. There is something completely magical about this universe whereby merely showing up and going through the hard stuff means that someone will meet you on your way and show up at the most unexpected times, in the most unanticipated ways. She offered me some of her pastry, telling me how good it was. When I told the group about my foot and the pain, I was offered Aspercreme and Aleve for the pain and inflammation. Lea, the woman who invited me, gave me one of her walking sticks. I was now part of their tribe, although, I still felt like an outsider imposing myself.
Hours later, miles down the trail – even though there was hundreds of meters between each of us, I felt that feeling again. That human rush of belonging. That connection to the planet. That trust and faith in humanity. And I also knew that I was going to be able to continue to walk.
For the next several days, we all walked together, slept in the same places, and dined together. I learned about their stories and was able to help with an extra set of headphones here or a lost sunglasses there. We offered one another sunblock, water, company, yoga sessions, and many many laughs. While the group was rather conservative and I’m California liberal, there was a lightness in humor and love that we found an easy common ground. Plus, they were all very spiritual – so even if we don’t agree on the specifics, the general sentiment in the same; love through demonstrative effort.
What is Transient Community?
Most often, I think we consider communities to be long-term, place based centers where people regularly contribute to one another. But what I’ve learned through coworking, coliving, hostels, and the Camino is that community is where ever you are. There are components that make transient community work, but I’ll cover that in a later post as much of my learnings are riddled in this post.
P.S. In case you were wondering, this is how I am leading a Shareable Life.