'Amigos' Welcome Service in Santiago

Inma Tamayo

For many years there has been a perception that more could be done to welcome pilgrims to Santiago and to provide them with advice, support and information

This year the initiative has been backed by the Confraternity of St James in the UK and the Irish Society of the Friends of St James who recommended members and others as Amigos. Next year we want to invite other countries to join in developing the service

The Confraternity of St James in the UK and the Irish Society of the Friends of St. James supported and helped develop the idea that volunteer pilgrims could come to Santiago to live and work for two weeks to provide such a service. The aim is to welcome every pilgrim individually and to provide information and support to English speaking pilgrims. This new initiative is timely because although overall the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago so far this year has grown as usual by around 6%, the growth in English speaking pilgrims is exponential:

1 January 2012 – 31 July 2012

South Africa
United Kingdom
United States
New Zealand

The management of the Pilgrims’ Office was delighted with the proposed project. We decided to run the service on a pilot basis for 6 months from May – October 2012 and following evaluation determine its future. We called it the Amigos Welcome Service and we estimated we would need 2 volunteers for every two weeks period. The name “Amigo” really defines the role – to be a friend and support to pilgrims and we set out to recruit 26 willing pilgrims as the first Amigos.

We got almost 60 applications and these were assessed based on a number of criteria including availability and language skills. In the teams of 2 Amigos we have tried to link people who have good language skills in English, Spanish and often another language with those who have basic skills in Spanish. In reality this has worked well.
The new Welcome Service started at the beginning of May when Larry and Sean (pictured above) our first Amigos arrived and took up residence in the apartment which was to be their home for two weeks. Larry is a retired headmaster from Ireland and Sean is a computer consultant from England. Both are experienced pilgrims and their understanding of pilgrims' needs combined with their own talents for empathy and communication made them ideal Amigos Number One.

On their first day they were shown round the office and the domestics were dealt with as well as introductions to everyone. They spent some time seeing how the Office works and the way in which pilgrims are dealt with and data collected.

We then had a briefing meeting which was attended by Mari who coordinates the morning shift. We went through the FAQs I had sent in advance and then we had a session on the city map so that they could familiarise themselves with how to locate the main places which pilgrims ask about.

We welcome every single pilgrim often with a handshake and they leave with our “congratulations” ringing in their ears.  We have an excellent supply of city maps to give to pilgrims and they very much appreciate the welcome and practical help they are receiving. 

Now past the half way point many more Amigos have arrived and departed having left their own individual impression on arriving pilgrims. As each team has started work pilgrim numbers have been rising and at the moment around 1,000 pilgrims per day are arriving at the office. The office is open from 9am – 9pm and we have been trying to cover as many of these hours as possible. We already know that to do this effectively we need more Amigos in future years.

Sometimes there is a queue. The other day it went right up the street (see picture) when a total of 1400 pilgrims arrived. But unlike previous years when there were queues with pilgrims waiting for some hours with the help of the Amigos organising things on that very busy day no pilgrim waited for more than 45 minutes.

The Amigos Service has had a very good start. The atmosphere in the office and on the staircase is quite different. It is lighter. There is a lot of joking and laughter. Our words of "welcome and congratulations" are spreading. Goodwill is infectious.

In the last few weeks there have been instances where pilgrims have needed practical help - how to change a flight, how to get in touch urgently with another pilgrim, where to print a boarding card, where to buy a SIM card and so on. There have also been instances where pilgrims have been in tears just because of the kind words of an Amigo congratulating them on getting their Compostela.
As well as helping with rucksacks there have already been many occasions where their kindness and pastoral approach has been necessary and welcome. Cynthia an 83 year old pilgrim who walked from Sarria was greeted with huge congratulations on her arrival. Another pilgrim who had walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Burgos when physical problems prevented him continuing was profoundly disappointed not to receive a Compostela. The Amigos provided support. The Pilgrims’ Office wrote a letter of sympathy for his problems and of welcome to Santiago. Much help was provided as he changed his plans and contacted his insurers. Pilgrims helping pilgrims.

The staff of the Pilgrims' Office could not be more supportive of the project. They can see the power of pilgrims helping pilgrims as they witness the conversations on the stairs about blisters, and the weather and how good a poncho is compared to a rain jacket.

Don Jenaro, the Canon in Charge of the Pilgrims’ Office is delighted with the project. He said at the launch: "On the Way pilgrims greet each other with "buen camino!" now when they arrive in Santiago they have fellow pilgrims greeting them with "welcome and congratulations!".

In the first three months of the Welcome Service some 80,000 pilgrims have arrived.The vast majority of them have been welcomed by the volunteers. It is exhausting work standing smiling as pilgrim after pilgrim arrives, answering questions often in different languages and shaking hands with everyone. But the rewards are greater. At that moment when pilgrims arrived having walked many kilometres they need to be congratulated. They need to feel valued and support. That’s what the Amigos do.

Finally a word about how much it costs and how it is organised. This is a low cost – high impact service. The Amigos pay for their own transport to Santiago and home again. Some of them walked into to Santiago to do their voluntary work at the end of the Camino. Others have left to start walking. The volunteers also pay for their own daily living costs. The project provides a lovely apartment and a box of groceries with basic supplies every two weeks. The initial 6 month pilot period will cost less than 5000€.

Johnnie Walker
Santiago de Compostela

Johnnie Walker is a pilgrim and guide writer who lives in Santiago and works permanently as a volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office where he is responsible for developing volunteer initiatives. 

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