Long Walks and Other Thoughts: A Tale of the Camino

By Leslie Rice, SJCC ESL/ENG Retiree, 2022

My partner and her son had just finished a road trip in Spain, ending up in Santiago. Driving in this area, they saw many pilgrims, making the trek from somewhere to the cathedral here. Kathy thought they looked excited, tired, sweaty, and inspiring, all at once. This is how the idea started in our house in Fremont, CA. The Camino – let’s think about this. In Winter 2022, we bought our plane tickets, SFO to Lisbon roundtrip, and started to prepare.

Most walkers on the Camino plan to walk about 12.5 miles or more each day. I knew that that was a bit too much for a fairly non-walker like me. So I took the sample itinerary and broke it up into stages of about 8 miles a day. Generally walking 4 days in a row and then an extra day for laundry and rest. I chose the Portuguese Coastal Route because I liked the following sentences from the Stingy Nomads website: “The Coastal Portuguese Camino has less up and downhill walking, it’s basically flat all the way.” This route “goes along the sea . . . it meanders between the coast, towns, and fields.” And, after doing a fair amount of research online and from my travel book, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugués (John Brierley), I got the idea that this route was less crowded than other routes. Flat, sea, meanders, fields, not crowded – I love those words. We talked about it and easily agreed on the Coastal Route. Our starting point was the coastal town of Matosinhos (very accessible from Porto, Portugal by local train). We took our first steps of our journey on April 23, 2023.

Even though we had prepared well – read a lot, talked to a friend who had just returned from her own Camino, walked a fair amount (we practiced walking around Lake Elizabeth in Fremont, trying to build up to 5 miles a day), carefully packed – you really don’t know what the day to day is going to be like. But that first day, you set one foot down and then the other, and you move along and you concentrate and you can hear your Great Aunt say, “Don’t fall, Girls” and you don’t. And life is that good, even better, and you breathe in the fresh, salty ocean air. And you smile a lot, and it seems the whole world is cheering for your success. Every person you pass (or who passes you, which is usually the case) says, “Bom Camino,” which translates to “May you have a good walk.” Everyone says this, everyday, to everyone they meet on the Camino. And after a day or two of continually walking, you actually start believing that Destination Santiago is a real possibility. Sometimes your feet hurt; maybe there are cobble stones today instead of wooden walkways; maybe there is a small bit of rain. But you believe.

Some of you still think we are packing all of our items on our back each day. Well, no. Not necessary on the Camino. We did have day packs, which contained water, a few snacks (nuts, fruit), panchos, guidebook, our phones, blister/first aid pack, sunscreen, bandanas, a wallet. But we hired a company, Pilbeo, to conveniently take our bags from place to place. In Portugal, they charged us about $5 a bag per stop. This company was amazing – very. They had our bags to the next accommodation by the time we arrived; often the bags were already in our room. Absolute magic!! All we had to do was have the bags, Pilbeo tag attached, at the front desk by 8 am. This company has a convenient app, making it very easy to set up your locations in advance. Sometimes the hotel or apartment we had booked wasn’t listed in the app. I would communicate via email and soon, our accommodation was listed on the app. We did not have one hiccup here – not one. And when we entered Spain, the transporting price was even lower. For us retirees, having our bags delivered to us each day was the way to go. Well worth the cost.

I met three really strong people on our Camino journey. One was a woman, walking by herself, on a hilly road section of the Camino. She didn’t walk incredibly fast; she was consistent; she was pushing on. She passed me once, early on, and then we saw each other another time during the day. We might have communicated a couple of sentences, but that was it. She was strong, I thought. And then, towards the end of our Camino, we met an elderly couple near a creek. In my mind, they had walked the Camino before – maybe several times. And now, on this day, at this time, they were back on the Camino. The woman’s health was fragile and even walking a bit was now a chore for her. But her husband didn’t care that both of them were slower; that maybe this was his wife’s last Camino. He gently and with great care helped her navigate and move forward, ever so slowly. I loved being there, just at that moment. I loved the kindness, the happiness, the success. Both of them, in their own way, were now the strongest.

The great thing about walking the Camino is that each journey is unique; each journey is your own.

This is just some of our Camino. On May 14, after walking more than 150 miles, we stood on the steps of the Cathedral of Santiago. I went inside and spent a period of time in reflection, remembering especially my family members and friends who had passed away. I viewed the beauty and awesomeness of the Cathedral itself; I took in the incense of this old Catholic church. And then we both walked to the Pilgrim’s Office, where we received certificates: the Compostela and certificates of distance. And then we were very hungry, so we went to the most crowded restaurant we could find. And they let us in and found us a table. And later, from our balcony off our room in a restored convent (now a historic hotel), we heard the bells of Santiago.

“Buen Camino,” my friends.