It was a physically demanding trip.
It was a deeply spiritual journey.
And it was a journey of forgiveness.
From August 27 to September 9, Bob de Oliveira, a retired teacher from the Kankakee school district, hiked the Camino de Santiago, the “Way of St. James”, in Portugal and Spain, one of the big three pilgrimages of Christianity. It only falls behind the pilgrims’ steps towards Rome and Jerusalem.
Wearing running shoes and carrying a backpack from REI, de Oliveira traveled 80 miles. Much of the land is dirt and stone. Most of the bridges date from Roman times, worn by the sandals of the legions.
There are several trails that make up the Camino. Some travel west from other parts of Spain or France. Others start in Portugal and head north. All routes converge on the northwest corner of Spain at Santiago, the famous burial place of Santiago, one of the original 12 apostles. Santiago borders Finisterre, a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. In the centuries leading up to the discovery of the Americas, Finisterre was âthe end of the worldâ.
In recent years, travel has become a physical challenge, a tourist attraction and a religious experience. No less than 300,000 people a year make the march.
âThey say you have to have a reason to walk the Camino,â said de Oliveira.
In his case, it was about making peace with the memory of his father, Clemente, now deceased for 37 years. De Oliveira had judged his father harshly.
âHe was drinking,â de Oliveira said.
Meditating and praying as he walked, de Oliveira said he was waiting for three signs that he had connected with his father. He found them. He saw a building dedicated to “Clemente”. Later, as he crossed an old bridge, the Ponte Vrandrar, there was a house, the Villa San Clemente. The third sign was a supermarket named Clemente.
There were times, de Oliveira said, when he could hear footsteps behind him. Although there are a lot of people doing the walk, they are spread over many paths and many days. Often, pilgrims travel alone. Yellow arrows guide the route, but de Oliveira got lost at times.
On the last day, de Oliveira ran into a 9-year-old boy.
âYou know,â the boy told him, âyou don’t walk alone. “
Arrived at the cathedral on arrival, de Oliveira said one Our Father and three Hail Marys. He had his picture taken.
Other than that, his memories were minimal. He took away a garment with a red crusader cross. He also had a passport book, which all pilgrims carry to identify themselves as such. Pilgrims receive stamps, each colorful and unique, at stops along the way. At the end, successful pilgrims receive a certificate.
The real reward is inner transformation.
âI had a feeling of peace,â he said. âYou find that we don’t need all of this. We can be happy with much less.
The Camino is a different pace of life, slower every day.
An experienced traveler, de Oliveira is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. He had many aspects to his career, but much of it was devoted to teaching bilingual and ESL classes before retiring with 26 years of work at Kankakee Schools.
Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, de Oliveira arrived here at the age of 18, lived with his uncle, David, and graduated from Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School.
For several years, de Oliveira led student trips from Kankakee High to Spain during the summers. It was a trip to Burgos, in the Basque region of Spain, that gave birth to the idea of ââtraveling the Camino. There he saw seashells embedded in the sidewalk. This visual is also a symbol of the Camino.
So, he came to the conclusion to do so when he retired. He started training in March, starting with 3 mile hikes and going up to 12. He has read a dozen books on the Camino. Type 2 diabetic, he takes good care of his health.
He was pleasantly stunned when his wife, Bill Sole, flew to Portugal to cheer him on as he left to start. En route, de Oliveira had hired a company to move most of his equipment. You walk from hotel to hotel throughout the journey. Usually you have breakfast and dinner at the hotel. Bring your meal. Twice, the people of Oliveira did not know paid for his lunch.
For 12 centuries, the common pilgrimage meal is Caldo Gallego, a soup of potatoes, beans and cabbage. The chicken bones are swirled to give it the tiniest meaty taste.
He took some Kankakee with him. The ashes of Sue Conroy, a late Kankakee teacher and friend, were scattered on a bridge. Now they will watch over religious pilgrims for the rest of eternity.
De Oliveira carried with him a well-worn rock from the Kankakee River. Towards the end, he left her on one of the gravel paths. It was not an unusual rock, but he was touching it and praying.
There are dozens of prayers said by pilgrims along the way. Here is one of the oldest in St. James and one of the most recited:
“Be for us our walking companion,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue (shelter in English) on the Camino,
Our shadow in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragement,
And our strength in our intentions.