I’m barely five miles into my walk on the Camino when I wonder if it would be cheating to take one of those electric Lime scooters that everyone around me seems to be riding. It’s 11 a.m., I just sat down to have a cafe con leche and something to eat, and I’m not sure I can get back up.
“Cheating,” is an interesting concept on the Camino. While religious in origin, the Camino is far from the sole purview of religious pilgrims, so my secularism isn’t a problem. The Caminho Portugues is believed to be the original way of St James (Saint Iago, hence “Santiago,”), who preached “love of God, self, and stranger,” before his image was resurrected almost 800 years after his death in the form of the Santiago Matamoros (St James, slayer of the Moors) when Christians sought to repossess the Iberian peninsula from Muslims.*
While the Caminho Portugues Central is the second most traveled Camino after the Camino Frances, and is the religious heavyweight of the Portuguese paths (it is also called the Caminho Real), multiple Portuguese Camino routes exist. They range from the traditional central route to the mostly touristy Senda Litoral (the seaside path) that I take today, leading out of Porto along the river Duoro and up the promenade on the coast before connecting with slightly more traditional routes. Most people I meet are combining paths over the next two weeks to arrive in Santiago, and many will actually change course along the way based on what we learn from one another as we greet, connect, and part ways. So if secularism isn’t a concern, what does “cheating” mean?
Among the most popular sayings you hear among pilgrims is “It’s your Camino!” It’s a way of reminding you that your journey – your personal journey here, both the geographic and emotional paths you are on as you pilgrimage – are your own. Your journey truly is the destination, despite all of us gunning for Santiago. Each of us decides for ourselves which route(s) we want to take, how long we want to spend on them, whether we travel alone or with others, and what it means to us to be here. Your Camino is your own, no matter how many people may be walking it with you.
Over the next few days, I will meet people who are here to commemorate the loss of loved ones, people who are pondering changes in work, family, or spiritual makeup and walk the path to meditate on potential futures or discuss them with others, people who are simply on vacation, and people who are, in fact, on a religious pilgrimage. And despite having thought briefly about whether or not to do this walk before setting out on it, I of course will be dumbstruck to find an answer when I am asked later today what my personal reason is for walking this Camino, at this time. As always, it is not the whether, but the why that causes me pause. And maybe that is my journey: understanding my why.
My cafe con leche arrives, along with an avocado toast and a glass of water. As I caffeinate and get some nutrients in my body, I watch surfers catch waves on the Atlantic right in front of me. The waves come from far away but roll in gently compared to the ones I have seen on television, filmed to the south, not far from here, in Nazare. These waves are welcoming, the challenges slightly smaller, and people of all ages are paddling toward them, into them, and floating back to shore on their energy.
I stand and stretch, sit back down and am nuzzled by a dog that has been sitting beneath a nearby table. I give the scruff of his neck some good scratches and watch more scooters go by, and decide that yes, for me, on MY Camino, a scooter for sure is a cheat I am not interested in, so I will pay the bill and walk the rest of the way.
*Information on the history of the Caminos and St. James come from A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugues by John Brierly (Kindle Edition, 2022)