How a Portuguese Christian went on a 8,000-km walk to the Holy Land.
Amaro Franco sits comfortably on a couch in his home on the outskirts of Viana do Castelo, a city of 80,000 inhabitants in northwest Portugal, close to the Spanish border. Dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops, the friendly 37-year old Portuguese enjoys every opportunity he has to rest his feet. And believe me, it's an understatement to say this is a well-deserved rest.
In a country where each person walks an average 342 kilometers every year (the lowest average among the 27 countries of the European Union), Franco went on an 8,000-km. walking pilgrimage to Jerusalem that took him exactly nine months, all of his savings (more than 30,000 euros) and most of his energy.
Franco is no stranger to pilgrimages. By now he is used to the feeling of heavy legs and worn-out feet. In the last 15 years he has become a habituÃ© of the "Camino de Santiago," the route to the shrine of St. James the Great at Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. In 2001, he even walked from Braga, a fiercely Catholic city 50 km south of Viana do Castelo in Portugal, to Rome.
The 126-day journey to Rome had a huge impact on Franco's life, paving the way for a much more ambitious project later: a trip to the three main sanctuaries of Christianity - Santiago in Compostela, the tombstones of Peter and Paul in Rome and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The experience in 2001, he now admits, reconnected him with the Church "and, most importantly, with God." He dropped his import-export business and decided to devote his time to faith. That led him to start studying theology and to establish a Catholic association to promote the Portuguese route to the Road to Santiago.
It was during one of those many walks to Galicia, in the summer of 2007, that a friend challenged him to fulfill his dreams of Jerusalem. Franco had just heard from his attorneys that his attempt to license some bars on the north coast of Portugal and get back to business had failed.
"It was like God was calling me, sending me an invitation", he explains. "It's something I can't put into words. You just feel it."
Accepting that invitation, he admits, was a "very selfish" decision. "I didn't think of anybody, not even my family. I just knew I had to do it."
After returning from Santiago de Compostela, he and a group of friends started preparing every detail of the expedition, but quickly found out it was a waste of time.
"There is no point in planning something that can't be planned. A pilgrimage is not about the walking or the trip. It's about getting in touch with ourselves and with others. I wanted to look into the horizon and walk without the responsibility of respecting a calendar," he explains.
THE JOURNEY started October 4, 2007. It took Franco only three days to lose track of the time and day of the week. The excitement and the thrill gradually gave way to the anxiety of arriving in Jerusalem.
His increasing fatigue was not only physical, but also psychological and emotional. Many times he felt like giving up, but he always found the strength to continue, even when it would have seemed wiser to throw in the towel.
In Turkey he fell off a cliff during a walk at night and needed medical care.
"When I arrived in Istanbul I was broken in pieces, a total mess. I was about to go crazy," he recalls.
The people who housed him in a religious community saved his life in many ways. "For four days, they fed me, talked to me, made me rest. It was like God sent them to me."
Then, in the Syrian desert, there was another bump on his road to the Holy Land. He had stopped to take some pictures of a valley near Damascus, ignoring the loud warnings from a local truck driver.
"He was furiously shouting something like 'No photo! No photo!' I didn't see any harm in what I was doing, so I continued."
Soon, he found himself surrounded by armed soldiers and was taken into custody. Only then, sitting in a room being interrogated by the secret services, did he acknowledge that the striking valley that caught his attention hid a military base. (In his defense, it's fair to say that he is almost blind because of an eye condition.)
For a few moments, Franco felt like the lead character in a Hollywood movie: A man dreams of walking 8,000 km to see the Holy Land, but just a small step from his goal, finds himself in the hands of the Syrian secret service headquarters mistaken for a spy. Man's dream ends in a Damascus prison.
It took him 28 hours to convince the Syrian authorities that, although he spoke several languages, had visited many countries and was taking pictures close to a secret military base, he was just a harmless pilgrim. Yet, the worst "was still to come," he says.
THE FIRST two days after he was released, he was permanently followed by secret agents and intercepted a handful of times. "No one wanted to come close to me."
After crossing the Jordanian border, he was again arrested, this time for suspicion of being a suicide bomber threatening the life of King Abdullah II. He was released a couple of hours later, after a thorough search in his backpack yielded no lethal items.
On July 4, Franco finally arrived in Jerusalem, exactly nine months after he departed from Portugal.
"I always said I would go there when I had retired, but it ended up happening sooner," he says, while showing the material proof of his achievement: a Pilgrim's Credential, which is a sort of passport stamped by pilgrims in churches, bars and refuges during their journey. There are stamps in his from 12 countries. From Portugal to Israel, he had to walk through Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
After so many weeks of a mixed cocktail of anxiety, loneliness, exhaustion, despair, sometimes feeling he was about to lose his mind, there was more relief than excitement. And, he admits, also a bit of disappointment.
"Jerusalem is supposed to be the center of three religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - but they have turned the holy ground into a battlefield. What I found was a place where fear, terror and intolerance reign. I felt more lonely there, in a city full of people, than in the deserts of Syria."
A devoted Christian, he had dreamed of setting foot inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's holiest shrine. It's believed to be the site where Jesus Christ was crucified, holding the Stone of Unction where Christ lay and the tomb from which he rose again.
What he found was a place where faith had lost ground to tourism.
"Most people have no respect for it. They have no idea how to behave. Only in the early morning, when it opened, and at night, before it closed, was I able to enjoy some peace of mind inside it."
The experience, however, hasn't made him lose faith in the power of humanity. He accomplished a dream that gave place to an even more ambitious one: to organize a march for peace from Nazareth to Bethlehem, passing through Jerusalem.