The Days before arriving at Santiago de Compostela

It’s easy to find out how to start off on the trek along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There are lots of inspiring pictures showing happy pilgrims making those final steps toward the Cathedral’s double stairway at the end of their pilgrimage. What happens between those two milestones?  I’d like to tell you how to handle that intermediary period, the days when you are working toward your physical, mental, and spiritual goals.

This is the period where the pilgrim’s initial commitment and enthusiasm starts to be tested by some challenges and difficulties. This is the period when you realize that although you are trying very hard to live up to your ideals, you don’t feel very peaceful or even satisfied with your progress.  This is the point where you need to wrestle with yourself, asking the 3 important questions necessary for growth (if not sanity):

  • Where am I going?
  • Where have I been?
  • Who am I?

Everybody has to come up with their own answers, so I am not going to “tell” you my answers. I am going to “show” you through some of my pictures.


The first question

Let’s start with the easy question: “Where am I going?”  My answer seemed straightforward enough: I was going to walk to Santiago de Compostela from Sarria.

I was going with a distant member of my extended family; she planned to do the walk as an inexpensive hiking holiday. Although I was hoping to get the completion certificate for the spiritual seeker, I didn’t want to suffer “too” much. We would try out the pilgrims’ dormitory on the first night, and then switch to little hotels or guesthouses; basically we wanted rooms with showers and possibly TV.  As for food, I wanted to sample all the foodie delights possible, stopping at every major café, market, or restaurant en route. My companion wasn’t fussy about Spanish food, and just wanted “un bocadillo de jamon” (a ham sandwich) for every meal.

Along the way, we changed. I changed. I didn’t count on the friction between us; we seemed to be from different worlds… on a collision course. She wanted to hike at a fast clip and arrive at the day’s destination point by early afternoon; I wanted to walk at a moderate pace, pausing to look at points of interest and to take photos of everything and everybody. We didn’t walk together, and every hour or so she’d stop and wait for me to catch up, with mounting annoyance.


Mixed with the anticipation of finally arriving at Santiago, was sadness at our deteriorating relationship. As I walked along and noticed the ad hoc shrines set up by pilgrims, I found myself being moved by the religious overtones of the experience. I realized it was becoming more than a hike; it was becoming a true pilgrimage for me. Since these sentiments were not shared by my companion, I didn’t talk about it. I started photographing the churches and the sunlight bathing the countryside.

church-caminoThe second question

“Where have I been?” Ten years ago I was on an organized hiking trip through parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern Spain. Somebody from the tour company told me that I should “do the Camino”.  To prepare for my Camino last year, I worked through a walking program and a reading list. I read through many wonderful books describing other people’s experiences on the Camino (Spanish for “road”). One of my favorite authors, Paulo Coelho (“The Alchemist”) had walked the Camino in 1986.

There was an amazing diversity in their experiences and writing styles, from “magical” or “mystical”, to the purely social; from humorous to historical /documentary. There was one thing that the authors did all agree on, and that was “You don’t walk the Camino; the Camino walks YOU.”  I was skeptical about that, and so I spent the first few days in Spain fighting with the Camino about who was walking whom. (Spoiler alert: the Camino won.)

I had pre-planned a “theme” for each day. The idea was that I would try to “fit” that day’s experiences into the theme. Boy, that did not work out at all! Monday (Day 1) was to be “In tune with Nature” day. That day it rained, and I was only “in tune” with my heavy backpack and sore knees.


Tuesday was to be “Camaraderie Day”, where I would continuously meet pilgrims and talk about our experiences. That day, everyone I saw seemed very introspective and indicated that they preferred to walk alone, in silence.  OK, so Wednesday was to be “Contemplation Day”, where I would be peaceful and holy and receive insights. That day, I woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag and was really grouchy all day; the only insight I had was that I was acting like a control freak and possibly blocking the benevolent influence of the Camino. I gave up on my “themes” and just started looking at the beauty in all the little things I saw around me. Then I noticed the flowers, the different types of houses in the towns, the variety of paths and roads, the expressions on the faces of the other pilgrims.


The third question

“Who am I?” When we are in our normal, familiar environment, we tend to answer that question in terms of what we have; “I have a name, a house, a family, a job, lots of clothes, a list of To do’s.” When you are schlepping around in a foreign country, the answer seems less certain. “I have a name. I have a small (but inexplicably heavy) backpack containing a change of clothes, some books, a quart of shampoo, and a paella-stained menu from that great café in Lestedo.”

When you are on a pilgrimage, you have one goal (to get to Santiago). You have total freedom on what you will do each day, which becomes a problem when you don’t “feel like” doing what you need to do to get there. I started to think thoughts like “I’m not at work, so I must be on vacation. If I’m on vacation, I should be having fun! Why am I doing this? Why am I here [instead of sampling tapas in Madrid]?” It’s easy to sink into a “dark night of the soul”, even when it’s a bright sunny day. (Maybe it should be called “the bright sunny day of the soul”?) All I know is that I started wondering how the Three Questions could be applied to my pilgrimage and to my life.

As I was trying to remember if any of my favorite Camino authors had provided quick but definitive answers to these questions, I passed by an old dog chained behind a fence, surrounded by its owners’ junk. The poor dog was half blind, but it was looking at me. It reminded me of a storyline in Paulo Coelho’s book The Pilgrimage.  At different parts of his journey, he keeps getting attacked by dogs. He cannot complete his quest until he subdues a large rabid dog with his bare hands.  I confronted “my” dog by saying “Nice doggy!” and taking its picture, with tears in my eyes. (“Who am I?”)


Meanwhile, my travelling companion had had enough of my dawdling, and had sprinted on ahead. I found her waiting for me beside a tree. I said, “Hey, let’s stop at the next café we come to. I need coffee.” She took off without a word. When I arrived at “the next café” it was filled with tables crowded together and lots of pilgrims chatting loudly. (And it wasn’t even “Camaraderie Day”!)    I found her sitting at a table far away from the door.

After I got a coffee and joined her, my eyes adjusted to the light. I noticed that it was a very unusual café. Every inch of the walls, tables, chairs, and even the ceilings (!) was covered by graffiti left by passing peregrinos.


Our table had been repainted, and the new paint was covered with words of encouragement in many languages. Directly in front of me, one very small square on the table had not been repainted- it showed the original picture of a witch, a man, and a dog. A dog! Just like Paulo’s story! Suddenly it hit me- it could be Paulo’s picture!

To prove to myself that my guess was correct (and more importantly, that I wasn’t completely crazy) I asked the owner of the café if Paulo Coelho had passed through and made the drawing. He got all excited and said “YES!” Then he showed me their autographed photo of Paulo. It was not just that he had signed it; he had written graffiti all over it, words of encouragement for future pilgrims. I went back to my companion and told her the story behind the Brazilian author’s drawing of the dog.  I kept saying to her, “Thank you for choosing this table! Because of you, I found something that meant a lot to me! Thank you!”  She winked at me and said, “I don’t know what they put in the coffee here, but I like it!”


Back on the Camino, I was sure that my pilgrimage was starting to come together. The Camino was indeed “walking me” and showing me things that were important and wonderful.  At one point, I walked into a small chapel and I felt a deep connection with my Source. Then, I knew that the difficult places I had been through in my life were actually a gift to me, illuminating both my Camino and my ongoing Path. Now it is up to me to make my life beautiful, meaningful, and connected with the Divine.


By asking those 3 questions, I am sure that every pilgrim would arrive at Santiago de Compostela with a clear picture of where they have been, who they are, and where they are going.

Many thanks to Mary Segall for this great post.

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  1. Dermot on February 7, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Interesting observations of your camino. Thank you v much for sharing. Looking forward to my own camino in May 2014

    • catherinetodd3 on February 8, 2014 at 8:04 am

      You wrote: “Then, I knew that the difficult places I had been through in my life were actually a gift to me, illuminating both my Camino and my ongoing Path. Now it is up to me to make my life beautiful, meaningful, and connected with the Divine.”

      How to do this? I know it is “up to me.” Dear God truly show me The Way. I need to know. I need it now.

      I can hardly believe this showed up in my inbox tonight; just what I needed to hear. Written on my heart. Gracias Leslie. Can’t wait to read more. One day God will grant me the health and the strength to make this pilgrimage; until then I will do it in my heart, written in my soul. Etched in spiritual stone never to be forgotten… always to be remembered. To replace all the bad memories with the “gifts” we have been given.

      “The winds of grace blow all the time; all we need do is set our sails.”
      Dear God please show us The Way.


      • Norma on July 23, 2016 at 7:46 pm

        I dream of making the Camino for over 20 years, my dream will become reality this September pray for my journey.

  2. catherinetodd3 on February 8, 2014 at 8:34 am

    And “Many thanks to Mary Segall for this great post.” Amen! And beautiful photos, too. So inspiring… I’m ready!

  3. Patrick on February 10, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks Leslie for another interesting post. I found that my answers to these three questions changed during my walk. The answers at the end of the walk were completely different from those when I began. Something happened in the quiet loneliness along the Way.

  4. Angela on February 14, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    The Camino has popped into my life for several years now and finally I am determined to make this my year to complete it. I have set September 8th as my start date and sometimes wonder if that’s just wishful thinking. But every time I read an account like this one it makes me hungry to be on my way. So no more wishful thinking or fear – I have spiritual questions to ask and believe the Camino is the way (parson the pun) to find my own answers to them. Thank you

    • Leslie on February 17, 2014 at 8:39 am

      Yes, I have found that fear can affect my decision making when I wish it wouldn’t. All the best on your journey.

  5. Angela on February 14, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    Ha ha

    That should be pardon. Another pun in itself

  6. Jenny Demmer on April 8, 2014 at 9:43 am

    please tell me where you found that Graffiti cafe?? Near which village? a friend is arriving next week and i want to tell her about it so that she can look out for it

  7. Kirsten on April 8, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    I very much understand the journey that you encountered. I went into my Camino without expectations and let it come to me and it was the most precious gift I ever received. It lightened my mind and my heart and I so much wish to return and experience other portions of the journey.

  8. Kim on April 8, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    I am apprehensive and excited about walking from 6th June and have a good 35 days!
    I’m raising money for The Kelli Smith Appeal and this was for motivation and to help a little girl fight cancer
    Thanks for this story of the walk and I hope to do similar when I arrive back

  9. Bill on April 23, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    I retired from the military and have been living here in Spain since 2000. I am going from Jaca to the end, but since I live here, I want to pick the best time of the year. I believe 1rst of May or 30th of August will be my target dates. I am in no hurry and the actual speed will be determined by the distance between alburges. I know all the food, speak fluently, and going alone. Hopefully I can hook up with other pilgrims to enjoy the whole experience. Being ex-military, a day with back-packs and sweat is just another walk in the park..uh..make that trail to Santiago.

  10. Joseph on January 5, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks for sharing. It really inspires me now… and make a definite decision to do the “cammino”

  11. nick lambert on July 26, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    Thanks Leslie I spent 36 days st Jean dear pore to muxia 900 kill lovely experience

  12. dennis morgan on December 5, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    wonderful post … thank you for sharing. ..
    lifted me up ……

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