I met Kate Fisher in person while she was walking the Camino Portugués in October 2018. We had known each other online for a while and this was the perfect opportunity to connect.
Kate has recently published a book recounting her experience of walking the Camino de Santiago after recovering from anxiety and depression.
In the post that follows, Kate writes about the conversations that take place on the Camino, both with others and with ourselves. She also gives us some tips on how to improve those conversations.
Conversation on the Camino
by Kate Fisher
(includes excerpts from her book Beyond Expectations: 6 Days on the Camino Portugués and her guide, “Calm Your Brain: 7 Tips to Connect and Communicate”)
My very first day on the Camino Portugués began in the dark. The day before, I had flown from Madrid to Vigo and then taken a taxi to a hotel north of Tui. I arranged for the hotel van to transport me to the Camino at 7:30 am without checking the time of sunrise. The van driver spoke no English and already I wished I had spent more time studying Spanish!
I was the only passenger in the van and when he dropped me off at a dimly lit and empty parking lot behind a small church, I felt foolish. It was early October and it would be another 45 minutes before dawn. I also felt disoriented. Which way was north, toward Santiago? What if the pilgrims were walking south toward Fátima? I took a deep breath and said a little prayer for safety.
Then I saw it, a large yellow arrow painted on a crumbling concrete wall, pointing the way. Fátima arrows were blue, I remembered. This yellow arrow was the only bright spot in a shroud of darkness. Should I follow it now or wait as I’d been instructed? I decided to do a walking meditation around the parking lot until daybreak.
Before long, my attention was caught by three small lights bobbing up and down in the distance. They seemed to draw closer and I recognized them as headlamps on three people walking in rhythm down the sidewalk in front of the church. I ran toward the yellow arrow and through the driveway to catch up with them. As I approached, I slowed down and joined the line of pilgrims, barely visible by the light on their foreheads. Not one of them made a sound. It felt a bit strange, and yet I was relieved. I was walking on the Camino!
When I thought about the fact that these walkers had also started in the dark, I relaxed a bit. Maybe I knew what I was doing, after all. The line of pilgrims spaced out into small groups, everyone walking at their own pace, still in complete silence.
I sensed someone behind me and turned to look. A small woman carrying a large backpack smiled at me. I smiled back and whispered, “Is it against the rules to talk?”
“If it is, I guess we are breaking the rules,” she said wryly, and thus began a conversation with my walking companion for the day.
Walking and Talking
If you ask me, I will tell you that “walking and talking” is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I enjoy walking alone, to be sure, but there is a special connection to be made between people who enjoy a good conversation while walking.
Maybe it’s the fresh air. Or the freedom from a schedule and interruptions. I have had some of my very best conversations while walking with a friend and I found that to be true on the Camino, too.
Small talk guidelines are generally to avoid talking about politics, religion, and personal health. Perhaps because we were mostly strangers and may never see each other again, these small talk rules did not seem to apply. Most of my conversations were about politics, religion, and mental or physical health.
A German man told me about his liver transplant. A young man from Israel was eager to talk about religion and his Polish grandfather, who had lived through the Holocaust. When people found out that I was from the US, they asked me what happened to cause the outcome of the 2016 election. They were baffled. My explanation was that 2016 was The Year of the Rooster on the Chinese calendar, and it was most definitely a wake-up call.
Some people dedicate their walk to someone or something. Grateful for my own recovery, I dedicated my walk to those who struggle with depression and anxiety.
It just so happened that at the time I was preparing to walk on the Camino, I discovered that Project Happiness was promoting The Race For Wellness Project to raise money for mental wellness resources for youth.
The project also aimed to raise awareness and help remove the stigma that prevents people of all ages from getting help. All I needed to do was pledge to walk at least 50 miles (approximately 80.5 kilometers) and invite friends and family to be sponsors.
Every day I had opportunities to talk about mental health and share my story. On some days, I would share it as my reason for walking. Fellow pilgrims were eager to talk about their own depression or their concern for a friend or family member. Because of the stigma, hardly anyone talks about it in day-to-day life. Here on the Camino, it felt like the most natural conversation in the world.
Not every conversation was serious. Some were observations like “blisters are my sisters.” Or talking about a 90-year-old pilgrim who seemed to have more energy than all of us.
One of my favorite conversations was with Maria. We had met online in the Opted Out Community of language teachers and I’d been learning about Spain and the Camino through her blog articles, workbooks, and courses. I was delighted to walk through Pontevedra and have the opportunity to meet her at the end of my third day.
Conversation with food or wine
Maria and I enjoyed our conversation over a glass of wine and then she needed to return to her family so I had dinner around 9 pm. At home, this would have been very late. Since this was my second week in Spain, I was beginning to get used to the different times of eating.
Breakfast was usually light, consisting of café con leche, toasted baguette with jam, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. I usually started walking on an empty stomach and stopped at a café sometime mid-morning. Conversations were light, too, and often involved the cafe proprietor who was happy to stamp our credencial or passport and send us on our way with the ubiquitous greeting, Buen Camino!
The midday meal was also later than I normally eat. Instead of noon, we often ate around 2 pm, and even pilgrims liked to linger at the table afterward for conversation. I learned that there is actually a word for this time of conversation, sobremesa.
If you want to have an interesting conversation on the Camino, I recommend asking open-ended questions. In other words, questions that can’t be answered with yes, no, or simply one word, Here’s an example that does not promote conversation. Question: Where did you start your Camino? Answer: Porto.
Open-ended questions usually begin with “what” or “how” and invite people to elaborate and share their opinions, views, and personal stories. Start with something that is not too personal or specific.
What brings you to the Camino? – ¿Qué te trae al Camino?
How do you use hiking poles/GPS/your guidebook? – ¿Cómo usas los bastones / el GPS / tu guía?
What has been your experience at the albergues? – ¿Cómo ha sido tu experiencia en los albergues?
How do you like this part of the Camino? – ¿Qué te parece esta parte del Camino?
How do you like Spanish cuisine? – ¿Qué te parece la cocina española?
What do you recommend for a vegetarian? – ¿Qué recomiendas para un vegetariano?
Has anything surprised you about Spanish culture or customs? – ¿Te ha sorprendido algo de la cultura o las costumbres españolas?
Follow up with another open-ended question or “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”
Conversation with myself
Because the Camino Portugués was not crowded, I experienced a lovely balance of inner conversations with myself while walking alone and meaningful conversations with other pilgrims while walking or enjoying a meal or cafe con leche in a cafe.
I think that many people come to the Camino to sort out things in their life and these inner and outer conversations are one way to do it. It’s almost as if pilgrims hold up a mirror for one another, listening to each other’s stories and reflecting back what each person needs to see or hear.
All in all, 6 Days on the Camino Portugués gave me the perfect opportunity to think about my own life and have conversations with people from Spain and at least a dozen other countries around the world. If you can’t be away for more than a week, I highly recommend walking from Tui to Santiago. And if you have any questions for me, I’d be happy to have a conversation. You can find me at www.conversationswithkate.net
For more info on Kate’s book and workbook, click on the picture.
You can listen to some of our Conversations about the Camino on Kate’s podcast. You will find a link to those conversation on my About page.
Today’s Spanish phrases
¿Qué te trae al Camino?
¿Cómo usas los bastones / el GPS / tu guía?
¿Cómo ha sido tu experiencia en los albergues?
¿Qué te parece esta parte del Camino?
¿Qué te parece la cocina española?
¿Qué recomiendas para un vegetariano?
¿Te ha sorprendido algo de la cultura o las costumbres españolas?
Kate is a hiker and language enthusiast from the US who has dabbled in German, French, Spanish, and Polish at different times in her life. Through volunteer work in Poland and Spain, she discovered a passion for helping business professionals develop confidence speaking in English and began teaching online at Conversations with Kate. She is a certified Neurolanguage Coach®, hosts a podcast, and recently published her first book for English Language Learners and anyone interested in walking six days on the Camino. She’s grateful to Maria for helping her with Spanish for her walk and for the book. : )
You can connect with Kate on Linkedin, Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud via her website, www.conversationswithkate.net.