Review of Kokopelli Hostel: Avenida Piura 209 Mancora, Peru

On a recommendation from my friend’s father, I stopped at Mancora beach on my way north to Ecuador. The town has a great small surf town beach feel and a really cool vibe.

I stayed at Kokopelli Hostel (http://www.hostelkokopelli.com/mancora/es/where.html), and what a great decision that was. It was the perfect balance between a social hostel and a place where you can actually get some sleep and relax. It’s located across the street from the beach, and less than a five-minute walk into the main part of town.

From the moment I walked in the door, the hostel staff was nothing short of sensational. I was very impressed with the service. Every single person who works there is attentive, friendly and seems genuinely happy. They call you by your name and really make you feel at home.

The eight bed female dorm is priced at 30 soles a night (approximately $11), and there is a bathroom in the room. Considering it is an eight bed dorm, it’s actually quite spacious, with enough room for your backpack and huge lockers under the bed. The beds are big and comfortable.

The hostel has a great bohemian vibe, with surfboards lying around, a ping-pong table, hammocks for relaxing and an outdoor bar next to the pool. Sounds of Bob Marley fill the air and you realize you’ve reached paradise.

Breakfast is UNREAL (and included in the room fee)! This is the first place where I actually got fresh eggs instead of just bread and jam.  You also get a fresh squeezed passion fruit and pineapple juice with breakfast, along with coffee! I was incredibly pleased with the quality of the food.

The hostel is quick to offer you recommendations for surf schools and other activities around town. They also offer great quality food for a very reasonable price. I ordered the ceviche as a starter and grilled chicken as a main – for only 12 soles!

Everything is well maintained and clean. I saw people cleaning the common areas all day.

The only issue there was the wifi. It was spotty, at best. But it wasn’t the hostel’s fault – Movistar, the network provider, has restrictions on the number of users. You will eventually connect, but it could take a while.

All in all, my experience at Kokopelli’sMancora beach was wonderful.On your way up the Peruvian coast, this place is a must see. I highly recommend the hostel to anyone visiting the beautiful beaches of Mancora.

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Blog for a Bed – Pariwana Hostel in Lima, Peru

I came to Lima and stayed at the centrally located Pariwana Hostel in Miraflores, unknowing that I could get a free bed for writing three short articles on some of my experiences in Peru. Once I found out, I got to work. These three short articles may be helpful for those traveling to Peru. Happy reading.

Crossing to Cusco from Copacabana

As most backpackers, I decided to do the border crossing into Peru at Lake Titicaca, more specifically, at Copacabana after a visit to La Isla del Sol. While some people decide to take a stop in Puno, I decided to go straight to Cusco – a decision I would later regret.

Upon arriving in Copacabana, there is a street, perpendicular to the square, with loads of restaurants, travel companies and Internet cafes. Most of the travel companies will offer you tickets to Puno or Cusco, or to both, with a stopover in Puno. The cost was 80 Bolivianos (or approximately $12 USD) to go all the way to Cusco. Be advised: while the first bus they offer to Puno (and for the border crossing) is quite nice and comfortable, the second bus to Cusco (which is significantly longer) is barely better than a local bus.

You will first get on the bus to Puno. I left at around 1:30 pm. You arrive at the border before you know it (less than an hour), and must have your passports, and your immigration form, ready to exit the country. The buses will drop you off, and wait for you on the Peruvian side. The whole process takes less than thirty minutes.

You will walk across to Peru (marked by the logo on most Peruvian shirts), and the immigration on the Peruvian side is efficient and quick. To my pleasant surprise, no reciprocity fees or visas were necessary for American citizens (a first during my travels).

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You will be haggled by people trying to get your to convert money. We were advised by our bus driver to change currency at the ‘Small Bank”, which also doubles as a convenience store.

From the border, it took about 3 hours to Puno (don’t forget to set your clocks back an hour after you cross the border). I was quickly ushered to my “Cusco” bus. This bus was far less comfortable and much more local. The 7-8 hours on this bus are quite uncomfortable, and you arrive in Cusco close to midnight.

It’s a long day, folks. So if possible, I recommend staying in Puno for a day or two and enjoying the reed communities on the lake. The ride to Cusco will seem much shorter and you will be more prepared for that uncomfortable bus ride to Cusco.

Huacachina – What You Need to Know

I had the pleasure of taking a little adventure to the beautiful oasis of Ica, called Huacachina. It’s on the way to Lima, from Cusco.

I took a lovely Cruz del Sur bus, which absolutely blew my mind. I had gotten used to the comfy buses of Argentina, and was sorely disappointed at the quality of buses as I headed through Bolivia. But not this one: the bus from Cruz del Sur, for a bargain price of 165 sols (approximately $25 USD), you get the following: dinner and breakfast, personal TV’s, 160 degree reclinable chairs and wifi! The 16 hour ride was comfortable and luxurious.

Once you arrive in Ica, you can take a 7 sols taxi into Huacachina. I stayed at Banana Adventures hostel and was so glad I did. Immediately greeted by a bunch of poolside backpackers, you know you’ve reached some sort of paradise. The entire town is built around the lagoon and Banana Adventures is where most backpackers will go to swim, drink and eat. While the food is a bit pricey (15-20 sols for a meal), you’ll find similar prices in most of Huacachina, given that it is a complete tourist town.

The 4-bed dorm room for two nights cost me 95 sols, which included the two hour dune buggy and sand boarding tour (which is normally 35 sols), so the room ended up being 30 sols per night. A good price, with the exception that the bathrooms were shared and pretty far away (by the pool). If possible, try and get a room with a bathroom.

The first night, I climbed up the dunes and watched the sun set. An excellent idea.

The next day, it was a pool day, followed by the dune buggy tour. It starts at 4:30 pm and you ride the sand dunes like a roller coaster, not knowing when the next drop will come. You later break out the sand boards and experiment with all different forms of going down the giant dunes: face first, legs first…and if you are really brave, you stand up. It’s exhilarating and the definition of the traveler adrenaline.

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You can also see the Nazca lines, depending on your determination to be budget-
friendly (and if you’re rich). It costs between $90 – 150 USD. An activity meant for the wealthier of us fellow backpackers. I hear it may be worth the expense if you are an avid flier, however many reviews from fellow backpackers implied that you couldn’t see them too clearly from the sky.

Huacachina is a must-see in Peru. Even if just for the sand dunes – how often can you see an oasis in the middle of the desert?

Islas Ballestas and Paracas

On your way from Ica to Lima, you can find the beautiful “poor man’s Galapagos” islands, called the Isla Ballestas. Only an hour from Ica, this trip can run you between 30-50 sols. I paid 50 sols, including the boat ride to the islands. There is a hidden charge of 12 sols, which is a required tourist tax.

Once you arrive in Paracas, you hop on a boat, see the most gigantic jelly fish you’ve ever seen in your life, and get ready to see all the incredible wildlife on these islands. You’ll likely first see the “Candelabra” figure in the sand, and then move on to see thousands of pelicans on the island. 2014-03-28 21.47.36

The real adventure comes when you see the sea lions on the shore. Hundreds upon hundreds, all basking in the sun. Then the best part comes: the penguins. They are wiggling their way down to jump into the cool water. The best part is when the boat goes to the ‘maternity ward’ of the sea lions. You can hear the babies’ sounds and all the sea lions.2014-03-28 22.10.322014-03-28 22.37.31

Although the tour is only two hours, it’s plenty of time to see all the incredible wildlife.

Once you are back to shore, there of plenty of places to stay in Paracas. I chose Icthus hostel – a family owned place with an atmosphere rivaling that of Santorini.

The rooms are clean, spacious and comfortable. Breakfast is quite nice (jam, bread, fresh fruit and yogurt) for 6 sols. However, other than the boardwalk, the choices of activities are somewhat limited. I chose a paddle boat for an hour for the price of 20 sols off the coast, but other watersports activities are limited.

One day and evening is enough for Paracas. You don’t need to stay there, but if you are going to see the islands, it might be a nice getaway before heading to Lima.

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The Thing About Beauty

Some of you might remember the blog post I wrote about my first experience with discrimination whilst living in South Korea (and if you haven’t read it yet, how dare you!).  To give you a brief highlight, many Koreans did not appreciate my darker skin.  And by “not appreciate” I mean that I was called “ugly” and “dirty” on a daily basis.  Oftentimes, people would get up and move away from me if I sat next to them on the subway.  You might be tempted to think I am exaggerating, however I actually have one of these moments on video, as a small Korean man called my blonde friend beautiful, then looked over at me and gave me the thumbs-down symbol, proceeding to tell me I was ugly and had a big nose.

I understand the cultural norms behind this – if you are darker, it means you work in the fields and are of a lower social class than those lucky enough to work in offices, flaunting white skin – however after month seven of twelve, I was ready to go back to a country where I wasn’t considered hideous.

As luck would have it, Argentina was just that country. From the minute I arrived in Salta, the locals approached me on the street multiple times, telling me I had the most beautiful and ideal skin color. My tan skin was actually considered a good thing! Taxi drivers stared at me in what, oddly, seemed like disbelief, and told me I was beautiful.  They called me a princess.

I went from being a hideous and reprehensible creature to a pretty princess – simply by traveling to another part of the world.

I know what you are thinking: We all need to be happy with ourselves despite external influences.  Yes, yes. We all know this. But it DOES hurt when you are berated with insults… and it DOES help when you are showered with compliments. You start believing what you are conditioned to.

So what lesson did I learn from this? I finally understood what my best friend had always told me: “There’s a sock for every foot.”

Applied, that means don’t worry about being society’s version of perfect or fitting into a mold of what beauty is supposed to be.  Everyone’s idea of beauty is different and someone out there in this big old world is going to find you beautiful. 

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Review of Tango Hostel

Review of Tango Hostel

Fructuoso Rivera 70 Cordoba, Argentina

I recently visited Cordoba, Argentina on my way north to Salta and Bolivia. The second largest city in Argentina, and home to its oldest University, Cordoba is a vibrant city alive with unmistakable energy thanks to the key demographic of college students.

I stayed at Tango Hostel (http://tangohostelcordoba.com/en/) in the heart of the college district. Centrally located, you can walk to the main parts of the city center in ten minutes. You also have the two imperative traveler requirements nearby: laundry facilities on the corner and a grocery store less than two blocks away.

Upon check-in, Vicky, one of the owners, immediately greeted me. Vicky has that wonderful air of positive energy, a giant smile and goes above and beyond to make sure your stay is comfortable.

The place itself is like a little home. When you’re on the road for so long, it’s nice to feel like you are in your own place: to sit in a living room area with a TV, and just kick up your feet as if you were in your own house. And that’s exactly what you get at Tango – the feeling of being home. Since it’s a small hostel, you get called by your name and treated like family.

Leandro, or “Lele” has the morning shift and he makes sure you get your breakfast the minute you go downstairs (it’s included). Breakfast consists of bread, jam, butter, dulce de leche, tea or coffee. While I was there, they had a choripan night, but unfortunately I had to make my bus before it was ready. Everyone in the hostel was getting in on the choripan action, so I’m sure it turned out great.

In terms of activities, the hostel offers a walking tour of the city for 80 pesos, led by their very own Lele. I took the tour and was really impressed; Lele’s passion for the city really shines through and that’s what makes the tour so great. They offer other excursions like trekking, skydiving and horseback riding; you only need to ask.

The hostel creates a ‘family’ environment in the kitchen area, so most travelers end up chatting it up, having some drinks, and eventually going out together. It’s not the crazy social hostel where you sleep all day and go out all night; it has a good balance of promoting that nightlife activity, the social aspect and still managing to get you out to explore the city and surrounding areas.

Cleanliness is top notch. I would see Vicky and Lele cleaning the rooms and bathrooms every morning. The lobby has this addictive clean cotton smell that I just couldn’t get enough of.

So for the bargain price of 100 pesos a night (for a 4 bedroom dorm and shared bathroom), this place gets a gold star on the Mayra scale.

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The Things These Eyes Have Seen

Life is about moments.

When I look back at the past 8 months of travel, I think in terms of flashes.

People always ask me about my favorite country or the best memory. But it’s not like that at all. When I think about the best times I’ve had, I see it in flashes of moments. These were the times when my breath was taken away and I got lost in the moment. Really LIVED. Really felt ALIVE.  These were the times when I looked at the world with the wonder of a child.

Like the time in Tuscany when I did yoga with my new Israeli friends, Inna and Serge. We sat atop a soft green hill as the sun was setting, overlooking the vineyard we were lucky enough to call home for a brief time, soaking in the mountains in the distance and breathing in the fresh air. I remember smelling the grass for the first time since I was a kid, and all the incredible summer memories that came with that smell. Feeling one hundred percent at peace with my surroundings, and appreciating the mind numbing beauty of the Italian countryside.

IMG_0132Or the time I rented a SMART car and drove down the Amalfi coast – absolutely convinced that I had reached the end of my life while angry Italians honked at me for driving less than fifty miles per hour at the ninety-degree curves. That moment was one of pure exhilaration and sheer terror.

2013-08-09 17.20.56 How about the time I (naively) went with Patty into El Chupinaso during the running of the bulls in Pamplona? Sprayed with sangria, beer and whatever other liquids the locals could get their hands on; barely able to breath because of the mobs of people, yet feeling the palpable excitement in the air at being part of of a one-in-a-lifetime event.

1045076_10100573538945175_942323268_nOr the time in Split when my new “Croatian family” and I went cliff jumping at a hidden local spot after spending the day on a retro VW beach van, listening to Bob Marley and Jack Johnson, visiting beaches, caves and castles around the city.  Feeling incredible fear and adrenaline at the thought of the cliff jump…armed with nothing but a running start, a leap of faith, and my beautiful friends, Taylor and Avalon, into the cool Croatian waters. Coming up for air, realizing all my limbs were intact…and then going back for seconds.

1381770_10151892331613540_436800852_nI also think about the time in Santorini when the very same Taylor and Avalon, plus one Swedish Daniel, hiked our way around Oia – completely outside the tourist area – to a remote cliff known only to the locals. We swam out to a little cliff island with an abandoned monastery built on it, decorated with a big iron bell. We climbed up to the monastery, rang the bell, and jumped into the royal blue Greek waters, while the sun set and the lights of Santorini danced above us. It was more magical than any movie I’ve ever seen. At that moment, I remember thinking: “This is it. THIS is living.”

2013-10-10 23.18.00How about getting lost in the ancient streets of Jerusalem, walking to The Wall and experiencing the surrealness of three colliding worlds: the religious enthusiasts praying intensely, the armed military meandering about with machine guns, and the oblivious tourists with cameras around their necks. The unique colliding of worlds was not lost on me: old world meets new world and being able to experience the contrast of it all – while still managing to fit in a fierce game of foosball with incredible new friends.

2013-10-23 20.45.45I’ll never forget hopping on a hot air balloon in Cappadocia, staring at a minimum of sixty other balloons in the air and mesmerized by the Dali-like landscape of this magical place. Floating on top of the world and watching the sun rise.

2013-11-01 12.29.17Or kayaking in Paraty, Brazil with twelve new friends. I remember it being a Monday, and thinking to myself how much I used to hate Mondays in my former life…then soaking up the majestic mountains and clear water around me, thinking I was in a Jurassic park movie, and realizing I could get used to Mondays like this. Being grateful for being there at that very moment and wondering how on earth I made the right decisions in life to get me there.

2013-02-13 18.16.28I remember sitting alone at a fruit stand in Rio, just after my iPhone and debit card had been stolen, feeling pretty down for the first time in a while. Suddenly, like three little surfer angels, my roommates showed up out of nowhere. They adopted me, not letting me focus on the bad stuff that just happened, and told me to go to Ipanema beach with them while they surfed. It would take my mind off the things I couldn’t control, they said. And they were right. Their positive vibes, smiles and kindness were just what the doctor ordered. Such a simple act of kindness, but such a powerful moment, and one that will forever remain embedded in my mind.

2014-01-05 05.06.57What about moment just before I went inside the waterfalls of Iguazu? The sheer power of water, the feeling of being so small right next to these cascades. Looking up and experiencing this fierce force of nature from a tiny boat and drifting into the Devil’s Throat.

2014-02-07 02.34.00Or riding a horse through an Estancia, led by a real life gaucho, who serenaded us with just his guitar and beautiful voice. For a girl from New York, riding a horse through fields of green grass, lined by stately trees is about as dreamlike as it gets. It’s the stuff you read about in books or watch in movies. It’s not really real life…at least it was never mine.

2014-02-12 00.57.53What about the time I went to the top of the mountains in Mendoza, where all I could see were the white caps of these beautiful peaks, blue skies, and the pulsating colors of the landscape. Plugging in my headphones and letting the moment carry me away; feeling like I could reach up and grab a cloud with my little hand.

1621703_10101370850681056_1499011521_nBut mostly, I remember moments I connected with people. Like the lady on the plane who was an NYU anthropology professor who congratulated me on my bravery of letting it all go and following my heart. A complete stranger who smiled at me so warmly, and genuinely wished me all the best on my journey, because she, too, believed that when you follow your heart, everything else falls into place.

The conversations you have with strangers from around the world would make the United Nations proud. You have 23 year olds asking you about your country’s foreign policies; you learn about the heart of different countries from their people, not from books; you forget that you’re all from different places because when you sit down together to eat a meal, all you care about is exchanging stories and sharing laughs.

1555587_10151809033336044_33138043_nThe connections you make with people when you travel are paramount. People don’t have the guards up that we have in the ‘real world.’ That protective gear is removed, which makes is possible to have some of the most intense friendships and relationships in the span of a few short days.

So if I’ve learned anything so far, it’s to be present in every single moment. Smile at strangers, talk to anyone and everyone because you never know what you’re going to learn. Let yourself be inspired: by places, by people, by stars. Make your story as surreal and dreamlike as you want, and live life loud. Don’t let your light fade, and always embrace magic. And above all else, always trust that things will work out the way they are supposed to. Because all of these moments, they lead up to the path you’re supposed to be on, and every person you connect with somehow gives you tools or knowledge you’ll need along the way.

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How to Get a Brand New Pair of Eyeballs

I guess what I want to do is start with a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, because it sums up what I want to say in three sentences:

“It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”

Three years ago, I might say I had blurry vision. I didn’t know this, though. I thought my eyeballs were just fine.

I was surrounded by beauty: the aesthetic exquisiteness that is Miami, the glamour of the city, and, seemingly by osmosis, that same attractiveness and glamour pouring out of its inhabitants. I was completely desensitized. Not once did I stop to appreciate the beauty I lived in because it was “normal” and I was “busy.” Busy working, busy catching up with life…I was basically busy being busy.

Then I came home for a short while after being on the road for six months.  “The Road” was sheer amazingness, wrapped in adventure that fed the soul more good stuff than any human could ever imaging needing. Yet, “Home” gave me an unexpected gift: a new pair of eyeballs.

Gone was the unfazed version of myself that would walk into a fancy hotel without batting an eye. I now saw everything with magic, wonder and amazement, even though it was exactly how I’d left it. I appreciated the beauty I had taken for granted so many years before. I visited friends who lived in apartments with uber luxurious lobbies and stood there, mouth wide open, staring at the lavishness that surrounded me; I appreciated taking a dip in a cold pool on a hot day, overlooking the bay as the sun smiled down on me. For the first time since I had lived there, I grasped the beauty of my city. And I also realized how fortunate my friends and family were; because they lived in a place bursting with splendor, extravagance, and a level of affluence that many people in this world might never get a chance to experience.

What we consider “normal” is not normal at all.

Traveling is life changing in many ways, but the most valuable transformation I’ve come across so far is this noticeable change in perception.

When you are backpacking, luxury isn’t something you encounter often. I used to live in a reasonably nice apartment in a reasonably nice part of town. My friends lived in high rises in the swanky-up-and-coming-downtown area or even-swankier-South-Beach. I never saw these places as luxurious before. But after staying in hostels for a while and not really knowing when my next shower would come, you learned to live on bare essentials and the word ‘luxury’ left your vocabulary. You adapted.

That is, unless of course, you go back to a place called Miami.

These places that I thought were ‘decent’ before now left me speechless. They weren’t ‘decent’ – they were mind-blowing!

It’s incredible how the human being can adapt so quickly to its surroundings and how years of perception are shattered and re-engineered in six short months.

These brand-spankin’ new eyeballs are incredible. I see the world completely differently now. I’d almost dare to say I have the eyeballs of a child: everything appearing enchanted and the world seeming full of possibilities.

So if you want a new pair of eyeballs, it’s easy: go. Go visit remote cities, experience a culture so different from yours that you are forced to step out of your comfort zone, and strip away the unnecessary. You’ll realize that somewhere between the smelly hostel bathrooms resembling prison lavatories and witnessing the most incredible sunset you’ve ever seen in your life, you lost that blurry vision and things came into focus.

Wanderer’s Warning – I must warn you, I cannot be held responsible for any subsequent side effects* that may result from these new and improved windows to the soul.

*These side effects may include quitting your corporate job, saving up enough money to travel for a year or more, and developing an incurable addiction to travel.

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Fifth Edition: Priests, Post Pilgrimage Ponderings and Partners in Crime

San Sebastian called to me.

Before I could leave the beautiful country I had called home for two months, I needed to see San Sebastian – or Donostia, as it is known in the Basque language. I had seen most of the South; I had walked much of the North; yet San Sebastian somehow eluded my path.

Notoriously famous for one of the best cuisines in the world, solid surf and local cider houses, it would be simply unfathomable for me to leave Spain without spending a few days in the place named the European Culture Capital of 2016. 

So how did San Sebastian measure up against the previous enchantments I had experienced in Spain? Did it disappoint? In a word: impossible. As a matter of fact, the charm of San Sebastian left me speechless. The culinary masterpieces were far more mind-blowing than I had read about in books. Combinations of ingredients I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Restaurants and bars lined up with seemingly endless dishes of bliss on a plate.

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But don’t call them tapas…Pintxos are taken very seriously in Donostia.  One place in particular, Atari Gastroteka, in the heart of the old town…wow. Just wow. Suffice it to say it is a place not to be missed.

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Prior to getting to San Sebastian, I found out that the priest who baptized me lived in San Sebastian. So I thought I would try to connect with him while I was there. I mean, how often does one get to reconnect with the person who baptized you 30 plus years ago?

It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

We agreed to meet at the small plaza in between my hostel and his priest-home. Ironically, Padre Sanchez lived only three minutes away from my hostel. Literally, three minutes. How’s that for fate?

We had a bit of a hiccup upon meeting as I didn’t remember what he looked like and it seemed I had changed quite a bit since I was one year old. Eventually, we met and this 70-plus year old priest did not miss a beat. “Strolling” through the city and by La Concha beach, I was huffing and puffing just trying to keep up with him. He was as quick as a whippersnapper and blessed with a Spanish Seinfeld sense of humor. He was anything but a boring priest – quite the unique character.

After the informative city tour, he insisted on sneaking me up to the priest’s headquarters and feeding me food from the dining hall.  Although I ate some tortilla, milk and chocolate, it clearly wasn’t enough. He insisted that I should eat more and armed me with some high calorie-filled treats to take with me. It was hilarious the way he tried to feed me. It reminded me those old Italian grandmothers whose food you absolutely could not refuse without offending them; it was a cardinal sin (excuse the play on words).

The next day, Padre Sanchez had a fun little activity planned for us: a hike up to the Jesus statue in Monte Urgull. Easy enough, I thought. Amusingly, he breezed passed me on this average-level-of-difficulty-hike. I mean, it must have been because I was wearing flip-flops and unprepared for a hike. Yes sir, that’s definitely it…it was the flip-flops that slowed me down (insert: shamed face).

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The view from the top of Monte Urgull was magnificent. A 360-degree view boasting incredible sights of the city and sea. Also, unknown to me when I began the hike, the statue was built atop an old fortress.  Padre Sanchez explained to me that he sometimes held mass at the tiny chapel under the statue, which is why he hiked so quickly: practice (I knew there had to be a reason).  After visiting the educational museum and seeing the cannons on the top of the mountain, it was just about lunchtime.

unnamedWhat came next was the kind of experience I don’t think I will ever encounter again, and the kind I will never forget: Padre Sanchez insisted that I eat lunch with him… and all of the other priests, in their community dining hall.

There I was: a hobo traveler, sitting at a dining room table with the priest who baptized me 31 years earlier, and greeting about a dozen other elderly priests on their way to their lunch tables. It was surreal, it was comical, but above all, it was humbling. I felt honored because it felt like I was privy to something few women have been a part of (the nuns live and eat in a different place).

Padre Sanchez is that very special kind of human being – one who doesn’t take life too seriously, shares everything he has, and doesn’t let the norms of society affect his behavior or beliefs. It’s obviously not really acceptable to have a stranger, much less a woman, come to have lunch at the dining hall reserved for priests. But he didn’t care; I was a guest in his town, he knew most of my family, and that was that. He is one of the most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. An incredibly inspiring person with such a bright spirit – the kind of spirit that keeps him young.

During the course of my time in San Sebastian, I also met some wonderful girls. As luck would have it, they were all my roommates. They were my new buddies, my partners in crime for a short few days. Stef, Raya, Mel and Steph were the lovely occupants of Room 7.  Stef was a fun Aussie traveling through Europe for a while and met Canadian-born Raya in the South of France. In the true traveler form, they clicked, joined together and came to San Sebastian. Mel and Steph were two amazing Aussies on a whirlwind around-the-world trip. Steph had, without a doubt, the greatest laugh I have ever heard in my life. She could have been talking about a ham sandwich, laughed, and I would be in stitches. It was one of those wonderful, contagious laughs. It was impossible not to be happy around them.

Too quickly we had to say goodbye to Raya and Stef, as Mel, Steph and I were leaving the hostel. The three of us spent our last day scouring the old town for anything but the touristy, kitschy souvenirs, which turned out to be a very difficult endeavor. During our search, we literally bumped into a Pintxo bar called Atari (mentioned earlier), and what a fortunate accident it was.  The food: divine. The wine: celestial. Atari was a gastronomic miracle. I’ve tried to remember the combinations of mouthwatering treats I ate, but my memory fails me. There were cheeses, there were sautéed onions, there was bacon, there was avocado…but those might very well have all been on different pintxos. (Just promise me that if you ever make it to San Sebastian, you will go to this otherworldly place and try everything on the bar. Promise me).

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With that mind-blowing meal in our bellies, we felt ready to conquer the souvenir world, and that we did. After a morning full of laughs, we had to say goodbye. I remember at that time thinking to myself, “I really hope I cross paths with Mel and Steph again. They were wonderful.” Mel, a true beauty with a sweet and kind nature and Steph, a stunner with her infectious laugh and the “too much, too much?” question after every joke. There go another two to add to the “awesome global friends” list.

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My last day in San Sebastian was far from over. Before getting on a very long bus ride to Paris, I wanted to say goodbye to Padre Sanchez and thank him for the kindness and hospitality he showed me. I don’t know why I didn’t see this coming, but once I got to the church he dragged me to the local bakery to buy a fresh baguette. He then proceeded to the all-too-familiar dining hall to make me three separate bocadillos for me to take with me on my journey. But that obviously wasn’t enough; he gave me a banana, dessert and water. I was packed with enough food for a three-day journey. Mine was less than one.

My heart felt like it was going to explode from his endless thoughtfulness, and I found it so endearing how engrossed he was in making sure I had enough to eat.

Life is all about moments. I remember being in that exact moment and feeling so much gratitude, so much warmness surrounding me and, even now, I cant help but feel that he, too, was part of my “Camino.”

Before setting off on the pilgrimage, I had a somewhat jaded view on the church. I didn’t see eye to eye with some of the church’s strict black and white policies. The unforgiving passing of judgment had left me feeling somewhat indifferent towards religion. Religion should be something that makes you a better person, something that welcomes everyone, is inclusive and promotes kindness; yet that wasn’t the church I knew back home.  I’ll never forget the day I went to a baptism class I needed in order to become my niece’s godmother. The woman teaching the class began preaching that homosexuality was wrong and how it was our responsibility to teach that to our godchildren. I nearly walked out of the class. If I didn’t need that certificate to become a godmother, I would have left immediately.

In an unexpected turn of events, I began seeing a different side of the church throughout The Camino, and the differences had been a very distinct, recurring theme during the pilgrimage. Experiencing the goodness of people first-hand, the absence of judgment in all of the local churches I visited and going back to how things were supposed to be – all of that had impacted my views on the church, and I began believing again. Padre Sanchez was also part of that change in perspective. He showed sincere benevolence in the only way that he could – through food and inclusion. Making sure that I had (more than) enough to eat was how he could take care of me.

Before I left beautiful Donostia, another random act of kindness revealed the beauty in strangers. I missed my bus stop on my way to the train station, and I had literally run out of money to pay for the ride back to the right stop. A girl sitting next to me noticed I was a little frazzled and told me where I needed to go. She then gave me the 50 cents I needed to get there. Yes, it was only 50 cents, but it was the way she realized I didn’t know where I was and how I couldn’t find change in my wallet. It was like second nature the way she did it – without a second thought. When the bus driver overheard our exchange, he told her to put away her money and announced that he would take me back for free. He continued on, informing me that I was a visitor in his city, and that he wanted all visitors to feel at home and to leave with a good impression of San Sebastian. He didn’t know that I had already made up my mind about the wonders of his breathtaking city, but his genuine kindness re-confirmed my belief in the goodness of people.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic of the human race, but the fact is, when you encounter daily random acts of kindness in your life, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe otherwise.  And I’m okay with that.

 

 

 

 

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