Maktub

To begin to talk about this past week’s events, I need to go back.

Back to July 2013 during my trek on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

I was walking through the streets of Burgos, Spain when I aimlessly said hello to a nun in the street. After all, I was on a religious pilgrimage and it just seemed like the normal thing to do. She looked at me strangely and asked if she knew me. “No,” I said; “I was just saying hello.”

We began talking and she asked me what I was doing in Burgos. I told her about The Camino and we began a nice little conversation exchange. Somehow we got on the topic of the NGO she worked with and how they were doing great things in Peru. I told her I would be in South America for about six months in 2014, and that if I passed through Peru, I would like to visit with her NGO and see if my charity, Sprouting Scholars, could support them in any way.

Then I exchanged information with Sister Alexandra and said goodbye.

Nearly 8 months passed. True to my word, I came to Peru and she put me in contact with her NGO, called Mision de Esperanza (Mission of Hope). Before arriving in Peru, she sent me ten applications from their most impoverished children and our board agreed to fund the children to the extent we had the funds available.

I came to Piura, a city in northern Peru. When I arrived at the bus station, there were two nuns waiting there for me. Imagine the sight it must have been: me – in my hobo travel clothes and a giant backpack – picked up at the bus station by two nuns.

Mother Silbana was the one I had been in touch with, and the one who I was liaising everything with. She arrived with Mother Fe (Faith), the most adorable 85 year-old nun you could ever imagine. We rode to their school, San Gabriel, where they lived and taught nearly 800 students. The school was beautiful: clean, organized and huge. The students who attended San Gabriel were quite well off.

I was offered my own room, with a bathroom – quite the luxury after so many hostels. After lunch, I went to meet the kids in their neighborhood, Caserio Miraflores. It was a poor community with dirt roads and very little infrastructure…the tin roofs were held down with rocks.

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The children were at a library built by Mision de Esperanza. Neighborhood children went there after school to get help with their homework, use the computers, learn to sew, and get medical attention when a volunteering doctor came to town. This facility was fully funded by the NGO.

I personally witnessed the need that exists among these children.

When I arrived, about 20 students welcomed me. I immediately noticed the Latin American influence as they each got up and waited in line to greet me with a kiss. I was given a tour of the facility, which also had a small room with medical supplies.Image

Once everyone was there, I met five of the children whose applications I had received. They were incredibly shy. It may have been embarrassment or sheer shyness, but I tried to diffuse the situation by talking to them individually. I wanted to know who they were: what was their favorite school subject? What did they like to do for fun? What did they want to be when they grew up? Why did they want to study?

Here’s what I learned about the Piura kids:

  • Marilin is a happy, very bright and friendly seven-year-old girl; her parents have four children and unstable jobs, with minimal income. She was the only one of the children who seemed happy. She was also the youngest.Image
  • Edwin is a shy and tiny eleven-year-old boy; his parents have six children and since they don’t have enough space for all of them, one of the children needs to sleep at a neighbor’s house. He looks like he is about eight or nine years old, given his tiny frame (likely due to malnutrition).Image
  • Jesus is a happy-go-lucky- 16-year-old boy with a permanent smile on his face; he was born disabled and cannot walk without a walker, but he has a strong hunger for success and is unconditionally loved by all of his classmates. His teachers told me that every, single day one of the classmates meets him at the door to help him to the classroom. He wants to be a lawyer when he grows up.

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  • Jordin is an incredibly shy twelve-year-old boy who was abandoned by his parents and left in the care of his grandmother, who has a very low income. He behaves in a way too mature for a twelve year old, because life has dealt him a difficult hand and he’s had to grow up far too fast. Despite being the most serious of the group, he is exceptionally sweet and went out of his way to talk to me every time I saw him.Image
  • Roxi is a quiet twelve-year-old girl who was abandoned by her father; her mother is very poor and receives financial assistance from her aunts. She barely spoke and was almost too timid to even tell me what she liked to do for fun.Image

After I talked to them, I met their mothers. I spoke to them as a group and told them about Sprouting Scholars and our goal of funding education around the world. They seemed quite grateful.

The next day, I met with the various schools that the children attended to get an idea of how much money they would need to attend school for the year (tuition, books, school materials, uniforms, etc). There were 4 schools on our list. I needed to see them for our own due diligence. Out of the 4 schools, I felt very good about three of them. One seemed to see an American NGO and began listing off exorbitant costs, which could not possibly be necessary, as they were the only outlier. This is the reason it is so important for us to personally visit the schools and to create a strong relationship with the NGOs, schools and other organizations that refer us students.

Two days later, I went up to Tumbes, Peru. This is a border town, hugging the Ecuadorian border. I was meeting the remaining five students requesting sponsorship. I didn’t think it was possible, but these children were in even worse shape than the Piura kids. The stories are heartbreaking.

In Tumbes, I met:

  • Belen is a three year old angel, whose father killer her mother on Christmas Day this year, in front of her. Her sister and her are in the care of their aunt, but she has two children of her own and cannot keep up with the bills. This poor child not only needs immediate psychological help, but the long term affect of what she witnessed will leave a mark on her forever.Image
  • Angelina is Belen’s seven-year-old sister, who witnessed the same horrific tragedy. However, at Angelina’s age, it is much more difficult to forget. She has clearly been very affected by the gruesome event. During the entire hour I was with her, she didn’t speak once. Her aunt said she has completely retreated since the death of her mother.Image
  • Elizabeth is a timid ten-year-old with two other siblings, being raised by a single mother who cannot read nor write. Elizabeth appears to have dyslexia and requires private tutoring, but unlike in Piura, there is no place for her to go and her mother can’t afford to pay for it.

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  • Lina is Elizabeth’s eight-year-old sister. She was the happiest of the three siblings, and kept kissing my arm and thanking me for helping them. It took every fiber in my being not to break down into tears..Image
  • Erwin is Elizabeth and Lina’s six-year-old brother. He was the rambunctious one, running all over the convent like any other little boy in the world. His flip-flops were held together with nails. The saddest part about meeting this family was that when I asked them what they needed for school, the first thing they all said, in unison, was food. FOOD. These kids eat breakfast and then don’t eat again until dinner because their mother can’t afford to send them to school with lunch. No child should EVER have to ask you for food.ImageImage

The needs of these children are tremendous. Until you witness it, until you experience it, you can’t understand it. You realize just how much you actually have and take for granted.

Just today I received an incredibly inspirational video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRPbgN9XQ1c&feature=youtu.be) from a good friend of mine. It was about a young man in Asia who helped people everyday without any expectation of receiving anything in return. The video focused on all the great things he did, and then it asked the question: “What did he get in return?”

The answer was “nothing.” No fame. No money. He was anonymous. But then, the video pans into the intangible returns: the emotions. He witnesses happiness. He reaches a deeper level of understanding. He receives what money can’t buy: A world made more beautiful by simple acts of kindness. This time, I couldn’t stop the tears. Because I could actually understand the strength of the emotions you witness (and feel) when you’ve actually touched someone’s heart. I experienced firsthand the appreciation, the hugs, the tears – all from the children and the mothers whose children we were sponsoring. The potential for the lives that can be changed are limitless.

Most of you who know me well know I have a mild obsession with Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I fully believe in personal legends and that everyone who crosses your path does so for a reason. In the book, Paolo talks about “Maktub”, an Arabic word meaning “It is written.” This implies that our stories have been written and we need only to listen to the language of the world to interpret our stories and reach our destiny. I am convinced now, more than ever before, that this part of my story was written for me to meet Sister Alexandra in Spain on that fateful day in July and to begin a chain reaction of events, which ultimately led me here. To link Sprouting Scholars to an inspiring NGO and give ten children something they may not have had before: hope.

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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.2014-03-26 06.59.16

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.2014-03-27 05.51.41

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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.

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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.

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 22.37.31

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.

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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 IMG_0132green 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.


2013-08-09 17.20.56Or 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.

1045076_10100573538945175_942323268_nHow 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.

Or 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.

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2013-10-10 23.18.00I 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.”

2013-10-23 20.45.45How 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.


2013-11-01 12.29.17I’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.

 

 

 

2013-02-13 18.16.28Or 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.

I 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 05.06.572014-02-07 02.34.00What 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.

2014-02-12 00.57.53Or 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.


1621703_10101370850681056_1499011521_nWhat 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.

But 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.

Categories: Blog | 3 Comments

Fourth Edition: The Road Less Travelled

This post has taken me some time to write.  I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I wanted it to be absolutely perfect or because I was afraid I wouldn’t capture all the magic that I experienced during The Camino. But the time has come…and I can’t delay it any longer. I hope my storytelling keeps you entertained; at the very least, I hope you smile at least once while reading about the mischief caused by two city girls surviving in the Spanish countryside.

When I set out on the Road to Santiago, my initial purpose was to do it because it was something challenging and different.

Our everyday lives are easy. I don’t mean easy in that life itself is easy – that we are all living on fat salaries and are out enjoying yacht days. I just mean easy in that we don’t do things outside of the norm or push ourselves very much physically. Maybe you do, but I felt that I hadn’t done something to push my physical boundaries in a long time. And I’m not just talking about a few intense Crossfit or workout days; I’m talking about something that pushes you physically and mentally to a point where you feel something; something more than just a little post workout soreness the next day. It was the next big adventure, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

I was very lucky that my friend Patty from Miami wanted to do The Camino with me. I won’t lie: I was scared to do it alone. Which is unusual for me – I’m not one who is usually scared to do things alone. But all the unknown variables, potentially walking through long stretches of barren land alone, the dangers of not making it to the next albergue and getting caught in the night…it was enough for me to want to count on a friend. And she was just the friend to do it.

Our adventure began in a Paris train station as we were taking an overnight train to Bayonne.  Immediately, this story became a comedy: I had booked us in a female cabin (obviously to avoid man-snoring). Upon arriving at our cabin, our eyes locked with four individuals, all above the age of 70, women AND men, all tucked in and ready for bed. Lights out before the train even left the station! That might have been acceptable had the logistical layout of the cabin been different. Picture this: a cabin with three bunk beds on each side, and the hallway space in between was big enough for one teeny, tiny human being. The thought of climbing over two elderly bodies, in the dark, while trying not to make any noise  – well that just seemed like a HUGE deterrent to us. We found an employee and explained to them that we had booked a female-only room and needed to change cabins. Obviously we couldn’t tell them that we didn’t want to sleep with the individuals who were already snoring and in deep REM sleep. They told us to get on the train and wait for them. Note: they told us to get on the train, not our cabin. So we went to the seating lounge and waited, resigned to sleep in the chairs if we needed to. About an hour into the journey, the same employee found us and proceeded to scold us for not waiting for them in our cabin. Apparently we broke protocol by going to the seated section. A big mistake…yet one with a silver lining. After being scolded for five minutes, they found us our very OWN cabin. Six beds, two people. This was a win-win situation. Ironically, the two of us STILL had trouble maneuvering around the tiny room and were questioning how on earth we were supposed to do this with four other people in the room.

We made it to Bayonne at around nine a.m. and booked the next available bus to St. Jean Pied du Port. Since we had two hours before our bus took off, we decided to tour this beautiful little French town. It was charming, like the storybook backdrop of Beauty and the Beast. We walked through the old town, smelling of fresh baked bread and went into their cathedral.  There we met with a lovely woman who worked for Friends of St. James. She gave us loads of advice on The Camino and sent us on our way.

During our wait for the bus, we noticed a number of other pilgrims on their way to start The Camino. They were Super Pilgrims, and were prepared beyond belief: hiking books, legitimate backpacks, walking sticks. Pan over to Patty and I, wearing yoga pants, sneakers and Jansport backpacks. We were the runts of the litter.  We figured we were fine because we were cycling so we wouldn’t need all the fancy gear; just our bicycle saddlebags and our legs. Incidentally, our saddlebags weighed about five pounds and were a nightmare to carry, which will play a pivotal role in our story very soon.

When we got into St. Jean, we headed straight for the Pilgrims office. An adorable older man gave us maps, our Pilgrim passport and all the information we would need. We stopped to explore the town and bought amazing baguette bags for our non-existent baguettes (but which I happen to know will be very useful for Cuban bread when I get back to Miami, and the source of much envy). When we were going to start walking, we realized that the saddlebags were too heavy and far too much of an awkward shape to carry all the way to Roncesvalles – one of the steepest parts of The Camino. After much deliberation, we made the difficult decision to take the later bus to Roncesvalles. We expected our bicycles to be there by the morning, so it would be good to get a good night’s rest. Out hotel, Casa Sabina, was actually really nice. We had our own room and bathroom, and I warned Patty that this would be one of the nicest places we would be staying in…and oh boy, was I right.

And now, the adventure began. But not quite in the way we expected…in the morning, we were expecting a knock on the door letting us know that our bikes had arrived. That knock never came. By about ten a.m., we were worried. We had a long ride ahead of us to Pamplona and wanted to get on the road as soon as possible. When we called Mundicamino, the bike rental company, they told us that the driver had been in an accident. He was fine, but our bikes would be arriving a bit later than expected. We were hopeful that they would arrive by noon, but that never happened.  We needed to make a decision: take ANOTHER bus to Pamplona, or wait three or four hours for our bikes to be delivered. As much as I didn’t want to take another bus (because it felt like cheating), we realized we had no other choice; otherwise, we would lose the entire day, and time was already scarce as it was.

We arrived in Pamplona and met the driver 30 minutes later, bikes in hand. Only, there were loads of problems with our bikes: they were man-bikes with the middle bar up way too high, making it difficult to get on and off; the brakes barely worked on Patty’s bike; my seat was too high and I had no tools to lower it; helmets didn’t make it with the bikes. Nonetheless, we got on, not wanting to waste any more time and at one p.m. in the afternoon, we began riding our little hearts out. Since it was day one, we were ignorant to the fact that this is the ‘forbidden time.’ What this means is that any normal human being would never be outside in the scorching hot Spanish sun between the hours of one p.m. and five p.m. because it is unbearably hot. But since we were first-timers, ignorance was bliss and we set off on our merry way. We stopped at Cizur Menor to get our stamp and some water, and then continued on our way towards Puente La Reina. It was all going great, until we got lost in Galar after a wrong turn. At this point, I was in full-fledged pass out mode – you know, the usual stuff: the shakes, nausea and dizziness. It was far too hot and with no end in sight, I told Patty I needed to stop. We sat in the shade for about fifteen minutes, and then by some miracle of God, we found a fountain. I’d like to think it was the fountain of life, because the cold water revived me! I drank one or two bottles, dipped my head and neck in, and felt like my life could continue.

We found ourselves in Astrain, asking for directions to Puente la Reina. Instead, we were re-directed to a local bar because now Patty was in pass out mode. We ordered a Coke and, despite not drinking much soda back home, I am now a believer in the resuscitative properties of a simple Cola Cola. We felt like adrenaline was shot into our veins. I must remember to thank the CEO of Coca Cola for giving us a second chance at life! After our revival, we got to talking to the bartender and she was kind enough to call the albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) in the nearby town of Zariquegui for us to make sure we had a place to stay that night. It was only one kilometer away from Astrain but it was up this super steep, yet absolutely beautiful, hill. Yellow fields of golden wheat surrounded us, and despite us heaving all the way up, we managed to appreciate the beauty surrounding us. We didn’t make it to Puente la Reina that day, but we had had enough adventure for one day.

When we checked into our albergue and got into our room, we had to turn RIGHT AROUND. The smell…oh, the smell of stinky Camino shoes and socks was too overwhelming. Most places make you take your shoes off when you arrive to avoid just this situation. We were distraught, tired and really didn’t think we could stomach the smell. So sly Patty snooped around and somehow found an empty room for us, and we set up shop in there. It was heavenly to have our own non-smelly room. We slept like babies that night.

The next day was the beginning of the San Fermin (a.k.a, running of the bulls) festival in Pamplona, which meant only one thing: Patty and I had another big decision to make. Skip the opening ceremony and continue on The Camino (especially because of our disastrous delays), or attend a once-in-a-lifetime event as we just happened to be there on the actual day and in the actual place of a worldwide event. The coincidence was just too great, and we decided we didn’t have much of a choice: we were going to the running of the bulls.

Early in the morning, we rode into a city transformed…covered in red and white. Patty and I went to buy our white San Fermin shirts and the required red scarf. We were told about El Chupinaso where people go to El Ayuntamento and wait there until noon to kick off the festivities. Tradition dictates that you throw sangria, beer or anything else you can get your hands on. Let’s just say that when we arrived, our shirts were white. When we left, they were purple. The middle bit is where it got interesting. We arrived fairly early at ten a.m. and more and more people began to show up, until there was literally no more room in the plaza. NO ROOM. Ignorance really is bliss because you have no idea what you are getting yourself into. We later learned that locals wouldn’t even go in because of how crazy it gets, and now I know why! We nearly died of asphyxiation! I’ve never been in such a tight crowd that I couldn’t even lift up my arms. It was complete insanity, but what a memory – definitely something I will never forget. Patty and I were saved by a group of thoughtful Spanish guys who made a human barrier around us so we were protected from the swaying crowd and could at least breathe for a bit. Somehow Patty and I always found help whenever we needed it.

We got back to our albergue early after our adventurous day, and with the exception of a grumpy taxi driver who was mean to us, we finished the day on a high note. The pilgrim’s dinner at the albergue was incredible: 11 euros got us three courses, wine and dessert. It felt like college with everyone eating together, laughing and telling Camino stories. It felt like we were part of a little community that only we understood.

Six a.m. wakeup the next day, and now we were on a serious mission. We rode our hearts out down that hill, past Astrain and on our way to Puente La Reina, a beautiful little town. We were in desperate need of a map (remember us getting lost in Galar?) but the albergue was closed and it seemed as if we were out of luck. And just like that, I looked to my left and there was a Camino map of the Navarra region…in English! Almost as if it were left there just for us. Again, finding help when we needed it.

Armed with our trusty map, we made our way towards Lorca and passed threw a narrow stretch of wheat fields. This scenic place is where Patty and I would meet an incredible, lifelong friend: Armando.  Another cyclist and a tremendous human being with a heart of gold. We rode with him all day and he showed us incredible kindness; both Patty and I fell off our bikes that day and he helped us, looked out for us and encouraged us. The trio stopped off to get some bread and (surprise, surprise) a coke at a small town, and that’s where we met Pepina. Pepina was an elderly grandma-type local who we sat and talked with for a while. She was sharp as a whip and was a pleasure to speak with. Unfortunately, we needed to continue our journey so we regrettably said our goodbyes and headed to Estella. That night, we cooked a huge pasta carbonara dinner together (credit mainly to Armando) at the albergue and washed some clothes since the place had a real, mechanical washing machine, a first for us. The simple things we take for granted back home are like gold when you are on The Camino.

Somewhere in between days four and five, I realized Patty had become, in such a short time span, one of my closest friends. We clicked. Sure, we’d known each other at work and had the surface talk conversations, but after this journey, there’d be no denying that we were forever connected. We were sharing something so special, so indescribable that only we would understand. She seemed more like a sister than a friend and I just remember feeling so grateful that she had come with me on this journey. This was only the beginning of the Patty and Mayra saga, and I couldn’t wait to see what else was in store for us. A friendship had been forged on The Way and it would change the direction of our lives forever.

Five a.m. wakeup call on day six. Patty and I began realizing we were always the last ones to leave the albergues in the mornings, so we needed to start waking up earlier. Anyone who knows me will know how much this absolutely sucks, but I chose to do this challenge, and I needed to suck it up. Armando needed to get his bike fixed that morning, so we agreed to meet again later on in the day. We rode to Villamayor de Monjardin and then up some pretty terrible hills. On this path we met Ben, a German who had been walking all the way FROM GERMANY! He was one of the most interesting people I had ever met: Ben studied theology for seven years and just decided that he wanted to become a carpenter instead. He was a young guy, but wise beyond his years and actually looked like Jesus. Imagine that. Meeting a Jesus lookalike on The Camino de Santiago.

This part of the Camino was strikingly beautiful: trees forging a natural arc encompassing a small lake, green foliage everywhere and rolling hills.

The hills…everywhere. On a bike. There were so many and some full of rocks, making it really difficult to ride on. We had to keep getting off our bikes to walk them up the hills because they were so steep. This was the point where we decided to ditch our bikes. I mean, we were walking half of the time anyway, at least we could do it without having to carry a bike. We spoke to the rental company, and luckily they promised us a refund (especially given the issues we had earlier on with the bikes and the delivery).

Los Arcos was the next town, so we stopped and had a little snack of cheese and bread in front of the church. Just then, Armando rode up, which left us speechless! It took him half the time to get there! It reminded us how NON proficient we were at cycling and reinforced our walking idea. When we arrived at Torres del Rio, we received a call from Jaime, the Mundicamino owner, who was there to pick up our bikes and take us to the next town. He said he wanted to take us out for tapas and to try to fix the issues we had, which was code word for attempting to salvage his profit. Jaime was a polite older man with cold eyes; his words were warm, but his expression was cold. He took us to Logrono and bought us tapas and ice cream in an effort to butter us up, but we could read his intentions right away: he wanted us to keep the bikes so he wouldn’t lose any money.  We said we would think about it and then got dropped off at Santo Domingo de la Calzada.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada has to be one of my favorite memories. That evening, Patty and I went up to the bell tower as the sun was setting, the wind was blowing and music was playing. It was simply enchanting. Hilariously, ‘We are the Champions’ by Queen began blasting on full volume after a few minutes up there and Patty and I couldn’t control our laughter. It was like someone was sending us a message to keep us going!

Another five a.m. wakeup and on day seven we made it to Belorado after a long walk. Belorado seemed like an oasis in the middle of the desert: a pool, restaurant and shop. We ate like kings, famished after our first full day of walking, went for a dip in the pool and took a nap. It was heavenly. It’s so funny what we appreciate when all else is stripped away from you – especially since we can have pool days everyday in Miami. After our nap, we walked into the town and somehow ended up on the street with Martin Sheen’s hand and footprint, like a Hollywood star. I was SO excited because I loved “The Way.” “The Way” is an amazing movie about The Camino with Martin Sheen and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. It was part of the reason I was inspired to do The Camino (the other part was because of my good friend Heide). Unbeknownst to us, all of the stars from the different actors in the movie were spread all over the town, yet somehow we stumbled upon the most important one.

When we got home, we made a nice, light dinner in the kitchen. After stuffing heavy food down our gullet nonstop, it was nice to have some white asparagus, mushrooms, Spanish cured meat and cheese. While in the kitchen, we met an Italian pilgrim. We began chatting to him, the way we did with anyone new we met. About a minute into the conversation, I got the heebidijeebidies. My gut went haywire and I felt relieved to later learn that Patty felt the same way. That poor guy was battling some serious demons; after spending some time on The Camino, it was much easier to recognize these feelings. It was a bizarre encounter and I’d rather not get into details, but suffice it to say we avoided him again on the Road like the plague.

By now, we were on The Camino schedule and only walked until 1 p.m., rested, and got to bed super early for the morning wakeups. The next morning, however, I felt awful – sore throat, runny nose and sheer exhaustion. On our walk, we met Diego, a sweet Italian kid of 22 years. I decided to plug in my headphones for the first time and I walked at my own pace through Espinosa and Villafranca. It was a strange sensation how everything looked so different to me when music was involved and when I was walking alone. I looked at things so much more deeply and the time seemed to pass much more seamlessly. So once we reached San Juan de Ortega, I was ready to call it a day, but Diego was insistent on getting to Ages. Well, I am all for pushing my limits and boundaries, but there comes a point when it goes too far and becomes dangerous. I was significantly past this point during the Montes de Oca beforehand. The pain in my right leg was beyond excruciating. So much so, that I started crying from the pain. I found a fountain at San Juan de Ortega and cried a bit by myself, washed my face and feet, and then faced Patty and Diego. I announced to them that I wanted to stay there, walk alone and at my own pace. Of course this news was not accepted…shocker. Two advils and a meal later, they convinced me to walk the final four kilometers to Ages. Somehow I survived – it might have been the singing, or the hand holding…something we did together made those last four kilometers more bearable. They were strong for me when I couldn’t be. And my reward? Meeting up with Armando! It was like a present from the Gods that our best Camino friend would be there, especially since he had the speed advantage of a bicycle.

By the next morning, day nine, Patty and I had a system down pat for our blister situations. It was gross, but it was a necessary evil we needed to deal with in order to walk! We had blisters on nearly every single one of our toes. Try walking 20 plus kilometers a day in that condition. Life really does change quickly and humans adapt so quickly. What seems so disgusting and unacceptable in ‘the real world’ quickly becomes a norm.

That day we found El Cruz de Hierro, the cross of stones – one of the famous markers of The Camino. We each left a stone and said a prayer before continuing on.

Later on that day, something incredibly rare happened. Diego, Patty and I walked into a little Hermita and somehow we were all completely wowed by it; I’m not quite sure why. It was small and simple, but there was something special about it.  An older woman was praying inside the church, and afterwards, she began talking to us like a grandmother. This sparked a very deep spiritual discussion and Diego, Patty and I shared each other’s stories; Diego let us in on something deeply personal. At that moment, an invisible bond was formed. It was a strange feeling of extreme closeness to strangers. It was so heavy and powerful, and unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

After that, the walk to Burgos went by much more quickly. However, towards the end, my legs were giving out – the pain shooting up my leg was too much to bear.  I beat myself up about it a lot. Why was I always the slow one? Why did it seem like my pain was more unbearable than everyone else? Was it my three-time broken ankle that slowed me down? It made me realize how different each and every person was built and how some simply had more endurance than others.

When I could no longer go any further, I took a bus the last 30 minutes to get to the albergue since we had to meet Jaime from Mundicamino to get our bike money back. When we met, again we sensed the kind words and contradicting eyes. He was certainly unhappy with our decision to not keep the bikes and basically threw the reimbursement at us. While we were not thrilled with the treatment, we were just glad to get our money back and be done with it.  All in all, it was just a rough day and it seemed like nobody was on our side that day. To make matters worse, as we arrived at the albergue in a taxi from the bike shop, the front desk people rudely assumed we had taken a taxi to the albergue from The Camino…completely forgetting that they met us a few hours before. They were so rude to us until we reminded them that we had already checked in, but it still left such a bad taste in my mouth. Weren’t we all pilgrims? Weren’t there sometimes circumstances that happen which require a pilgrim to take a taxi? There is just no need to rudely assume things when you are hosting pilgrims who are suffering enough on a daily basis.

I was feeling very melancholy that day with the bad treatment we had received from others. Patty and I decided to take a nap and forget about it. When we woke up, we found Armando and went for tapas together. Armando is a really special person – he always worries about others and has a pure heart of gold. He told us his story about how he had gone into a church earlier that day and felt a strong positive energy, which made him think of us. He had no idea what had happened at that very same church earlier that day with us. Goosebumps enveloped my skin and I realized that we were meant to meet and connect. We sat out there on that patio and we talked about life for ours like we were old friends. And I guess we were, because one day on The Camino is like living 100 days. You live each day so passionately, meet so many people, and every single encounter is brand new. It’s like really, truly living.

On day ten, Patty and I decided to take a break and rest our feet. We “slept in” until seven a.m. We went to a local restaurant and had the most amazing breakfast: eggs, Murcia sausage (Burgos style) and the most delicious coffee. We treated ourselves to a dessert of churros and chocolate. It was the first time we really treated ourselves in a while. It felt like we had been walking for so much longer than we had, and that little treat was so appreciated. Later, we went to the Correos post office to mail a few excess things to Santiago de Compostela so it wouldn’t weigh down our backpacks. Only then did I realize that we were a sight to behold: me, in my formerly black (now grey) spandex pants with a hole in them and chankletas (aka flip flops) – looking like a cleaning lady, and Patty with her broken purse, handles clipped to the strap and a bag of dirty, smelly clothes hanging from it (we forgot to do laundry and were meant to find a Laundromat in the city). I can only imagine what the posh citizens of Burgos thought of us.

We couldn’t leave Burgos without visiting the Burgos cathedral. It was stunning and impressive; the size, opulence and detail are staggering. Yet, Patty and I both agreed that it lacked the charm and enchantment of the many smaller, simpler churches we stumbled upon along the way.

Given that we only had two plus weeks to complete 700 kilometers, we knew we were going to have to take a bus at some point in order to finish. We decided to take the bus from Burgos to Leon as we were told it was the most mind-numbing part of the journey – flat and nothing to see – so we didn’t feel too bad about it. When we arrived in Leon, we went to the albergue, a convent. From the minute we walked in, we felt uncomfortable. Not only was it excessively dumpy, but people kept telling us to watch our things because cell phones were disappearing. We saw our room and cringed: we had gotten used to staying at less than appealing albergues, but this one was truly disgusting…and the doors closed at 9:30 p.m., which meant lights out before 10 p.m. We felt defeated – we had less than an hour to eat, shower and try to check our email. At dinner, we were stuffing food so quickly down our gullets that we nearly choked. At this point, reason hit us. Who cared about losing the five euros? We were leaving and going to a hostel; a place without curfews, our own room and our own (clean) shower.

As we were walking and laughing down the street about our sneaky escape, a well-dressed lady approached us and offered us a room in her apartment. She seemed like a nice older woman and I believed her at first, but then she got way too pushy. Patty was immediately uncomfortable and I was getting there quickly. It got to a point where we made it clear we had found another room, yet she continued to push us to at least come upstairs and ‘see’ the apartment. It was getting awkward. We managed to finally get out of it somehow, but Patty and I talked about it afterwards and what a strange situation it was. We felt like we could have ended up on some 20/20 special about stolen pilgrims abroad. Yes, we were probably paranoid, but she seemed like someone who was getting paid to bring girls to an apartment. I mean, we’ve all seen “Taken.” That’s when we firmly decided she was like a fairy tale witch: charming and luring with her nice clothes and smile, but behind it all were bad intentions.  Maybe she was just desperate for money and really wanted to rent out the room during the economic crisis, but there was something in our gut that made us both very uncomfortable, and we had learned to trust that above all else.

Waking up on day 11 was the first time my feet didn’t ache. We took a walk through the old town of Leon and found the most incredible market full of old trinkets and books. It was so mesmerizing to see all of the old artifacts, cameras and just stuff from ages ago. I couldn’t believe these treasures were being sold on the side of the road for so little. It hit me then that I was in a completely different world than Miami – a place full of rich history dating back centuries.

We headed to VillaFranca de Bierzo that morning. Not even two minutes into our walk, it began to rain. Actually, let me rephrase that. It began to HAIL. As in HUGE HAIL PELLETS.  We searched, unsuccessfully for an available albergue. But luck was on our side that day, because we met Maruchi whilst walking in the rain: an adorable grandma-type who offered us her umbrella and guided us on our way to another albergue. Unfortunately, that albergue was also full, but on our way there we passed a very, very cute hotel, which also happened to be way out of our price range. At this point, my raincoat did nothing to protect me from the water and I was soaking wet, tired and it appeared there was nowhere else to go. So what was the only logical choice? Splurge on the beautiful, fancy hotel! What a splurge it was: plush, feathery down comforters, crisp, clean sheets, robes…the whole shebang. We were in true luxury, folks. And after removing all my wet clothing and enjoying a hot shower (in a clean bathroom – whhhhaaatt), I could not have asked for more. The best 34 euros I ever spent. In the grand scheme of things, a place like that should cost FAR more than 34 euros and I wouldn’t even flinch at that price, but given our pilgrims budget, it seemed like a major splurge. Sometimes you just need to let go, be flexible, and enjoy what you have…and believe me, we soaked up every single minute of it.

We woke up at around eight am on day 12 and I took another shower, simply because I could. We began walking again and must have passed five or six small towns, stopping at the churches in each of them. Somewhere along the way, God gave us each a walking stick! Literally, we found two perfect, wooden walking sticks laid neatly on the side of the road. Not like the ones you buy at the stores that have the fancy shell hanging from it. No, these were like serious Jesus sticks – wooden, imperfect and sturdy – perfect for us! We couldn’t believe our luck, and we went merrily on our way with our sticks, unknowing that we would actually need them in the coming days for the approaching elevations. Fate? Coincidence? Call it what you want, but someone was looking out for us that day.

Patty and I had a really great discussion during the walk about religion and how this pilgrimage has changed our opinions about the church. I think we were both kind of jaded by a lot of the things that certain Catholic people preach about, showing their closed-mindedness. But the churches we stumbled upon seemed so open, so non judgmental – the way churches should be.

At one church, the signing book had the signature of Paolo Coelho, my hero, and I nearly had an aneurism. The date signed was only TWO DAYS earlier and I sincerely hoped I could catch up and meet him! It would be a dream come true.  Then, I of course googled his signature and was smacked right back into reality, realizing it probably wasn’t him.  What a disappointment.

We walked through Herradera del Bierzo and had an incredible lunch overlooking the mountains. Then it was onwards and upwards, literally. This next stretch was one of the highest climbs in The Camino. We walked up the rocky mountain, which is another point in the story when it becomes a comedy. So, I kept feeling an annoying little sting near my butt. Once or twice I saw a bee-like creature nearby and swatted it away, not giving it much thought. That was that, and I didn’t think about it again…until later, when I showered and found exactly FOUR wasp stings; you guessed it, on my butt! FOUR! How is that even possible? The most embarrassing part? I had to ask Patty to confirm that they were indeed there, in the places I couldn’t quite see…the poor girl never signed up for this!

We eventually arrived at a small town and found an albergue that looked like an enchanted forest. It had an underground-like bunker for rooms, which seemed cool at first, until we found all the little dead bugs on our beds that needed to be dusted away on an hourly schedule.  We accidentally used the washing machine without permission (in our defense, nobody was around to ask for help), and got a pretty bad scolding for that. I was already having a bad day with the swelling butt issue, and getting yelled at really set me off. I was tired of these supposedly kind people at the albergues being rude all the time. This was meant to be a holy pilgrimage and it just seemed like all the people were ruder than the ones before.

The next morning, I was ready to hit the road and get as far away from that place as we could. On the road, we met Michael, a seemingly harmless Canadian who walked up the mountain with us to Cebreiro. He didn’t hesitate to share with us, in the first 20 minutes, his views on women: he was an official woman hater. Someone must have really hurt him for being as angry as he was. I trailed behind, but Patty had the pleasure of listening to his rants about women being the root of all evil. Somehow, despite his rants, I felt sorry for him. He wasn’t a bad person. Socially inept? Yes. Misplaced anger? Yes. But not a bad guy. After a beautiful and incredibly difficult hike up to Cebreiro, we said goodbye to Michael and continued on our way.

Before leaving, we met Tim, the most interesting man alive. He was an older retired man who had cycled through most of Asia and was now doing the Camino, cycling from England. He was smart and interesting, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay and talk more to him because we were racing against the clock now. With only a few days left to cover A LOT of kilometers, we weren’t sure we were going to make it. So we took off and hoped for the best.

When we got to Sarria, we walked around the old town for a bit and had lunch. The pilgrims here weren’t as friendly as the pilgrims at the beginning of our quest. They walked fast and with their heads down, instead of looking to make conversation. Patty and I determined that it was because most of these people had already found their niche of friends from the beginning and just wanted to reach the end as quickly as possible. This was completely understandable and we didn’t take any personal offense to this.

When we got to Palas de Rei, it was late, but we knew we had to keep walking. Here, something amazing happened: we found Santi, our Camino dog! He was the sweetest dog, a german shepherd mix. Santi followed us for 14 kilometers, all the way to Melide! It was apparent he had been mistreated because he was very cautious approaching us when we were walking with our walking sticks. But when we stopped to soak our feet in a little river and put down the sticks, Santi walked over and began giving kisses and letting us pet him. Poor little guy; I’ll never understand people who hit dogs.

The plan was to get to the next albergue, shower, and take Santi to the vet. We found out from locals that the police first needed to be informed to see if he belonged to anyone before he was taken to a vet. This made us sad, but we had no choice and agreed. The host at our albergue was insanely helpful, letting Santi stay in the yard and checking for missing dogs while we showered and got ready for dinner. Only, when we walked outside, Santi was gone. We were absolutely crushed. We wanted to take care of him and bring him to Santiago with us, find him a good home, but I guess Santi had other plans. This beautiful little dog brought sunshine to our day when we were tired and weary, and we’ll always be grateful for that.

That night, dinner was at a traditional pulperia called Casa Ezikiel. We had the local specialty, octopus with an orange-red spice sprinkled on top. We also got a jug of unmarked red wine for an offensively inexpensive price. I love the way that all the wine we drank during The Camino came in unmarked reusable jugs – it just felt authentic. At dinner, we met a wonderful Spanish family who were walking The Way with their children of 14 and 11 years. They were such a lovely, friendly family and spent the next hour chatting to them.

Day 14 was a rough one for me. The night before, I had slept at most one hour because I had a massive allergy attack, involving my throat closing up and non-stop sneezing fits. Two allergy pills later, I still couldn’t breathe properly. I thought it might have something to do with the growing four stings on my butt. Awful wasn’t even the word for what I felt that morning – I was dizzy, weak, beyond exhausted and the bags under my eyes were the key features of my face. My voice was hoarse and I could barely speak because my throat was still closed up. If there was ever a day I wished I could have taken a rest day, this would have been it. I lost my breakfast along the morning walk and despite only having to walk 16 kilometers this day, it just seemed so incredibly difficult for us. Patty’s bad knee and my bad ankle were flaring up. We were so close to the end and experiencing the fatigue that hits when you’ve worked so hard and are so close to the finish line.

However, during the difficult patch we met the lovely family from the night before, and they told us that their 11 year old son was leaving stones for us at each town, saying ‘para las ninas de Miami.’ Meaning, ‘for the Miami girls.’ We were blown away by the sweet gesture of an 11 year old and it reminded us of the incredible kindness of strangers.

That night, we (literally) limped our way to our albergue in Arca. Our room was on the top floor and the windows opened up above us, so we slept peacefully under the stars that night. The albergue was great: really clean and our roommates were all so funny and jovial. The mood was light, likely because we were so close to the end.

The next day: Santiago!

I woke up feeling completely refreshed after having an absolutely incredible night of sleep. Under the open window with a breeze, staring up at the stars. The 5:30 a.m. wakeup wasn’t getting any easier, but the day was full of promise. Patty and I both felt a sense of purpose and began the last leg of our trip.

Unfortunately, that balloon popped rather quickly. The signs weren’t as clear as earlier on, and we got lost a few times in the morning, delaying us quite a bit. As the morning passed, I started reflecting on My Camino. And my epiphany was that there was no epiphany. I’m slightly embarrassed to say this, but I was feeling like this arduous journey had no affect on me. I didn’t experience any revelations or awakenings like Patty had, no uber connections that changed my life. It really made me sad.

And, it was hard. My feet cried in pain after each step, and I began questioning why I was putting myself through all this suffering. I beat myself up about walking so much slower than everyone else. Why was it so much easier for everyone else? Why was it that people twice my age were breezing past me? Patty decided to finish the last bit at her own pace and I at mine towards the last eight kilometers. It was a chance for us to reflect on our own, so I put in my headphones and cruised along. I don’t know why I didn’t listen to music on the entire walk because I’m one of those people very much affected by music – it makes life just better overall. So it was the end of the road and off I went, finishing it in the way that I needed to finish it.

I was half dead when I reached the town before Santiago. Quite strangely, a nun saw me and immediately called me over, asking if I was the Colombian girl. I was confused and told her my father was Colombian. She told me that my friend was inside the chapel having confession, but I kind of thought she was confusing me with someone else. That is, until she told me that my Cuban friend had told her about me. So I decided to wait for Patty. The nun kept pushing confession on me, but I wanted to go on my own accord, not because she was forcing me to go. It had been years since I had gone to confession, and I wasn’t about to go because of a pushy nun.

I lied down in the shade while I waited for Patty, but somehow our paths must have crossed without us seeing each other. After about thirty minutes, I decided to keep on walking.

Now THIS was the hardest part of the entire Camino. Once you see the signs that you are in Santiago, you think you are close, yet the cathedral seems like millions of miles away. It was like a big joke of false hope on the pilgrims. “You’re almost there…except you’re really not! Ha!” I genuinely didn’t think I could make it. My poor feet throbbed and ached, making walking so difficult.  At one point, I had to stop, take off my sneakers and massage my feet. I talked myself into going the last four kilometers. I was limping my way across the street, suffering excruciating, shooting pain up my bad ankle when these two girls began talking to me. I had seen them before on The Camino. At first, I found myself annoyed at having to talk because I was enjoying my music and just wanted to arrive. But then I found them to be incredibly sweet and kind, and somehow the pain seemed to pass while I talked to them. They provided a distraction from my pain. These lovely girls were from Valencia and were Opus Dei. In the past, I had this pre-conception of Opus Dei. I thought they were a kind of bible-thumping cult, but these girls proved me ever so wrong. They were unbelievably kind and I’m positive that if it hadn’t been for them, I might not have made it all the way to the cathedral.

When we walked into the old town of Santiago, I was rendered speechless. It was stunning. Absolutely, mind-numbingly stunning. One of the most beautiful old towns I had ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot). They seemed concerned that I wouldn’t find Patty, but I wasn’t worried at all because I knew she would be there. Sure enough, after walking around to the front of the cathedral and then to the side, I saw a familiar neon orange shirt. When I saw her, I was flooded with so much emotion: relief, accomplishment, and sheer joy. We were so happy to find each other, as she had been worried about where I was. I introduced her to my new friends, and then the girls who helped me reach a goal that seemed to far away, disappeared from my life.

Patty and I recounted our last five kilometers of The Camino and I told her about how the girls gave me the strength to go on. She thought I had taken a cab, and I was feeling pretty proud that I actually made it. We were sweaty, gross and starving, but I needed to go into the Cathedral.

And then something magical happened. The moment I walked in, I was hit with so much emotion, it was like getting smacked in the face with a brick wall. I began to cry uncontrollably, and I had no idea why. My emotions went haywire and I couldn’t stop crying. Maybe it was the gratitude of having finished something so difficult, so challenging and reaching the goal, but I’d like to think it was more than that. Throughout the journey, Patty was getting all sorts of signs and feelings that this was the right path, and I felt nothing. I figured it just wasn’t my time, but it didn’t make me feel any less disheartened about it. Now I think it was God’s way of telling me that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t doing all of this suffering for nothing. I felt immediately better about everything I had gone though and in that instant, I was actually glad I did it. Patty recognized that this was my spiritual connection and said the most appropriate words: ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Maybe I needed to wait until the end for some reason.

We went to the statue of St. James at the altar and I touched the side of his face, thanking him for letting me make it till the end.  Then we went down to the crypt where there was an engraved plaque with Pope John Paul II’s words: “En el Camino, te encuentras. Se tu mismo.” Translated, it means, “On the Camino, you find yourself. Be who you are.” Truer words have never been spoken, and it really affected us both.

That night, Patty and I went for a walk around the old town of Santiago de Compostela. The only word fair enough to describe it is magical. Something about the city, the air, the cathedral, the music in the streets…we felt like we were in a movie. The air was full of hope and promise.

After the pilgrim’s mass the next day, Patty and I made our way to the shuttle stop for the airport. Just as we were talking about him, Patty spotted Armando. He was walking his bike along the plaza to look for us. We screamed for him at the top of our lungs but he didn’t hear us. So Patty ran to grab him. He must have raced to Santiago on his bike, just to say goodbye to us. A perfect ending to a perfect story. Our key friend from the journey, racing to send us off. It was the sweetest thing, and we just felt so glad that we got to say goodbye to this man with a heart of gold.

Looking back on the experience, as often happens with memories, I forgot about the pain, the suffering I felt and how much I wanted to quit. Instead, all I really remember was that moment in the cathedral. Walking in for the first time and being slapped in the face with so much emotion that nothing could stop the tears from falling down my face. I had no idea what happened or why I was crying. Maybe it was because I accomplished something that was so trying for me. Or maybe it was a spiritual enlightenment. Whatever it was that happened to me in that church that day, it changed something within me. I felt cleansed. Yes, I know. It’s too cliché; that’s what a pilgrimage is…a cleansing of the soul. But it was something so shocking to me because that wasn’t what I was doing the Camino for. Yet it’s how I came out of it.  It’s almost like the spiritual connection is inevitable, no matter what you believe in. The Camino leaves a mark on your life, like a tattoo that can never be removed.

As Patty says, when we started out on The Camino, we set forces into motion that we can’t stop now. And I fully feel like I’m continuing on this path with every step I take. I’m meeting people that I’m ‘supposed’ to meet. The people who are guiding me to the life I’m supposed to be living. I’m doing the things I’m supposed to be doing. I’m becoming the person I was always meant to be.

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Third Edition: From Farms to City Lights

The beautiful farm in the Limousin 2013-06-28 23.29.11 2013-06-28 23.29.31When I left you last time, I taunted you with stories to come from my house sitting experience in Limousin, France and I left you hanging. Not to worry, I haven’t forgotten.

Jonathan had told me about a website called housecarers.com. It’s a global house sitting website, perfect for travelers. So I set up my profile and checked my notifications each week, hoping to find a match. As luck would have it, I received a notification about a short-term assignment near Limoges, France. I immediately contacted the owners and let them know that I would be available for their request. A few exchanges later, we were all set.

When I arrived into the Limoges train station that Wednesday, Ray was already waiting for me. A (very) tall and kind gentleman, my first surprise was that he wasn’t French – he was English! We had a nice chat on the way to their home, and when we got there, I met Casey and Robbie, their two lovable dogs, and Brenda, Ray’s wife. Ray and Brenda were the loveliest couple, and the most gracious of hosts. They immediately made me feel welcome in their home.

I stayed in a room on the top floor, with it’s own bathroom and even a mini living room area just outside the room. It was far more than I could have expected in terms of accommodation. As if that weren’t enough, Brenda took me with her the next day to go grocery shopping, as she wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to eat. Their hospitality was tremendous!

The beauty of this home is staggering. Not only the home – an old-fashioned stone home remodeled by Ray and Brenda themselves – but their gardens, flowers and gorgeous green fields. The village is comprised of maybe fifteen houses, recalling of medieval times. The nearest village was Bourganeuf, about a 15-20 minute drive away.

A full day of shadowing was in store for me the next day. I may have failed to mention but Ray and Brenda have a small farm, complete with chickens, piglets and sheep! The daily jobs included feeding all the animals, gathering the eggs, walking the dogs and just making sure all the animals were ok.

Now, as many of you know, my experience on farms is quite limited. I grew up in New York and South Florida, and my most extensive experience with farm animals was probably an elementary school field trip to a local farm. However, I was completely up for the challenge and was looking forward to learning something new and so different from everything else I had ever known.

The first morning on my own, I clutched tightly to the To-Do list and ran through the tasks like a neurotic robot, making sure I didn’t miss anything. As the time went on, I became more comfortable and the list became much more intuitive. I fell in love with Casey and Robbie; they were the most well-behaved, sweetest dogs.

The three days passed quickly and despite the rain and clouds, I found it quite comforting to go out in the fresh, clean air, carrying buckets of water to the animals and getting dirt all over my clothes. You need to feel that connection with nature every once in a while.

I was sad to leave the tranquility of this beautiful place, but happy to have experienced something so unique.  I also left knowing two more remarkable people, whose paths I was lucky enough to have crossed.

On Monday morning, I took the train from La Souterraine into Paris. My good friend Jerome, who I had met at EY Miami about six years before was waiting for me at the station. Now talk about a good friend. Jerome left work early to meet me at the station, knowing I wouldn’t really know my way around and that I would be schlepping my gigantic backpack.  What a thoughtful guy.

After we dropped off my bags at his apartment – incidentally, right in the center of the city, a stone’s throw away from the Louvre – we decided to go for a walk to Notre Dame.

It was a beautiful Parisian summer day, which always means just one thing: long lines. It also happened to be Notre Dame’s 850-year anniversary – amazing for visiting! Not so great for the lines. Thankfully, it moved quickly and we were inside in just 10 minutes.

I’d been to Paris a few times, and I don’t think I’ve ever been inside Notre Dame. It was stunning, and I found myself asking the same simple question I ask every time I come across incredible architecture: HOW? How did they build this in the 1100s? My mind was completely blown by the detail in everything.

We walked back to the apartment as Jerome (a big timer) had a cocktail dinner with the US Ambassador, and I had a date with the grocery store.

The next morning, Jerome went to work, and I headed to the Eiffel Tower. I had myself a nice little picnic on the grass with a mozzarella, tomato, rocket lettuce, and pesto baguette (prepared by yours truly). The baguette was perfectly complemented with a bit of red wine in the traditional wine skin I purchased in Valencia. I enjoyed the sunshine for a bit longer, and then headed off for a walk…which ended up being significantly longer than I expected (I got lost). I finally arrived at Champs Elysee, my destination, but by the time I got there, I was so exhausted from the walking, I just went back to the apartment!

After that morning, I must say I wasn’t too taken by the city. I had felt this way during my previous visits to Paris and was hoping my opinion would change. I appreciate all the incredible beauty, architecture and history that Paris has to offer, but I felt it was incredibly overpriced and moderately underwhelming. I also tend to evaluate a place by its locals and I found many to be disengaged and somewhat cold. This is clearly not a judgment against an entire population, but just the ones I came across during my brief stay.

Then, as luck would have it, my pal Jerome comes to the rescue and wipes that impression from my mind. See, I just happened to be in town on the very same day that Jerome was promoted to Executive Director (it’s kind of a big deal). Therefore, we needed to go out and celebrate this promotion. Jerome knew just the place. It was called L’Ivress and it was the perfect place: a small, unassuming wine bar. It was so popular that every single seat was reserved. We were lucky we managed to get a seat at the bar.

The experience was divine. We had a plate of various cheeses, ham, French bread and pate, and we shared a nice bottle of red with a nice oaky finish (insert: my best Chauncy accent here).  An excellent way to celebrate a promotion. To further shatter my previous misconception, our waiter was delightful. Despite being under a tremendous amount of stress, he was kind and friendly.

I was glad to have had this positive experience. Perhaps I was too quick to judge. I can’t expect every place to be what I want it to be. I realized last night that going forward I need to keep a more open mind and appreciate places for what they are, and not focus on what they aren’t.

After dinner, Jerome and I got to reminiscing about our old EY days and decided to call a few of our former cohorts. Unfortunately most of them were actually working (what’s that again?), so we called it a night.

In the morning I was up early and at the Louvre by 9:30 am. This time, I pre-purchased tickets and walked right in without having to wait in line. The Louvre is a spectacular place. It’s staggering to think about the priceless artifacts that live in the museum. About 3.5 hours in, I thought my legs were going to give in. It’s just too big! I felt content with the amount of things I’d seen, so I headed home to avoid getting caught in the rain.

Now I am about to leave on a pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied-du-Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain via bicycle with my friend Patty. People ask me why I’m doing it, and the truth is that I’m not doing it for religious reasons or because I’m searching for something. I want to do something challenging. Physically and mentally challenging. How often do we do things that push us to our limits? I’m not a cyclist, I’m not a super-athletic person, but I want to find my boundaries, push them, and see how much farther I can go. It’s also something unique and personal to each individual. Imagine how many people you might meet along the road, how many stories to be told. People have said that the journey can change your life – whether it does or doesn’t, I know the effect won’t be something easily forgotten.

Another Pilgrimage quote as I set off on the third route:

“Christians considered three routes to be sacred. Each of them offered a series of blessings and indulgences to those who traveled its length. The first led to the tomb of Saint Peter in Rome; its travelers, who were called wanderers, took the cross as their symbol. The second led to the Holy Sepulcher of Christ in Jerusalem; those who took this road were called palmists, since they had as their symbol the palm branches with which Jesus was greeted when he entered the city. There was a third road, which led to the mortal remains of the apostle, San Tiago – Saint James in English, Jacques in French, Giacomo in Italian, Jacob in Latin. He was buried at a place on the Iberian Peninsula where, one night, a shepherd had seen a brilliant star above a field. The legend says that not only San Tiago but the Virgin Mary went there shortly after the death of Christ, carrying the word of the Evangelist and exhorting the people to convert. The site came to be known as Compostela – the star field – and there a city had arisen that drew travelers from every part of the Christian world. These travelers were called pilgrims, and their symbol was the scallop shell.”

 

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Second Edition: The Spanish Conquest

2013-06-14 18.50.30 2013-06-07 02.23.14 EspanaFor reasons I don’t even know, Spain was never at the top of my list when it came to places to see. It seemed nothing more than a convenient place to spend a month before I started the Camino de Santiago. Retrospectively, I feel like a prized idiot for my nonchalant attitude towards this incredible country.

Thus, this is the story of the Spanish conquest over Mayra Barragan.

Housing more beautiful scenery, history and architecture than my little brain could have ever imagined, this country is nothing short of enchanting. I fell in love, over and over again with the magic this place has to offer.

Perhaps it’s a combination of the places, the people, and the experiences that have made this part of my journey so memorable. But time and time again, I’ve been impressed. I woke up every single morning not knowing what the day would bring, whom I would meet or what I would do. That sort of uncertainty is indescribable in the most phenomenal way. I remember a time when my days were all the same; no anticipation or excitement of what the day might bring. The thought of not knowing what ‘could be’ carries with it unlimited hope.

People were often shocked to learn that I was traveling alone. The funny thing is that I’ve been traveling for nearly two months now by myself, and I’ve never once felt alone. I’ve met people on the bus, at my hostel, on the street while holding a map…strangers always willing to help, fellow backpackers always willing to share their best experiences and eager to create new ones.

The minute you open yourself up to the world, it opens itself right back.

Below I’ve shared some details about each place I visited. Unique in their own ways, I decided that I associated one word to each place. Here they are:

Barcelona: Vibrant

Barcelona. What a gem. Often times I find that famous places never live up to their name. Exaggerated by stories and parties experienced by certain individuals. But Barcelona – there’s one place that absolutely lives up to it’s fame. Immediately arriving at Placa Catalunya around 9:30 pm, I was surprised to see all of the people in the streets. I know the Spanish generally do things later (like eating dinner) but the number of families with children running around on a random Tuesday had a calming effect on me. I found myself smiling at the thought of how safe I felt, especially after catching some heat from my mom about booking a flight that arrived so “late.” My hostel was less than 5 minutes away from the Plaza and I was checked-in and showered within thirty minutes. My room of twelve was surprisingly comfortable, with each bunk bed as its own individual ‘pod’ and once the curtain was closed, it was completely private.

Over the course of the next few days, I saw the world renowned Sagrada Familia (a sight to behold), Parc Guell, La Barcelonetta and Las Ramblas. I walked and walked…and then walked some more. The day after I arrived, I joined a free tour of the old Gothic quarter and I couldn’t be happier that I did.  I learned about why the Catalonian flag looks the way it does (Charles the Bald slid Wilfred the Hairy’s dying bloody fingers over his shield, thus creating the four red lines). Not only was our tour guide incredibly knowledgeable and fun, the group itself was a blast. The guides go out of their way to create a cohesive energy, and I found myself chatting to some Turkish students and a couple from Australia, who, incidentally, offered me free lodging in the Gold Coast, should I ever make it out there.

I can’t figure out if it’s because I am alone during this part of my journey, or because I’m giving off a more approachable vibe, but it’s become very easy to talk to people.  I meet new and interesting people everywhere I go. Just the other night I was sitting at a restaurant having some dinner and got to chatting to an older gentleman sitting next to me. Turns out he’s from Tenerife, speaks six languages, and imports name-brand clothes from Spain, Italy and France. I spent the next two hours talking to him about something I know nothing about: fashion. The following day as I was walking through the animated Parc Guell, I saw a girl wearing a scallop shell on her neck. I immediately knew she had walked The Camino de Santiago, so I asked her about it. We started walking and talking and decided to go have dinner together. Violette was from Montreal and her parents had walked The Camino three times before! It was incredible to meet someone who had actually done it and I got some great tips from her. It was almost like I was supposed to be up at that park at that exact time to meet her.

Valencia: Charming

The next day, it was off to Valencia. And what a good day to leave…there was a massive thunderstorm in Barcelona the morning I left.  A few hours later, I arrived at the bus station in Valencia. By the time I checked in, showered and skyped with my sister, niece and nephew, it was near 10 pm. It wasn’t even dark out yet, so I decided to go exploring. Normally I would say, as a girl traveling alone, this might not be a good idea, but I saw families and little kids in the street, and I felt completely safe.  My hostel was in the Old Town, so there were lots of people walking around. Literally three minutes into my walk, I came across a live band playing in the street! Not street performers – like a set-up stage and people dancing. I stood around watching for a bit, and then continued towards the center plaza of Old Town. All this time, I’m wearing a camera around my neck, and a few minutes later, a man comes up to me and starts telling me the best places in town to take pictures. He’s a photographer himself and noticed my camera, then proceeded to talk to me about all the details and specs of my camera. He gave me his business card and told me to email him in case I had any questions on how to use it!

The next morning, I set off to explore. As I stepped out of my hostel, an elderly man asked me what the hostel was. I explained to him that it was like a lower cost hotel, with shared rooms and bathrooms. He couldn’t believe that the rooms were so cheap because it looked like a boutique hotel and was actually in a really nice building (I completely agreed). After a few minutes of chatting, he gave me tips on where to go and what to see, and then I was off.

The streets of Valencia were really charming. People were friendly, the cathedral was beautiful and I felt like I was home. I walked into a recommended restaurant, but they weren’t serving their specials anymore, and the waiter told me to come back the next day. When I indeed came back the next day with my new roommates, he greeted me like an old friend. I was also incredibly lucky to have three amazing people sharing my room: Megan, Carly and Pete. Megan is from Oxfordshire and Carly and Pete from Canada. After exchanging tips on the different places we’d already been to, we learned it was Pete’s birthday. As any new roommates would do, we celebrated his birthday well. An ace group of people, and I was sad to say goodbye to them.

Alicante: Relaxing

Despite spending only a day at this beautiful vacation spot, I can see why tourists come here. The drive down the coast is breathtaking and the beaches are reminiscent of the Mediterranean. With a lazy beach town feel, it was a perfect pit stop to relax and recharge my batteries.

Granada: Enchanting

I can’t say enough about Granada. I am IN LOVE with Granada. I have an unhealthy obsession with Granada. There is an air of mystery and magic here. When I talk to people who have never been or are planning to go, I find myself becoming very passionate and shamelessly chiefy: “You HAVE to do this.” It’s only because I want people to have the same sensational experience that I had. Everyone told me it was amazing, and they were right.

The best three things I’ve done on this trip so far have been done in Granada: The Alhambra, the waterfall trek and the 13th century hammam.

I’ve seen many castles in my life, but nothing, NOTHING, compares to La Alhambra. The detail that went into the palaces is beyond my comprehension. The gardens remind me of an Alice in Wonderland dream. The views must be what Walt Disney imagined when he created the castle landscapes. It’s surreal being there. Somehow amidst thousand of tourists, you can close your eyes and imagine your life belonged to distant and lost time. La Alhambra holds secrets and mysteries lost a long time ago, but the walls remind you that greatness once lived there.

The waterfall trek: one of the best recommendations I received so far, and from fellow travelers Carly and Pete.  We left at 11 am, a group of maybe twelve from the hostel. We rode a local bus for about 45 minutes and then hiked up a paved road (in between my desperate gasps for air, I noticed that people at the front somehow looked like they didn’t even break a sweat). Once past that horrible road, nature showed herself, and what a beauty she was. We were tiny, insignificant specs among the stone giants that surrounded us.  A few minutes in, we came across our first suspension bridge. Only three at a time were allowed to go because of its instability. And only a minute after that, the battery in my camera died. What inconvenient timing.

Later on, our guide led us to our first waterfall.  Ice cold water, but worth dipping into for that perfect framed picture. My kind friend Simon from Germany took a picture with me, given my unfortunate camera situation.  After playing in the water a bit and taking advantage of some photo ops, we headed on our way. Now we were walking into cave-like rock formations with water running through them. At some points, the rocks jutted out farther than the path and you had to hold on to hooks and hug the rocks to avoid falling into the water below. As I was on my hands and knees climbing underneath the massive rocks, I was smiling to myself and thinking that back home, there would be guardrails everywhere for safety reasons; and I LOVED the slight dangerousness of it all. After all, what’s an adventure without a bit of danger? It felt like an Indiana Jones movie, minus the whip and fedora. At the end of it all, we ate lunch by the water and rewarded ourselves with tapas and sangria once we were back on the paved road. Fifteen euros and 7 hours later, I was back at the hostel – sunburnt, exhausted, and absolutely fulfilled in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I had heard about the Arabic baths when I got to Granada but didn’t attach much importance to them, until I passed by and saw them. They were built in the 13th century, at the foot of La Alhambra, and important business was conducted in these pools. These treasures were shut down after the Catholic rule in the 1500s and forgotten until they were reopened in 1998! Walking into this bathhouse, I felt like I was in some sacred sanctuary. The entire process, from the changing rooms to the tearoom was like floating on a cloud. There were three main pools: a cold pool, a hot pool, and a warm pool (which was the largest). There was also a steam room, and an area with unlimited peppermint tea.  Once you were done with the baths, a masseuse came and collected you to give you your 15-minute massage, complete with your choice of lavender, rose or amber oil. I chose Amber.  Despite being on the verge of falling asleep upon completion of the massage, I sauntered over to the warm marble slab and lied down. Above me was a cave with carved out stars…yes folks, I was officially in heaven. I’ve never felt so relaxed in my life. For anyone who goes to Granada, visiting this hammam is a MUST.

These three things were indeed spectacular, but they aren’t the only reason I fell in love with Granada. I found a local tapas bar called Casa de Todos where the most delicious tapas were served and complemented with a tall glass of wine – all for two euros. After only one or two days, the staff all knew me and greeted me warmly everyday, asking about my day’s activities and giving me tips on things to do. On my last day the owner said to me, with all the genuineness in the world, that I was welcome back any time and that he would always remember me. He gave me his card, and saw me off with a warm smile.  Those are the moments on a journey that you remember forever.

A funny thing happened to me in Granada, and it really got me thinking. It validated that things really do happen for a reason. I was picking up my tickets for La Alhambra and as I walked out of the store, a gypsy woman (who I noticed was being blatantly avoided by everyone else) grabbed a hold of my arm. At this point, I had a choice: I could yank my arm away, ignore her and keep walking (which would have been really rude) or I could listen to her and throw her a few euros. I remember feeling kind of annoyed that I was the one who was getting bamboozled, but just went along with it. Well after my prophecy was revealed and she handed me a plant, I went to grab my wallet and give her three or four euros. But panic immediately set in as I realized I didn’t have my wallet.  Luckily I was still right outside of the store where I got my tickets, so I ran back in and there it was, held for my by the kind, smiling woman behind the desk. Had I not stopped to listen to the gypsy woman at that moment, I wouldn’t have noticed my wallet was missing for probably another few hours and who knows if it would still be there. At the end of the day, it was just another lesson of how things happen because they are meant to happen. Incidentally, the woman expected TEN EUROS as payment for my prophecy…YEOWZERS!!! So after some haggling and offers to return her plant to her, we agreed on five. :)

Location is everything. My hostel was in the heart of El Albayzin – the Arabic part of Granada. The streets were narrow and zigzagged upwards and downwards. These narrow streets were packed with vendors selling beautiful Arabic clothing and accessories. I purchased a pair of peacock earrings from one of these stores, and from that day on, the storeowner would greet me every morning and spare five minutes to chat with me about everything and anything. The human warmth from strangers in Granada was felt everywhere, adding to the city’s magic.

And not only strangers. I met a lot of great people at the Oasis hostel in Granada, but I feel compelled to mention Tracie, a lovely girl who shared my room and an excellent travel companion and my partner in crime.  We went around town, searching endlessly for the perfect tapas, hunting for recommended places (some ended really well, others, well, not so well).

It was difficult to leave, but I’ll be back to visit this magical city once again.

Sevilla: Lazy

Why do I call Sevilla lazy? Not because the people are all lying around doing nothing. Rather because it’s the one place where I felt like doing absolutely nothing. And I’m not the only one. Tracie ended up coming to Sevilla as well, and we were roommates once again! We had a hard time getting out and sightseeing. This hostel, Oasis Palace Sevilla, had a rooftop pool and bar, thus further promoting said laziness. People were also really friendly which encouraged us to get sucked into the hostel life.

I feel compelled to mention a dinner I had with Tracie and some great Australians. Tracie and I had been recommended this place called Coloniales back when we were in Granada, as were the Aussies. So we set off to find it. Not a far walk, but there was a seventeen person wait ahead of us…on a Monday night! We weren’t about to give up on this recommendation, especially after seeing the line, so to kill some time we had some pre-tapas tapas a few blocks away. Delicious as they were, we should have saved our appetite, for we had no idea that our lives were about to change. When we got back to Coloniales, we each ordered one dish. The key theme was cheese, although there were a few proteins sprinkled in the mix. I swear, when the first tapa came out, you would think we had never eaten food before. It was a simple dish: Roquefort cheese with a blueberry jam and bread, yet the combination of a stinky cheese and a sweet jam were a match made in heaven. So simple, so beautiful, so delicious! From then on, the dishes just got better and better: caramelized goats cheese, asparagus and goat cheese fried into little balls with spicy pepper sauce, whiskey beef, and the list goes on. Possibly the best dishes I’ve had in all of Spain, and when the bill came, we couldn’t help but laugh out loud: thirty-three euros among six of us! So basically, for six euros each, we shared possibly the best food we had ever tasted. I’d call that a win-win.

Despite the comfortableness of the hostel, I did manage some walking around and figured my way through the city, but with more of a wandering feel instead of sightseeing with a purpose. I thought back to my Barcelona days when I got up early, armed with a map, and set out with my entire day planned.  How things had changed. I now mapped out the things I really wanted to see and do, and did them at my leisure.

Finally, after about two days of lounging around, we took a day trip to Ronda with our new friend Matt. It was Tracie’s idea to go to Ronda, and what a great idea it was. Ronda is a small town in Andalucia, known for El Tajo gorge and the majestic 18th century Puente Nuevo. The town is built upon the gorge and the views are spectacular. We paid our two euros to go into the bridge, and then hiked down towards the waterfall. I was not exactly prepared for a hike in my flip flops, but somehow managed to make it – with Matt’s help, making sure I didn’t topple him like a bowling pin on the way down! We all stared at the bridge in awe. None of us could quite understand how they built this in the 1700s because of the sheer size.  The heat was unforgiving that day (as every other day in Andalucia); it took us about five minutes to catch our breath when we finished, so we just sat in silence. And when we could speak, I’m pretty sure the first words to come out were W-A-T-E-R. Who goes down a gorge at 2 pm in Spain without at least one bottle of water? We do. At least we all made it out with all of our limbs intact. After the hike, we had a lovely lunch with way too many croquetas and caught the bus back home.

That night, Laura, Jonathan’s sister-in-law, was coming into Sevilla for a weekend visit and we had gotten an apartment. Yes, apartment. Adios hostels, we have an apartment! It was beautiful: modern, spacious and clean. Well done Laura! It made me realize that once every few weeks I should splurge on those extra few euros and have a full kitchen, washing machine and my own room. Laura arrived at night and we went for some gigantic tapas (which were actually Mediterranean appetizers) and called it a night. Thank god Laura came to Seville or I might never have seen the place properly. We went into the Cathedral the next day – what an incredible place. The tomb of Christopher Columbus lies amidst the most incredible architecture. La Giralda, which is the bell tower built by the Moors, is the only part of the structure that survived a great earthquake. We were ambitious in our attempt to climb to the top, and after a bit of huffing and puffing, we made it. We also went into the Indies Archives, which houses all of the documents dating back to the discovery of the Americas. After walking for a bit through the Santa Cruz neighborhood, we made it to our final destination: another hammam! Laura had seen my post on Facebook about the one in Granada and she was up for trying the one in Seville. This one had a few more pools; in addition to the hot, cold and warm pools, there was a Lounge of a Thousand Jets and a salt-water bath. Relaxing as before, we walked out of there feeling rejuvenated and ready to walk home.

Hilariously, in the morning we commented on how quickly we got to the center of town from our apartment. Yet on the way back, it took us over an hour to get there. It was literally the never-ending walk, possibly because we were moseying at a snail’s pace, still reeling from the calming effects of the bathhouse.

We caught up with Tracie and Matt for dinner at – you guessed it – Coloniales. I was worried I had hyped it up too much to Laura and she might not feel the same obsession as me, but thankfully, this place never disappoints. The various cheeses were once again on our plates and very quickly in our bellies.

The next day, Laura and I went to visit the Alcazar, the royal palaces. It must have been the hottest day of the year because we couldn’t go two feet without the need to go into the shade. Water just disappeared from my bottle. It was a beautiful palace inside, similar to La Alhambra, but the heat kept me from appreciating it as much as I could have.  Next time I go back, it will be winter.

Cordoba: Evocative

Poor Cordoba. Other than Alicante, it gets the shortest blurb. Not because it wasn’t spectacular, but because I was really only there for a day and that day was a Sunday (I’ve noticed that every Sunday, places close down and nobody is on the streets). The place was like a ghost town. It had a haunting beauty, but I felt like tumbleweed could pass me at any moment. I was literally the only person walking through the beautiful old town. Gorgeous architecture, spellbinding streets, and there I was, all alone. Another merciless hot day, but I trudged on, determined to get to La Mesquita. At this point, I nearly passed out. For those of you who know me, you know I have a tendency to pass out when it gets really hot. Well, this was one of those times. Thankfully, my brain worked long enough to tell me to immediately sit down in the shade, so I was able to avoid an embarrassing spill. Once I felt better, I had a terrible realization, and one that I am a bit of ashamed of. I realized that I was kind of over seeing another Arabic palace. As magnificent as La Alhambra and El Alcazar were, La Mesquita was another version of the same thing (apologies to anyone I might offend, but heat exhaustion began making the decisions). Coming from La Alhambra, it would all just go downhill from there anyway. So instead of paying an additional ten euros to go inside, I walked around the courtyard and perimeter and called it a day.

This time I was staying at an airbnb place with my own room and bathroom, so I took advantage and skyped with my parents and sister. I caught up on emails and season two of Game of Thrones. Cordoba, you are a fine-looking place, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

Madrid: Unexpected

Madrid was one of those places that I always saw as a stopover to another (better) place. I never really saw it for its merits. So when I arrived there after a four-hour bus ride, I was pleasantly surprised at what I found.

What I found was a dynamic city big enough to stir some excitement, but small enough to evoke that small town feel. My hostel was on a perfect street, close to Sol, el Retiro and central to most everything. It was a brand new hostel, not even three months old, and everything felt clean and new. My roommate Melody was an adorable American who I had loads in common with and we hit it off immediately.

The next morning, we set off for a stroll in the park and then went on the hunt for a Mercadona grocery store for me to stock up on cheap toiletries before The Camino. A few wrong turns later, we made it. Then it was off to el Mercado de San Miguel. Melody was raving about it and I was eager to get there. Once we walked in, I knew she was right: unlike the other markets I had been to which primarily sold raw food, this one sold individually unique tapas for one or two euros. Dizzying concoctions of salmon and cheeses, stuffed olives, baked clams, goat cheese rolled in wasabi nuts on a stick and other delightful culinary creations engulfed our senses. We spent a good amount of time scoping out our choices and relishing in the delectableness.

That evening, we went in search of good tapas, but found ourselves out of luck. Coming from Andalucia and paying two euros for a good tapa, we found it difficult to get on board with paying ten euros for the same thing in Madrid. Instead, we bought ourselves a bottle of red wine, a few slices of pizza, and sat in front of a graffiti wall to eat and people-watch our night away. It really couldn’t have worked out any better. With full bellies and the best views in the city, I’d say that was another win-win.

Sadly I had to leave Madrid the next day as I was beginning my house-sitting assignment in Limousin, France. As this has turned into more of a mini novel than a blog, I’ll have to leave those stories for next time.

However on the bright side, it looks like I’ll be reconnecting with Tracie and Melody in Pamplona for the running of the bulls in about a week! The world is a tiny place sometimes.

As it seems to have inadvertently become somewhat of my traditional signoff, let me leave you this time with a quote from a book I’m reading, The Pilgrimage. A gift from one of my best friends, Raz, who knew I needed to read it before going on the Camino de Santiago. I re-read this paragraph, highlighted it and folded the page in the book because it mirrored my own feelings regarding traveling – especially about being more aware and accessible.

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.”

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