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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Leaving on a Jet Plane – Next Stop: THE WORLD

Ok, ok…well maybe my immediate next stop is the UK, but we’re just talking semantics here.

As many of you know (or may NOT know, since I didn’t have my 132nd going away party this time), on May 8th 2013 I left the comforts of warm, sunny Miami Florida for the secrets of the unknown world. This trip is something I’ve dreamt about my entire life; something I’ve been saving up for, for a very long time.

As a kid, the treasures and wonders of the world beckoned me, as I’m sure they do most children. Although I wish I could say I was different, I did the same thing most children do when they grow up, I pushed away that instinct because of adulthood responsibilities and my perceived reality.

Reality? What does that even mean? To some, maybe reality equates to a steady job with a spouse and 2.5 children. To me? My reality of a budding career in corporate America was constantly at war with my buried, tucked-away dreams. The ‘what-if’s’ persistently pounded on that wall of possibility and wouldn’t go away. Until one day, my dreams just gave in…and won.  I let go and allowed myself to be guided by non-financially secure ideas and choices of uncertainty. Scary as it was, it was absolutely and perfectly terrifying – in as positive a way as it can be.

So off I went…and here I am. At the beginning of one of the most important years of my life.

My first stop: the mighty United Kingdom!

Oh, the UK. I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with this place.  I love the culture in London, the style, the way there’s always a new place to see, the super organized way people line up for the tube, my wonderful friends and boyfriend…but the weather. The god-awful weather.  That I could do without.

Maybe it was because I was in an office most days while I was living here back in 2009, being a wide-eyed tourist in a new city, or the fact that I had a suitcase full of warm clothes, but I definitely don’t remember cursing the weather as much as I did this time around. When I packed for this ‘world trip’, my (very naïve) thought was that it was summer in Europe and my backpack wouldn’t need more than a few sundresses and flip-flops.  Not one, single pair of close-toed shoes. Big mistake. Huge. (Name that movie)

While it’s not unbearable, it’s pretty difficult to wear t-shirts and open-toed shoes in 40-50 degree weather. For those of you who have been unlucky enough to see me in the UK wearing the same thing every day, I apologize. I’ve been breaking out my creative abilities (which are, at best, quite limited) and trying to mix and match my existing wardrobe in an effort to remain moderately warm. In more cases than not, I fail miserably; either because I look completely ridiculous, or because my teeth are still chattering from the cold.

And now, it’s as if the weather gods are really just picking on me. Just before I arrived, it was warm and sunny. Now that I’m leaving today for Spain, the sun is shining and birds are chirping. Curse you, weather gods. Curse you.

Other than the weather, I have very few complaints. My path has crossed some incredibly wonderful people, both new and old, during my times in London. Though it probably shouldn’t, it always surprises me when I catch up with old friends and it’s just like it was 10, 5, or even 3 years ago.  We laugh until our stomachs hurt, and they always make the effort to spend time together – despite most of them being uber successful, master-of-the-universe types. That’s what makes me happy. I’ve somehow found the balance between friends who are genuine and true, yet intelligent and stimulating. Boy, did I hit the jackpot.

Friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but they are always there.

And now, something so important that it warrants it’s own paragraph in my blog. Let me take a minute to talk to you about Burger and Lobster. Only the most incredible feast I have had the pleasure of dining on in the UK.  Picture this: a massive and sweet succulent WHOLE lobster (maybe 2 pounds in weight). A large tin of perfectly salted French fries. A side salad glazed with the most exquisite salad dressing. And finally, Garlic Drawn Butter. This little platter fit for the heavens for the bargain price of 20 pounds! TWENTY POUNDS STERLING! A most incredible deal. Kudos to Bertha for finding this little gem and making the sun shine a little brighter in my world that glorious day.

Fast forward to the long weekend. I spent Memorial Day weekend in Northern Ireland – one day in Belfast and the rest of the time in the Moy, a small village in Tyrone. In Belfast, we toured the area where the Titanic was built and we saw the Titanic Studios. Here’s a little known factoid: who knew that (A) the Titanic Studio was owned by Tom Hanks, and (B) Game of Thrones is filmed there? We also learned about the troubles between the North and South, passed far too many bombed and abandoned buildings, and saw loads of the giant street murals reminiscent of Wynwood, except with significantly more purpose. But I have to say, shamefully, my favorite part of Belfast had the be the tents set up in front of something that looked like City Hall; tents filled with food stalls from Germany, France, Spain, Poland…you name it. The incredible smells of fresh delicacies were enough to cause an aroma overload. I broke down, practically drooling, and happily handed over my money for the most amazing coconut macaroons. I think they were Belgian.

Now I know why everything related to the Irish is always green  – the country is overflowing with rolling green hills and scenery like a Sound of Music movie set. Cows, horses and sheep were just hanging around in the pasture’s next to Jonathan’s mom’s house.  Castles hidden by cherry blossom trees. I HIGHLY recommend a visit to Northern Ireland if you want a tranquil break from the city life.  It doesn’t get any more relaxing.

We also had a mini-Busan/Edinburgh reunion when 3 of Jonathan’s friends came up from Ireland. It was great for everyone to get together again, and we had a lot of laughs! The weather was uncommonly warm, and we spent an entire afternoon at an outside bar, having a few drinks, catching up, and the guys reminiscing about old times. It was lovely to see Jono in his element and having such a great time with his best friends…(even if we never did get around to play that round of Trivial Pursuit).

In rather breaking news in my world, this past Saturday was an EPIC day. I’m talking pee-your-pants-with-excitement EPIC. Wait for it….wait for it…..WE WENT TO THE HARRY POTTER WARNER BROTHERS STUDIO TOUR!!!! As if we weren’t lucky enough to be going, THIS PAST WEEKEND the set animals made a guest appearance! I made sure to give ole Hedwig and Fang a squeeze from you guys.

And now, at this very moment, I’m on the airplane to one of the world’s most beloved cities: Barcelona! I’ve secured a hostel that looks more like a boutique hotel, for the bargain price of  $25 a night.  And I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few people over the course of the last few days who gave me some great suggestions on things to do, places to see, etc.

So here’s to buckling up and getting ready for that ride we call life.  Already, the days ahead seem to hold a promise I hadn’t been lucky enough to experience before. The promise of a life well lived, curiosities explored and unapologetic of a path not yet created.

Let me leave you with a quote that always seems to stir something within me, and aptly appropriate for this moment:

“‘What’ and ‘if’: two words as nonthreatening as words come. But put them together, side-by-side, and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life.”

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Six Point Five Weeks in Korea

Time defies me. I simply can’t accept that my first six and a half weeks in Busan have passed. I feel like I’ve been robbed….of time. In six weeks, however, I’ve learned quite a bit of the Korean culture, which I will now share with you.

Scissors for food:

This is the most GENIUS idea, and I cannot fathom why the rest of the world hasn’t
jumped on this bandwagon. Koreans use scissors to….wait for it….cut their meat! Actually, all food may be cut using scissors, but given the quantity of Korean barbeque demanded and consumed, it is mostly used for meat. Who needs knives? Surely not me! I have SCISSORS, which are entirely more useful than a messy knife. When I get back home, all my knives are going straight into the garbage and will be replaced by a brand new pair of shiny, extremely effective scissors.

 Convenience stores:

Korea is the Mecca of convenience stores. I know I’ve been known to exaggerate a smidge here and there, but I promise you, when I say there is a convenience store on every block (at a minimum), I’m not embellishing. You forgot to pick up some water on your way home? Not to worry, there will be at least 15 convenience stores in the 5 block radius to your home. This is a world of Seven Eleven’s, GS 25’s and Family Marts. And it’s fantastic.

 Crossing the street:

This may as well be titled “Voluntary death by moving vehicles.”  In Korea, human beings DO NOT have the right of way when crossing the street. I’m fairly convinced that crosswalks are merely there for pretty flashing lights. And if you’re not intently watching
oncoming traffic as the green ok-for-people-to-walk-sign is flashing, there’s a very, very strong likelihood that you WILL get run over.

Elevator and Subway doors:

Unlike our American counterparts, Korean elevator and subway doors DO NOT re-open upon sticking your arm into the jaws of life. Rather, your arm may very well be taken off while trying to maintain a door open. We learned this the hard way.           

 Brown skin:

Different cultures have long maintained different ideas of beauty. Many Koreans,
especially those of the older generations, don’t find tan skin to be particularly attractive. Ironically, I was raised with this same mentality and it was engrained in my mind since I was a kid. My mom never forgot to remind me that I was getting ‘too tan’ during summers spent soaking up every last minute at the beach. She insisted that, in Cuban culture, the pale skin is beautiful because it meant that you were from a social status that didn’t require you to physically labor outside in the hot sun. However, living in Miami and being quite the beach lover, my skin has since become permanently brown. I also come from a world where golden tans of the islands are the coveted skin tone. Consequently, I suffer from the same cultural stigma in Korea that my Cuban counterparts recognize. I’ve been called “Indo,” yelled at by an old man in the subway (for no reason at all) and virtually ignored when I’m surrounded by my fairer-skinned colleagues. I joke about it and take it in stride. And with winter quickly approaching and my beach days numbered, my skin
may just revert back to a color I haven’t seen in….well, a color I don’t ever remember being. I may even score a foreigner warm welcome from time to time with my new pale skin.

Staring at Foreigners:

Fact: If you are a foreigner here, people WILL stare at you. You will be approached by monks. Strangers will grab your arm and start chatting with you, ask you where you’re from, attempt a full conversation in Korean and offer you things. Parents will shove their children in your face and force their highly embarrassed offspring to speak to you in English. Clearly I am not speaking from personal experience (see “Brown Skin” bit above), however I have lived these experiences vicariously through my light-eyed, fair-skinned friends in public places. They’ve gained quasi celebrity status and it is a most interesting phenomenon to watch.

Korean Food:

One word: Amazing. I had hoped to drop a few lbs upon arriving in Korea. Alas, my weight will inevitably be going in the opposite direction as Korean food is absolutely delectable. Among my favorites:

  • Gogi mandu – Steamed meat dumplings. I am fortunate enough to live 2 blocks from a GIANT mandu distributor, which is frequented quite often for a record low bargain price of approximately $1.50 per giant mandu.
  • Bulgogi – Better known worldwide as Korean barbeque. This is quite the experience. A personal little stove to heat your marinated meats (which are, of course, cut using SCISSORS – simply genius), with garlic and a whirlwind of side dishes, including kimchee and radish. I am slightly embarrassed to say that I haven’t jumped on the kimchee bandwagon and am not a fan of the spiced cabbage, but the radishes really are quite delicious. The mouth-watering meat is wrapped in an equally tasty lettuce wrap. Picture PF Chang’s lettuce wraps, only with better meat and oh, so much healthier.
  • Pajeon – Korean pancakes. This little piece of heaven is comprised of eggs, flour, rice flour, green onions and other vegetables.  This gem is perfect as an appetizer to be shared among friends, or as a nice little meal for one person. In the end, you walk away like you’ve eaten the healthiest pancake you could’ve had.  I’ve seen it paired with makgeolli, rice wine. This makgeolli is hit or miss. I don’t mind it, but other cohorts seem to really dislike the taste.
  • Pizza Maru – I know, I know. NOT traditional Korean food. But this fine establishment must be mentioned because of their originality in using green tea dough for an absolutely scrumptious and cheap pizza. I actually feel sorry for Westerners who go in search of good pizza and aren’t lucky enough to have a pizza Maru around the corner from their house.

In addition to the phenomenal food I’ve encountered here, I’ve also experienced some pretty amazing things in just a few short weeks: from surfing Gwangalli beach during Marine Week with free surfboard rentals, to navigating through Nampo-dong markets and eventually finding the world’s greatest coffee/cupcake shop, to witnessing one of the most beautiful and original firework displays literally across the street from my house, to hiking up to Seokbulsa (a fake hike, since we actually took a cable car and hiked down for most of the way) and seeing a breathtaking temple actually built into the mountain, to feeling more at home at a local Busan bar called Sharky’s than I ever did in Miami….Busan has far  exceeded my expectations.  You know that feeling when you can actually feel that you’ve made the right decision? Right about now, that’s where I’m at.  The right people, the right time, the right place.

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The Answer

Since the moment I decided to pack up and move to South Korea, I encountered a broken record of recurring questions from all of my friends and family: “Why are you doing this? Why are you going so far? Why South Korea?” While I’ve managed to inform some of you through face to face discussions, I am overdue on starting my blog, so why not start here? Right now. By answering your questions. We may as well start at the beginning. But be forewarned, the following narrative is an attempt at complete and absolute honesty; I’ve effectively bared my soul for you to peruse over on the next few pages.

All my life, I’ve done what I was told. Getting straight A’s, applying myself with a nerdy dedication in anything I committed to doing. I guess I thought that if I followed society’s rules, I would be happy. You know those societal rules I’m talking about: you do well in school and get good grades, you get into a great college. You do well in college and you land a great job. You get a great job, make lots of money, and the equation always ends in happiness.  So off I went, applying to colleges. Wishing to one day be a Harvard alum and a well respected corporate mogul in New York City with a fancy corner office. I genuinely thought this was what I wanted back then. Then reality set in when I realized that my perfect GPA meant nothing without a perfect SAT score at Ivy league schools; not to mention the hefty price tag. So I became a scholarship kid at a local private school.  Still quite pricey, but significantly more do-able considering the scholarships covered nearly 90% of my tuition.  When the dreaded day of choosing a major finally arrived, I logically made the decision to choose Finance. Clearly that made sense (insert: sarcasm), because I was good at math and liked working with numbers. Naïve decision number 1.  I sat through endless finance and economics classes, doing quite well in all of them, but was literally bored out of my mind. I would study to pass the tests, but I never enjoyed reading the material. I never enjoyed calculating present value or discussing put or call options. I did it simply because I had to, and I understood it clearly enough to score myself some good grades.

I graduated early, quite proud of myself. Looking back, the 30 year-old Mayra I am now would have screamed to my 20 year-old self: “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? Go to Europe! Seize your life and spend a semester abroad; live on the edge; stop being so nerdy for once and throw caution to the wind!” But no. I was too focused on jump starting
my career, making the big bucks, and living the life society had promised me. Since I had followed all of its rules to a T.

In the years that followed, from the outside looking in, I can see how people might have thought I led a charmed life. Owning my first place at 23, driving around in my dream car (for all you who – while I don’t quite understand how – aren’t as obsessed with my car as I am, my mini was my dream car), traveling the world, and spoiling myself just enough that I had everything I wanted or needed. I really did have it all. Oh, except for just one thing: I wasn’t happy. I would wake up everyday hoping it would be the day that I would absolutely love my job and know I was doing exactly what I should be doing. But that day never came. My equation never equaled happiness. Even though all the factors in the  formula were seemingly right.

At this point, I need to digress because I know I sound like a spoiled brat. It’s important for me to acknowledge that I’ve been exceedingly lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had from an employment perspective. I’ve worked for 3 of the world’s largest multinational organizations in their industry; I’ve had the chance to meet with people who have since become my closest friends; and I’ve had the opportunity to network, travel and learn more than I ever could have imagined. I want the record to state that I am not, and will never be, ungrateful for those opportunities. It was precisely these places
that led me to where I am today.  It was just that Mayra Barragan was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I didn’t belong. I knew it since my college days, but I didn’t want to accept it, and would force myself to spend the next 10 years in Corporate America…  because I wasn’t about to quit everything I’d worked so hard for.

Despite my knowing how fortunate I was – to have a job when so many people were losing their employment, to work for a solid company and make a comfortable salary – all of it started becoming less and less important. I no longer seemed to care about how much money I could make, or how quickly I could climb that corporate ladder. I was more concerned with how I could start over and live each day being happy. Not just content. Really, truly, happy.

You see, in my eyes, there are three types of people in this world:

1) The person who’s found their soulmate, their true love, the one person who fills their heart with joy….yet these people don’t exactly love their job. But since they are so happy and fulfilled personally, it’s enough for them and they settle professionally. They don’t love going to work, but they don’t mind it because when they get home, their true love is waiting for them.

2) The person who lives for their job. Their work is their passion, and they love getting up and going to work everyday. They’ve somehow managed to crack the elusive code that so many of us have yet figure out: the delicate balance between what they’re actually good
at, and what they truly enjoy doing.  They haven’t found their true love, but its okay because they are so fulfilled with their work. And that’s enough for them.

3) The person who has neither found the one person to complete their puzzle, nor discovered their personal calling, their passion. I fall under this third category.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am here in South Korea. I’m searching for my
passion. My personal legend, as Paolo Coelho would call it.

I didn’t know much, but I did know a few things before I left: I knew I wanted to get away
from the corporate world for a while, or maybe even permanently. I knew I wanted to be in Asia to be closer to the non profit we just incorporated to educate orphaned kids in Cambodia. I knew I wanted to do something that would allow me to work with people. Not
just type away on my computer, preparing excel spreadsheets all day long. Real human interaction. What better way to feed the need for human contact than to teach little kids in South Korea? A country dedicated to learning English, willing to provide more than adequate compensation to foreigners.

I recently re-read a commencement speech given by Steve Jobs1, which wisely stated that in life, ‘you can never connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’ Looking back, like I mentioned before, all the decisions I made were exactly what I needed to get here. And in the one-plus months that I’ve been here, I can confidently say that the dots couldn’t have aligned any better. I’ve given up trying to map out my life and I’ve succumbed to the mentality that what will be, will be. People you meet when you travel shape your future in ways you never could have expected.  Doors open, new perspectives develop and growth is magnificently inevitable. All I can hope for in the end is that the universe conspires to help me snatch up that pesky little personal legend I’ve been so intensely seeking, and walk away with a few thousand more laughs and memories in my back pocket.

Note:

1 While I was writing this, I learned of Steve Jobs’ passing.  Among the factors that inspired
me to take the road less traveled was that very commencement speech Jobs gave at Stanford. Specifically, the part where he says that if you wake up every morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re happy with who you are and what you’re doing; and if the answer was ‘no’ for too many days in a row, it was time for change. I’ll never forget reading that, and it motivated me to take the blind leap towards uncertainty. The man was a visionary, and I’m just one of the few he inspired.

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