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Greetings from Southern Spain! I always seem to apologize for the lack of posts, but truthfully, I’ve been sitting around basking (or Basquing since I’m in Spain?) in the sun each day instead of spending hours on the computer writing posts. Plus, the wifi (which they call wee-fee. I’m still laughing) is horrible all over the city — even more so when it rains. I’m just over the four week hump of traveling and now ready to start doingsomething instead of aimlessly wondering around the city.
I’ve temporarily settled in beautiful Seville, Spain among the Andalusian orange tree-lined streets, mish-mash of Moorish/Roman/Spanish architecture, endless amount of terraces — and the noisiest construction project of all time directly outside of my window. I tend to forget about the last part while awake, plus it seems to help get me out of bed by eleven. Sometimes. I was instantly drawn to Seville’s culture and people the minute I arrived, much more so than any other city I’ve been to in Europe. The Andalusians spend more time outside than inside; every night the streets are filled with tourists and locals mingling at the bars and walking down the curvy, endless alleys.
It’s taken me a few weeks to get used to everyday life in the city: I still suck at Spanish, but now I can understand most everything that people rattle off to me in the crazy Andalusian accents; I don’t get nearly as lost as I did in the beginning of my stay (which, embarrassingly, was 2-3 hours at a time…); and I’ve become used to the Spanish schedule. Before coming here, everyone talked about the time— siestas and late dinners and crazy nights — but I thought it was just a loose schedule, like how the States “runs” on 8 to 5. But it’s all really true. Shops, restaurants, and basically the entire city doesn’t open until 10am, which doesn’t really fit into my 6am typical coffee run I had back home. Then a few hours later, usually around 2pm, is siesta/nap time, where lots of kitchens close for a few hours. Dinner is not-so-promptly at 9pm — tapas (small plates) tide people over until then — and then the bar/club (disco) scene doesn’t get going until 1 or 2am and lasts until sunrise. The first two weeks here I thought that I was too old for this insane lifestyle…then one day I stopped trying to keep track of time and started to run on the habitually late, I’ll-be-there-in-a-minute southern Spain time clock. I suppose it works best when you don’t have any set plans save making sure to get to the 50 cent sandwich shop on Mondays sometime in between the hours of 10am and 9pm.
My previous plans to live in Barcelona foiled when I realized how damn hard it is to get a visa in Spain if you’re not a student or have a million dollars in assets or both. I’ve had to explain the absurd visa rules to just about everyone I talk to, so I’ll write a post about it in the future In the meantime, Nomadic Matt provides a great overview here. So, the general itinerary so far is to spend another three weeks in Seville, then walk the Camino de Santiago (more on that later), followed by Porto, Portugal for a week, then up to Ireland and Scotland for a handful of months if I can stretch my wallet that far.
I found a temporary job cooking paella and making sangria every night at a hostel in the center of Seville. How I found that job, I’ll never know. Luckily, cooking paella is a fairly easy task and you can’t really fuck up sangria. Working at a hostel is…interesting. 95% of the time, I’m doing one of three things: talking to random people about absolutely nothing; trying to decipher said random’s accents and trying to figure out what they’re trying to say about nothing; or talking to people who might be cool but I don’t have enough time to figure out if they are. It’s all very fun though! Definitely something I needed to get out of my typical career-focused lifestyle.
I woke up the next morning and still dragged my feet but confident that I could get through day one. 27km (16 miles) was on list of things to do — easy peasy, since I walk that on average most days. The Camino technically starts from the Cathedral in the center of town but the directions to get out of the tourist area made my head want to explode into tiny little pieces, so I took the metro to the outskirts of town to Matosinhos to follow the alternate route along the coast. After talking to the Tourism office, I decided I would stop in Angeiras — a small little beach-side village with a great camping area.
Best part of this leg of the walk: I couldn’t get lost. As long as the Atlantic was on my left side, I was heading the right direction. I walked along coast through beach-goers and restaurants and boardwalks and occasional (okay, more like three) Camino-walkers. Not bad for a first day. My pack was heavy but manageable. I ate the random assortment of food I brought with me while overlooking the coast and listening to some kick ass, girl power Alanis Morissette. Hour four was exhausting, as most road- and board- walking is hard on feet anyway, but then a sign for the campground appeared. I honestly couldn’t believe that was it. This Camino thing isn’t nearly as hard as I worked it up to be!=
I made it to the campsite, sweaty yet happy, and was greeted by the German staff that stamped my credencial and showed me to the shed-turned-bungalow that I would be sharing with another German woman on her second Camino adventure. We talked a while, I laid by the amazing pool, I napped, I stayed up too late while resting my feet. Pretty dang awesome, if you ask me.
I’ve fully embraced the Spanish lifestyle of staying up far too late and waking up equally as late, so I started out around 10sh. I had to walk another 4km (2.5 miles) north to Vila de Conde, then turn inland to join the main route. It was another 27km day but easily doable. I followed the unreliable arrows for a while, knowing that I need to hit Vila eventually and go east. One hour turned into three and the one hour walk to town took far, far too long. Turns out, following the coast wasnot the route on day two. This stretch of the coast was so desolate and empty. Somehow, I got lost in a forest (how, I’ll never know) and in farmland. I walked 10km (6mi) and was exhausted from everything yet nothing at all. The next discounted pilgrim’s hostel was in Rates and I refused to pay for an expensive hotel. I realized I could sit around and put it off for longer or just bite the bullet and start walking. Surprisingly, the guide mentioned that this was the most difficult stretch of the route to follow but I found it fairly easy to spot the arrows.
Step by step, I walked through forests and streams and hills and sleepy towns and small highways with the fastest cars. I was too focused on making sure I didn’t trip or get rammed by a car to think about anything else. I obsessively checked my Health app on my iPhone to see how far I walked; by midpoint of my exhaustion and my adventure, I walked 25,000 steps — meaning I had at least another 15,000 more to go before nightfall. 25,000 turned into 30, 30 turned into 35, and by that point I stopped focusing on getting killed and focused more on which agriculture field I could sleep in without being noticed. I hadn’t eaten much but was in no mood to eat. I made it to yet another sleepy town and stopped at an empty church to take a nap. This was exhaustion.
I woke up and felt immensely better, ready to finish the last two hours of walking to Rates. I made it to the town before my last stop, only about 3km (1.5mi) away, to drink an espresso and do nothing. By then I was at hour 9 of my day’s journey, not really remembering what happened earlier in the day nor seeing a single other pilgrim. Dusk hit and I knew I could mentally (and possibly physically) make it to Rates to sleep in a bed. I eventually made it there as the volunteer family was leaving and they gave me an entire dorm room to myself. 40 damn kilometers. 25 damn miles. I still don’t understand how it took me so long or why I didn’t see any other pilgrim along the way, but I was happy to be in a place where I could sleep peacefully.
Lawd almighty above me, I’ve never had my body feel this sore before. It was more of a dull pain where everything made me feel like the Tin Man and didn’t work properly. I made it out of the hostel and up to the only cafe in town around 9:30 and dreaded the day ahead of me. Finally I got enough strength to get up and go, still by myself and no one around, toward the fields before me. Every single step felt like hell. Physical hell. I stopped every twenty minutes because my feet couldn’t take any more stress.
The only thing I could think of was the reoccurring scene in the book I read previously about the Camino (and one of my favorite books I’ve read in a very long time) — A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Krauss — where he had to coax his friend Tom constantly to keep going forward while Tom had blistery feet and wanted to just take a damn bus. I was Tom with every single step. I thought of all the emails I was going to send to Gideon about how he should still be apologizing to Tom even if it’s been a full 7 years since they embarked on the Camino together. I laid in the muddy grass for a while after only walking for an hour. This was supposed to be my short day and I physically couldn’t even walk a mile. If I spoke any Portuguese whatsoever, I would have given the tractor driver I passed earlier that day at least 100 euros to take me to Barcelinos.
Somehow or another, I made it through the day. Every five minutes changes my mood changes drastically from “oh my god, what am I doing” to “I can get through this…I think” to “where is the next bus stop?” to “if I lay in the middle of the street, will someone stop and give me a ride?”.
Finally, I made it to the outskirts of Barcelos where I would be sleeping that night. I started crying, overwhelmed with everything, while I hobbled into town. Each day I wonder why I never see any pilgrims (then again, really anyone) along the way but I’m still so engulfed with my thoughts of physically and mentally taking the next step to fully embrace the silence. I was the first one at the hostel once again and passed out the minute I arrived. Sleeping while physically exhausted is more difficult than I imagined.
Soon, other pilgrims arrive but none speak English nor Spanish — or perhaps, don’t want to speak English with me. All that I can think about is how in the world am I doing this SO wrong? Everyone speaks about the nice people and friends and the journey they encounter along the Way, and all I can think about is the six blisters I have on my right foot and the snoring German next to me.
The next morning, I decide to take the day off. To do more than go just through a painful walk that takes up my entire day. To eat real food instead of Portuguese pastries and coffee. To actually sleep instead of pass out on the closest bed to me. I spent most of the day resting and casually walking through town and sleeping some more. After looking at my itinerary again, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll take a bus in the morning to the next destination — Ponte de Lima, a challenging 33.5km (20 mi) away — if only to not kill myself along this route. Still, not a single person to talk to, to say hi to, to make small talk about the challenging (or not-so-challenging journey) about the day before.
And then I realized that buses don’t run during the weekends in small towns. SoI’ve been holed up in the coffee shop facing the main plaza for the weekend, calmed from the past few days. I’m feeling physically better after a much-needed carb binge and bandaged feet. I’m feeling emotionally better and ready to tackle the rest of the route. Tomorrow, I still plan to take the bus to Ponte de Lima and possibly further to save some time and my feet. Cheating? Maybe. But I’ve found that this Camino is going to be more of an emotional journey than writing a Facebook post about how I’ve walked 250km.
In an effort to get my blog and readers (okay, probably just my mom) up to speed on my travel journey and to where I am now for the most part, I’m going to outline some of the trips I’ve taken over the past five years and how it’s given me enough courage and experience to quit my job and travel full time.
I’ve been to other states with family and have always been one to take day trips by myself — usually within southern California — but San Francisco was my first overnight solo trip. I’d been to the City once before as a child, but all I remember is the poorly lit hotel room and my sister and I being horribly sick the entire trip. I’d been working at my first professional job for a year and finally had enough money and vacation time to go on a ‘big’ vacation instead of blowing money on clothes, Vegas, and beach days. San Francisco seemed like the perfect choice for my first two week trip: no snow (really important for a SoCal girl who wears flip flops 300 days a year); lots of stuff to see; far enough from home but close enough incase I’m hospitalized/jailed and my parents need to pick me up; and most importantly, cute guys and good beer — obviously big decision factors for a 21-year-old on her first trip. My bestin (best friend + cousin) Melissa was meeting me a few days later to take the train up to Bend, Oregon for the holidays but I had 4 days all by myself.
I took the Greyhound bus up to SF, which was a whoooole adventure on its own. If you’re familiar with California…the bus I took starts in South Central LA, comes to Bakersfield where it picks up a few recently released inmates at the prison north of town, stops at every teeny town throughout the Valley, and then goes deep into Oakland and Emeryville. Craziest.bus ride.ever.
That trip was also my first time staying at a hostel that I found browsing newly-released Airbnb, (Yes, I usually always stay at hostels. And no, I’ve never seen the movie nor will I ever; I’m the prime candidate for a lead in the horror movie.) I stayed at the Pacific Tradewinds Hostel in the Financial District/Chinatown — you have to walk through the random first-level Hunan Chinese restaurant and up three flights of stairs to get to the front desk. It was like going to college for the first time but better.
San Francisco is different from Southern California in so many ways and it prepared me for all of the international travel to come. Traveling solo to unfamiliar places, even small ones, puts you in situations that you wouldn’t be in if you were visiting a local or with others. I had to learn how to use the bus system right away when I realized a measly 7 square miles is a lot bigger than anticipated. I found I needed to talk and open up to complete strangers I met at the pub (which doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a lot for an introvert sometimes. Plus, how often do you walk up to random people and start a conversation when you’re with a friend?). I embraced spontaneity and unexpected adventures even more so. And I learned that I really loved solo traveling and most of the others surrounding me in the hostel we’re into it, too.
It was the first time I’ve ever really felt like I was on to something big and passionate about outside of my hobbies and career. It’s not like I was some naive small town, small minded gal; I’ve had lots of friends, including a ton of online ones all over the place that I’ve met over the years. But it was sort of a paradigm shift when it turned from hanging out with friends who had the same interests that happened to live in different places to friends with completely different interests that happened to be in the same place. Whoa.
I’ve been back many times but my first trip San Francisco will always be the adventure that sparked all the other ones going forward.
So here we are again, now on my third post of the series that I really should figure out a name for; My Solo Travel Experience sounds so uncreative and boring. You can find part one here and part two here.
San Francisco was a great first trip on my lonesome but by summer of the following year, I needed something big. (Also, I highly recommend San Francisco as a first solo travel experience. California is definitely a melting pot, but SF is even more so. Lots of different cultures all at once.) I’ve always loved Italian food, culture, language and passion, so why not Italy? I’m sure everyone can agree that pasta is absolutely delicious…but I love the simplicity of Mediterranean food. The splurging of parmigiano reggiano to make each dish flavorful, the tastes of various olive oil from old trees in different regions, the freshly the crispness of bruschetta. I’m sure I’m romanticizing food, but the country’s passion and intention pulled me in even closer. So that summer, I booked a ticket to Rome in November over the Thanksgiving holiday and immediately started planning my trip.
I was never one to enjoy social studies lessons in school, but soon I found myself researching the regions of Italy and why the Coliseum is important and what the Black Plague actually was. I wanted to know everything (a common theme in my life…sorry for everyone who has to deal with all of my fun facts) before heading to this foreign land instead of missing out on key cultural locations and only realizing it afterward. After all, I had no tour guide to make sure I spotted the big building on the left or tell me that the Spanish Steps are around the corner from the Trevi fountain, let alone educate me on why they’re a big deal.
Another huge factor that fueled the fire of learning the ins and outs of Italy is that I didn’t want to look like a tourist. And not just a tourist, but a solo young gal in a foreign country. The biggest piece of advice I learned in my trip to SF the prior year is to confidently look like I knew where I was going. Accidentally walk into the Tenderloin wearing a bright green jacket near dusk in a city I’ve never been to? Definitely not accidental, I MEANT to go this way. I wanted to make sure I was confident both on the inside as I portrayed myself on the outside in cities where most people don’t speak English fluently. Besides the whole safety factor, who actually wants to look like the nerdy American tourist who doesn’t know the native language and only sticks to the main areas? Not I. Plus, all this research kept me at home to save cheddar instead of spending it on nights out at the bar. (Win, win)
I’ll go into more detail about planning and where I went later, but this trip to Italy turned out to be as magical as I hoped it to be despite with some minor set-backs. I wanted to see it all; a real Tour of Italy (and not that expensive dish you order at Olive Garden). I knew that late November-early December was the low season for travel so I could be as flexible as possible with my accommodations and plans. I researched, researched, and researched some more and came down to a general plan of Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice throughout three-ish weeks. And let me tell you: it was awesome.
Obviously it was full of many firsts, but it was really the first time being a vagabond and going where the wind (and my whim) would take me. I had three full weeks to do whatever the hell I wanted without feeling guilty of going too fast or too slow or staying in bed until noon. I walked for 15 hours throughout Rome with my new hostel friends; I spent a few extra days in Florence sitting under a tree in the piazzas; I climbed to the top of the duomo in Milan and spent hours nerding out at the Leonardo da Vinci museum; I was the +1 at a university party in Venice with the B&B manager. I’m in no way knocking traveling with others at all — I LOVE all of my friends and would go on a trip instantly with them — but solo travel guides you into spontaneity and allows you to be yourself when no one is watching.
I managed to hit 22 towns and cities overall, which is very fast paced but just what I needed. Plus, I got to try gelato in all the different regions. 😉 (Spoiler alert: Siena, my favorite city on the trip, has the best gelato. Second place goes to a little shop outside of the Vatican in Rome.) Italy was fun and exhilarating and lived up to all of my expectations. It was definitely full of neat surprises, but it was the kind of feeling when you finally watchthe movie based on your favorite book and it wasn’t a huge flop; everything you imagined has come to life in front of your eyes.
If I thought I was hooked on travel in San Francisco, I was totally hooked now. Being American, and even more so as a Californian, you hear about ancestry and heritage but you don’t necessarily see it. Modern day California was built a hundred or so years ago — buildings are created to look old and worn in but are built as quickly as possible to keep up with the population. People are focused on new technology and the next ‘big’ thing. Being in Europe (and Italy), you soon realize that everything there IS old and authentic. It’s like a breath of fresh air in cities that have been breathed in for thousands of years.