El Camino de Santiago

One cold January morning, my friend Louisa and I took a day trip to Alcalá de Henares, which is a smaller city on the outskirts of Madrid. There are some interesting things to see and visit in the city, so we ended doing a major stroll around the center, grabbing coffee and food when we needed, but mostly just walking and talking together. During that conversation, we were talking about trips we had done and trips we wanted to do in the future. These topics progressed and began to combine, creating a new idea that we both got pretty excited about: what if we did a route of the Camino de Santiago during the week-long holiday of Semana Santa?

It seemed so abstract that day as we smiled and eagerly promised ourselves to make it happen, but after four months of texting, calculating, planning, and packing, it became a reality. Louisa, Ashley, and I found ourselves at the bus station, groggy in the early hours of the morning, waiting for a bus to take us north to Ferrol, Spain. There we would begin the Camino Inglés – a six-day hike through the green hills of Galicia, where we would walk 125 kilometers along coastlines, through forests, cities, rural farmland, and under highways.

We were so lucky. The forecast had predicted it to rain the whole entire week of the trip – but it rained only one day. Life on the Camino was incredibly simple – physically and figuratively, it was a breath of fresh air that I had needed. Being out of the polluted city, able to breathe in fresh, clean air as I hiked made me feel very much alive. I also did a sort of digital detox for myself – keeping my phone on airplane mode all day, and allowing myself an hour per evening to check messages and let my loved ones know I was alive and kicking.

This simple Camino life made time move so slow. Each day, we would rise before the sun, pack our bags as best we could in our crowded alburgue (hostel), and set out on the road. We would usually finish the hike around lunchtime, and that was a perfect system – we would go claim a spot in the alburgue, find a 10€ lunch menu to gorge our tired bodies on carbohydrates and protein, and then return to the alburgue to take a spectacular nap.

In the afternoons, I would spend my time reading and journaling outside in the sunlight. (During the Camino, I read a great book called Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett… 10/10. It was a great book to process through and add to the spiritual element of the Camino). This time of day was my favorite, and the part I would look forward to each day. It was an easy tranquility that offered hours of physical and mental decompression in nature.

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Instead of balancing multiple responsibilities like I am used to in my day-to-day life, my only responsibility on the Camino was to my own mind and body. If I was hungry, I went and found food. If I was tired, I took a nap. If I wanted to read, I did it without hesitation. I made time for free-writing and self reflection each day to renew my mind. The afternoons became a refreshing practice of listening to my body and what it needed, then caring for myself. Each day, I would feel a connection to my body and felt so grateful and proud for how it had carried me – through aching muscles, blisters, and exhaustion.

Another one of my favorite parts of the Camino was the people. Of course, having two amazing gals to hike with was golden. We got along well – always keeping up the positivity and fostering an environment of love and encouragement. We shared some hilarious moments, mid-hike dance parties, and tons of life stories along the road. The people that were hiking the same route as us also became familiar faces as the days passed. We would all end up in the same alburgue each night, even if we wouldn’t see each other hiking during the day. I remember one night there was a big group of us sitting in the kitchen area, having a conversation with 4 languages flying around. One woman (who understood all 4) was acting as an emcee of sorts as she cooked her dinner, and we shared laughter and stories over food. When we got to Santiago de Compostela, the final city where all the routes and pilgrims meet, Louisa, Ashley, and I were lucky to run into most of our new friends who had reached the end as well. We celebrated together with hugs and “congratulations!” and the widest of exhausted smiles – we had made it. (The pictures below show our excitement for finishing the route, as well as the official pilgrim certificate we received).

I remember my freshman year of college, I learned the Latin phrase solvitur ambulando in a humanities class, which translates to “it is solved by walking.” I kept this phrase in my head the whole trip and found it to have a lot of significance on our journey. All these thoughts that swirled inside my head – daily anxieties and responsibilities, personal and relationship issues/insecurities, the pressure and stress of trying to plan for a very uncertain next year in Spain – were given this vast space to be processed. I felt like I was able to step back from everything, slow down, and really dig into what was happening in my headspace. I am thankful for the ample time that the Camino offered to reflect, reset, and reenergize.

I would love to do another route of the Camino in the next couple of years – preferably a longer one. (I started mulling over the idea during the third day on the road). The first night we met an old woman named Agnes, who told us that this trip was her fourth Camino experience. I made the comment that she must be a Camino expert, to which she responded “Expert? No. I’m just an addict.” And at the end of my own Camino experience, I think I know exactly what she meant by that.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in seeing a short video I made with footage from the trip, click here. If you want to connect with me to discuss your own Camino stories or if you have any questions you think I could help with – I’d love to chat with you. Find me over at my contact page or tweet me.

Barcelona

At the beginning of March, I was able to take a trip to Barcelona. One of my lovely college roommates, Emily, was on a solo trip in Amsterdam, and we had decided to meet in Barcelona – a city that we both had never visited – for four days to explore and catch up. I was super excited: to see her (it had been many months!), and to finally see Barcelona, which had been on my list for some time.

After a long bus ride, I finally arrived in Barcelona on Friday afternoon. Emily and I met up with our bags in a plaza near our Air BNB, then we went to check in. The first night was pretty low-key – we were both tired from our travels, so we walked around without any definite plan except for dinner and gelato. As we walked, ourselves a bit sleepy, the streets were bright and alive with lights and restaurants and hundreds of people, tourists and locals alike. I’ve found that I prefer walks like this when I am in a new place – a journey without a plan or direction, and simply trying to feel the heartbeat of the new city.

Saturday brought the first of our planned excursions. We woke up with the sunrise, went to grab breakfast, and then made our way to Park Güell. It was a bit of a hike to reach the park, as the hills and pathways became steeper with every block we walked. The barrio near the park was reminiscent of Austin to me. There were many communal areas covered in vivid graffiti, and the flora was very Hill Country-ish – cacti and small shrubs. And the park itself was absolutely spectacular – we spent a few hours inside, walking to every viewpoint and structure to witness it all. Later, we went to the Parc de la Ciutadella to explore and picnic. Then we continued our explorations to the coast, walking along the windy beach as dusk began settling onto the Mediterranean Sea.

The excursion that I was most looking forward to had been planned for Sunday – touring la Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s art-noveau-inspired opus magnum that resides in the center of Barcelona. We brushed shoulders with swarms of tourists in the late hours of the morning as we filed into the magnificent cathedral. There was so much to learn as we made a slow procession through the interior, listening to the audio guide. Everything, every piece of stone and stain-glass window and arch and column and relief, has a purpose and significance in Gaudí’s cathedral. There are so many details that Gaudí built into his design, and that are still being fulfilled with the continued construction of the Sagrada Familia. It is an architectural marvel. It’s a space that makes you feel so small – as a human, craning your neck to look up to the vaults which are filled with lights of every color. But the space also carries a spiritual essence, a sacred and quieting atmosphere that I wouldn’t define as necessarily religious. Instead, it is sheer sense of awe for the grandness and the beauty of it all, and for witnessing the conversation that every part – the art and architecture and the narrative – is having with each other simultaneously.

Our afternoon held more great views of the city as we took a bus up to the Castell de Monjuïc, which is a castle on top of a small mountain with an amazing view of the sea. We enjoyed the nice weather and views of the sea and the grid of the city, looking out and locating places we had previously visited. We decided to walk down part of the way and meandered through some more nice, green parks as we made our way down to the city. It was a perfect ending to the day, and we turned in early to get ready for our next day of travel.

Emily’s flight on Monday left very early in the morning, so we bid farewell sleepily and she went on her way. I had a handful of hours left in the city, so I spent them by grabbing coffee with a new friend, which was a lot of fun. I ended up missing my bus, but it was an okay thing – I ended up chilling in the bus station and being able to catch up on some things that I had needed to do and some messages to which I had needed to respond. And the only bus going back to Madrid that day was an improvement from my other bus – it was like a first-class bus – so even though the replacement ticket was a bit more expensive, I got to ride back to Madrid with some extra leg room and complimentary almonds. (Fancy, right)?

Our trip to Barcelona was so refreshing, although short. It’s definitely a place I want to return to one day to further experience. Like all big cities, it’s a place that holds a lot of life, and I was left with a feeling that I had only seen a glimpse of all that Barcelona has to offer.  But I returned home feeling renewed and thankful for the trip – that I was able to see an old friend, meet a new friend, and experience a new and exciting place to get me out of my regular routine.

Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts about anything or your own stories from Barcelona, I’d love to hear about it! You can share with me over on my contact page, or feel free to tweet me.

Bangkok

Our final destination of the Thailand trip was Bangkok. Even though I was only in the city for a day and a half (due to my flight being a bit earlier than everyone else), I think that it was my favorite place that we visited. It is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. I left feeling like I had only seen a glimpse of the massive city, and before my plane had even lifted off the runway, I was dreaming about the next time I would be able to come back.

Bangkok is so incredibly full of life. Unlike the smaller-populated Chiang Mai, Bangkok is densely metropolitan; in other words, it has that feeling of controlled chaos that many large cities have. After factoring in a different and distinct culture to this familiar city feeling, my American perspective read it as a whole different world – barely restrained chaos, verging on absolutely unrestrained. Cars and busses zoom by pedestrians at all hours, weaving in and out while tuk tuks and motorcycle-taxis orbit dangerously around the other vehicles, slipping in nearly impossible spaces to beat out their larger counterparts. And the traffic rules? Well, they technically exist, but there were a few times when I was sure they couldn’t due to the blatant disregard for one-way roads that my tuk tuk drivers had.

There were also river taxis, which were quite convenient for travel to many of the touristy sites in the city which sit on the banks of the Chao Phraya. These were especially fun and fascinating at night – when the sun was setting, all the high-rises on the shore were lighting up, their yellow and blue lights lighting up the dark river.

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During my day in Bangkok, we went to see the Royal Palace and respective temple grounds. Although we had seen many temple grounds on our trip, these were especially grand. There were so many visitors – foreigners and Thais alike – milling about the architecture, taking pictures of the beautiful gilded and gem-set temple exteriors. Everything is so detailed and worthy of awe – thinking about the process to create the magnificent structures is mind-blowing.

One of the main attractions of the grounds is a certain temple called Wat Phra Kaew, which houses the famous Emerald Buddha. This statue is very important in Thailand and in Buddhism. The account of its discovery was recorded almost 600 years ago, and it has been moved around the country to different locations ever since. However, since 1784, it has been in the very same temple grounds that we visited. It is jaw-droppingly exquisite inside the temple. There is an air of respect and a sacred stillness as people file in and out, voices dropping as they encounter the quiet and peaceful air. No pictures are allowed, and foreign tourists can only enter up to a certain part of the chapel interior. The front part of the space is reserved for Thai people only – many who make long pilgrimages to witness the Emerald Buddha in person and worship their god with prayers, presence, and incense.

The food in Bangkok was another one of my favorite parts. There was so much to try and it was so cheap! Unlike Chiang Mai, there was more of an international  influence on Bangkok’s food courts and markets. There were dishes from many different countries in Asia and a huge selection to choose from – Chinese food, halal food, Japanese food, and American food are some specific examples that I can recall. The food scene in Bangkok felt like a melting pot of food culture. Even as you walked down the busy street, just navigating to get to a tourist location to which you were headed, food lined your path from individual stalls offering pad thai, fried insects, Thai tea, pre-cut fruit, smoothies, and so much more. You can imagine the constant temptation – even if I wasn’t hungry, I was thinking about buying yet another mango sticky rice to-go (my weakness for sugar met its match with mango sticky rice, which is pretty much the most delicious dessert ever).

And even though I felt as though I had just arrived to Bangkok, my time came to an end. Although it was a full day of sightseeing and other lovely touristy events, I felt like there was still so much to see. I remember a moment when Dani and I were zooming through the city in the back of a tuk tuk for about 30-40 minutes, on our way to a market. We raced through the city, in between the perpetual traffic, enjoying the quick flashes of stores and markets and people and neighborhood shrines. I remember thinking – this is a city of undiscovered cultural treasure and experiences that I cannot even imagine. I feel so lucky to have seen it for just a day. The next time I am able to return, whenever that is, I know that the beauty and energy of Bangkok will be waiting for me. There’s so much more to discover!

And with that, the sun set on my time in Thailand and I made my way back to Spain. I was received well – very jet-lagged, but mentally refreshed and excited to see my friends and my beautiful city. I’m so happy to be back! And now it’s 2019. Who knows what exciting and beautiful things this year holds for my life, and for all of us?

Stay open, stay curious, and stay inspired!

Thanks for reading, and if you’ve kept up with the whole series, an extra thanks to you! If you want to connect with me to discuss your own Thailand travels/questions/inspiring stories – I’d love to chat. Find me over at my contact page or tweet me.

THIS IS PART 3 OF A 3 PART SERIES. CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1, AND HERE TO READ PART 2.

Koh Phi Phi

After a handful of relaxing days in beautiful Chiang Mai, we woke up in the wee hours of the morning and headed to the airport. We caught a plane to Phuket, and once in Phuket, caught a ferry off the coast to take us to our actual destination: Phi Phi Island.

I don’t remember much of the ferry ride (as I am prone to seasickness and had taken a dose of Dramamine, so I was absolutely dead to the world) but when we arrived, I woke up and took in the view. It was a literal paradise. White sand, bright sunshine, lush greenery, bright tropical flowers, clear, aquamarine water… I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. We disembarked, grabbed our luggage, and were shuttled quickly to a smaller longboat which carried us through the blue water to the resort.

Then, it was beach time. And for the next week, I spent more time on the beach than I probably ever have in my life. Dani and I would wake up, eat breakfast, grab a cocktail, then go lay out, sleep, and relax under the bright Thai sun. I’ve never had a vacation quite like that, to that level of relaxation. I didn’t fight it, though – it was nice to have time to do absolutely nothing on the agenda except to play catch up on some good podcasts and Netflix, all while working on my tan. I felt re-energized by the sun and the time I was given to spend with myself and my thoughts.

I thought a lot about the year ahead – 2019. I thought a lot about practical things – jobs, applications, income, visas, etc. I also reflected about personal practices and growth that I wanted to continue to work on in the next year – resolutions, goals (physical, emotional, spiritual, and social), crazy ideas, self-care routines, etc. In essence, I had the time to brainstorm about almost everything under the sun that I had been unable to before due to the hustle of life. I am grateful for the time I had to be able to map out and think through upcoming decisions. (Currently, I am working on transferring these ideas to the tangible world – putting them on paper, into a semi-orderly list. I would encourage you to do this – it really makes your ideas and visions real and accessible).

During the late afternoons, the sun would begin to set and we would go get ready for dinner. I remember one night, the tide had receded so far back, and there was this whole other beach that was exposed – rocks, barnacles, and all. We went down to the shore and walked so far out, where the sand had formed deep grooves by the ocean’s current and where the little crabs scuttled around our bare feet into their barnacle hideouts. The sunsets are incredible on Phi Phi. The sun falls right over a mountain peak on the far side of the island, and the orange, pink, and golden colors bathe the entire archipelago, creating a final, glorious crescendo of light as the island nightlife begins.

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Sunset explorations on Koh Phi Phi.
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The view from our cabana.

One of the restaurants in town featured a live music show, which consisted of two guys – one on the guitar and one singing. They were absolutely incredible! The singer had the voice of an angel, and I would compare him to Bruno Mars (maybe even better…)? They would take requests and absolutely astonished us because they knew, like, every single song ever written. Dani and I would often return by ourselves after dinner (otherwise known as my nightly tom kha session) with the rest of the family to get a drink and listen. It got to the point where the duet recognized and acknowledged us when we walked in – we were pretty much their biggest, most unapologetic supporters.

When Christmas Eve came, it seemed unreal. Maybe it was because I was on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, wearing a bikini, dress, and no shoes every day. Maybe it was because I was out of my normal Christmas routine of being with my family back home, and missing them. I kept forgetting that it was December – whenever I would see a reminder of Christmas, it was like I was remembering it for the first time.

The resort hosted a Christmas banquet on the beach that night, complete with food, drinks, and raffles. There were performances of traditional Thai dance, modern Thai dance, and fire spinning/juggling. It was the most unique Christmas Eve experience I have ever had, and one I won’t forget for the rest of my life. The whole night, the emcees had been saying that Santa was on his way to the island and would show up at the end of the banquet. We didn’t know what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t a Thai man sailing through the darkness on a longboat, dressed as Santa and bearing gifts.

We left as the island the day after Christmas as we had arrived – long boat to ferry, ferry to Phuket, and then to the airport to catch our flight to Bangkok.

In wrapping up my island experience, I think I am most thankful for these two things: 1) like I said already, being able to completely relax my mind and body in an idyllic setting such as Phi Phi Island and 2) being able to be with a family for Christmas. I am grateful to have been able to share laughter, adventure, and delicious food surrounded by Dani and her family. Although I missed my family and our holiday traditions, I was able to partake in their family’s traditions and not just feel like a part of it, but be a part of it for real. I would have survived in Madrid, sure, having Christmas Day to myself and maybe a couple of friends, but spending the holiday week with a welcoming group of new friends really made my Christmas unforgettable. 

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The typical Phi Phi outfit – backpack, sunglasses, swimsuit/dress, and no shoes.

Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts, questions, or a Thailand experience of your own, please share – I’d love to hear. You can find me over at my contact page or tweet me.

THIS IS PART 2 OF A 3 PART SERIES. CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1, AND HERE TO READ PART 3.

Chiang Mai

A month or two before the Christmas holiday, an opportunity to travel to Thailand with my friend Dani and her family opened up to me. At first, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to go. I was hesitant, but after having several encouraging conversations with friends (encouragement such as: “Haley, if you don’t go, you might regret it for the rest of your life!”) and budgeting out a financial plan several times, I ended up buying my tickets in a Starbucks at the beginning of December. 8 days later, I was in Thailand. I wanted to blog about my experience here as I’ve just returned with everything fresh in my mind, because otherwise I would inevitably forget details that I would like to remember. (Note: The trip consisted of three parts over a span of two weeks, so I will be writing three separate posts to give each their space and time).

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The first city we stayed in, Chiang Mai, sits in the northern part of the country. My first impression of Thailand was the people – they call it the Land of Smiles, and that is so true! Most of the people I interacted with were so cheerful and always greeted us with a smile. My friend’s dad was born in Thailand, so he speaks fluent Thai. One of the greatest things on the trip was whenever he would order his food in Thai, because the waiter would usually freak out – “how can you speak such good Thai?!” To help us non-Thais out, he taught us some phrases that we could use, such as “hello”, “thank you”, “where is the bathroom”, “how much does this cost”, etc. I loved being able to communicate with the people I met in this little but meaningful way, even though most of the time I absolutely slaughtered the pronunciation. I think I need to work on tonal inflection for my next trip.

The food in Chiang Mai gave us our first taste of Thai cuisine. Although there are a lot of touristy places, such as international restaurants and Asian-fusion restaurants in the city, there are also some more authentic sites with classic dishes like pad thai, tom kha, tom yum, chicken satay, green curry, and a ton more. My favorite thing that I ate (and continued to devour throughout the whole trip) was tom kha… there wasn’t one bowl that was bad. I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to make it myself in the upcoming months. Sitting in the open-air restaurants, feeling the Thai humidity, I kept thinking – how much better of an experience would this soup be if I ate it on a frigid day in the city? Well, it might not be a better experience at all if my attempt fails in deliciousness, but there’s only one way to find out. If someone has a good recipe, please share it with me!

One night, we went to a traditional Thai dinner and show. The food was pretty much the same as I described above, with the exception of fancy cocktails and fried pig ears (which were surprisingly delicious). The show aspect was great – there were a few presentations of beautiful, traditional Thai dances, a Thai boxing match (obviously super staged, but nonetheless entertaining), and live music. The final part of the show featured a bit of crowd participation. Dani and I were off to the side, sipping on a mai tai and enjoying the spectacular, when we were approached by two of the dancers to join in. After brief hesitation, we shrugged and went to the floor – “why not?” I’m not sure how successful I was at the dance, but I remember laughing most of the time because it was so much fun. In summary, I have fond feelings about my introduction to Thai dance, even though I probably looked ridiculous.

On the final full day in Chiang Mai, we went to the highest point in the city, with is a mountain called Doi Suthep. On top of the mountain is a huge Buddhist temple. The temple is a sacred spot in the area, but many tourists also visit to see the beautiful art and architecture as well as the incredible view of the whole city from the summit. It was wild seeing the city from above – it honestly had felt much smaller to me than it actually is. I think it’s because of the streets and clustered buildings – it’s not a vertically dense city, but more widespread across the intersecting streets, with little shops and restaurants crowding the blocks and corners. I did not go into the temple itself, mainly because I couldn’t tear myself away from the incredible rosy sunset view, but was able to see a lot of the temple grounds. A few of us explored the temple grounds and admired the rising moon as it perched itself above the temple. The grounds are decorated with flowers of many colors, bright paper lanterns, religious art, various lookout points, and Buddha statues. There were some monks in their orange robes, which is a fairly common sight in Thailand, but seeing them walking around the temple grounds, solemn, tranquil, content, and in their element, was a really special thing to me. One monk that I saw had a dog calmly flanking his heels as he glided around the grounds, checking to make sure all was in order. I found it extremely fascinating.

I’ll share one final anecdote about Chiang Mai. Before Doi Suthep, we went to an orphanage/daycare about 30 minutes outside of the city. Dani’s family has mutual friends with the director of the orphanage, which is called House of Love – the overarching organization is called Hope for Hilltribes. We were able to go visit the kids in the daycare and introduce ourselves, and then they each introduced themselves to us – then sang us a few songs and danced for us. It was so special to be able to see their sweet smiles and watch them perform, and to see the joy that they got from singing and dancing for us, their new friends. After, we toured the orphanage and sat down with the director, a kind American woman who had been living in Thailand for 34 years working in the orphanage. She told us all about her experience, the joys and sorrows that she has seen in her three decades in Thailand, and more about how the non-profit works. It was very interesting to hear the story of House of Love and how she got involved and ended up staying so long. I left feeling very inspired from her life story of altruism, the work she and the organization have done in northern Thailand, and the visit with the kids. Hope for Hilltribes has really made a difference in so many lives and their work is needed and important. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to read more on the website I’ve linked above.

I was totally in my head on the ride back to Chiang Mai, asking myself questions like: how can I make a difference in the world like this woman has? How can I use my life to change others? It’s an essential question that I think about often, but after experiences like this, I am always filled with inspiration and motivation to think about ways that I can better the world around me. It’s an alignment of my head and my heart that is one of my favorite feelings – like I’m falling upwards, progressing more into the person I want to be. It’s an alignment that I want to seek more often. Encountering places like House of Love and seeing absolute selflessness and quiet service in action amidst sadness and devastation is like finding a space for the divine in the midst of an absolutely confusing and hectic world. I hope that you have found spaces of inspiration like this in your life, and that you can think of thin places like this for yourself, dear reader.

Thank you for reading my blog! If you have any thoughts, questions, or a Thailand experience of your own, I’d love to hear. Share over at my contact page or tweet me.

THIS IS PART 1 OF A 3 PART SERIES. CLICK HERE TO READ PART 2, AND HERE TO READ PART 3.

A Breath of Fresh Air

I love living in a big city like Madrid.

The busy, loud atmosphere is one that I thoroughly enjoy – there is always something to do or see. I love walking through the streets in order to go places, feeling the heartbeat of the city as I walk (not having to drive everywhere is so LIBERATING). I also love navigating public transportation, which maybe is a little strange – but in my mind it’s kind of like a puzzle. (Note: one of the things I look forward to each day is jamming to pre-selected tunes on the metro during my morning commute. If you have any music recommendations, let me know)!

Despite all these wonderful things, I miss the great outdoors – with things like clean, fresh air, wide open spaces, mountains, and scenic views. I don’t prefer one over the other – city to countryside – because in my mind, they both have their own distinct appeal. But after living in a mountainous region for the past four years and taking great advantage of opportunities there, the arrival of crisp fall weather in Madrid brought a certain wistfulness for the Ozarks. I decided to address this with an adventure into the Spanish countryside.

Through the advice of a friend and the help of Facebook, I signed up for a group hiking trip. I wasn’t sure what to expect – but Saturday morning, I woke up early, put on several layers, and made my way to the bus terminal to meet the group. There was a forecast for potential rain, so I sent up a prayer against bad weather to the universe as I made my way uptown.

After meeting everyone at the terminal, we embarked for Bustarviejo, which is about an hour and a half bus trip outside Madrid. This is where we would begin our trek. The trip went by delightfully quick due to great conversation, and before I knew it we were in the little mountain town. We then headed down one of the cobblestone roads to a little cafetería to grab some coffee and do official introductions before we started our route. Afterwards, we zipped our backpacks up and set out into la Sierra Norte de Madrid.

At the beginning of the trip, one of my new friends remarked, “the air out here smells SO good!” And it was true – the fresh air did wonders for all of us who live in the city. It was clean and thin, and the sun was thankfully bright in the sky for the majority of the hike (and no rain)! The mountain air was chilly and windy, but not unbearable. Craggy rocks flanked the gravel trail as we ascended, and as we got higher and higher, the view got better and better. I felt lighter inside – from the pure air, the rural beauty, and new friends to share and experience it all with. It was an ideal situation. My soul were refreshed as we trekked through the morning and afternoon, chatting and joking and laughing and snacking (on PB&J, jamón chips, bananas, and yes, three kinds of chocolate) the whole way.

We descended down through a forest, with tall pine trees and a mossy, rocky path. The air was damp and thick and we all had to shed at least a layer (if not two). Yellow plants bloomed among the fallen orange pine needles, creating a beautiful carpet of fall colors. Eventually, we ended up at a highway, which we followed to a bit to a roadside bar. We shared a round of drinks, took a group picture, and then found our way to the nearest bus stop. The bus ride home was quieter because of everyone’s mutual exhaustion, but I was able to reflect and be grateful for the time I was able to spend in the countryside and the people with whom I was able to connect.

Coming back to the busy city after the adventure in Bustarviejo gave me a deeper appreciation for where I live. When I returned, I felt energized by the electric hum of the metro as I made my way back downtown, riding the line in communion with strangers whose lives are as complex as my own. I texted my new friends from the hike, conversing about future hikes or activities in the city that we could do together in the near future. I called a friend from home and had a wonderful conversation about life on a park bench in the middle of a busy street.

And maybe this is one of the things I am trying to convey with my account of this experience: that beauty can be found everywhere, but different perspectives are often necessary to bring unrealized beauty to our attention. I want to appreciate each individual experience and situation in my life, but sometimes getting in a comfortable routine can blind me from everyday things that have the possibility to inspire and encourage. Sometimes, I think it is necessary to retreat for a bit and clear our minds (whatever that looks like for each individual), to make new connections with people with different lives than us, and take a breath of fresh air that isn’t what we’re used to. Because when we return to our daily lives, the things we love most about where we are will be even more present in our hearts.

If you have any thoughts or a story from your own life about this topic, I’d love to hear about it! You can share with me over on my contact page, or feel free to tweet me.

The Unexpected

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Accompanying the move to an unfamiliar place is the scary and exciting potential of reinvention and reestablishment. Maybe you’ve experienced this at some level, the sensation of essential self-reliance as you forge ahead on the new frontier, whatever/wherever that has been for you. The realization of – “no one really knows me here” – can beget two very different and opposing mindsets: (1) either a sense of freedom, opportunity for growth, and new adventure, or (2) a sense of fear and invisibility as you walk among unfamiliar faces, always trying to find genuine connection in spite of loneliness. Or sometimes, these two come as a pair, and the choice to make is which one to focus. (Kind of like that often-repeated Native American proverb that you see on a poster in some highway-side diner or gas station in the states).

Since moving to Europe, I’ve been in both of these mindsets (at times, even during the same day)! I don’t think they are opposite feelings, but that maybe even they go together most of the time. Each day, I try to consciously focus my energy on the first. This is not only a more positive step for my well-being, but it also helps me to be the better version of myself. I can continue the progression towards the person I want to be. Also, opening myself up to the unexpected and unfamiliar has put me in the path of beauty and yes, even thinness. I want to share a few anecdotes of how that has happened and how I have been inspired.

Each morning, I choose to seek wonder in the day-to-day. I don’t want to take my life here for granted. Whether it’s choosing to take the longer yet more scenic route on my way home, moving my homework spot from my apartment desk to a newly-discovered cafetería or a patch of glorious sunlight in a park, or simply choosing a bench in a busy area to unplug from my Spotify playlist, sit, breathe deeply, and observe as people go about their individual lives – I want to take time each day to reflect and enjoy life amidst the hubbub of the big city.

When random opportunities come my way, I try to say yes in the face of uncertainty. (I want to add in a note for my loved ones: I do this in a thoughtful and safe way, so no need to worry – I know what you’re thinking, Mom). I have a few stories for this one, but I’ll share one for now. A few weeks ago, I met a woman who invited me to volunteer at a tea party fundraiser she was doing. Being new to the city, I definitely had no prior plans, so I accepted. On that morning, I caught the metro, a bit nervous and not knowing at all what to expect when I arrived. After meeting my fellow volunteers, I was thrown into the event and found my place in a tiny church kitchen, furiously making hundreds of tiny sandwiches and keeping 7 tea kettles constantly brewing with Earl Grey. It was such a long and tiring day, but I felt so content – working SUPER hard with other people towards a common goal, collaborating and helping each other in dynamic ways – for me, it was so refreshing and fun. And the community I met was incredibly welcoming – from pouring champagne for each other in tea cups in-between shifts, smashing dozens of loaves of bread for sandwich prep, eating scones and jam and excess cake and laughing all the while – I left feeling so grateful to have said yes to the initial invitation.

I have also been working on being more aware of the world around me. This one definitely ties into my first point of seeking wonder, but I have a specific example to accompany this one. One evening, I attended a information fair/party to learn more about English speaking organizations and clubs in the city. After talking to a ton of booths, I pushed through the crowd to get a drink and caught a glimpse a tiny sign with an arrow that said “LIBRARY THIS WAY” leading into the hallway of a building. Being an book-lover myself, I forgot my drink and made my way through the masses of people to investigate further. The sign led me to a small room with shelves lining the walls, with hundreds and hundreds of English books stacked high to the ceiling. The lady at the desk greeted me kindly, and we got to talking about pretty much every topic under the sun. Fast-forward to one week later: I became a member of this little library. Now, I go once (if not twice) a week to check out books and visit with/help out my librarian friends, who welcome me with genuine smiles and update me on the happenings with the library and themselves. They inquire about my life, give me advice, encouragement, coupons, and (of course) book recommendations. This library has become a thin place for me, because it is warm and safe, full of two of my favorite things (books and friends), and I know that I will always be welcome to pull up a chair and connect with kind people. I know I am accepted and welcomed there. Going back to that night, if I would have overlooked that little sign with the arrow, or just been apathetic and didn’t follow where it led, my life here would be different. I want always keep my eyes open and be aware of these little corridors I might come across, like the dim corridor that led me to the library – the mysterious and beautiful corridors that we all happen across at some point in life. (I’m planning on doing a post about the library in the near future, so if you’re interested in hearing more about it, you’re in luck).

I’m glad to share these things on this blog, and I hope they give you some new food for thought or spark something within you. By trying to put myself in this mindset as I navigate my new home and life, a lot of unexpected avenues have opened up that I would not have expected three months ago. But they are full of beauty, wonder, genuine people, and new beginnings. It’s exhilarating to think what adventures could be lying ahead, and who or what I could encounter next! Yes, there is fear and there is freedom in reinvention and reestablishment – and overall, an astounding amount of personal growth. I am grateful for the total experience.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. You can share with me over on my contact page, or feel free to tweet me.