Seven Indispensable Pieces of Advice for Moving Abroad

If your New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to become an expat, you’ll join thousands of countrymen leaving the country (or, if you’re American, fleeing Obamacare). While expat life is uncertain, fulfilling, thrilling and, at times, mundane, it’s often a day-to-day challenge.

Information and preparation are really your best tools.

Making sure you’ve got everything in order before boarding the plane will help make your transition to expat life a bit smoother, even past the euphoria period of your first few months. Take advantage of the free resources you have around you, from your local library to websites devoted to expats. HiFX, a great resource for all those hoping to move abroad, has asked me to contribute to their Expat Tip Page to help make the transition into life overseas for future expats as easy as possible. After agreeing to contribute to the expat page in a couple of weeks, I realized that I actually have lots of tips for people looking to move abroad, so here are some invaluable tips I think all future expats should know.

Don’t start packing until you’ve considered the following:

Got a Passport?

No? Get one.

Yes? Is it still valid?

You passport will serve dozens of purposes when you first move away, so it should be up-to-date, valid for at least six months from departure and in good condition. In Spain, I had to use my passport to sign up for my residency card, prove I could rent an apartment, open a bank account, and travel outside of the EU. It’s one of my most important belongings, and has even had to get new pages put into it.

Visas

If you’re planning on a long-term move, you’ll more than likely need a visa. Some tourist visas are good for six months or even a year, but if you’re planning to work, buy property or study, a tourist visa won’t cut it. Contact your nearest consulate for the requirements necessary, and work to get them together as hastily as possible. Some visas can be sent away for, while still other require multiple trips to the consulate to present and pick up your visa in person.

It’s all good practice, really – in Spain’s case, the waiting will become part of everyday life!

Live the Language

Language can be an Anglo expat’s biggest nightmare if English is not the commonly spoken language. Thankfully, the web is home to countless resources, including podcasts, practice exams and videos and songs. I always suggest to my students that they read or watch something that they’re interested in in English, and doing the same helped me learn Spanish. Check out Notes from Spain and Note in Spanish if you’re into Spanish – it’s a great resource for not just words, but also images and culture in España.

Many big cities also have free language courses or refugee centers, and chances are there’s a native speaker you could invite for a coffee. I checked out books and films from my local library to pick up a few extra words and phrases, which sparked an interest in reading travel memoirs. If you’re creative and willing, the possibilities will come.

Money Matters

Dealing with money is more than just learning to translate your dollars into foreign currency – let your bank and credit card companies know you’ll be away long before you go, research foreign accounts, and if you’re making money abroad, considering opening a separate account in your home country for card payments, student loans or miscellaneous costs that may come up while away. Again, knowledge is power.

In addition, I always make sure to have a small amount of local currency on me when traveling back to the US or Spain, as well as traveling outside the Euro Zone. This way, you can get public transportation to your city or buy a coffee on a long layover without the hassle of changing money.

Making Contact

Your home country will likely have an embassy and one or more consulates in your new country. Be sure to register with them, particularly if you’ll be settling in a place prone to political unrest or natural disasters – it the event that evacuation is needed, you will be registered and given help.

Americans can sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows constant contact with US embassies abroad. I’d venture to guess that many ambassadors and their staff are also on hand for visa processing, passport renewal,

On that note, be sure to email other expats in your preferred destination to establish a pre-departure network for both information and the almighty rant session when you can’t figure out to unlock your phone/don’t get anywhere with bureaucracy/aren’t sure if you can get your favorite products from home. Expat circles can help you through tough times and get you on track when you first arrive.

Staying in Contact

On my first trip to Spain, Skype hadn’t been invented and many Spaniards didn’t have computers at home – I’d have to use phone cards or local Internet cafes to call home! Nowadays, technology has brought the world together through smartphones and broadband.

 Consider unlocking your mobile phone for use abroad, study up on plans in your destination country and set up a listserv or email to let your loved ones back home know what you’re up to. Expats will often list missing friends and family as one of their biggest complaints, so making a conscious effort to stay in touch will help ease homesickness tremendously.

Attitude is Everything

As someone who constantly sees the glass as half full (and has already ordered another one), I think my attitude and grit has allowed me to deal with the frustration, disappointment and headaches that can come from living across the pond. Realize that not every day will be new, or exciting, or even fun. Know that it’s normal. Be open to new opportunities and learning from others. Enjoy it.

All tips listed here are my own because, well, I’ve been through them!

Are you considering becoming and expat, or have you lived or worked abroad? I’d love to hear your tips, as I sometimes deal with expat angst – even after six years!

My 2013 Travel Round-up

Leonor predicted it – she said she thought 2013 would be my year. Apart from earning a master’s in Public Relations 2.0 from the Universidad Autoónoma de Barcelona, I did big things in travel: crossing off a major goal from my life to-do list, traveling to my 30th country and celebrating world-famous festivals.

Oh, and I got a promotion, too!

2014, you better live up to this year in travel, one in which I visited five new UNESCO World Heritage sites, 30 cities, and eight countries, and took nine round-trip flights and a boat. I also walked 325 kilometers across Spain for charity.

July

For the fifth straight summer, La Coruña welcomed me with sea breezes, seafood and a smattering of festivals. I love returning to a city over and over again that I truly enjoy, and Coru is one of those places. The rain held off for all but the first and last day of camp, meaning a bit of beach time and more freckles.

It wasn’t all fun and pulpo, though, as I was working on the oral defense of my master’s thesis project, one that dealt with promoting Marca España in the US. I wish I could say that this blog was enough, but, alas, I had to catch a Vueling flight to Barcelona in the middle of camp. In 20 hours, I had flown across the country, met my group members for the first time face-to-face, had the Powerpoint stop working when I got to the numbers part of our presentation (for real, these things only happen to me), and then flew back with a 9,0 in the presentation and the need for a small celebration.

Once camp had wrapped up, I sent my rebajas-laden bag to Seville and traded it for a hiking bag and boots. I stopped in Oviedo to visit my friend Claudia and take in the pre-Romanesque churches of the city before spending the night in Avilés.

You know what follows.

August

When August hit, Hayley and I were about ten days from reaching Santiago de Compostela by foot. Traipsing through Northern Spain with our own two feet was at trying as it was rewarding, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

Luarca, Ribadeo, Vilalba, Playa de las Catedrales and Cudrillero got our touristic euros, but I think we gained a lot more than we thought we would.

We reached the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela before Pilgrim’s Mass on August 12th. Going home, I experienced an enormous slump where I found decision making difficult, the heat unbearable and a body that just needed to move, move, move.

That didn’t last for long, because I had purchased tickets to go to the Tomatina. For an American, this is one of Spain’s claims to fame, and though I had a great time slinging rotten tomatoes, I’m not keen on going again.

September

I began the new school year with a new job title – Director of Studies – and new responsibilities. After a successful start (just a few hiccups!), I traveled to Frankfurt to visit my cousin, Christyn, who works in Kaiserslautern. We took an overnight bus to and from Munich to attend Oktoberfest.

As a beer lover, I think this was as close as I’ll ever get to Nirvana.

October

I traveled locally this month, going to a fancy dinner party in Jerez at a bodega, and then rekindling my love with the province of Huelva by attending their ham festival.

We ate and drank all weekend. Perfect.

November

November found me in Malaga twice – the first time was for a conference of Anglo Writers and Bloggers About Spain held in Pedragalejo. We got a warm sunny weekend, and spent the days under a tent at OnSpain, an innovative language school just steps from the beach. Hayley and I launched our up-and-coming business idea, as well as met other bloggers, like Molly of Piccavey.

Later that month, Mickey and I were invited to take part in A Cooking Day in the Malgueño countryside. While we got horribly lost, we did spend a morning picking fruit, and the afternoon cooking up local specialties  and eating, enjoying the Spanish sobremesa until it grew dark.

December

The Novio and I finally escaped to his village, San Nicolás del Puerto, for the first time since June. In a town with not much to do, we find time to relax (although I did get a turn as a farm hand!) and attend a festival for one of the patron saints, Santa Bárbara.

December also brings me back to Munich, but this time I actually get to see some of the city!

Currently, I’m somewhere on the Danube River with my parents on a Viking Cruise. Along the way, we’re stopping in Passau, Germany, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava (oh goody, a new country!) and Budapest. I’ve already traveled to the majority of these places, but have not written about them on Sunshine and Siestas, surprisingly!

Then I’ll spend the 31st in the Madrid mountains with the Novio’s family, no doubt thinking about how good 2013 was to me, both personally and professionally.

On Docket for 2014

These itchy feet only have two things on the agenda for 2014 so far: a weekend in Tenerife visiting my friends Julie and Forrest, and a trip home to Chicago. I’ve also got to get to Trujillo from an invitation from Trujillo Villas, and am hoping to make Toulouse, Jaén, Ceuta and Dublin happen.

What did your year in travel look like? What’s up for 2014?

The five best Spanish foods I never knew existed

I’m pleased to give some space to my friend and fellow Midwesterner, Katie Stearns. Our first meeting was serendipitous and mostly based around a shared interest: food. When not working in marketing, Katie is often found in the kitchen or eating out in Seville, and she’s written a post about five of her favorite Spanish food discoveries:

When I think back to my first year in Spain, and even my second, part of me cringes when I think about the things I thought I knew about the country. And when I say country, I really mean the country’s gastronomy scene – a topic that I’m passionate about no matter which part of the world I’m in.

I thought Spanish food was simple. I had this notion that Spanish food was kind of bland. And for some reason or other, I wasn’t convinced that it was anything special. If you’re only going to visit Spain for a short period of time, don’t waste any time in  making this exact mistake, and make sure you leave it to the professionals to help you discover these amazing flavors.

Thankfully, after two more years of living in Spain and thanks to my Spanish boyfriend and his family of amazing cooks, I get it. Spanish food is special. It’s steeped in both flavor and tradition. It’s made with spices and ingredients that have been around for ages and that have continuously produced spectacular food. It’s comforting and flavorful, and because food here is often cooked slowly, the flavors are inexplicably complex.

Here are five Spanish foods I wish I had known existed long before I ever did.

Espinacas con garbanzos is a dish of comfort and flavor. Although I eat spinach in salads, I never knew people really cooked the stuff until I got here, and I have to say cooked spinach is better than raw spinach on all counts. Espinacas con garbanzos starts with frying garlic and day-old bread, which becomes the base of the dish. Then, the spinach is added and cooked down with spices like cumin and a touch of pimentón until, finally, you add the fresh chickpeas. I could eat this dish anytime, anywhere, but it’s really best on a chilly day and served with a piece of crusty baguette to sop up the leftover cumin-laced sauce.

Morcilla. Okay, so I did know what it was, but I had no idea how good it was. Just do yourself a favor, and don’t think about what it’s made of and enjoy the rich and robust flavor of this incredible cured meat. It’s also a perfect touch in classic stews made in Spain with lentils or garbanzo beans.

Caracoles are another food I’d heard of, but again one of those things I chose to politely ignore. When my Spanish coworkers told me the translation of caracoles in English (snails), I felt squeamish. I think now is a good moment to note that I have always been an unbiased and adventurous eater, but after one slimy-snail-related situation at my house almost 15 years ago, I told myself I’d never go back. But I did go back, only about six months ago, and now I keep going back for more and more. Snails here in Spain are anything but slimy. The best snails I’ve ever eaten were in Córdoba, and they were bathed in a yellow cumin-spiced broth. After getting all of the snails out of the little cup, my boyfriend and his parents and I all stood over the little dish  and took turns dipping our spoons in just for that delicious liquid. And in Sevilla, it’s typical to order cabrillas, which are a bit bigger than the normal snails, and drenched in spicy tomato broth. The only regret I have about snails is that I waited so long to try them.

Huevos fritos seem simple enough. They may seem so simple, in fact, that you steer clear from ordering them at a bar or restaurant, just like I did. But to understand why that is a huge no-no while visiting Spain, you must understand that a fried egg here is nothing like a fried egg back home. Actually, when I make fried eggs at home, my boyfriend scoffs at me, and tells me it’s offensive to grill an egg in a spot of oil and still call it frying. He thinks this, of course, because a fried egg in Spain is just that. An egg gets broken into almost a full inch of hot olive oil, and instead of flipping it half-way during the cooking process, the cook simply takes a spatula to splash the hot olive oil on top of the egg. This process leaves the egg cooked to perfection and tasting nothing like the fried eggs I grew up with.

Coquinas are tiny little clams that are collected on the coast of Andalucía. I suppose this is a good moment to mention I was born and raised Midwestern. I ate meat of all kinds, while fish and seafood were rarely served at my house. When I moved to Spain, I started learning Spanish words for fish while simultaneously learning them in English, but I rarely ordered fish at restaurants and, in general, had no idea how many delicious things I was missing out on. When I first started dating my boyfriend, we’d go out to dinner together and he’d always gravitate toward the fish on a menu. And as first dates and shyness go, I could never say no. And thus began my love affair with fish and seafood in Spain, and coquinas are number one on my list. The little clams are cooked with olive oil, garlic and parsley until they open right up. They are sweet and soft, and the perfect meal after a day spent at the beach. Like many Spanish dishes, the leftover sauce from the cooking process is the perfect place to dip your bread, soaking up every last drop.

Katie Stearns lives, eats and breathes life in the South of Spain, where she’s going on her fourth year of life abroad. What started out as a nine-month stint teaching English as a foreign language has spun into a career of writing and marketing for Andalucía Inside, a luxury tour guide company located in Seville. All photos are her own.

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 2)

Where we last left off, I had literally just climbed a mountain, but I had also scaled a mountain of self-doubt that told me my body was not strong enough to continue. We were halfway there, distance-wise, but coming to grips with the impending end of the journey.

Day Eight // Monday, August 5th, 2013 // Gontán – Vilalba //20km

Money can buy you happiness, it turns out, and we left Abadín before dawn after a few beers the night before and a sound sleep in a comforable bed to the tune of 19€ each. At this point, I’d only opened my sleeping bag once.

We didn’t speak much on the way to Vilalba, a once-powerful city that hosts a Parador. All of the sudden, there were more pilgrims on the trail who we’d never seen before, and we felt rushed to get to the next inn on time with Croissanthead (our so-named mascot for an earlier Xacobeo celebration). We had wine at the parador and met the cook, a man who had walked 15 Caminos in his life. I’d read somewhere that those who live along the trail are obligated by law to protect pilgrims and not do anything to ruin or impede their Camino. Written or not, pilgrims are respected by these townspeople, and not just for the tourism dollars they bring in. We were treated to a snack, courtesy of this fellow peregrino.

Even the local Proteccion Civil officer who ran the large albergue locked up 15 minutes later than normal because we invited him to a shot of orujo.

Day Nine // Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 // Vilalba – Baamonde // 20km

The reality of passing the halfway point in our journey was starting to weigh on me. The simplicity of pilgrim life was so inviting after a year of many changes and transitions for me, and knowing that I’d be finished in just five days got me a little depressed. I no longer befriended pilgrims, knowing I’d have to say goodbye to them once we reached Santiago. José was an exception. Sharing 20 kilometers with him into Baamonde was a treat.

The road that day was littered with small towns, dairy farms and leafy groves of trees and rudimentary stone structures. José is a secondary teacher in Valencia, so Hayley and I immediately had a connection with him and his outlook on life. Almost immediately after meeting another pilgrim, you exchanged the, ‘So what brings you on the Camino?’ question. José’s was simple, and it made me think of my own reasons.

The say the Camino always provides, and it does – from new friendships to a bit of clarity to a stronger body, or even a hot plate of food after a long trek.

That afternoon when we rolled into Baamonde, just 103 kilometers from Santiago, and we had ample time to enjoy the 94 others who were there sharing four showers with us. Afternoon beers, a large and tasty meal in a table that was far too small for us and our food, jam sessions in the patio as we waited out a rain cloud. When you only have one thing in common and nothing else matters, it’s easy to make friends. Besides, that’s what Facebook is for!

Day Ten // Wednesaday, August 7th, 2013 // Baamonde – Miraz // 14.5km

“Be careful of the Santa Campana,” Fernando warned us before retiring to bed. Our walk from the sprawling pilgrim’s inn at Baamonde to the rumored ‘nicest albergue on the Norte’ was a short one, but we’d have to rush – there were just 26 beds in Miraz.

We woke at 5am. It would be dark until nearly 7:30 a.m., but we didn’t have any time to waste. My guidebook told me that we’d walk three kilometers out of Baaaaaaaaaaamonde before turning left over the train tracks. Our flashlights bounced off trees, searching desperately before we got off-track and lost a bed.

Then it began raining. We thankfully didn’t see the witches of the Santa Campana, said to lure pilgrims into sorcery by handing them candles when it’s dark and rainy along the trail.

By the time we got to Miraz around 9:30 that morning, there were already six or eight other pilgrims in line. We set our bags down under the overhang, respecting the pre-established order for beds and joined the others in the town’s only bar. We considered continuing on to Sobrado, but I’m glad we didn’t – apart from a warm bed and blanket and other English speakers (the small albergue is run by the British Cofraternity of Saint James volunteers), we spent hours in the bar, warming up over beers and sandwiches. The rain and the fact that we had to wait forever was made better by the fact that there was a bit of cerveciña to make the time pass quicker.

Day Eleven // Thursday, August 8th, 2013 // Miraz – Sobrado dos Monxes // 25.5km

We took our time walking into Sobrado dos Monxes the following day, knowing that we were nearing the end of the road. It was a perfect day, with puffy clouds within reach and enough solitude to hash out issues and just talk about nothing in between.

The albergue is housed in a 10th Century monastery, and Hayley and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to our weeks working in a haunted monastery in Uclés, Cuenca. The pilgrim hysteria was high, as a Jesuit group was also there, taking up nearly half the beds. After checking in and getting our stamp from the monks who lived on site and raised dogs and cows (which Carmela and I got to see!), Hayley and I escaped to a bar further outside of town. When we finished, half a bottle of wine each later, a stray dog who I’d tripped over earlier in the day was waiting for us, his broken chain dangling from his neck as he drooled over the hot pavement. We tried to lose him, and the poor pup kept getting shooed out of the monastery.

I honestly would have loved wasting hours petting him in the interior lawn of the sprawling, gorgeous palace, but he was not allowed to enter.

Long live Blacky. That is, if he stops tripping pilgrims.

Day Twelve // Friday, August 9th, 2013 // Sobrado dos Monxes – Arzúa // 22km

Fernando gave us a pep talk as we headed out of Sobrado towards Arzúa, the last major stop on the Francés and where our route would hook up with the main pilgrim trail. We’d lose most of our friends on this day who favored a shorter route that skipped the pilgrim town. Many bikers making their way to Santiago passed us, and we knew they’d reach Santiago in time for Pilgrim’s Mass that morning while we still had more than 50km to go.

Reaching Arzúa was a bit strange – there was already a long line outside the municipal inn when we arrived, despite making good time. Most of the private inns were booked up, too. In the end, a hotel offered us a good price for a street side room right near the central plaza.

‘You’ll need these,’ he said, handing us a pair of earplugs. I already had some, courtesy of the Novio, but I shrugged and took them anyway. We took long showers, ate a filling lunch and caught up on the news for the first time in days. Here in Arzúa, pilgrims are kings and there are loads of facilities for them. We had ample choices of where to eat, had special deals on laundry services and massages, and found ourselves feeling alone in a booming town – it took us ages to find familiar pilgrims.

Pilgrim culture shock at its finest.

Our second to last sleep was interrupted early the next morning by a bagpipe. The town had some sort of festival, hence the lack of private inns, and its last revelers were playing bagpipes to signal the end of the party. So that’s what the earplugs were for.

Day Thirteen // Saturday, August 10th, 2013 // Arzúa – O Pedrouzo // 19km

We wizened up and book a private pension again, not willing to hurry our penultimate day for sake of a cheap bed. This meant we could take our time walking, stop more often and really soak up the last few kilometers. By now, we were 41km away from the Plaza do Obradoiro, which we decided to split into two days.

This day was among the most enjoyable – frequently stopping for a beer, running into familiar faces, realizing we’d done 300 kilometers and were all but finished. Joining us were loads of bikers (we nearly got plowed into!), many families and scout groups, and even people pushing strollers! We saw the turigrinos - those who sent their packs ahead and just walked with little weight. I felt lighter than on any other day, and even the purge I’d do later that day of things I wouldn’t need or hadn’t used in two weeks seemed to lighten the load tremendously.

I realized that I’d done everything I intended to do on the Way, save arrive in one piece to Santiago.

Hayley stopped just ahead of me and pointed - didn’t you want to leave something at this mile marker? Once in Galicia, it’s easy to see how many kilometers are left until the cathedral because they’re all marked with the distance down to the thousandth. Exactly at 21,0km I left a purple and orange ribbon for Kelsey. I’d scatter several more the following day, too – at the Lavacolla airport, at Monte do Gozo and at Saint James’s tomb.

Day Fourteen // Sunday, August 11th, 2013 // O Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compostela // 21km

I slept terribly. Maybe I was anxious, but it could be because a homeless man walked into the albergue and took a shower, and then an obnoxious family who hadn’t walked much all took showers after 11pm, turning on lights and hair dryers after I’d already drifted into dreamland. I tried to read Shirley McClain’s The Camino, but it was full of weird mystical dreams and meeting random dead Scottish men who give her a locket and then there’s a big black dog that chases her and she sends him a big red heart of love in her bind of some shit.

Anyway.

I was grumpy, but we didn’t have time for it. Every step meant one second less of our journey, one second closer to the end. Memorials and statues were around every corner, and I felt like we were racing to get to the finish line (we did want to arrive by mass at noon). I made sure to stop in the chapel of Santa Lucia, following my protocol to always leave her a donation as my Catholic aunt told me I was to do if I took her name for my confirmation. I was emotional, about ready to burst at any moment.

It finally happened after reaching Monte do Gozo. After leaving a ribbon on the memorial to Pope John Paul II and stamping our passport for one of the last times, we started the trek downhill. I teared up, wiping away my emotion as Hayley warned me to get it together, or we’d never make it.

We stalled as much as possible without losing track of the time, which included shooting last-minute footage, splitting an Aquarius, stopping to admire a part of the city we hadn’t seen on previous visits. It was ending.

As we arrived to the old town, I was overcome with emotion – for the struggles, for Kelsey, for knowing that tomorrow meant Seville and life and the school year and social media. The bagpipe that I’d heard several times on previous visits rang out and I tripped over my feet. Within moments, we’d passed under the arch and into the morning sunlight. The lichen-covered church towered before us, and even though I’d seen it many times, it was more striking and more beautiful and just plain bigger than ever before. We laid down immediately, taking it all in, happy for the journey and the fact that our legs didn’t fall off.

We had 36 hours or so in Santiago, in which we drank beer, ate international food and paid out respects to Saint James. Hayley decided to shop for other clothes to wear on the plane, but I wore my smelly clothes home, concha attached to my bag. I was proud of it, and I wanted to it last until I was back home.

The thing is, the fact that I’ve seen and done something I’ve always dreamed about doing means that it’s going to last forever in my heart and my memories and my photos.

Yes, even this one: creepy doll heads in Lavacolla, just one of the weird things we saw in 325 kilometers.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 1)

The Camino is full of little moments – a beautiful medieval bridge, a small roadside shrine, a memorable meal shared with other pilgrims. In the 14 days it took us to walk from Avilés to Santiago de Compostela, we saw all of the things I love about Spain. Much as I wanted to capture it all in my journal or with my camera, there was simply no time. For once, I was living in the moment and learning about myself and about life.

But really, I would have ‘sooner broken my neck’ than leave my camera behind.

In all, I took 25MB of photos and videos. I wanted to remember EVERYTHING  - what our meals consisted of, the people we met and their faces, the names of every small hamlet we passed through. We saw breathtaking beaches, the lush rolling landscapes of Northern Spain, hundreds of farm animals and stone crucifixes.

The pictures that follow all have stories, or they were simply a part of pilgrim life – simple living at its best. I could write an entire blog about our daily experiences on the trail, but it would be much of the same: We walked. We stopped for a coffee. We walked more. I got a new blister. We kept walking…

These 14 pictures go beyond the big moments that we experienced – they’re all the little things that went into our shared experience.

Day One // Monday, July 29th, 2013 // Avilés – El Pito // 26.5km

I easily shot the most on this day – everything was so new, every way marker a bit different from the last, the landscapes so dramatic as the cliffs of Asturias dropped into the sea. The weather was perfect and my body felt strong and able. We got lost early on in the day, stopped for beer just because and even splurged on a gorgeous guest house with the most comfortable beds ever.

What has really stuck with me, though, was our afternoon stop in Cudillero, a quaint fishing village built on a hidden inlet. Foolishly thinking there was a beach, Iván and I waded in the shallow bay, letting the cool water ease the pain in our feet. I watched the local kids splash around and look for hermit crabs between the moss-covered rocks.

I remember feeling extremely happy, between the kids and the water and the bottle of cider that followed. The journey had only just begun, and I couldn’t wait to wake up the next day and set out again.

Day Two // Tuesday, July 30th, 2013 // El Pito – Santa Marina // 21.1km

Ouch. We began the day with a tough climb to Soto de Luiña, and I was relieved that we didn’t do those last 10 kilometers the day before. The trail led us back and forth between the beach and the rolling hills straight off of a bottle of Leche Asturiana as we passed through beautiful Soto and hugged the N-634 highway into Santa Marina, where we’d spend the night.

After a painful hike down a steep hill and about 100 stairs, we arrived at a beach that looked straight out of Jurassic Park – rock crags shot up from the water, creating small pools full of water when the tide came in. It was windy, chilly and rocky, but considering I am like a seven-year-old boy when it comes to prehistoric lizards and Asturias was once Dinotown in Spain, I was psyched.

But that hike up the hill again definitely deserved a super enormous dinner, one of the best we had along the trail.

Day Three // Wednesday, July 31st, 2013 // Santa Marina – Luarca //27 km

I had a terrible night’s sleep, but was psyched to get to Luarca, considered one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. It was a day with a lot of highway walking and a constant threat of rain, and we got to Luarca absolutely exhausted and later than normal. I also got my first two blisters long before arriving, though we did get fabada and a kick-ass salad. Not all was lost.

Day Four // Thursday, August 1st, 2013 // Luarca – A Caridá // 31km

This was the longest, absolute longest day ever, and also the ugliest. Every time we’d ask how far off A Caridá was, we’d get the same ‘Just about a kilometer’ answer from nearly everyone, when, in fact, we were much further. We ran into road construction, never-ending hills and detours. I honestly thought my feet were going to fall off by the time we got to Navia for a snack, and there were still 10 kilometers still to go (there was, however, a puppy halfway through).

We got several laughs by the time we’d had a beer midmorning and were so tired that everything was laughable – a deranged old lady who hassled Hayley, a cow who mooed at me while I relieved myself in the middle of a field, two more who got it on as we walked by (that was for real the funniest thing ever). I also sat on an ortiga, causing an itchy rash.

It was also here that we finally stayed in a shiny new albergue, grabbing the last three beds before the place filled up (which would have meant backtracking three kilometers to the old albergue). The hospitalero was amazing – he opened up his restaurant for us, gave us second helpings and bought us a drink later in the evening. When they say that people protect pilgrims and do what they can to make the Camino easier, they’re right.

Day Five // Friday, August 2nd, 2013 //  A Caridá – Ribadeo // 21.5km

After seven days between Oviedo and Figueras, we left Asturias, arriving to Ribadeo early enough to enjoy a long lunch, a long siesta and a visit to Trip Advisor’s top-rated beach, Playa As Catedrais. It was a quick day walking, to be honest, knowing we’d be racing the others to get to a bed in the teeny albergue in Ribadeo. Santiago seemed closer than ever as we crossed into the region of Galicia. All at once, the way markers changed direction and we walked with more purpose.

Ribadeo reminded me a lot of Cádiz or El Ferrol – you could tell that, if taken care of, the city could really shine. It was the perfect introduction to Lugo.

I also remember falling on this day in Porcia as we crossed a medieval bridge. My knee began giving me problems, and I’d eventually cave and go to a pharmacy for a knee brace. The pharmacy was located next to a store called ‘Todo para Abuelos,’ and we had to laugh at the irony.

Day Six // Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 // Ribadeo – Lourenzá // 27.5km

While in Ribadeo, Hayley and I realized we needed a breather from our other peregrino friends – we just wanted a bit of solitude. On the sixth day, we did a long hike through rolling meadows, passing towns with nary a supermarket or bar, just a small collection of houses and an occassional church. Villagers raised their arms to wave and mutter a ‘Buen Camino!’ and everything (including watching a huge caterpillar get pummeled by a car) seemed hilarious.

For the first and only time on the hike, we stopped for lunch before reaching our finishing point. After ordering a large beer, the woman at the bar informed us that she only had potato chips and old pastries to offer us. I was a bit crestfallen, as we hadn’t packed many snacks that day, but the bar next door didn’t disappoint – an enormous fuente of lentejas, a bottle of strong red and the laughter of the other pilgrims who had also stopped for fuel.

We spent the last 10 kilometers belting out John Denver songs. Rocky Mountain high….yes.

There was just one bed at the inn and no shower door in Lourenzá, so we decided to splurge on a private room. Just 10€ for a bedroom, hot shower, laundry facilities and a kitchen where we’d meet Valèrie and Guido, the adorable French couple who moved faster than we did.

Day Seven // Sunday, August 4th, 2013 // Lourenzá – Gontán // 24km

My first step out of bed was fine, but the second caused a weird crack in my knee. It was still dark and I fumbled for the bottle of aspirin I’d left nearby in my plastic bag filled with drugs, earplugs, needles and band aids. It was going to be a long day.

The trail wasn’t so long, but after a quick nine kilometers downhill into Mondoñedo, we had to literally climb a mountain. As we zigzagged into one of Galicia’s ancient kingdoms, I told Hayley that I was considering taking a bus or taxi to Gontán. She nodded her head in agreement, though I knew she wouldn’t be joining me. I even got tendonitis as we neared closer to our breakfast spot, an aptly named Bar Peregrino.

After a strong coffee and an enormous breakfast, my optimism came back, and I was willing to push through the pain. As we left Mondoñedo and its breathtaking valley and continued the climb up, I was happy that I decided to forgo a free ride and stick to my plan to walk the entire way to Santiago.

Halfway up the mountain, which was a climb of eight kilometers, Santine and Claude were stopped, talking to a woman on a rickety chair dressed entirely in black. Two small boys rode bicycles in the small hamlet behind her. She pointed to a cemetery down the rode with a dozen headstones. ‘They’ve all left. I’m all there is,’ she lamented.

Reaching Lousada meant we were nearly to the top of the mountain, and even then there was another hour of walking. We tried to animarnos with a bit of cheese and chocolate, and I’m pretty sure we both cried that day of physical pain and exhaustion. The inn was once again full, meaning walking to the next town, Abadín, and paying for a hotel room.

…to be continued.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

What Walking the Camino de Santiago Taught Me About Life

‘El Camino no regala nada.’

I was trailing Iván, using his walking stick as a third leg as we trudged up a muddy incline somewhere between Santa Marina and Ballotas. I had joked around that my first and second breakfasts had not prepared me for the day’s long haul up and down ravines through western Asturias. But he was right – nothing on the trail came for free (except for the blisters – those were definitely free).

When Hayley and I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago two years ago, my mental preparation had begun and, even though my body never got the prep, I looked forward to two weeks where I had nothing to do but wake up, pull on my hiking boots and walk.

The Camino was, in many ways, a fourteen-day break from myself, from the pressures of daily life, from makeup and straightening irons. I cleared my head. I focused on eating and on sleeping and little more. Books and films paint a rosy picture of how the Camino has healing powers, about how one reaches the top of Maslow’s pyramid (totally made that up, but it’s not that far off), about how people’s lives change simple by trekking. Maybe they do, but mine certainly hasn’t changed in any profound way.

Don’t get me wrong – the Camino is still in the front of my recollection and I loved the experience I had (even the blisters – chicks dig scars, right?). Walking 326 kilometers along the coastline of Northern Spain may not have given my life a huge kick in the pants, but I wasn’t looking for it to, either. I didn’t go with a big question to wait and see if the road or God or another pilgrim answered it for me, nor did I set off hoping to find myself.

What I did take from the experience, though, was a better understanding about myself and my capabilities, a new dedication to seeking more from within myself, and the discovery that I have been me for far longer than I knew.

The Camino, as it turns out, it a great teacher.

What the Camino taught me about inspiration

“I don’t know,” said Antonio as he slid his insoles back into his boots. “For some reason, 3.000km just seemed like a good goal.” As we sat in the twilight of the municipal albergue in Vilalba, my jaw dropped. Hayley and I had done 200km or so, nothing compared to the number of footsteps Antonio had taken from Lourdes, France on his second Camino.

I was constantly inspired by the people with whom I shared the trail. Each person has their own story, their own reasons for walking to Santiago. The cook at the parador in Vilalba had walked to Santiago in 19 hours and was planning on walking the medieval city walls in Lugo 79 times for the victim of the Santiago train crash. Or the mother and her teenage daughter from Germany who were trying to learn how to get along. Or Pilgrim Peter, who was looking to find himself again after several jobs and not a clue what to do when he got back home (he never made it to Santiago due to a blood clot in his leg, and my heart broke for him).

I was inspired to come by a Spanish teacher, and just needed the impulse to actually go and do it. I needed to feel inspired. Once we set out, I was fascinated by the untouched landscapes, by the people we met, by the simplicity of pilgrim life. So inspired, in fact, that I can’t wait to do a second Camino.

What the Camino taught me about positivity

“I could complain, but it’s really no use.”

My friend Hayley says she’s a born complainer, but we realized its futility once we were walking on the second day near Soto de Luiña. This would be the day I’d get two blisters on my left foot and we’d arrive to Santa Marina with cramped muscles, but it was only the beginning.

Injuries, getting lost and arriving to find that there was no more room at the inn temporarily dampened our spirits. The thing is, there were always other pilgrims who had more ailments, or personal demons, or didn’t get along with their companions. Guido got shin splints from pulling a cart along the looooong stretch of the N-634, the Coastal highway that hugs the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea. Iván’s back was so sore, he couldn’t carry his bag, let alone walk the 26 kilometers from Ribadeo to Lourenzá uphill. Hayley had sun rash on her right arm.

Everyone suffers on the Camino.

But everyone also pushes on within their abilities. My biggest ailments were my bad knees and shins after years of gymnastics wreaked havoc on an otherwise healthy body. I could have complained that there were snorers in the albergues, that some pilgrim meals were not worth the 10€ they charged, or that townspeople seemed to think everything was only a little further one (three kilometers after 25 of them is NOT ‘only a little further along’). But it didn’t make sense to sweat the trivial parts of the experience.

What the Camino taught me about vanity

I didn’t even bring a pair of tweezers with me on the Camino (thank goodness there was a pair of them in my Swiss army knife – saved!). Makeup, moisturizer and other beauty products, minus my sunscreen and a comb, never made the cut when packing my backpack. Every day we’d wake up, slather on some sun protection, put our hair in pony tails and arrive a few hours later, sweaty and dirty, to the next pilgrim inn.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I forgot all about how I looked, if I had any zits or I had forgotten to suck my gut in. I wouldn’t consider myself high maintenance by any stretch of imagination, but I’ve noticed that I’ve become even less so in the six weeks since the Camino. I did treat myself to a pedicure because my feet actually hurt with the blisters, and I think the girl who had to buff off the old, dead cells was disgusted by the state of my tootsies.

I came to love my fresh faced look, and found my skin even seemed to improve. I felt more, well, me.

What the Camino taught me about my body

Speaking of vanity, I think I came to know more about my body while walking. When you’re in the middle of a forest or skirting around some hidden beach, there’s nothing between the ground and the sky but you and your body. By not worrying about makeup or clothes, I could concentrate on getting to know my body and its grievances. I listened when it needed water or a snack, and I allowed it to have a nap for as long as it needed. As a matter of fact, my body felt more rested at the end of the Camino!

Every morning, my body took priority over anything else – I would wrap my blisters, spread vaseline on my feet, gingerly put on my socks and hiking boots. I’d then spend 10 minutes stretching every single muscle, just as I did when I was a gymnast. I could soon feel every rock under my feet, I knew just where my back would be sore according to how I’d re-packed my bag that morning. While on the trail, I could calculate just how much fuel it would need during the day, and I rewarded its hard work with half a litre of vino nearly every afternoon at lunch (que Dios bendiga pilgrim meals!!).

When I didn’t cooperate, my body made sure I knew it – I had knee problems thanks to an old injury and tendonitis that had me ready to flag down us a bus when we were in Mondoñedo. Knowing that the rest of the day would be an uphill climb to Gondán, I freaked myself out, thinking it would be impossible to push on. But Hayley and I had promised that we’d be purist pilgrims and walk every last kilometer into Santiago. That night, we had to decide between sleeping on the floor of the sports center, or shelling out 19€ per person for a hotel room. Duh.

I also realized just how strong I got during the two week trip. After four days, we could log five kilometers in an hour and we could walk longer and farther after a week. My calves and glutes were working on overdrive. When we got to Santiago, I had half a heart to cancel my plane ticket and arrive to Fisterra. Even after returning to Seville, I began walking more often to the center (about four kilometers) or even Triana.

What the Camino taught me about grieving

I wasn’t only carrying a 15 pound bag on my back during the Camino – I was carrying my friend Kelsey in my heart. Kelsey fought cancer for seven years before she passed away in late 2011 at 21. The Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos allows pilgrims to walking in memory of someone who has died or is physically unable to make the trip, something called ‘Vicario Por.’

Whenever by body hurt, I thought of Kelsey. As I curled up in bed one drizzly night in Miraz, I buried my head under the thick wool blanket and cried soft tears until I fell asleep. And when we arrived to Monte do Gozo, the final climb before entering the Santiago city limits, I cried for her and for her memory, big sloppy (and most likely, very, very ugly) tears while Hayley told me to cool it before she lost it, too.

I expected to grieve for Kelsey on the trip, and it felt right to remember her in this way. In some strange way, everyone on the Camino is grieving or remembering or getting over something or someone, evident by the piles of rocks left atop way markers and the need to go to Fisterra and burn one’s clothing. I left small orange and purple ribbons – the color of sarcoma and leukemia awareness, and also her favorite colors – in important places during the last few days, as well as a photo of Kelsey and a small scallop shell in St. James’s tomb when we went to pay our respects.

I left behind a part of me that will always remember, but I did the grieving I needed to in order to move on. Kelsey said she always wanted to go to Spain. She didn’t get there physically, but she’s been all over the North by now.

What the Camino taught me about myself

I didn’t expect a grand epiphany when we ascended Monto do Gozo and finally saw the end in site – in fact, I was quite sad to know that the journey was all but over, and a day later I’d be sleeping in my own bed in Seville. There was no moment of clarity or understanding or forgiveness or whatever it is that pilgrims are supposed to feel when they complete the Camino.

In fact, I was the victim of a surprise attack from a pilgrim we’d run into two or three times who hugged me before I could hug the one who’d stuck with me through the whole thing. Maldito Tomás.

I knew I would enjoy the Camino, despite the warning of ampollas, of cancerous peregrinos, of the threat of getting bedbugs for the third time. I just had no idea how much I would love the experience of sharing the road with strangers and of hearing the ground move under my feet. In fact, my feet became the center of my universe for 14 days.

I learned a lot from doing the Camino de Santiago, but mostly about me and my capabilities. I’m strong physically and mentally. I’m headstrong and can push myself.

As my friend Alvaro from Bilbao put it, “Every step you took towards Santiago was a step towards your own destiny, to a story that you have for yourself that no one else will ever have. It’s all yours.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my articles on what to pack, how to read the waymarkers across Asturias and Galicia and about the beaches and quaint towns we saw along the way. 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...