Post-Study Abroad Feels

Every second of the day, I am wishing I was back in Bilbao, surrounded by all the wonderful friends I made, sitting on the beach, practicing my Spanish with locals, and having not a care in the world. There is no way I could sum up my study abroad experience in a few, short words. It was an enlightening experience that allowed me to mature in ways I never thought were possible and see the world differently. As the days fly by, it’s easy to start forgetting the small details. The ones you always hoped you would remember, but just can’t because they were all memories you enjoyed in the moment. I look through videos and pictures every single day, just to jog my memory a little bit. It always brings a smile to my face.

The first week or so being back home in Reno, I felt relaxed and at ease. I no longer had to strategically pack my bag so it was under 50 pounds or worry about catching a flight. I was able to look back on my experience and think to myself, wow, did this really happen? I was in a state of true happiness, which is something I have always prayed for. I headed back to work, shared some of my experiences with my coworkers, and all of sudden, life fell back into place. It was almost like I never left. Coming from a constantly changing dynamic to one that stayed the same while I was away made me a little upset. I would be lying if I said I didn’t suffer from a mild form of depression after coming home. Or maybe just a severe case of reverse culture shock. Food that I loved before, no longer had that amazing taste. Clothes that I used to think were cute, are no longer in my closet. My tastes and interests have changed.

I get pretty sad when I come across people I haven’t seen in a while, and they don’t really care to hear about my experience. It was so awesome that I can’t help but talk about it all the time. Why wouldn’t anybody be as excited as I was? And the truth is, because they didn’t experience it themselves. That’s the cool thing about studying abroad. It is something special to you, and only you. Very few people get this type of opportunity in their lifetime, so I consider myself very lucky.

My friend and coworker, Sarah, studied abroad in Costa Rica this summer as well, and she is probably the closest I can get to reminiscing. We both had similar experiences and we talk about it all the time at work, even if it bugs our other coworkers. We were talking last week, and she said something that really stuck out to me. “It felt like a dream.” She couldn’t have said it any better. Sometimes I wonder if that was really me. It felt like I was a different person, in someone else’s body, perusing around Spain, by myself, and not being afraid to put myself out there. And honestly, I miss that part of me. I was truly outside of my comfort zone, and that’s how I want to be all the time. I no longer want to sit in complacency and wonder how life is going to turn out for me. I want to live in the moment, and live outside my comfort zone, because that’s where the most growth takes place.

I remember the exact day I left for Spain. I was in San Francisco with my parents because that’s where my group flight left from. We went to a Giant’s game the night before with some family friends and they wished me luck on my trip. About 4 hours before I had to hop on the plane, I had an anxiety attack. Suddenly I could no longer breathe. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was going into the unknown, without my parents by my side and I was scared out of mind. I began to text all of my friends back home, asking if I was crazy to be freaking out so much. My parents tried to calm me down at the hotel, telling me that this was my DREAM since middle school. I had to go. It was my chance to learn and figure it out for myself. Saying goodbye to my parents was the hardest thing I had to do. I was crying hysterically and couldn’t stop. As I tried to pull myself together and be strong, I noticed a girl not too far from me hugging her parents too. She kept telling them “I’ll be fine, I’ll be home before you know it!” I had a strange feeling this girl was going to the same place I was.

Sure enough, as I stood in line for security, she turned around and waved to me, noticing that I was wearing a USAC t-shirt. It gave me a sense of relief knowing that there was someone right here in front of me going through the same thing. I met her at the gate, and we started talking. She is also from Reno, and little did we know, we had mutual friends. She became one of my good friends abroad, and honestly a true homie. Every time we went out in Bilbao, we always talked about that first time we met in the airport, scared out of our minds about what we were getting into. It’s people like her that made my study abroad experience a memorable one. Never did I think that I could miss such a fun group of people as much as I do right now.

The best way I can describe traveling, is an itch you can’t seem to scratch. Once you go, you never want to stop. I am already planning my next study abroad adventure for either this coming Winter or next Summer. It’s kind of hard not to, when you work for USAC, lol. I am hoping to continue growing as a person and learning more about different cultures, especially Spanish cultures. I now only have three semesters left before I can graduate with my bachelor’s degree, and it’s a little overwhelming; but, I am excited to see where life takes me. Thank you all for following along on my summer journey and for your endless support. If you have any questions, or would like to get together and talk more about study abroad, I would be more than happy to!

 

Home Means Nevada

I am now sitting safely on my couch at home after quite a long journey. My last few days in London, I had this sudden urge to be home, in my own bed. I was ready to come home and be reunited with my family and friends. Even though my luggage did not make it on my flight, and had to be delivered to my house a day later, the trip home wasn’t too bad. I was extremely exhausted. I felt like I had just pulled an all-nighter, which is possibly true due to the nine hour time change. I remember approaching Reno and seeing Manogue High School’s football field from the air. I smiled and knew I was home.

Getting off the plane, I basically ran to the escalators to be reunited with my family. I was videotaping them, and my mom was videotaping me. My dad had flowers in his hand and my brother had balloons for me, and I just fell into their arms and cried. My mom and I were in a crying embrace for quite some time. My mom is my best friend. Last summer, she was in New York for about a month while I was in Reno. I remember it being so hard to be away from my mom because there were things I wanted to tell her in the moment, and she wasn’t there. This time, it was me that was gone for over a month and I could tell it was hard for her. While I missed my mom terribly, I was so proud of myself for making the decision to study abroad and doing it on my own. It was a learning experience that I can take with me everywhere I go.

My mom had turkey dinner and brownies ready for me when I got home, which was basically heaven. Of course, I had to spend time handing out all the souvenirs I got and emptying out my carry-on. My dog, Jasmine, was a little confused that I was home. She sniffed me at first and took a while to warm up. I forgot how tiny she really is! It felt so nice to just hug and squeeze her. My sleeping schedule actually hasn’t been horrible. The first two nights I was waking up around 2:30am, but last night I slept through the entire night. I was really scared for the jet lag, but it seems to be okay right now.

Last night, my family and I went to the Aces game for the Fourth of July. I made sure to be home for this holiday because it’s one of my favorites and also my parent’s 32nd anniversary. I was not going to miss this! It’s cool to think that I’ve been exploring all these other countries, and I still get to come home to celebrate the birthday of the United States and our freedoms. I feel so lucky to be with my family today and everyday.

Another thing I was scared about coming back home, was reverse culture shock. I can say I was definitely excited to have a dryer for my clothes, hot water in my shower, and food in the cupboard. But I still miss my morning cafe con leche, tortilla de patatas, and pinxtos. I feel very annoying to my family because I keep saying “When I was in Spain…” but that’s all I know right now. That was my life for the past six weeks and it was absolutely amazing. How can I not talk about it? Sitting here at home, everything seems kind of surreal. Did I actually just spend six weeks in a foreign country, by myself? It hasn’t really hit me yet.

So what did I learn from my time abroad? I am so much more open-minded and aware of what’s going on around me now. I was truly content with life when I was living in Spain. I had no worries, no cares, I just went with the flow and did what I wanted to do without an agenda. It was the absolute best feeling. I feel so in tune with myself and my aspirations for life. I find myself complaining less and just making do with what I have. I feel more grown up and sophisticated. Traveling has a certain effect on people. It gives you a new perspective that most people may never get, nor are willing to get. If you are debating whether or not to study abroad, do it!! You will not regret it. Even though it may seem scary and concerning at times, it is completely worth it in the end. Spain has a HUGE piece of my heart and always will. Someday I would like to go back and explore Southern Spain and the Northeast coast, hopefully with my family so we can also hit Italy.

I would like to also thank the people who played a big role in my study abroad adventure.

  • USAC, of course! Thank you to my coworkers who encouraged me to study abroad, and gave me only the best advice. Can’t wait to see you all next week and share my stories!
  • Ibon, María, Mane and all the USAC staff in Bilbao. Thank you all for organizing a wonderful excursion to France and San Sebastián, and always being there to answer any questions we may have had. You guys rock!
  • My host mom. Gracias por permitiéndome quedarme en tu casa, cocinando me comidas, y haciendo mi ropa sucia. Gracias por hablando español conmigo y ayudándome. Tú eres la leche.
  • My parents and siblings. Thank you for being open-minded and trusting that USAC would take good care of me. And also for helping me financially.
  • All of my previous Spanish teachers, Mrs. Kahl, Mrs. Kazemi, Mrs. O’Neill, Señorita Harris, and Profesora Leonard. Thank you guys for being apart of my Spanish journey, and inspiring me to continue using my Spanish abroad.
  • All the friends I made while in Spain. Thank you for bringing me out of my shell and allowing me to have fun. You guys really made this experience a memorable one.
  • Jim McClenahan. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to join your Global Business program in London. I couldn’t have done it without your help!
  • God. All Glory to Him. I would not have been able to do this without His hand guiding me along the way. All the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s really helped in times of homesickness.
  • Those of you reading this blog. Thank you for following along on my journey of a lifetime. Your support means the most to me and I feel so lucky that I get to look back on this blog years from now and remember these moments. I love you all!

Hasta luego!

My British Accent Needs Work

At the end of my journey in Spain, I hopped on a plane to London. Thanks to Mr. Jim McClenahan at the College of Business at UNR, I was able to tag along with the Nevada Global Business Program for the weekend. Nevada Global Business is open to all Business majors not only at UNR, but also UNLV and offers several different locations. London is typically a popular location due to its diversity and famous landmarks. I feel so grateful that I got the opportunity to see the city in only a couple of days.

Somehow I was able to navigate the Heathrow airport, exchange my euros for pounds, find the Underground tube, buy a ticket to Russell Square, carry both my carry-on and checked bag up a flight of stairs, walk the streets of London with my bags in 80 degree heat, find College Hall at the University College London (UCL) and check in to my room, where I would be staying for the next four nights. It sure was a scary and interesting experience navigating through London, a MUCH bigger city than Bilbao, by myself. I was so proud when I got to the dorm, but ready for a very long nap.

The first face I saw when I arrived to the dorm, was a friend of mine from UNR. It was so refreshing to see a familiar face and I felt a sense of comfort. Luckily, she was able to hang out with me on the dinner cruise and spend the next day with me at Buckingham Palace, before heading to Paris for the rest of the weekend.

That night, I got to join the program for a dinner cruise on the Thames river. How awesome is that? It still sounds weird coming out of my mouth. We enjoyed a very fancy three course meal and live entertainment. I wasn’t used to seeing some of my professors in this type of environment, but we were in London and enjoying the scenery around us so it was okay to let loose. We all would go up to the top of the boat occasionally to take pictures and watch the sunset. It was about a 3-4 hour cruise and we got to see the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (sadly under construction), Tower Bridge, London Bridge (which really isn’t as cool as it is made out to be), and The Shard building. It was a perfect way to see all the landmarks without having to find my way around on the tube which I must say is VERY, VERY confusing compared to the metro in Bilbao. I will attach a map of the tube in London and you guys can try to figure it out 🙂

 

My second day in London, my friend and I headed to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guards, which they do at 11am every morning. There were so many people!! The closest thing I could compare it to is Disneyland. I think my favorite part was the hilarious security guards. They look mean, but they really love to have fun with their jobs. One of the security guards was riding a horse around and telling people to move out of the way, but also not to pass out or vomit because it was “boiling” that day. Their accents make me laugh. We made friends with an Australian couple who pretended we were their daughters so we could make it to the front to get a good view. Even the security guard pulled us up to the front because we were following the rules the whole time. It was the absolute best. I got amazing videos of the guards walking out of the front gates of the Palace, which is crazy to say. After the guard change, we got lunch at an outdoor food vendor which seems to be very popular in London. In the afternoon, I walked to the British Museum which was directly down the street from our dorm. This Museum had about four floors, so there was a lot to see. Typically, I am not much of an art or museum person, but I decided to have an open mind and enjoy the art from different cultures. That night we went out for gelato, which of course I will never turn down.

 

I didn’t have any plans for my third day, so I decided to do a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of London. Some students in the Global Business program said it was a great way to see the city in such a short amount of time, which is exactly what I needed. I took the yellow line which hits all the famous spots, and you can get off and walk around to eat, explore, etc. and then get back on the bus whenever you want to continue your tour. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. The yellow line took about two and a half hours. I decided to hop on the blue line as well which covered all the museums and also the beautiful Kensington Park. That line took about another hour. It was a long day of sightseeing, but I had a much better idea of where things were in relation to the dorm I was staying at. It was a great way to spend my Saturday. Later that day I stopped in a bookstore next to my dorm called Waterstones. It was very similar to Barnes and Noble, but had four stories and a coffee shop connected to it! I wasn’t going to buy a book, but I found one about the Camino and immediately knew I had to have it. I walked to Regent’s Park and started reading in a shaded spot under the trees.

 

On Sunday, my last day in London, Jim and I went to mass at Westminster Cathedral. It was unlike anything I had seen before. They were celebrating the feast day of Saint John Southworth and the anniversary of the church. During the Homily, the priest talked about how the church was built with a Byzantine structure to differ from Westminster Abbey which has a Gothic structure. The ceiling was supposed to be gold because when you look up, it should resemble the beauty of heaven. The architect knew he wouldn’t have enough money to finish the Cathedral, so one day they would like to finalize the structure inside the Cathedral so that it would resemble heaven. They also had a cute little gift shop inside, so you know I spent some time in there. I also got to experience Afternoon Tea time in Britain. It was so prim and proper that I felt like I didn’t belong. The waitress put our napkins in our laps and even had us smell their assortment of tea leaves to decide which one we wanted. We also got to choose a variety of four scones, or finger sandwiches to go with our tea. Those of you who really know me, know that I love tea with a passion. I was in heaven. I even got to watch a really cool magic show done by the one and only Jim McClenahan. I never knew he could hypnotize people?

 

If I had to decide which city I liked better, London or Bilbao, I would definitely choose Bilbao. As soon as I arrived in London, I immediately noticed certain things that were different from Spain. It was crowded, the streets were a lot dirtier, the public transportation was difficult, there were not many dogs, restaurants closed earlier than those in Spain due to siesta time, I got cat-called about a million times in one day, and worst of all, everyone speaks English :(. I was so sad to not be using my Spanish anymore, but it was kind of refreshing to hear the language of the motherland. I think I got so used to living in Bilbao and all the culture surrounding me, that going to London was a whole new set of culture shock in itself. Don’t get me wrong, London was awesome! I am so grateful I had the opportunity to go and explore things by myself. It allowed me to be independent and gave me a bunch of new experiences to talk about back home. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Big thanks to Jim for taking such great care of me in London!

Buen Camino!

Tarzan

The Hunger Games

Indiana Jones

A Bug’s Life

All movies that I can easily relate to the Camino de Santiago. Over the course of 5 days, I walked about 73 miles through the Spanish countryside, forests, and small dilapidated villages. For this blog post, I would like to split up my experiences for each day.

Day 1 – Saturday, June 23rd. Sarria – Portomarín.

The first day of hiking was great! We were all feeling good and ready to start this long journey. We walked around 14 miles which translates to about 22.3 kilometers. Some things I noticed about the path we were walking on was the overwhelming smell of cow poop. Not my favorite scent, but something to get used to on the trail. One of our directors picked up a stone and told us that when people walk the Camino they carry a stone with them the entire time, and once they reach the end they will leave their stone at the bottom of a statue and write their names on it. I decided to do the same. The first day was filled with lots of uphill paths, and was also one of the hotter days we had. I ended up getting a massive sunburn on my chest, because after being in Bilbao with all the clouds and rain, I forgot the sun can actually burn you. My walking buddy, Daisy, and I were one of the first ones to reach our hostel in Portomarín and we were shocked. We really thought we were at the back of the pack, so I was proud of us for making it. Our hostel was quite interesting. Just imagine one of those hospitals for soldiers in movies where all the beds are lined up in a huge room. That was it. Also, only 4 showers for the 60 or so people that were staying there. After such a long day of hiking, all I wanted was to shower the nasty sweat off me, but I had to listen to 12 year old girls fighting over what shower they were going to use. Obviously, I have never stayed in a hostel before so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Day 2 – Sunday, June 24th. Portomarín – Palas de Rei.

Our second day consisted of 16 miles. We started walking around 7:30am and decided to get breakfast along the way. Little did I know, it wasn’t another two hours until we reached a restaurant. And in those two hours, we walked completely uphill through a forest and onto the main highway. Once we got food, I met an Australian man named Paul who started the Camino on May 11. He took a break for 5 days due to injuries and took a trip to Barcelona instead. The tough part about the Camino is that your injuries continue to pile up. There is little recovery time, which is why it is so important to take care of yourself and your feet as silly as that sounds. Each day someone in my group would have a new blister (I didn’t get any thankfully!). Paul had the intention of finishing the Camino within the next couple of days. I wished him the best of luck. Also, along the way I moo’d at a cow, and it moo’d back. I guess you can say we are friends now? I would say the second day was the hardest for me due to all the soreness in my legs from the first day. Our hostel was much better that night and we ended up getting paella and sangria for dinner! I felt so luxurious.

Day 3 – Monday, June 25th. Palas de Rei – Arzúa.

Ahhhh, the day everyone was dreading. 18 miles. Three people in our group took the day off due to injuries and allergies so I was a little jealous. The weather was so much better than the last two days! Cloudy and cool. Out of all the days, I would say the scenery along this route was my favorite. We walked through a small town called Melide which had a church open for pilgrims. There were also at least five forests we walked through. I think that was my favorite part. Just looking up at the trees and hearing the birds chirping. It’s a feeling you can only get in the moment. This is more than just a hike. It brings together a community of people who want to challenge and reflect on themselves. Everyone does the Camino for a different reason, and it’s amazing we get to witness them achieving that goal. One goal that I had going into the next two days was to meet more people along the way and spend some time alone to self reflect. At the hostel we got to watch the Spain World Cup game together which was very fun. Halfway there!

Day 4 – Tuesday, June 26th. Arzúa – Pedrouzo.

Tuesday was the shortest overall distance we walked at about 12 miles. I decided to spend most of my time walking alone and listening to music. I realized I walk much faster when I have some jams to motivate me. It was nice being able to go at my own pace instead of feeling like it was a race to get to the hostel. I like staying with the group, but sometimes they walk too fast for me and my short legs. As I walked, all I kept thinking about was how much I am going to miss Spain. Living in Spain has become normal to me and so has speaking Spanish to others. There are so many things I know I’m going to miss about it and I don’t know if I’m ready to accept that coming home. Don’t get me wrong, I miss my family. A LOT. I just have to enjoy every second that I have left. Spain will always have a piece of my heart. I also got to see some cute, but slightly scary Chihuahuas with under bites today. It’s normal to see lots of stray dogs and cats throughout the Camino as they live around the farms we pass by. One more day!

Day 5 — Wednesday, June 27th. Pedrouzo – Santiago.

Last day of walking! Today was about 13 miles, so not too bad. We were on a mission though. We started walking at 6am before the sun even came up, because we wanted to make sure we got to Santiago in time for the noon mass for the pilgrims at the Cathedral. Our first stop was at a plaque that was made for the previous director of the Bilbao program who died in that exact spot 10 years ago doing the Camino with students. We wanted to make sure to pay our respects. We made very little stops today as we were in a little bit of a hurry to get to Santiago. About an hour outside of Santiago, there is a statue called Monte de Gozo which is supposed to signal the end of the trail for most pilgrims. You are able to see the very top of the Cathedral from the mountain indicating that we have finally made it! We met a couple from Manila who hiked the same route as us from Sarria, but did it in 10 days instead of 5. Their son was studying abroad in San Sebastian and they decided to come visit him and do some of the Camino while they were here. They were pretty awesome people! Once we got to the Cathedral, we all made sighs of relief. Our feet were throbbing from the past five days of walking and this is what we have been working so hard to get to. It was an awesome moment. We got in line for the mass with all our backpacks and when we got to the front of the line they told us we couldn’t take our backpacks inside. We had to get out of line, check our bags in another place, and then hop back in line to get a good seat. The mass was in a couple different languages – Spanish, English, German, and French. At the very end, they had a large censor filled with incense that they waved across the entire church while the organ played. It was absolutely beautiful. The remains of Saint James are located inside the church, but we didn’t get to see them because it was such a long line. Our director told us that there wasn’t much to see, it was just a way of paying respects. Afterwards, we got our credentials and a certificate for completing the 100 kilometers. I thought they had spelled my name wrong, but turns it out it’s written in Latin. What a satisfying moment getting our indulgences.

The Camino taught me to deal with pain, to be patient, to keep going even if you don’t think your body can physically walk anymore, and to have a good attitude. The Camino treats you the way you treat the Camino. If you don’t have a good attitude going into it and you keep focusing on the pain in your feet, you will not get the most out of the experience. Yes, the pain is part of the experience too. It is a test of how much you can challenge yourself. During the walk, it seemed so dreadful, but finishing the day in the hostel none of us could remember how much pain we were in. We were just happy to make it to a bed and shower. I definitely got used to living the hostel life and now that I have my own room and shower I feel so spoiled. It is such a luxury to have all the things we have in everyday life and I feel as though I don’t deserve it. After doing 5 days of the Camino, I don’t think I could do the entire thing. It takes a lot of willpower to spend a month hiking through the Spanish countryside. I got the full experience and it was difficult, but also one I will never forget and keep with me in my heart. Buen Camino a todos!

 

 

País Vasco, te voy a extrañar

The day has come. As I sit in my room, with my bags packed, avoiding studying for my final tomorrow, tears start to form in my eyes. My journey in the Basque Country has come to an end.

Here, I have learned how to be independent and that is something I will take with me when I return back to the States. The amount of personal growth I have experienced in this short time frame of five weeks is unfathomable. My main goal for this journey was to immerse myself in the Spanish language and learn more about the culture. I am happy to say that I am much more confident in my Spanish skills than I was when I first arrived. I have been able to speak to locals in Spanish with no fear of how they might respond. Some of the locals even thought I was Spanish. Other locals knew immediately that I was American because of the way I dressed. I have been able to explore new areas by myself and enjoy each second. I think the hardest part is leaving behind the wonderful people I have met who made this experience one to remember.

First off, my host mom has been an absolute angel to me. I really believe that I am the luckiest USAC student here without a doubt. Not only does she provide me three delicious meals a day, do my laundry every week, and give me ideas of places to explore in town, she has become a friend. One night after dinner, she pulled out old photo albums of her kids. She even had a photo album dedicated to each of her daughter’s weddings. We spent the rest of the night looking through old photos and laughing. A memory I will never forget. She is always encouraging me to leave the house if I am home too long. Sometimes I will take naps and when I wake up she laughs at me for sleeping so long. Some nights, we walk the path by the ocean with our dog, Kiñu and one of her good friends, Carmele. I will miss those nightly walks. There are not enough words I could say that would describe my gratitude for this woman and her willingness to open her home.

The students I have met here really made this experience ten thousand times better. I wish I could do a shout-out to everyone who has made an impact on me personally, but that would take way too long. You know who you are 😉 It’s very hard to realize that we each have fallen into a routine together and now it’s about to get shaken up again. I already know that when I go home, I will want to text them and ask “Ok, who wants to hit up the beach today after class?” These people have touched my heart and I wish them all the best of luck on their future adventures, degrees, and careers. I hope to see you all again in the near future.

As I sift through my luggage, there are things I could have gone without, and also things I wish I had taken from home.

Some things I wish I DID NOT bring –

  • 5 pairs of shorts. The weather was much rainier than I thought it was going to be for summer. I only brought 2 pairs of capris and the rest were shorts. I can say that I wore shorts probably twice here. I actually had to go buy 2 pairs of pants because the capris weren’t cutting it.
  • Hair dryer. I definitely popped the circuit breaker the first night here and I think my hair dryer is dead now. I wouldn’t have used it anyway.
  • So many books. I didn’t do any reading while I was here, not even on the plane ride here. Now they’re just making my carry-on heavy.
  • 3 different swimsuits. Again, I thought I was going to be spending most of my time on the beach in the sun, but it rained pretty much the entire time.
  • A ton of bedtime shirts. I basically wear the same 2 shirts throughout the week to bed.

Some things I wish I DID bring –

  • Pants!!
  • A smaller day pack for hiking and walking tours.
  • Better walking shoes that aren’t sandals.
  • Another pair of workout pants.

I think I did a fairly good job on packing light, because I did end up buying a lot of things for friends and family back home. It looks like everything will fit just fine! I will be leaving behind a pair of pants, and two pairs of shoes that I bought here and wore out. The more I can lighten up my luggage, the better.

Spain has given me a new perspective. Everyone sees this world through a different lens and it’s important to consider their point of view. I have become extremely open-minded and much more adventurous. It hit me today as I walked home from school. I had my headphones in, and as I looked around I saw kids playing on the playground with their parents watching, an old man pushing his wife around in a wheelchair, and men taking their siesta stroll in their business suits. Everyone is living a different story and going through a different situation. Who are we to judge them based on what we see from the outside? I love this world we live in, despite all the hate and imperfections.

My next adventure? Tomorrow I will be venturing off to Lugo to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is a pilgrimage route that starts in French Basque Country and goes all the way to the burial of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The entire route takes about a month to walk and is considered a spiritual journey. A couple other USAC students and myself will only be walking five days worth of the trail. We will start in Sarria and walk through Portomarín, Palas de Rei, Arzúa, Pedrouzo, and ending in Santiago de Compostela.

The Camino has been something on my bucket list ever since we watched the movie The Way in AP Spanish. Some day, I would like to come back and walk the entire thing, but these five days should suffice for now. Stay tuned for pictures and stories about my journey.

Dragonstone?

If any of you are Game of Thrones fans, you will love this. I personally do not watch the show, but after hearing that there was a hiking spot near Bilbao called San Juan de Gaztelugatxe that portrayed Dragonstone Island in the show, I was all in.

This past Sunday, a couple friends and I made plans to check out this famous spot. My host mom told me to go earlier rather than later because it gets really busy as it is a popular tourist destination. Therefore, I asked everyone to meet at the Plaza at 10am to catch the 10:30 bus. Of course, my host mom and I both wake up late that morning. I ended up getting on the metro at 10:05 and knew I wasn’t going to make the bus. By the time I had arrived to the Plaza, it was 10:35 and there was no bus, nor friends in sight. Obviously this would happen with my luck. I ended up having to sit in the Plaza for another hour to wait for the next bus at 11:30. I felt so horrible. I had organized this entire trip and my friends were counting on me to arrive, and I literally missed the bus. How embarrassing. I finally got on the bus knowing that the hike was going to be the very last stop about 40 minutes from Bilbao.

Once the bus arrived, I had no idea where I was. There was supposed to be another bus that would take you to the beginning of the hike, but I could not figure out where it was for the life of me. I ended up just following the paved path of the highway through the forest for a solid 45 minutes. Did I mention this was ALL uphill?? It came to the point of desperation where I pulled over into the bushes and peed because I could no longer hold it. There was no sign of human life for miles. I felt extremely confused and lost.

After exploring through the forest, I came to some restaurants and bars at the top of the hill. Finally, there were a ton of people I was able to follow and figure out where the hike actually started. I also popped into one of the bars to grab some water because I was so parched. This was actually one of the hottest days we’ve had here in Bilbao. I’ve been so used to the gloomy, rainy weather that the sun along with the humidity really slowed me down.

Finally seeing the sign for the beginning of the hike, I felt a sense of relief. Now I was just focused on finding my group of friends. There were two people with clipboards before the hike that gave everyone tickets, and also asked where we were from. The people around me were from all over Europe and even the United States. I heard lots of English speakers which was slightly comforting. They also warned us that this was an intense workout and slightly difficult. That wasn’t really what I wanted to hear after hiking through the woods on the side of the road for 45 minutes prior. Ughhhhhh. The windy road to the actual island was all downhill, which was a nice break, but also great for getting shin splints. As I observed the people around me, they were all dressed fairly nice for a hike. It looked this was their afternoon walk with the kids or something. Meanwhile, I was dying from the heat and looked lost in confusion trying to find a familiar face.

I successfully climbed the 240 steps, while taking a break to observe the beauty around me. It’s so hard to believe that beautiful places like this even exist. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be cruising my way through the Basque Country exploring all the hiking hot spots. Once I reached the top, out of breath, the first person I saw was Megan, one of my good friends here. I almost wanted to cry because I had done all of this by myself which is completely crazy. Everyone was so surprised to see me. They thought I would have gone back home, but no, I don’t give up that easily.

At the top of the island is a church dedicated to John the Baptist. Legend says he even set foot on this island, but there is no actual proof. Legend also says that if you count the number of steps as you climb and ring the church bell three times when you reach the top, you will get married. Unfortunately, I did not know this before I completed the hike (very sad). The bridge to get to the top is completely man-made and its purpose was to provide a retreat for the lords of Biscay. Basically, a super awesome hideout spot to get away from the King of Castile. How awesome is that? I have found that there are many islands surrounding the coast of Basque Country and most of them were used as hideout spots for the oppressed back in the day.

After taking some pictures at the top of the islet, we made our trek back down. Going down the stairs was pretty sketchy, because it was super steep and narrow, but then we had to hike all uphill back to the beginning of the hike. It was quite the adventure. I was just happy that I was with my group of friends, and no longer alone. Once we reached the beginning, we decided to get some ice cream to cool off and catch the bus back home. I was so exhausted and passed out as soon as I got home. I’m still sore to this day. Another learning experience for me, especially being independent most of the time. The views were worth every second of the grueling uphill hike.

Viva España!

Remember I said I wanted to make this blog not solely about myself, but rather about the people I meet along the way? I must say…I have had a plethora of interesting experiences during my time here in Spain. Weird things tend to happen to me when in a group setting, and it’s something different each day. I thought I would share one of those experiences with you in this post, and also a quick update on my recent explorations of Bilbao.

Each morning when I take the metro to school, I put in my headphones and observe the behavior of everyone around me. Not in a creepy way, but there are certain things that are different here than in the United States. One cultural thing that has really stuck out to me is the Down Syndrome population. All of the Down people I have seen appear to be older, not so much children. One morning I saw a man with Down Syndrome dancing on the metro and it put a huge smile on my face. I looked around to see the reaction from others, and nothing. No one paid any attention to him, nor did anyone smile at him. He was alone.

That night I decided to do some research on the Down Syndrome population here in Spain. Apparently Down Syndrome is fairly common in Spain – not as much as the United States, but the first thing that popped up when I searched this on Google was an advertisement for an abortion clinic, with the face of a child with Down Syndrome. The abortion rate here for children with Down is 95%. There is actually a law that if you find out the fetus has a genetic mutation, you have up to 22 weeks to abort the baby. Honestly, this makes me sick to my stomach. I am completely pro-life and the fact that these abortion clinics are using children with Down to increase their business is sickening. So keeping that in mind, I was taken aback by my experience this past Wednesday.

Once again, I was on the metro heading home for the day with a friend. The metro was fairly packed for that time of day, but my friend and I were able to manage finding a seat. After one stop, this young girl with Down Syndrome walked up to me and said “Hola, como estás?” I asked her how she was doing as well, and then asked if she would like to take my seat. She looked at me and said no, but began to point at my lap. I asked her if she wanted to sit on my lap and she just smiled and situated herself on my lap. I tried to make conversation with her, but she kept putting her hand over my mouth and telling me to be quiet. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was so cute and unexpected. The women sitting in front of me began to laugh as well, and asked me how I was doing. I told them I was from the United States and here to study, and they were shocked. They said my Spanish was really good and they seemed to be really impressed. I was actually surprised that I was able to hold a conversation with all of them in Spanish. Proud moment for me, yay! 🙂

I remember trying to fix my hair, and the girl kept pulling my head closer to hers and she literally grabbed my arm and wrapped it around her so I was hugging her the entire ride. She had me completely taken over and I was not allowed to talk. Finally, her stop came and she just got out of my lap, laughed a little bit, and I told her it was really nice to meet her. Honestly, made my day. What are the odds this girl with Down Syndrome would sit on my lap on a full metro ride? I really felt like this was a calling that literally fell into my lap. I am more interested than ever in the Down Syndrome population in an international context at this point. It’s not something you would normally think about outside of the American perspective, but Down is a recurring issue everywhere. I’m looking forward to doing more research on this topic and I’m excited to see where it takes me.

In my Intercultural Communications class last semester, I learned that everyone sees this world through a different cultural lens. What better way to experience that first-hand than traveling abroad? My lens has definitely expanded in ways I never imagined and I am so grateful for that. Living in such a great country like America, we get into a certain mindset that we are better than everyone else and that’s the only way to live. Everyone has a different definition of what life looks like and that’s important to take into consideration when interacting with foreigners.

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Meanwhile, this week some friends and I paid to take a Bilboat tour on the river that runs through Bilbao. We missed the 5:30pm boat, so we had to wait until 7:00pm for the next one. To kill some time we took a tram called a funicular into the mountains that had a wonderful panoramic view of Bilbao. My friends and I got really lucky and had an entire 13 year old soccer team in our tram that smelled like dirty gym socks :). It was great. The boat ride though was one of my favorite activities here so far. Especially that time of night was absolutely beautiful.

Also, the elephant in the room – Spain and Portugal played in the World Cup last night. The entire group of USAC students and I went to a local Irish pub to watch the game and talk with locals. The bar was packed! Everyone went crazy every time Spain scored a goal. I don’t follow soccer that much, but when in Spain, this is a necessity. Even though they tied, I feel so lucky to be in Spain during this integral time. Viva España!

Today, a couple friends and I walked across the Puente Bizkaia, which is a hanging bridge that connects Portugalete with Getxo. This bridge was built in 1893 and survived the Spanish Civil War. It was a little sketchy, but the views were incredible. Tomorrow, I will be hiking San Juan de Gaztelugaxte, which is an islet connected to land by a man- made bridge. It has actually been cleared as a filming spot for Game of Thrones, so cool! More pictures to come!