Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do You Know the Way to San-tiago?: El Camino y Madrid

For those who don't know, UCC has a unique academic calendar that allows for a month-long Easter/study/travel recess during April before May exams kick off. Because some of my exams took place in March, I took off for the month and explored Southern Europe. I started my April break off at 4 a.m. on 02 April, running around, exhausted, packing last-minute stuff in my North Face. I was going to be gone for three and a half weeks in two different countries doing a variety of things that required assorted items. That's a terribly vague way of stating that I had to shove a mish-mash of gym clothes, skirts, dresses, sneakers, sandals, toiletries, etc. into my backpack. The North Face should make me their new dayback line model to show the maximum size the Recon can get without ripping.

The first leg of the trip was to Spain, where we (my API friend Kaitlin and I) were hiking part of the Camino de Santiago with the UCC Chaplaincy. We spent time in Southern Spain before our hike began. We flew from Cork to Malaga and then took a bus to Granada, which ended up being one of my favorite places in Spain. We were only there overnight, but we stayed in a really funky hostel where we drank homemade sangria in hammocks; I got to eat churros con chocolate with my friend Keelia from SMC, who has been studying in Granada (check out her blog here); I saw the Alhambra palace (shortlisted wonder of the world, and for good reason -- the architecture is amazing and the views are incredible); and I wandered through the vendor-and-shop-lined streets that smelled like pot and incense (I felt like I was back in Burlington). It's a hip place.

From Granada, we went back to Malaga to catch a plane to Valladolid (which houses the smallest airport I've ever been in -- smaller than Cedar Rapids) and then took a bus to Leon. Leon was my favorite Spanish city. The cathedral there, Santa Maria de Leon, contains almost 1,800 square meters of stained glass. Amazing. In Leon we also got really yummy egg and tomato crepes for dinner, and retired in a lovely hostel near the basilica that was all our own.

The next day we had to prepare for the pilgrimage. We took a bus to Sarria, our starting point, which is 112 km from Santiago de Compostela. I don't remember there being much in Sarria but I think this was the place with the terrace deck. The sky was really clear the night we were there, and it made for a good start to our camino. Between 5 and 6 a.m. each day our alarms went off so we could start walking, typically, by 6:30 and 7. We walked between 18 km and 32 km per day, which is (for all you non-metric Americans) about 11-18 mi. The terrain varied each day and the weather affected our speed sometimes. I can't remember details anymore, but luckily I kept a journal every day. Here are a few excerpts:

"06 April - Portomarin: Tonight we're settled into a hostel - an albergue - in Portomarin, a town 23 km west of Sarria. We walked all 23! And we still have a little under 100 km to go!...OK so we woke up [at 5:45] and hit the road, hiking over rocks, through fields, over streams, past cows, all that jazz. We got 14 km and stopped at this awesome restaurant to get farm-fresh eggs - they were so good!...We arrived in Portomarin, signified by a bridge over a rio, around 1:00 p.m., so we walked for a good amount of the day...the showers don't have curtains here so I had to use my bathing suit. And I saw some woman's butt. Sweet. Tomorrow I'm hoping I get a more legit shower, though I honestly feel relatively clean and really relaxed. Well, the lights just went out and Eric was falling asleep on my shoulder a minute ago so I guess it's time for bed! Up at 6:15 tomorrow -- sleeping in, wahoo!"

"07 April - Palas de Rei: I'm sitting in my bunk here in Palas de Rei feeling very sick. I'm not sure what it could be - something I ate or drank, maybe, or heat exhaustion, but I'm cramped up and feeling quite nauseous..." For the record, it was definitely heat exhaustion because I drank loads of water and went to bed early, and I woke up feeling much better. "...I'm doing something independent for the purpose of endurance and personal growth in my relationship with God, the guy in my life that's been taking a back seat recently...The reading Fr. Joe [our head chaplain] gave today mentioned leaving things behind to start a new life as Christ's followers. It was the Mark reading about the call of the apostles. There's a line in there about brushing the dust off one's feet as one leaves a place he's not welcomed into, and I like that metaphor...there was this guy who gave us a hard time for waking up so early and then again for not taking our bags with us [since they were driven from stop to stop with Fr. Joe]. And then he told this lady about us at one of the hostels and she told us to go somewhere else. So we did and now we're in a great hostel with hot showers and comfy beds...We passed the time sharing stories about our pasts and telling each other about what we do at school. It's a good way to get to know people and get a good long walk [26 km] in."

"08 April - Arzua: Today we walked - I think - over 30 km, which is INSANE! I woke up feeling a lot better and I think I'm totally better, though I did find a rash on my was so hot today!...we knew we were in for a hot day but we weren't as prepared for the ridiculous ups and downs of the hills. My feet are killing me, and my knees are starting to hurt consistently too. The walk was a lot prettier today...we had a lot of wooded paths along the way, which was especially nice since the trees provided good shade. The hills were brutal, though, and the heat made it almost unbearable. We stopped for lunch 15 km in in Melide and then multiple times after that for water and then popsicles. Lime pops have never tasted so good."

"09 April - Arca: ...It was so nice to only have 19 km to walk today! We stopped 11 km in at Casa Verde, where I got a croissant and a shell necklace for 3 Euro [the shell is a symbol of the pilgrim]...In a few minutes we have prayer, Mass, and then dinner. I went to Spanish Mass last night before Fr. Joe took us out to dinner. The priests had us come forward and gave us a pilgrim blessing. Maybe that was what made the day much better today. Despite a small blister on my left foot and aching feet, I'm feeling OK...Santiago cake is almond cake - so good - with powdered sugar. I want to make it when I get home. I think my mom would like it...I'm praying for a really restful sleep tonight, cool temps, and bright blue skies. Onto Santiago in the morn! Only 18 km to go!"

"10 April -Santiago!: We are here in Santiago de Compostela, 112 km, a few blisters, 5 days, and a bunch of new friends later...the Mass was in Spanish, obviously, like it was last night, so I couldn't understand it but Fr. Joe celebrated it which was really cool. He said a special prayer for us UCC pilgrims and specifically the "American friends" the Chaplaincy brought with them. I received communion from him too, so that was neat. The cathedral was pretty -- not as cool as Leon, but still nice. We saw St. James' tomb [which apparently wasn't a big deal to me when I was writing, but now that I'm rereading I think it's pretty sweet!] and kissed the statue [of James] that apparently pilgrims are supposed to kiss - kinda like the Blarney Stone, I was great to be with everyone (and Sun [my SMC friend]) one last time [at dinner]. I'm honestly sad to see this adventure go. It's totally not something I'd normally sign up for, and I'm so glad I did this. 112 k is really far in my book, and given the fact that I'm totally out of shape, it's quite the accomplishment. Plus, I didn't know these people when I got here, and now I've made some nice new friends...these experiences are exactly what study abroad is all about! Buen camino!"

If the Camino sounds interesting to you (and it should because IT IS!), check out the new movie (well, it's new in Ireland, which means it might be a few months old in the States) The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. I'm going to go see it with Camino friends on Saturday, and I've heard it's really good. It'll be fun to see certain places on film and be able to say, 'Hey, I've been there; I've done that.'

After the Camino, Kaitlin (API) and I left Santiago with Sunny (SMC) for Madrid. This is the part of the trip I don't like to talk about. Long story short, I got pick-pocketed within a few hours of arriving and virtually all of my important stuff was stolen. All I have to say is be careful in Madrid. I let my guard down. But I have to say I was really impressed with my level-headed response to the situation. I didn't freak out. We spent almost our entire trip in the police station, the Embassy, on the phone with banks, parents, etc. The only touristy things we did were seeing nice art at the Prado, where we met up with another SMC friend, Alex, and walking around a little near Mercado de San Miguel and the palace. (See Alex's blogSun's blog right there.). Oh, and I finally had some Starbucks chai. Thank the good Lord. In short, I don't like Madrid, BUT, there were a few positives that made me not totally hate Madrid. For one, we stayed with my childhood neighbor, Kristen, who has been teaching in Madrid. It was so nice to see a face from home! She, with Kaitlin and Sunny, helped me piece together a post-pick-pocket plan. We also got to hang out with Sunny's host mom, Charo, who made us an amazing dinner of Spanish omelets and sangria. It was delicious food and wonderful company. Now I know why Sunny has had such a great experience abroad.

My own general conclusion: I don't love Spain, but it's a nice country, and if I were made to go back, I'd find ways to enjoy it. If someone handed me a ticket, I'd go. But when I come back to Europe someday, it won't be on my list of destinations. Lo siento, EspaƱa.

And then it was time to bid Spain more tight, stressful Ryan Air flight from Madrid and we were in Italia!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

'Keep it in Your Pants' and Other Tips for Safe, Inexpensive, and Fun American Student Travel

The idea of blogging about an entire month in two different countries doing a million different things is legitimately making me nervous. There are too many things to write about and I want to do the experience justice. So give me a few days to calm down and reflect. Before I share about my April break, I thought I'd share this.

I can't yet author a Backpacker's Guide to the Galaxy since my adventures have only extended as far as Spain and Italy, but I've learned what I think to be important lessons about travel in the past month. Here are some tips and tricks to stay safe, pinch pennies, and enjoy travel abroad.
  1. Keep it in your pants -- or hanging around your neck -- in a passport holder. Don't let excessive amounts of money, your passport, your IDs, find their way into the hands of a pickpocket. It happens, and more frequently than you think, even to people who aren't screaming "I'm an American tourist; come rob me!"...People like me. You're traveling, not entering a beauty pageant, so who cares if that money belt makes you look fat?
  2. Find American soil. Know where the closest Embassy is and have its contact info. It makes it a lot easier if something goes awry. Luckily, when we made our trip there for my emergency passport, we had my Spanish-speaking friend whose host mom gave us good directions. If you're without resources in a city like Madrid, and you're in an emergency, asking -- in broken Spanish -- for directions to an Embassy most Spaniards don't frequent, isn't ideal.
  3. Help a brother out. I've noticed that Americans tend to gravitate toward each other. That, or there are a lot of us abroad. Or maybe there are just a lot of us in general. Regardless, it's nice to do good while abroad. Helping an older couple off a train may lead to a new friendship...or even to a free dinner. That said, be aware of who you're talking to -- it's a tactic of pickpockets to act like needy tourists. Don't leave your stuff with new-found friends, but don't limit your conversations with others out of fear. Most people, I still believe, are good people.
  4. Ditch the oversized suitcase. With more and more airlines charging crazy fees for luggage, it's expensive to fly, even domestically. Don't bother checking a bag. Be aware of airlines' cabin baggage weight and dimension restrictions and follow them. If a pack-rat like me can travel Southern Europe for a month with a single North Face backpack, nearly anyone can do it. Pack and repack 'til it all fits in one, easy-to-carry container. Remember to leave a little bit of room for souvenirs. Our rule was that if you can wear it, you can buy it (which made for a lot of jewelry and a bunch of shirts) since there's no restriction on how clothed a person can be when entering an aircraft. It gets more than a little hot with 5 layers on in a toasty Spanish airport in April, but it's worth not having to pay the Ryan Air 35 Euro checked baggage fee.
  5. Picnic. In places like Spain, where food is far cheaper than it is at home or in Ireland, you can eat lunch and dinner for a week for under 5 Euro. I'm serious. Your menu will be the same every day (ours was generally salami sandwiches, apples, and cheap chocolate) but it's worth it. We bought loaves of bread and meat, and 'refrigerated' the meat on the cool, tile floors of our B & Bs. Breakfast, in some places, was provided. We grabbed extra snacks for later when we could. Splurge once in a while and go out to eat or grab a treat like gelato. Just don't make a habit of it, and you'll have plenty of money to spend on other things. Oh, at the same time, be aware that you can't legally picnic in certain Italian cities. Don't go to jail for eating outside, that's just silly.
  6. Take a hike. If you can walk there, walk there. Don't pay for transportation unless it's raining, your feet have blisters, and you're lugging all of your stuff -- actually, don't even pay for transportation then. You can save a lot of dough this way. Plus, walking is good for you, and you see places differently when you're not whizzing by them.
  7. Prioritize and make reservations. Rome wasn't built in a day so don't expect to see it all within 24 hours. List out must-see sites and plan ahead with approximate times spent at each place. Entry into many museums and sites in Europe is much easier with a reservation since the number of people allowed into certain places is limited. If you're short on time, it's best to guarantee admission. It'll cost you a few Euro extra, but you won't have to stand in line for 3 hours outside of the Accademia. Sometimes you can luck out and walk right in (we only waited for 45 minutes to get into the Vatican Museums), but that requires strategy too -- do some research to know when a museum is at its busiest.
  8. Learn the lingo. Not only is it fun to pick up on the country's language or regional dialects, but it's helpful. Yes, almost everything is also in English, and yes, cognates abound, but making an effort to speak the local tongue shows natives that Americans don't expect to be catered to.
  9. Make your mother (country) proud. There are loud, annoying, globally-unaware Americans everywhere. Don't be one of them. Be a good guest so those who follow you aren't misjudged. Check your ego at the door: be open to trying new things, and expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone frequently. You'll (hopefully) return home a more cultured, tolerant individual with a new appreciation for the U.S. of A.
  10. Live it up. Soak it all in. Mark Twain knew what he was talking about when he said, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do." Do everything you want to do and can do. Adventures like this, I've heard, make impressions that last a lifetime. Make the most of exploring this world.


My birthday and everyone's favorite holiday (Paddy's Day, of course) seem like ages in the past, but end-of-term stress (let's be real - writing a few papers isn't actually that stressful...but I did pull an all-nighter at one point) and April travels have kept me from blogging about the month of March. So here's what happened on the Emerald Isle after February...

The semester slowly began to wind down, despite its never really getting started (by American college standards). I had a few papers due within the first two weeks of March, one of which was to be handed in the morning after my 21st birthday. Obviously that wasn't going to get written the night before (not that I've ever done that...) so I made sure it was ready to go long before the 15th rolled around. One of the frustrating things about the History department here (I had two History classes) is that you can't just bring your paper to class or slide it under the prof's door. You have to hike to the department building, where you fill out three forms, all requiring your essay title, your student ID number, your lecturer's name (I usually have no idea), and the due date; you rate yourself on your paper and explain its strengths and weaknesses; you wait in line with students doing the same thing; and as you reach the front of the line, the secretary staples, stamps, and gives you a pink receipt of submission. And when you couple these formalities with the fact that everyone in Ireland takes two-hour tea and lunch breaks, leaving no one at the front desk, it could take you a solid 30-45 minutes to hand in the stinkin' paper. Luckily, the Folklore/Ethnography department (I had two of those too) is far more lax about paper submission. AND they're speedier graders -- both of my papers in that department are ready to be picked up.

Anyway, my birthday came around and friends came from Maynooth and Bath (and right down the hall) to celebrate with me. Becca and Anna arrived on Friday and we spent the weekend hanging out and touring Cork together. I'm so lucky to have friends who are in my part of the world right now. Anna had to leave on Sunday, and I was sad to see her go. Becca stayed through my birthday and I went back to her neck of the island later in the week (more on that below). Spending my birthday without family was harder than I'd imagined it would be. I've been away from home on my birthday before but never this far away. My family had made me a movie of their well wishes, letters, and songs, and it made me cry. It is the greatest gift I've gotten. My best friend from home had balloons delivered to my apartment, which came as an incredible and appreciated surprise. I Skyped with my parents briefly before having API friends over for cake, and then we all went out to a few bars. I'm not a partier but any means; I prefer small, social gatherings with a glass of wine and a guitar to ragers. In fact, I don't think I've ever been to a party that would count as a rager. It was fun to get a little dressed up (basically how girls here look all of the time) and have a few drinks with new friends and a buddy from home. Our first stop was Captain America's, which might sound lame, but it was appropriate given the fact that turning 21 here in Ireland doesn't hold quite the same weight as it does in the U.S. Plus, they have cheap (but, we sadly found out, weak!) cocktails. Then we headed to Preachers, which is the small, cozy bar (can bars be 'cozy'?) we all went out to together during our first week in Cork. Last but not least was Old Oak, where we ended the night with "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Little Lion Man" -- two songs always played in pubs here. We didn't get home 'til 3 or so, I only paid for one of my drinks that night, and I remembered everything when I woke up -- that's a successful 21st in my book.

For Paddy's Day (that's how they spell it here), Becca and I headed up to Dublin and Co. Kildare. We stayed in Maynooth and went into Dublin in the wee hours of morn on St. Patrick's Day, thinking the festivities started early. The parade, we soon learned, technically started at noon, though we found out that that actually meant 1:00ish, leaning more toward 1:30. We had staked out a good standing spot at the gate around 10:00, and we didn't want to give it up, but that meant being on our feet in the same position for hours. I had been told not to expect much from Irish parades, but this one wasn't as bad as I had thought it'd be. There weren't as many floats as there are in American parades, but there were a lot of performers, each representing groups from different counties.
Check out some of their get-ups. Also -- who invited the kids from Michigan? If I remember correctly, they played American tunes. They were joined by another American high school band from North Carolina, I believe. Do Irish schools not have marching bands?
After the parade, Becca and I wanted to escape the tourism and hype of Paddy's Day in Dublin, so we took Dublin's version of the metro to Howth, a coastal town on Dublin Bay. We spent the afternoon walking around and taking pictures, seeing the lighthouse, and sampling fish and chips. It was an overcast day and it was a little chilly, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. It was a much better alternative to the Paddy's Day pub scene (filled with American tourists).

I headed home to Cork the next day bright and early. I met some American travelers on the bus who were looking for their hostel, and I accidentally steered them in the wrong direction. Oops. Guess I don't know Cork like I think I do.

Classes ended the week after my birthday, and to celebrate API took us to the Aran Islands off the Galway coast. It was our last excursion hurrah as a group and by far my favorite. Finally, we had an excursion that didn't include rain! We really lucked out. We got up early Saturday morning, picked up API Limerick on the way, and took a ferry to Inishmore. We spent our weekend hanging over cliffs, riding bikes around the island, exploring, and finding natural treasures. I'll let this array of pictures speak for itself.

I love our group! The one on the right should make the API viewbook. It would definitely make me want to study abroad with API in Ireland!

If I return to Ireland someday, this is where I'll go. I've never enjoyed the outdoors more in my life. The setting was incredible.

Vans took us around the island after lunch on Saturday, stopping for pictures every once in a while. The Iron Age fort we went to, Dun Aengus, was the most famous of the stone forts on the Aran Islands. The views from the cliffs surrounding the fort were amazing, and we were there just as the sun was beginning to set, which made it even more spectacular. That night, we went out for dinner as a group and hung out in one of our hotel rooms watching music videos together. It's times like that that make me realize how much I'm going to miss this group of friends when all of this is over.

On Sunday, we rented bikes and toured the island. It's not a very big island, though it's the biggest of the three Aran Islands ("Inishmore" literally means 'big island' in Irish -- how clever) so we saw a decent amount of the land. We started biking along the coastal trail and found the island's beach. The sand was white so the water looked teal -- it was beautiful. I ran right in, of course; I'm used to cold Atlantic waters. After the beach we headed inland a little to find The Wormhole, a natural tourist attraction, on the other side of the island. We took the road less traveled, which meant lots of twists and turns. I regret missing a shot of all of us weaving our way through the stonewalled fields -- we looked like the kids and Maria from The Sound of Music, and I wish I had stopped to take a picture. The Wormhole proved more difficult to locate than expected but we found it eventually, after enjoying the sight of waves colliding with the rocky terrain. The Wormhole (also known as Serpent's Lair) is basically a pool that fills up quickly as waves come in and drains quickly as waves go out. It's a naturally rectangle-shaped hole in the limestone. It was pretty cool, but I wasn't ready to go for a dip. It's like a more dangerous tidal pool at water parks. We ate lunch and sunned on some rocks farther down the coastline before biking back to the hotel to gather our stuff and head home.

And with that, March was over!