Tricky Travels: Getting to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

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The first time I read the name “San Juan de Gaztelugatxe” I didn’t even know where to begin. A friend stumbled across this place in Basque Country, Spain on a photography website which was aptly titled “a cool place to hike in Spain.” Very fitting, since I doubt anyone outside the Basque country would even think of pronouncing the Basque language.

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Cool place

This same friend and I were going to Bilbao and San Sebastián for a week and it just so happened that this cool place to hike in Spain was only an hour outside of Bilbao. We were ecstatic and definitely planned to go there. The only thing we had left to do was figure out how to get there. I’m not sure if the directions to Gaztelugatxe were lost in (Google) translation, but for some reason we couldn’t find anything on the Internet on how to get there. We eventually found a blogger who described in great detail on how to get there; we trusted her and went for it, which went horribly. Her directions were incorrect, and we ended up getting off the bus in the wrong town and had to walk up a winding, narrow road on a hill with cars going 1000km/hour for nearly two hours in Spain’s scorching summer heat just to reach the parking lot of Gaztelugatxe.

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Beautiful Bay of Biscay

Fellow travellers, I do not want you to have to go through what my friend and I did to have to enjoy the beauty of this cool place to hike in Spain. If you follow these directions, you should find your way right there without any hassles or fifty kilometre hikes.

Getting to Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao:

1.) Find your way to Plaza Mayua. It’s a main square in Bilbao with a beautiful fountain in the centre. You want to get on Bizkaibus #3517 to Bakio. The bus is around 2.50 euros one way.

2.) The bus ride is around an hour. Get off when you see the Gaztelugatxe sign. If you are unsure, ASK THE DRIVER, but don’t try to pronounce the name. Write it down and show it to the driver to avoid any miscommunication.

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Never been more impressed. Or sweaty. 

The buses arrive every half hour. Going back to Bilbao, the bus stop is on the side of the road in front of the parking lot. The last stop will be Plaza Mayua, so feel free to nap on your way back (you’ll be exhausted).

Gaztelugatxe is a bit of a hike out of Bilbao, but it’s definitely worth it. The place is really unbelievable; I have never seen anything like it at all. The water is so blue, the manmade bridge is so old, the rocks weathered by the waves are amazing, and the view of the Bay of Biscay and the lush green forest is stunning. When you reach the church at the top, you have to ring the bell three times for good luck. Don’t be the tourist who rings it eighteen times for photographic purposes.

Happy travels! :)

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Hasta luego, España….

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With sweat pouring off my face I rolled my 49-pound suitcase down the cobblestone street, walking close to the wall in case a crazy taxi driver or speedy motorcyclist whizzed by the narrow street. These were my last moments in Spain, but instead of any heartfelt or deep thoughts and all I could think was goddammit it’s too hot here.

After three long yet quick months in the beautiful country of Spain, it’s time to return to Canada. I spent my last three days alone in Barcelona, which was a perfect way to end off my summer abroad. Being alone allowed me to reflect on everything I’ve gone through since May and really see how I’ve changed.

My first night in Zaragoza I was heavily regretting my decision to be an au pair. I was confused as to how I ended up leaving my lovely friends and boyfriend to live with a random family on the other side of the world. I had never wanted to travel alone yet there I was, in Europe, alone.

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The Basilica del PIlar in Zaragoza!

My first days in Spain were difficult but they picked up quickly as I soon made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my entire life. They were also au pairs and we all met each other through the Zaragoza au pair Facebook page (yay for internet friends!). We always had a good time together, whether it was getting ice cream and going for a stroll by the river, staying out until seven in the morning and climbing public monuments, or wandering through various tapas bars and sampling all the tortilla de patata.

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Au pair gals in Parque Grande with a doggy pal

It’s amazing how well we all got along, but towards the end of July one by one they all started to trickle back to our home countries. I met up with a few other au pairs during that time, and although they were nice, I didn’t click with them as well as my old friends. One of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t make friends in Zaragoza, but that quickly went away after the first weekend. Now I have friends from England, Scotland, Ireland, and America. In fact, all of the North American au pairs are planning a meet up over the Christmas holidays!

Thus, my fears of loneliness had been lifted, but my anxiety over the language barrier still existed. I knew no Spanish whatsoever when I first arrived, but now I can proudly say that I have a basic grip on Spanish. That’s a huge accomplishment for me. I’m best at reading it, but I can communicate on a basic level. On my second last day, I gave a Spanish couple directions AND I communicated with a shopkeeper to ask for help. It may not seem like much but for my self-conscious grasp on Spanish it was a lot! Speaking Spanish with my fellow au pairs was really helpful because they were in the same position as me, all beginners struggling in a foreign country. I wish I could have tried a language exchange (there’s a website to find people in your area) but maybe I will try at home.

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Beautiful flowers and sunset in Granada

I think this trip helped me become more comfortable with myself and less afraid of people. I’m not afraid of what people think anymore if they see me eating alone at a cafe, if I’m dressed in shorts while everyone else wears jeans, or even if I’m a foreigner. They’re all trivial worries in the grand scheme of things!

Au pairing was a new experience. I always tried to avoid exchanges in high school because I thought I’d be too awkward to live with a new family. It was a bit awkward for me at first with my family but eventually I became comfortable with them. I had some good times as well as bad times with the kids, but it’s the good ones that seem to stick out in my mind stronger than the other ones.

I think I’d consider au pairing again, but for a shorter time period. Three months was a bit too long for me, as near the end I was ready to be done with living with screaming children and never having true alone time. I want to au pair in a French-speaking country next time to work on my French skills. I can’t believe I just let my French go after high school. I was at a decent level, which now has suffered, but I can always get it back with some practice!

It’s crazy to think how quickly my time abroad went past me. I remember thinking at the beginning of the trip that I would probably look back and say that, and yet here I am. However, I think my concept of time has changed since being abroad and having to deal with timezones and counting down days until I could see my boyfriend again. I don’t think time is broken down into blocks of minutes; I think time is just one continuous running moment in which events occur. Sometimes they occur quicker than others, depending on how you are enjoying the moment.

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beautiful sunset in Toledo!

That being said, I will spend the next few moments of my time in the lovely city of Toronto. Even though I’ve been to the lovely cities of Zaragoza, Huesca, Granada, Vilanova i la Geltru, Toledo, Madrid, Panticosa, Salou, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Bayonne, and Barcelona, Toronto is still my favourite city. It possesses a certain character that can’t be replicated anywhere; it’s a cosmopolitan city that doesn’t compare to anywhere I’ve been in Spain. Plus it has all the things I’ve missed while abroad, like bagels, city-wide recycling, lots of free wifi, and tons of vegetarian food! I’m thrilled to be able to live out my time in Toronto until my next travel abroad!

The Spain Survival Guide

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The Spain Survival Guide

Before I start this post, I just want to say that I don’t think there’s an exact way to describe the Spanish lifestyle; it’s one that has to be felt to be truly understood. The Spanish are not like Canadians in any sense. Spain is very relaxed in comparison to hectic Canadian life, which means it’s really easy to adjust to, right? Wrong. It took at least a month and a half for me to get accustomed to the lifestyle here. Now, as I sit nearly at the three month mark, here’s a bit of advice on how to handle Spain for the first time.

1. Do not underestimate siesta
Siesta is a period of rest in the afternoon, usually after lunch time, that the Spanish take very seriously. All the shops close down and workers go home on a lunch break from around 2pm-5pm which proves to be extremely inconvenient when you sleep in late and try to head town around lunchtime.

2. You can have lazy Sundays
Nothing is open on Sunday, except for restaurants, bars, and a very small handful of grocery stores. If you want a day to stay in without feeling guilty, let it be the Sabbath.

3. So….much….bread
My friends and I joke that when we go home and get asked how Spain was we are going to reply with some vague comment about bread. But honestly, you can’t escape bread here. You get it with every meal (some restaurants make you PAY for it, even though you don’t order it) or with every tapas plate you order. If you’re one of those people who tries to avoid carbs, don’t even bother here. Embrace the bread. Become one with the bread. There is no way to evade the bread.

4. Hands off the rosemary
At some tourist hotspots you’ll encounter women who will try to get you to accept a sprig of rosemary, only to demand a ridiculous amount of money. Some of these women are especially pushy and will forcefully grab your wrist while trying to force the rosemary into your hand (this happened to me in Granada). Whatever you do, do not take it! Just keep walking with your hands at your side and you should be fine.

5. Learn how to go with the flow
The Spanish aren’t big on itineraries. It’s not uncommon for my fellow au pair friends to have to cancel on weekend plans because their family decided the day before they’re going to go to the beach. You need to learn how to be flexible to survive here, otherwise you’ll get too frustrated with how quickly everything can change. Travel won’t always go perfectly smooth, so one must be able to adapt to sudden changes.

6. Your camouflage won’t work
Locals know if you’re a foreigner. It’s in the way you walk, the way you dress, and the way you talk (or the mere language, for that matter). Don’t stress over trying to blend in to the Spanish way of dress either because the Spanish will always have you beat with their tailored pants, collared shirts, and the scary way their shoes perfectly match their outfits. You can be smart about how you try to blend in (ie: don’t bury your face in a map as you walk down the street or carry a large camera around your neck) but just be aware that the people around you know you aren’t familiar with your surroundings.

7. Get familiar with the language
If you’re going to Spain without any knowledge whatsoever of the Spanish language (like me), hit up Duolingo and learn some basic phrases. Make sure you know your manners, such as please, thank you, sorry, and excuse me. Try to learn some helpful expressions too, like “how much is this” or “where is..”. Also be warned: Spanish people speak extremely fast. However, you’ll still be able to pick up on some of their favourite phrases, like VALE! VALE! (translation: Okay) and VENGA! VENGA! (translation: let’s go).

8. Learn how to do everything later
After your jet lag goes away, you’ll need to get used to a whole new schedule. This new schedule involves later mealtimes: expect lunch around 2 or 3 and dinner to be around 9 or 10. However, something to take note of is that this doesn’t mean restaurants stay open any later; most restaurants are closing up by midnight. If you’re eating later, expect to be going out later too; it’s not uncommon to arrive at a disco at 2am and find it empty, save for a few earlybirds. This is so strange to a Canadian, seeing as at home clubs and bars close around this time.

9. Carry tissues with you
You’ll be thanking me for this one big time, because more than half of the bathrooms in Spain NEVER have toilet paper. Sometimes they don’t even have toilet seats. Many times I wanted to complain to management but my lack of Spanish language skills failed me.

10. holaaa guapaaaa!
In Spain as a woman you’ll definitely get more attention than back at home. Men both young and old will shout out “hola guapa!” (hello beautiful/gorgeous) as you’re walking by and it is annoying as heck. Ignoring them is fine, but it got to a point where, much to their surprise, I just made repulsive, ugly faces at them as I walked away.

Last Weekend I Had Coffee in Huesca

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After two weeks of settling in Spain, I have finally begun my travels! This past weekend I visited Huesca (pronounced Uesca), a quaint little town an hour north of Zaragoza.

Spanish graffi isn't like typical North American graffiti; it's mostly picture of THINGS, not just signatures and scribbles!

Spanish graffi isn’t like typical North American graffiti; it’s mostly picture of THINGS, not just signatures and scribbles!

My favourite site was the Castle of Montearagon, a secluded fortress high up on a hill. To get here you had to drive about ten minutes from the city centre. The view from the top of these ruins was extraordinary as you could see all over the town as well as get a nice glance into the mountains. It’s amazing how well the castle has been preserved considering it was constructed around the eleventh century!

There she is!

There she is!

Mountain views

Mountain views

New view on the ruins

New view on the ruins

The Queen in her castle! Avoid the awkward me, focus on the view

The Queen in her castle! Avoid the awkward me, focus on the view

Through the looking glass...

Through the looking glass…

More castle shots

Last one I swear!

Last one I swear!

 

After visiting the castle, we headed back into town to check out the old bullfighting ring. It was not filled with matadors waving red flags, but rather a group of old people playing some sort of game. I’m assuming it was a traditional Spanish game which looked like a combination of curling and bocci.

Bullfighting is completely unethical. Glad to see the stadium being used for something else!

Bullfighting is completely unethical. Glad to see the stadium being used for something else!

 

A few steps from the bullring was the Huesca Cathedral, built in the thirteenth century. There was a mass going on at the time but we were still allowed to go in to snap a few pictures. I was surprised at how few people were present, considering how strong a presence the Catholic church used to have in Spain.

You could pay to turn on all the lights, but I thought it wouldn't be wise to do it during mass

You could pay to turn on all the lights, but I thought it wouldn’t be wise to do it during mass

We also visited the Huesca museum. We weren’t allowed cameras in there so I wasn’t able to get any photos of the Gothic paintings or old artifacts. It was getting late, so after the museum we headed for dinner then went back to the bus stop.

On the way to the bus stop, we passed through a main square that suddenly was bursting with people! Spain truly does come alive at night, even in the sleepy town of Huesca. The square was beautiful and had a pretty fountain in the centre, which made for a great photo opportunity!

The air was filled with the scent of flowers too. Absolutely stunning

The air was filled with the scent of flowers too. Absolutely stunning

Again: avoid the awkward, focus on the view

Again: avoid the awkward, focus on the view

I traveled to this cute town with two au pairs, one American and one Canadian, who I met the night before. It was a spontaneous day trip and we really enjoyed it! We were only there from 2-9, and that’s all we really needed to see the small city. Overall it was a fun day, and I’m glad I can mark it off as the first city I’ve traveled to in Spain (outside Zaragoza)!

Classy fisheye selfie, I'll be taking lots of these now that I've discovered the setting on my camera

Classy fisheye selfie, I’ll be taking lots of these now that I’ve discovered the setting on my camera

 

Straying From The Path…But Not in a Good Way

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It’s my second week in Spain and I’ve recently been hit with a bout of homesickness. I miss my friends and, dare I say it, my…family. I know this is a natural feeling, but I don’t want it to continue to ruin my time here in Spain. This is an amazing opportunity I don’t want to mess up by sitting at home and feeling sad or scared.

I think the problem is I forgot why I decided to come here. I’ve begun to act like I came to Spain to do a job, which is not true. I didn’t come here just to be an au pair; if I wanted to babysit I could have saved $1000 and stayed at home with my little cousins. I came here to travel and go on exciting adventures. I came here to start to see the world and discover new ideas about new cultures.

I think I am too caught up in trying to be a “good” au pair. My host family has always had au pairs so I constantly worry I am the worst of them because I find it a bit difficult to adjust to living with a random family. I’m socially awkward too, which doesn’t really help because I don’t know what to say to the kids or parents sometimes. Au pairs are hired to help the kids improve their English, so I think if I’m not speaking every moment I’m not doing a good job. I also worry about how integrated into family life I should be. I don’t know how much time to spend with the family and how much time to leave them alone. I know there isn’t any set time, but I just don’t know where I should be and what I should do sometimes.

I don’t think it helps that every weeknight I just stay in the house after the kids go to bed. I feel like I should make more of an effort to go out but everyone has me convinced I’ll be kidnapped, raped, or killed if I go out myself, although this city has a very low crime rate and I live in a very safe neighbourhood. Although I have a few friends, I need to start expanding my network a bit more so I’ll have more people to go out with and explore the city apart from my au pair life.

I have hope that things will get better. I overcame a bit of my airport anxiety with this trip, so I’m sure that I can overcome a bit of au pair and solo travel anxiety!

A Day in the Life of a Spanish Au Pair

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So it’s official: I survived my first week as a Spanish au pair! After a long, gruelling week I’ve finally settled into my routine so I imagine the days will start passing faster and faster (fortunately? unfortunately?). I’m lucky that I was taken in by such a great, kind family with (fairly) well behaved kids. I am watching three kids: a twelve year old boy, an eight year old boy, and a six year old girl. My days are actually pretty easy in comparison to the duties of my other au pair friends in Zaragoza. Have a look:

7:55am: Wake up in my cold basement bedroom and put on the warmest clothes I have, regretting taking a job that requires getting out of bed so early. The kids are supposed to wake up at 8, so I have to go check if they’re still asleep. If I’m lucky they’ll already be awake, but usually I have to wake up the two boys while the girl is already downstairs watching TV.

8-8:30am: Breakfast time. In Spain the kids only have little chocolate cookies and hot chocolate for breakfast, which I find very strange and not at all nutritious. Sometimes the middle child has cereal, but the cereal he eats is corn flakes with chocolate chunks. I usually have a piece of fruit or yogurt. The kids are too tired in the morning to talk, let alone speak English, so I let them eat and watch TV in silence. My host family has housekeeper too, so she usually helps out with the kids by preparing their breakfast or yelling at them in Spanish when they aren’t cooperative (she’s my saviour).

8:30-9:15: The kids get dressed and brush their teeth. Sometimes this can take a while, depending on how cooperative they decide to be. I don’t actually have to help them get ready, I just make sure they are getting ready. The girl is usually quick so I spend the rest of the time playing with her.

9:15am: Walk the kids to school. Before we leave the housekeeper always yells something in Spanish at the kids. I don’t know what she says but they always listen to her (I seriously love her). The school is less than five minutes away, but the little girl walks slow and stops to look at everything, so it takes us nearly ten minutes to get there. During the walk I try to make conversation but sometimes the kids just don’t want to speak English sometimes, so they just ignore me and it’s very awkward. So, I usually don’t say much which really makes me wonder if I’m this family’s worst au pair ever (more on that in a different post). Dropping the kids off at school is pretty awkward too because I’m pretty sure they’re embarrassed that a random foreigner takes them to school. They start to walk faster when we get closer to the school gates and they ALWAYS, ALWAYS ignore me when I say bye, which is incredibly awkward with all the other loving parents around so I usually turn around and hightail it out of there!

9:30am-6pm: FREE TIME! I scored a great au pair placement so my only day time duties are to take the kids to school for 9:30 and then pick them up at 6. During the day I explore the city centre, walk the dog, go hiking in the hills, or meet up with other au pairs who luckily only live a ten minute tram ride away! This is my favourite part of the day because I get to escape the nightmare that is living with the kids you work with and go on adventures.

6-6:15pm: At this time I pick the kids up from school with my host mom and we walk home, which is pretty dreadful sometimes. First of all, all the Spanish moms dress like they’re having lunch with the president to pick up their kids while I stand there in my faded Toms and only pair of jeans I brought with me. The kids often ignore me when we pick them up and start talking rapidly in Spanish with their mom. The little girl often holds my hand as we walk home which is nice because it makes me think the kids might actually like me! The host mom always brings the kids snacks, and these kids just get the biggest thrill out of littering. They always throw their wrappers and laugh, and when I tell them to pick it up they ignore me or just shrug, which just kills me as I try to retrieve their garbage.

6:15-8:45pm: Play and work time. I play outside with the kids when they get home for about thirty minutes, a time during which my butt gets kicked in both basketball and soccer by small Spanish children. My host mom then calls the kids in and then we go inside and do homework. My host mom helps out too which is great because I’d be so lost on my own. I usually end up helping the kids with homework as best I can (their work is in Spanish so I can’t help too much) and then play with the girl until their father comes home at dinner, around 8:45. After dinner is free time but I usually sit with the kids or play a game with the girl.

This is my schedule for the weekdays only, as I have weekends off! I’m not saying au pairing is an easy job because it definitely isn’t. Working with kids is very difficult at times and requires a lot of patience. So far, my patience has only been tested a few times! My past experience working with kids has definitely helped. I don’t know if I’d au pair in the future, but I’ll see how this summer goes first and then decide from there!

 

How Broken English and Mountain Biking Helped Me Rediscover Adventure

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I’m going to be honest: for my first few days in Zaragoza I have been lacking a bit of life. I didn’t jump into the adventures I thought I would when I was planning for my trip. Instead I’ve been lounging around my house, Skyping friends, reading, and walking around my neighbourhood which although is beautiful, I know I am doing as an act of avoidance.

What am I avoiding exactly? I’m not too sure. Pain of leaving my boyfriend behind? Maybe. I’ve gotten over my first horrible night (I cried probably six hours throughout the night as well as on the plane while eating gross airplane food) and have come to a realization that I have to stop pitying myself. Or maybe I’m just afraid of failure; failing as an au pair, failing to bond with anyone in the city, and failing to have the great adventures I came to Spain for.

That all changed today, thanks to my host dad. A few days ago it was rainy and windy outside, so poor little Hannah stayed indoors the entire day. When my host dad found out, he planned a bike excursion for us the next day. I was fine with this because he doesn’t know enough English that I have to keep up a conversation (I’m socially awkward), it would allow me to bond with the people I am living with, and it sounded like a nice, easy ride.

What I was not expecting was to bike straight up a bumpy mountain on one of those fancy cycling bikes, trailing hundreds of meters behind my host dad. But alas, when my host dad asked me if I liked cycling I thought, with his bad English, he just meant bike riding. Like leisurely suburban bike trail bike riding. Like scenic oh-lets-stop-and-take-a-picture biking. But no, he meant cycling: spandex-wearing, getting on a thin bike, leaning low to the handlebars, and taking on a huge hill with dangerous terrain cycling.

I think he found out I wasn’t a serious cycler when we took off on a straight path and he instantly shot off, leaving me in his dust. He showed me the quickest way to bike to Parque Grande, a huge, beautiful park only ten minutes away. I was very grateful but kind of wondering why we went through so quickly. We rode back and then he asked if I wanted to go through the mountains. Knowing my current fitness level, which ranges from a walk to the fridge to a walk to the grocery store, I politely declined because I had already ran in the hills earlier that morning (not a lie…although it really was an hour and a half walk with a five minute period of brisk jogging). However, he misunderstand me and took it as a yes as he turned the corner and headed for the hills.

Oh no. The first little incline wasn’t too bad. It was a relatively smooth dirt road, a bit difficult but not impossible. I can do this! I thought to myself, but broke off mid-thought as I saw the next huge rocky incline that took us straight up the mountain. My host dad, who rides this trail several times a week, barely broke a sweat as he steadily began to climb. I, on the other hand, pushed with all my might and only managed to ride a few feet. It was grueling. I started on the right side of the road but after a minute I somehow made my way over to the opposite side.

After climbing one quarter of the mountain I called to my host dad that I couldn’t do it, so he encouraged me to keep going. I was physically exhausted so I ended up getting off my bike and walking to the top, where I was greeted by the best view I’d had since coming to Spain. Beyond the mountain were rolling hills dotted with quirky-looking trees and larger mountains off in the distance. I could see over my entire neighbourhood and could trace the path leading towards the city centre. It was gorgeous, and then I looked to my left and saw a huge Ikea sign, which was part of Europe’s biggest mall. Ah, commercialization at its finest.

After biking through an extremely rocky trail on the mountaintop, it was time to descend the hill.

“Going down is much easier, right?” I asked jokingly.

“Easy?” My host dad said, looked very amused.

He pointed to huge scars on his arms and legs that I had assumed he got from wrestling a clan of bears or bullfighting. Seriously, these scars were nasty.

“Not easy.” He said and headed down the mountain.

Ah. The first half of going down the mountain was pure hell. There were enormous rocks everywhere that you couldn’t avoid no matter what. They shook my whole body and made my veins feel like they were about to explode as I watched my arms grow red as I picked up speed. I finally understood why he offered me a helmet before we left the house; I was sure I was going to crash, crack my head open, break my arms, and be forced to use my international health insurance card (which gives me anxiety because I fear it won’t work and I’ll be stuck with an enormous hospital bill).

I survived the first half thankfully. The second half led onto the paved road, which was awfully steep and winding. I rode the break the whole way down because I didn’t want to fly out onto the street at the bottom or, you know, die.

As terrifying as it was, as I flew down the winding road and turned every curve I felt something I hadn’t felt in almost a week. It was the exhilarating feeling of overwhelming happiness, of the wind blowing through my hair, of the hot Spanish sun beating down on my back, of wanting to laugh out loud, of just being alive.

It was living in the present. I was no longer living in the past, distraught over the good memories I had with my boyfriend. I had abandoned the alternate universe I also escaped to, imagining the summer I would have had if I stayed at home, got a well paying summer job, and spent every free moment with my boyfriend and friends. The only thoughts of the future I briefly had was that I needed to feel this freedom again, and I needed to feel it often.

I felt nothing but the immediate present, which is the best way to live. That’s where the adventures are.