Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


a self defense story

A couple months ago, I encountered a really scary situation that has forever changed me. But it could have ended up a lot worse. Since it didn’t, I want to share this story in hopes that it may help someone who may one day find themselves in a similar circumstance.

It was early May: a typical night out on the town. My friends and I ended the night at one of our favorite places, the popular Kafe Antzokia (Theater Cafe), jamming to retro tunes with our fellow 20-somethings. At closing time, everyone headed for the metro, per usual. I said goodbye to my friends, got off at my stop and headed out into the street with the throngs of other young people coming home at the same time.

About a block from my house, two men up the block from me turned around and started cat-calling at me a bit. Cat-calling isn’t so abundant here as compared with other places in Spain, but occurs from time to time nonetheless, and one can assume at this hour they were likely in a more uninhibited state than usual. I mostly ignored them but started to walk a bit slower. They turned left up ahead, just in front of my apartment. The throngs of people all seemed to be veering to the right. I slowed down a bit more. They started walking again, past my apartment . I crossed the street and prepared to enter my apartment as quickly as possible.

Key in the door. Turn, open, step inside. As I started up the staircase in the entryway, I heard a voice behind me say, “Hola.” Startled, I turned halfway around and said hi back while continuing quickly up the stairs. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, “I didn’t notice anyone coming in behind me.” It made me nervous, but when the man turned to wait for the elevator, my nerves were momentarily calmed. I always took the stairs since we lived on the first floor. He was waiting for the elevator. Clearly he’s just another tenant in my apartment. Everything is fine.

As I headed up the stairs, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the man turned away from the elevator and started up the stairs right behind me. It was then I knew I might be in some serious  trouble. Suddenly, the few key points I learned about self defense years ago came to me at all once:

“Tell him to pass in front of you…Look him directly in the eye and ask him a question…kick and scream like hell if he gets within two feet of you…”

“Tell him to pass in front of you”

I stopped at the the top of the stairs and snapped on the hallway light. I turned to face him and told him, “Pasa, pasa,” motioning for him to pass in front of me. He stepped back and said “No, tu primero [you first].” Step one didn’t work.

“Look him directly in the eye and ask him a question”

I was told long ago that if ever someone is following you on the street, you should assert your confidence by making eye contact and asking them something as simple as whether they had the time. Since we were now just steps away from my front door, I felt it was time to be more direct. I asked him if he lives in the building, to which he responded that he did. When I asked him where exactly, he named a unit that doesn’t exist. Now I was certain. Panicking inside, but certain that I needed to do something. I didn’t want to enter my apartment door, which we were now standing directly in front of. He could attack me as I open the door. Plus he would know exactly where I live. What do I do now?

“Kick and scream like hell if he gets within two feet of you”

He acted like he had just decided to wait for the elevator on the second floor rather than the first, so I started up to the third floor. When I was halfway up the stairs, the time had run out on the hallway light’s 20-second timer, and we were in pitch darkness. I heard his footsteps on the staircase directly behind me, running this time. I scrambled for the third floor hallway light switch and saw him coming right at me with cold, mean eyes. I started screaming, yelling at him to get out, calling out for help. I pounded on the doors of the third floor apartments and rang every buzzer I could get my hands on. As he pulled and grabbed at me, I managed to hit him in the nose, knee him in the groin and kick him. Lucky for me, he wasn’t particularly big or strong, and he didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons.

After what seemed like and eternity of hitting and kicking for my life, he scampered back down the staircase. Charged by adrenaline, I had won the fight. I stood in the hallway, shaking, waiting for someone to come out and see if I was ok. No one came. Had no one heard? How is that possible? I thought about calling the police. I didn’t even know what to tell them. And trying to think of how to recount, in Spanish, what had just happened to me to police was beyond my mental capacity in that moment. I couldn’t even remember what he looked like. What was he wearing? I don’t even know. Other than him being a few inches taller than me, the only thing I could remember about him was the look in his eyes. It’s the most cliche thing ever, but it’s true. You hear that over and over in assault and rape accounts, and I can now attest to its truth. The cold, hateful look in their eyes is so distinct you don’t really remember anything else.

A few minutes passed and I tip-toed back down the stairs to my apartment. I remember very specifically wanting to pretend it hadn’t happened at all. I got ready for bed, fixed a snack, watched some Comedy Central, and went to sleep. It was only the next day, when I saw the bruises and cuts on my arms and legs from the fight, that I knew I would have to deal with what had happened.

The feelings I had in the days that followed ranged from homesickness to hopelessness to anger and even shame. I mourned the fact that my claim to Bilbao’s fame as being really safe for a city of its size was forever tainted. I mourned the alteration, however slight, in my belief that people are generally good and trustworthy.

Today, two months and thankfully zero incidents later, I can tell you that I still (or again) believe that Bilbao is a safe city, and also that people are generally good and trustworthy. There are bad people everywhere, and you should always be cautious, smart, and aware of your surroundings, especially when you’re alone. But even then, you may find yourself in a situation like I did. And you should think now about what you can do in such a situation to assure your own safety. But after that, you can’t live your life in fear of something like this. There is no way to assure your complete safety 100% of the time. Be ready and be smart, but don’t be too distrusting of others. There is much to be gained in life in believing in the goodness of people.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.” -Mahatma Gahndi

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Tid-bits of Travel Tips

I am back! ¡Por fin! The neglect of my blog over the past couple of weeks is shameful, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve been trotting across the continent seeing great sights. I could not afford to take time to sit down to the computer! It’s a bit overwhelming to cover 4 of the world’s most famous cities in 2 weeks. I am working relentlessly to upload all of the pictures and videos from my trip, so those (plus a blog post about my adventures) will be up very soon!

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you some  travel advice I have collected, mostly from learning the hard way. This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything you need to know to travel. This is simply a consolidation of the lessons I’ve learned in the first few “backpacking-esque” trips of my life. Sure, you can google “backpacking travel tips” and find some items similar to what I have here, but isn’t it more entertaining to read this knowing that most of what is here are things I’ve failed miserably at? Let me help you not fail.



Prior to my European excursions, packing light was, to me, a very elusive concept. “Packing light? You mean like…only 4 of the 8 pairs of shoes I was going to bring? And having to choose between a straightener OR a curling iron!? Preposterous.” Packing light is an ART that, when mastered, brings happiness. The only word to describe having everything you own in one, compact pack is: FREEDOM. I say this, but I still struggle with it on every trip; I am still learning. I will say very simply that I have never, ever been on a trip and thought “Gee, I wish I would have brought MORE than this!” The people you’ll be traveling with are probably in the same boat, so you can all apologize to each other for the fact that you will be wearing one of 3 outfits for the next week or so, and then you can all get over it. As a general rule, bring: 1. An outfit that can get ruined 2. An outfit that can be worn for activity or casual gatherings 3. A slightly nicer outfit for less casual settings. The type of clothing obviously varies greatly depending on where you’re going and what your intentions are. As they say, lay out everything you want to bring, halve it, and bring twice the money you planned on.

Wear your bulkiest items, pack the more compact ones (jeans, boots/tennies, jackets). This may result in you looking a bit ridiculous on the plane or train (i.e. wearing a sweatshirt, a jacket AND four scarves…been there…) or being completely overdressed for the climate (sweatshirt/jacket combo in the Canary Islands? Wasn’t cool.) but it’s your best option for packing light.


Finally, a part of life where OCD tendencies come in handy. Put everything in its place, and put it back (exactly) where it was when you’re done using it. Even if you do just have a backpack, having to take everything out to get at something that ended up on the bottom can be a real drag. Think about what you’ll need to access most often, and put it in an accessible location. If everything has a specific place, it will also be easier to notice if you’ve forgotten something or, God forbid, had something stolen. Invest in a passport-holder that has extra pockets for plane/bus/train tickets, extra money and credit cards (shout-out to my relatives in AZ–best Christmas gift idea ever!)

Essentials: Tide travel packets, umbrella, cheap flip flops for showers, Starbucks VIA (if you’re an addict like me…), waterproof sleeve for all important documents (copies of personal documents, e-Tickets, hostel booking confirmation emails, etc.)

The very stylish Chewbacca backpack


We’ve all heard plenty of travel safety trips, but until you have to put them into action they’re hard to recall. I will summarize my safety advice to you, which comes almost 100% from experience, into three main points:

1. Look like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Thieves have you pegged in your backpack and hooded sweatshirt, holding a map. You’re a tourist, and it is written all over you. Your best defense sometimes is confidence because, just like animals, they’ll prey on you if you show signs of weakness or struggle. So keep your chin up, don’t  avoid eye contact, and pretend you aren’t lost, starving and in desperate need of a shower.

2. Be keenly aware of your belongs, at all times. Everything you own should be in your line of sight and physically attached to you at all times that it isn’t locked up in your hostel, or you can consider it gone. I can’t even count the times I’ve had waiters at outdoor cafes come up to me, take my purse off the table and put it in my lap or tie it to my chair. Clearly, purse-stealing is pretty routine if the waiters are trained to help their clients this way.

3. Don’t be Mr. Nice Guy. Pocket-pickers aren’t stupid. They have their craft perfected with lots of creative ways to distract or confuse you while they help themselves to your valuables. Some examples I’ve heard of or experienced: offering a high five and then using it to put you in a hold while they grab your money, asking you for directions on their map while their partner in crime takes your stuff (lots of “teamwork” examples similar to this), asking to help you with your bags (which they will kindly run off with if you accept). So….just be aware! You have to be slightly rude and unfriendly sometimes to err on the side of caution, but it’s better than losing a camera or all your money!

Various other tid-bits:

Do as much research as possible about the places you’ll visit before you’ll get there. Knowing why those old buildings are so significant makes them so much more worthwhile to visit. It’s always hard to make time for this, so I recommend investing in a travel guide, such as Lonely Planet ,whose authors have done a lot of the information-sorting for you.

Ask anyone you know who lives/has lived there for advice on things to see, etc. What might seem like simple, routine info to them could save you a lot of time and money and make your trip more worthwhile.

Write EVERYTHING down. Hotel address, street names, phone numbers, landmarks, metro stops, etc.

Use the metro. My friends and I have decided that once you figure out one big-city metro, you can navigate on any of them. It’s cheap and quick–what more could you want?

Sacrifice comfort for a short time for the awesomeness of traveling cheaply.

Keep an open mind and a light heart. Things can go wrong and probably will, but with the right attitude almost all of your experiences, both bad and good, will be looked back upon fondly.

I hope you’ve taken at least a couple of helpful things from this post. Check back in a few days for an update on my European sabbatical!

Hasta luego 🙂