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


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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.

Packing….

Lightly:

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.

Systematically:

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

Safety….

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 🙂

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Consejos

¡Buenas tardes!…I write to you from the comfort of my bed this afternoon as I settle down for a little siesta. I feel that even after three weeks, I have not entirely recovered from jet lag. After reading a portion of the book “Maximizing Study Abroad”, I fear I never will. One student wrote “Living overseas is exhausting. There needs to be a chapter on naps.” This very valid comment was followed by several others from students saying similar things. Let me put it this way: at home in the US, you can get X number of things done in a day. Here, it’s probably less than 1/2X because things that were once simple are now difficult and exhausting. Your brain is in overdrive for most of your waking hours, so the minute you can crash, you just do. I usually make one goal for each day OTHER than going to school, and it can be a struggle even to accomplish that! It is getting better though. As I become more familiar with everything and more fluent in the language, my daily activities are becoming less of a struggle.

In my short time here thus far, I have made some observations about cultural differences. Some I had heard a bit about before I came here, and others were surprises. So here is my list of “wish I woulda known then what I know now!” (Prospective study abroad students–take notes!):

Watch your step! Or you might wind up with a smelly mess on your shoes. There seems to be no rules–customary or legal–concerning cleaning up after your dog’s doo-doo anywhere you go. You could be outside of a nice department store, and if that’s where your dog needs to go, no problem. Don’t worry about cleaning it up. Try to get him to go in the grass, but if it’s on the sidewalk, no worries. I’ve been lucky so far, but I have had many “ahhh crap!” moments when I realize I haven’t been paying attention to where I’m walking for awhile. One of these days it is going to happen.

On the same note, I’ve observed a couple other peculiarities with their relationship with man’s best friend. It seems that dogs with owners and dogs that are strays coexist in a 1-1 ratio. It’s often hard, however, to tell a stray from non-stray as most dogs here are so obedient they don’t need leashes. Many people “walk” their dogs without leashes, and astoundingly the dog will stay within a 10-foot radius of the owner at all times. Many dogs will even wait patiently outside of a store for their owner. What kind of puppy-training programs are they running here?? We should probably look into that.

What are you lookin’ at? How long are you comfortable with someone making eye contact with you? I’d guess maybe…3-4 seconds, unless they’re your significant other. People in Spain tend to make direct eye contact for a period much longer than most US Americans are comfortable with. If there was a world-wide staring contest, Spain would kick our butts. I’m unsure of how long people are actually staring at me because as a habit, I always look away after a second or two. I suppose part of the issue is that I look a bit different than them (although the brown eyes do help me to blend at least a little!) I’ll get used to it. I’ll probably get so used to it that I’ll make all of you uncomfortable with my extra-long eye contact upon my return!

Do I know you? It’s not rude to stare, but forget saying “hi” to someone you don’t know. I found this out the hard way. I smiled and said “Hola” to an old man on the street and he actually stopped, gave me a confused look and said “Ehhh, ¿te conozco? (Do I know you?)” I have now confirmed with one of the professors here that it is weird to say hi to someone just to be friendly. Next time I’ll just stare.

Hurry up and wait. Two things I am not: patient and timely. Both are things I’d like to improve upon, and this is definitely my chance. There is no “leaving at the last minute”, and “eating on the run” is seen as rude here. I’ve done both of those things almost daily for my entire college career. Here, you must plan ahead to be on time for public transportation, to allow LOTS of walking time, and often, to allow time to get lost and have to ask for directions. The other side of this is that you must get used to waiting….for…a….loooooong…tiiiime. The next bus doesn’t come for an hour? Hope you have a book. All of the stores are closed all afternoon for siesta? Hope you didn’t need anything right this minute. Spaniards often use this waiting time to socialize and relax. It will just take time for someone, such as myself, from an always-on-the-go culture to adjust to this pace.

¡Besame! It is customary for women to greet each other, and men to greet women with two “fake” cheek kisses, starting on the left side. They’re “fake” because you don’t actually plant a big wet one on their cheek (eeeew!), you just sort of brush cheeks on each side and make a small “muah” noise.

Burst my bubble. If you’ve been to Europe (especially Spain and France, as far as I know), you know that everything is pretty tight quarters. You get up-close-and-personal with cars, buses, buildings, and of course, other people. Being only 5’7″ and not particularly gordo, even I feel too large for this country sometimes. Spanish people are, on average, smaller than US Americans (both in height and, well, width!), but they are also more accustomed to bumpin’ elbows.

Keep the change. One of the most common questions when visiting any foreign country is in regards to their tipping policy. I have heard a broad range of hypotheses on Spain’s tipping policy: everything from “Tip just like we do in the US!” to “Tipping is considered an insult!” So needless to say, I had to do a little myth-busting. I perused several articles on the internets, and found that this About.com article was the most helpful. If you don’t care to read it, it basically just tells you that they’ll certainly accept a tip, but it is not at all customary to leave one, so you may as well save your euros for a rainy day.

These boots are made for walkin’...or at least they better be. My feet are killing me. I may be a gym rat, but I still have been no match for the havoc wreaked upon my feet here. I suppose it depends where you’re living, what the landscape is like, what your commute to school or work is like (in my case the mountains, steep, long commute)…but as a general rule, you will walk a whole lot more here than you would in the US. I already have 4 blisters, and my feet are becoming quite calloused. I’m going to have to ask my mom to send my Ped Egg.

I will write more soon about what I’ve been up to, however my intent with this blog is not for it to be a comprehensive diary of my daily activitys, per-say, but rather a chance for you to walk along with me through my cultural adjustments and observations. That being said, I invite you to view my newest album on Picasa, “Hike to Sopelana” in which you will find breathtaking photos of my cliffisde hike from here in Algorta-Getxo all the way to Sopelana, a beach/surf town further down the Basque Coast.

To my fellow North Dakotans: ¡Mantente abrigado! (Stay warm!)


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failblog.

I’m sure that many of you reading this have heard of failblog.org, and those of you that know me well know that it’s one of my favorite sites. The blog has a collection of everyday “fails” ( I know “failures” is better grammar, but that is what they’re called) such as this:

Anyway, I feel like I’ve had a lot of “fails” lately too, so I thought I would share them with you for your entertainment. Some of these fails have been all my own, and some have been caused by circumstances beyond my control. First there is the obvious example: missing a flight due to delays and having your luggage lost. But those things happen all the time. The real fun fails come from being in a place where you don’t know where anything is, don’t know the customs and norms,  and you’re not able to fluently, or sometimes even just effectively, communicate with anyone around you. They are the times when you want to crawl into a hole, but they make some of the best memories. I’m hoping the number of fails will progressively decrease as I figure more things out, but here’s a few that have happened in my first few days:

  • I needed some cash, so I went to an ATM booth around the corner. The booth had 2 ATMS in it, and you had to swipe your credit card to walk in. I swiped my card, walked in, and the machine wouldn’t take my credit card. I figured it was broken and turned around to walk over to the other ATM, and SMASH!! Face first into the glass that separated the two machines. Not sure if anyone saw, but I hope I made someone’s day. That was some really, really clean glass. Fail.
  • My first trip to the grocery store was an overall fail due to my shock at how different they are here. Clearly, Spanish people never buy groceries in bulk, and clearly they are not lazy cooks like us. I couldn’t find anything ‘easy to make’, not even a simple can of beans (all were dry and had to be prepared from scratch.) On my first trip I settled for some fruit, ham, cheese and bread, and a frozen pizza. When I got up to the cashier, she said something I didn’t understand about my fruit. Then I realized I was supposed to weigh the fruit myself and get a printout. Another worker took my fruit and did it for me. When she returned, the two workers had a conversation about me in Spanish and I caught, “She doesn’t understand anything. We need to explain this to her.” To their suprise, I responded and said that I did understand, I just wasn’t used to having to weigh my own produce. So I guess that part was kind of a win for me, but overall grocery experience: fail.
  • Last night I had plans to meet up with some friends down at the marina. Roberto, one of the other students, and I decided we’d meet at the metro stop in our neighborhood and head there together. It was pouring rain, and neither of us had an umbrella. No big deal though, we were just going to hop on the metro and go right over to the marina. I thought I knew where it was in relation to where we were getting off, but my mental map was WAY off. We got off two metro stops too late and ended up walking along the water for almost an hour to reach our destination. We arrived last in the group looking like drowned rats. Fail.
  • My final and greatest fails so far have been getting to school. I will say one thing to my credit, and that is that the bus system in my town really is confusing. The times listed for each route are the times the bus leaves its “first” stop, so unless you have extensive knowledge of the town’s layout you have no way of knowing how long it will take the bus to reach your stop. The first day of school, I missed my bus, ran in my dress clothes to another stop several blocks away, missed that bus, and then ended up spending 15 euros on a taxi to get to school only to find out my earliest class had been rescheduled for the afternoon. The second day of school (today) was a fail turned fun. I left the house bright and early and headed to my stop. There was no way I was missing the bus AGAIN. I left the apartment and immediately had my balance thrown off by a 50mph+ gust of wind. It was raining too, and the wind gave the rain equal force to a Super Soaker. I walked through the treacherous storm as quickly as I could physically muster, vowing to fight back against the elements. But it was bad…really bad. At one point, my North Dakotan self thought, “Is this a hurricane? What if I get sucked away into the sky?” I rounded a corner and had my balance thrown off by another enormous gust, this time knocking me over into a puddle. Oh fail. I picked myself up and continued on, determined not to miss my bus. I saw a woman pushing a stroller trying to keep the stroller from tipping over with the wind. I reached out to give her a hand, and that’s when my umbrella broke. Flipped inside out, then back again, ripping and ripping until it was beyond saving. That was it. I ducked into a store and realized I was so frazzled I didn’t even know where I was. Once I gathered my bearings, I asked the cashier where the bus stop was and continued on, sans umbrella, being Super-Soaked by the almost-horizontal rain with every step. When I got to the bus stop, I saw my bus leaving, its passengers inside warm and dry. I wanted to sit down in a puddle and cry. Instead, I called the office at school to tell them I’d be late since the next bus didn’t come for 30 minutes. When I got off the phone, a Spanish student at the stop asked if I was going to UPV because she had missed the bus too, and her boyfriend was on the way to pick her up. Thank God for her. Her boyfriend came less than a minute later. The outside of his van seemed pretty standard, but the inside was like a mini surf shop. I counted 7 boards, 4 wetsuits and several registration tags from surfing competitions all around Spain. Maria and her boyfriend Rafa talked to me all the way to school. Maria studies pharmacy at UPV and Rafa lives on a boat in the harbor and surfs semi-professionally. They gave me lots of surfing tips, and dropped me off, for free, right outside my building. Some fails have happy endings 🙂

If at first you fail, laugh about it!

More pictures and entries coming soon….