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Las Cuevas, Sierra Nevada… Is it really over?? August 2, 2013

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I last left off having returned to Granada from Tangier, Morocco – but the return to Granada wasn’t very long. We got back to Granada around 7:30pm on Sunday, had class and our big group presentations the next morning, and then left for la Comarca de Guadix and las cuevas that afternoon! We spent Monday through Thursday in the real countryside of Andalusia – in a cave hotel! Just the drive out there was beautiful – I never imagined Spain as being so mountainous and desert-like. It seemed like a view straight out of the Grand Canyon, what with the orange plains and plateaus. The caves themselves were so neat – we stayed 5 people to a cave and each cave had several bedrooms, bathrooms, and a full kitchen and living room. And, best of all, the temperature stayed at a constant 20 C year-round. Given the toasty weather of southern Spain, this was a much-appreciated perk.

The week was filled with all kinds of activities, but my favorite might have been “drop-off”. Our teacher literally dropped off a pair of us in random towns all around the countryside. So we all set off on a bus that morning, and every 15 minutes or so a couple students would get off the bus, with our teacher basically saying “Seeya in 2 hours!”. At first I honestly wasn’t too enthusiastic – these were towns of a few hundred people, at most, and  here we were, tasked with a list of questions to answer, wandering around amidst the suspicious (typically old and retired) townspeople at 10am going “Hi! What is the typical climate of this particular town?” Needless to say, the first few minutes were a little awkward. However, after walking across the whole town (which took all of 10 minutes) and having no luck with conversations, we decided to head to a bar. That turned out to be a great decision, because 2 hours and a few free drinks later, we had all our questions answered by a couple veeeeery talkative old men. I can’t really say it was much of a conversation, because once we asked a couple questions these guys just went off – it doesn’t take much to inspire disgruntled old Spaniards to start sharing their opinions on the current government in light of “la crísis”.

Unfortunately, the caves turned out to be not quite the best environment for me – my body rebelled against the new climate change (and being around sick people for the past few weeks) and I fell ill with the plague. Given no other knowledge as to what seemed to be infecting the group, “the plague” seemed like a fitting choice. I was pretty bad for a bit, but a week later I’m feeling back to almost 100%, so the good ole immune systems still got it. Other than that, the time at the caves was so much fun – we had lots of free time and were all together as a group again (something that was hard to accomplish in Granada when we’re all split up among host houses). We also had a cooking competition on the last night – we had to make tortilla española and carne salsa. Each cave had to prepare the two dishes, and in the end we had a big feast with more food than we could possibly eat. A lucky stray dog even wandered up and got all kinds of delicious scraps. After a night of eating, drinking, and maybe even a little late-night singing by the pool (bonding, right?), we spent the last morning in Guadix hiking for a few hours.

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We returned to Granada Thursday afternoon, but didn’t have too long of a break, because at 7:30am the next morning we were all on a bus for a (group-organized) trip to the Sierra Nevada. For the final 3-day weekend of the program, we didn’t plan any legitimate trips, because most of us wanted some free time to work on our final project and study for the final exam. However, about 15 of us wanted to go hiking in the Sierra Nevada, so we talked to the bus driver that took us to Guadix and worked out a price so that he could drive us up to a hiking spot. We decided on La Veleta – the second highest peak in the Sierra Nevada. The hike started at a valley that contained the main part of the Sierra Nevada ski resort – only an hour outside of Granada. We could see the peak, our destination, even from our starting point .. but had no idea how far away it actually was. We ended up spending over 5 hours hiking that day – and it was so, so worth it. Despite the wind (so.. so.. much wind) and cold (…. we were severely unprepared for that), reaching the peak was so fulfilling and so incredibly beautiful. Pictures can’t even capture the immensity of the landscape we were able to see and the environment we were experiencing – towering mountain ranges all around us, wind howling at an almost deafening level, fingers numb from the cold and faces stinging from the cold wind. We even saw snow – and played in it! I can’t say I’ve ever seen snow in the last week of July.. until now! There were wild bulls and sheep roaming the mountain – nothing like walking along a trail and noticing a bull grazing on the slope 10 feet above you! Lunch was a bocadillo of ham and cheese; we all tucked behind a closed ski lift building in an attempt to avoid the wind for a bit. Oh – and I had some of the best plums of my life!! That might have just been the hunger talking, but I’m not complaining. In the end, it was such a beautiful hike – I think that might have been one of my favorite days in Spain.

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That night started off some birthday festivities – the next day was a day of birthdays because Lauren and I shared one! So it was a fun day and night(s). Sunday was a lot of sleeping, lounging, and working on final projects. Monday we had a trip out to the coast to learn about agriculture and water use in Spain – we basically spent the whole day on the bus, driving around and stopping at various places to get a 10-30 minute lecture by the professor that accompanied us. Definitely a preferable learning environment to a classroom!

Then, finally, Tuesday – the last day of the program. We had our final presentations then the final exam. I’ve definitely been sad after maaaany Tech finals, but never because I was upset the class was over. It had been an amazing month that went by way too fast. The LBAT group itself was just perfect – we all got along so well and had so much fun together. The professors were excellent and engaging, the course material relevant and interesting, the homestays immersive and perfect for improving our Spanish. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and I’m so grateful for everyone who helped make it possible – and most importantly the support from my parents and the Fleet Scholarship. This trip was a million times more incredible than I ever imagined it could be, and it’s changed my perspective on Spain and even my own major studies. We’ll see what happens! And I definitely, definitely want to return to Spain one day – to study or work eventually. It is so sad to leave that amazing country, but life goes on, and unfortunately studying and traveling with 20 friends isn’t exactly a sustainable plan for graduation…

In a few short weeks I’ll be back on campus, but until then, I have a little more time in my own country of Portugal – relaxing with my family and winding down from my whirlwind experience in Spain. I already miss Spain and all the incredible friends I made there. That’s all I’ve got.. LBAT crew – you guys are the best!!

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Tanger, Marruecos July 25, 2013

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For the third and final “planned” traveling weekend of the month, 15 of us headed to the motherland! Africa for the weekend, casual. The destination was Tangier, Morocco because it was the shortest trip we found – and even then it took us 9 hours of travel to finally arrive. We had class on Thursday until 2, went home for lunch with our host families, and then headed to the train station to catch the 5pm train to Algeciras, Spain. It took over 4 hours on the train, thanks to a grand total of 13 stops along the way. Not to mention that, in Andalusia, the trains aren’t exactly of the “high-speed” variety. We definitely looked out the window and saw some birds pass us. Quite a few times. After that, it was a 15ish minute walk to the port to make the ferry – which ended up not being worth the rush as it left about an hour and a half late. We had to have our passports checked while on the ferry, and getting that “Tanger” stamp was so exciting! The ferry was about an hour or so, and we spent a few minutes up on the deck to watch the port fade away as we passed into the pitch black Strait of Gibraltar. The only things moving were the cranes unloading massive cargo ships and the seagulls drafting off of the ferry.

When we finally arrived in Tanger, we had to ride a bus from where the ferry dropped us off to the main building. Then from there, take taxis into the city of Tanger. Everyone was a little anxious about stepping into taxis at 1am, but our fearless leader (Nick) found 3 taxis to take us as close to our hostel as possible. It ended up being incredible – an hour long drive through the mountains of Morocco’s coast in the black of night.. all you could see was the shadowy shapes of the hills and the dark ocean below you as our driver sped through the night. We hit a lot of traffic in the city around 1:30am because eeeeeveryone was out and about at night because of Ramadan. It was absolutely incredible driving into the city and seeing it so alive, and even more incredible was the price of only 6 euros for an hour long taxi. If I learned anything that weekend, it’s that Morocco is the cheapest spot to travel EVER.

Our taxis took us pretty close to our hostel, and then someone showed us the rest of the way to “The Melting Point” – our home for the next few days. We found out quickly that the streets of Tangier are a confusing, winding, maze that can seem unnavigable. But with our guide we made it there, checked in, and passed out for the night. Then next morning we all woke up for breakfast, which was this DELICIOUS thin, sweet, bread with jam to dip it in. Loving bread as I do, I was definitely in heaven. Adding to that – we had breakfast on the terrace of the hostel, which overlooked the city and the ocean. This was for 13 euros a night, mind you. Morocco’s a bargain, guys.

With bread and coffee (which was also sooo good, by the way) we were ready to head out into the city. In search of a market, we wandered the medina for hours – a few circles were definitely made haha. But in the process we got to see a lot of the city, which was so cool. I had never been immersed in such a completely different culture before, and it was just incredible. I thought I would be a little apprehensive, but every hour I spent there was better than the next. Throughout the day we bought a loooot of stuff – but it’s okay because.. you know it.. everything was sooo cheap! I got a great little leather purse for 9 euros – bargained down from 25 thankyouverymuch. And even made friends with the shopkeeper; he said if I brought my friends I’d get some free stuff. So, obviously, I brought back the whole group. Let’s just say I have no shortage of *free* Moroccan jewelry now.

We kind of snacked during the day, stopping for a pastry when we got hungry in the afternoon. Since it was Ramadan, we didn’t want to eat in the streets, and even more – we were planning on a big dinner. And a big dinner it was: for 5 euros we got a full course Moroccan meal including appetizers, soup, tajine (I had the chicken), bread, drinks, dessert, and the tastiest mint tea you could ever imagine. I’m sure I’m forgetting some food now, because I remember being absolutely stuffed from that meal. We ended the night talking and hanging out on the terrace – a wonderful view to end a wonderful first full day in Morocco.

Day 2 – a day long taxi tour of the city and surrounding area. For the huge sum of 5 euros. After another filling breakfast of that tasty bread and jam, of course. OH, and bonus – hostel people are possibly the coolest people you’ll ever meet. There was a man who had been traveling the world for 20 years. There was a girl from Washington who I ended up talking about rowing with for a while – I spotted her JLRowing tank and basically that was the beginning of our friendship. And even cooler – alright I’ll have to explain this one carefully. In high school I went to a bunch of science fairs, one of the most fun being ISWEEEP – this international science fair held in Texas every year. Over the years you make friends with some of the other kids, so I knew one kid especially well. Turns out, this guy we were chatting with on the hostel terrace went to the same college as and knew my friend from years ago! Crazytown. Aaaanyways – taxi tour. Morocco was so much prettier than I ever imagined.

ImageI don’t know how I pictured Africa, but this was definitely not it. As we drove along, the taxi driver pointed out important locations and houses, like the guarded mansion of a Saudi prince billionaire. Which we all got pictures in front of before the guards came up and chased us away. The taxi drivers themselves were so neat – almost everyone speaks three or four languages and they’re constantly talking in a mix of all of them. A sentence could start in Arabic, switch to French for a bit, include a few words in English, and then end in Spanish. Talk about diversity.

During the tour we got to see Hercule’s Cave (the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic mix) and, best of all, RIDE CAMELS! And we definitely took advantage of all the photo ops-

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After the tour, we went out for some more exploring and shopping, and I was continually blown away by the beauty and diversity of the culture. It was literally a whole new world. Walking through the medina while prayer calls are echoing through the streets is just something I never could have imagined. When we went back to the hostel, we found some friends in the little open square outside our door. It had been pretty typical that weekend for some little kids to lead us back to the hostel – because we were hopelessly lost otherwise. And they got such a kick out of trying to talk and play with us. I might have to say one of the best parts of this study abroad was teaching little Moroccan kids how to properly execute the exploding fist bump.

ImageWhen fast was broken around 8 or 9, we headed out for another dinner in the city. This time it was Ali Baba – where I got the most heavenly chicken kabobs I have ever had. And, okay, I’m a really picky eater.. so I was a little nervous about trying more Moroccan food. But I am so glad I did, because those chicken and veggie kabobs, dipped in their tasty I-have-no-idea-what-was-in-it-but-it-was-perfect sauce… ahh. And I even tried some couscous, which I never liked in the past, but I guess the Moroccans know how to cook it because it was DELICIOUS. In fact, our dinner group of 15 cleaned the restaurant out of couscous! Some friends from the hostel came to the same restaurant like 30 minutes after us and ended up leaving because we ate almost all the food the restaurant had. A perfect situation for “sorry not sorry…”

The next day we had to get up before 6am to take taxis back to the port and catch our ferry – which, per usual, left an hour or so late. After arriving in Algeciras, some of us took a 40 minute bus to Gibraltar in hopes of hiking the rock and petting some monkeys. Alas, thanks to our delayed ferry, we didn’t have to actually get to the rock, but we got to walk around the city and explore a little, so that was very neat. I can now say I have been in 3 countries in 3 hours (Gibraltar is a territory of Great Britain). We even got to see a plane take off right in front of us from the RAF tarmac. All in all – a completely successful day.

ImageOh and, one of the most exciting things of all, I finally found myself some gypsy pants! I was behind the game on that one, and I figured Morocco would be the cheapest place to find some. I was right – I bargained my way into some awesome, super comfy gypsy pants and my day was made (the last evening of the last night in Morocco was when I finally found some). All in all, it was one of the best “vacations” I’ve ever been on, and I would never hesitate to come back. With such a beautiful culture, generally friendly people (people would literally stop you to see if you needed directions, and then take you there free of charge), and delicious food – who would?? The country even smells good – thanks to all the spice shops!

So, having been infected with an even more serious case of the travel bug than before, I have to say this study abroad just keeps getting better and better.

OH MY GOSH ROWING!!! … oh and some other things too. July 16, 2013

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I officially never want to leave Spain. It has delicious bread, rowing, and skiing nearby. What’s that? Rowing? Skiing? I’m so glad you asked! So I had been contacting the local rowing association and a German U23 rower who rows out of the club, and finally on Monday (last Monday.. I’m a little behind on the whole blogging deal.. oops) got the chance to go out to their boathouse and check it out. It. was. incredible. I met Felix, who was so nice and hospitable and within 20 minutes set me up with all the paperwork and insurance I needed, along with a boat to use for the next few days. I had been expecting the boat club to be far away, to have to fill out tons of paperwork and pay lots of money to MAYBE get on the water, and lots of other generally low expectations. Nope. Check out this sweet setup:

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That would be the Río Manzanares, aka a canal through the heart of Madrid with the most consistently flat water I’ve ever had the pleasure to row on. I got to row Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – getting in about 34k total. I wish I had had more time to spend on the water, but alas such is the struggle of studying abroad. So much to do, so little time. But I have officially decided I am going to have to live in Spain for some period of time in the future, whether it’s another study abroad or a year or more of working. So, Remo Madrid – until next time.

Side note: the public transportation in Madrid was sooo convenient. The rowing club was all the way across the city, but using the metro I got there in 30 minutes (20 minutes metro, 10 walking to and from the metro stops). It’s pretty cool to be able to go to a metro stop and wait 2 or 3 minutes.. instead of the 15 or more with our very own MARTA. Not to mention that I never felt unsafe at any point while traversing the city – no matter the time of day. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the Spanish don’t have a concept of “night=sleeping” like us, so there are always people out and about. Even at 5:30am.. but we’ll get to that haha. I just love that city. Love love love.

Thursday we had our final exam, which was very fair given the material we covered and the studying we’d done. After that we had an hour-long flamenco lesson! I was a little hesitant at first, but it was such a neat experience and I definitely developed a taste for that kind of music. I actually have become more of a fan of Chambao – or “flamenco chill” as it’s called. It was a little awkward at first, but after a few minutes we all just went all out and looked silly together. The greatest was seeing all the guys get so into the moves. What we lacked in talent, we sure made up for in passion, or at least effort haha.

After flamenco I headed to the train station to buy tickets for the weekend in Morocco, then headed back to the residence for dinner and packing for Barcelona! After our 4th of July celebrations last weekend, I learned the hard way that it’s best to pack before going out. Since it was our last night in Madrid (the weekend was spent in Barcelona, and then Monday morning we had to leave for Granada) we all went out into the city as a group. The night started at around 11 at El Tigre – a tapas bar a few blocks away. For every drink you ordered, you got a huge tray of tapas.. with 10+ people we ended up with more food than you could imagine. After finishing our (quite generous) drinks and as many tapas as we could eat, some people called it a night and others headed to Teatro Kapital – one of the most famous night clubs in Madrid with 8 different, themed, stories. I was in the latter group, and we even got in free thanks to some coupons with free cover before 1:30am. That was definitely a great example of Madrid nightlife: at 1:30am the place was almost completely deserted. Things turned around though, and it was a pretty awesome night. Sparing the details, we ended up walking back to the residence around 4:30am.. getting back just in time to shower and walk allllll the way BACK across the city to catch our train to Barcelona.

After some much needed sleep during the 2 or 3 hour train ride, we made it to our hostel in Barcelona and chilled while our rooms were readied. After checking in and changing into bathing suits, we headed the main Barcelona beach around 1 or 2pm. I missed the beach so much and it was a perfect day to be out there. It was packed, but the hot weather and cool dips into the Mediterranean made it so worth it.

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During our few hours on the beach we enjoyed the sun, talked to a lot of club promoters (talk about an ego boost), and even partook in a particular Spanish beach tradition. It was a good day to say the least. It took us a while to figure out which bus to take back to the hostel, but once we got there and showered we were back out for dinner and some night life. It wasn’t a crazy night for me, but a fun one nonetheless.

The next day, we all slept in until we had to leave for the Sagrada Familia. There’s no point in showing pictures because the enormity of this structure is just incomprehensible. It was so beautiful and so different from any other church I’ve ever been to before. It also allowed for some pretty great views of the city when we climbed up one of the many towers. After an hour or two there, I was a little tired of the big group scene. I absolutely love my LBAT group (I seriously could not imagine a more fun and perfectly compatible group) but sometimes I just need some time solo. So, I went out on my own (mom and dad you guys can ignore that) and ended up having a really great time. I found a delicious (and cheap) wok place for lunch, and used the wifi there to plan out my afternoon. I got directions to Parc Güell, which turned out to be several miles away, but I figured I had nothing but time. So after a very long, very uphill walk there I found myself in this massive, winding, beautiful “park” like none I’d ever experienced before. There were paths and courtyards and unique building-esque things everywhere.. really you have to see it to understand how unparklike it really is. I had picked up water and gummy bears at a supermarket on the way there for like 1 euro, so the first thing I did was find a shady spot to chill out and listen to some music for a while. Then I climbed to the top of the park to find the most excellent view of the city –

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The hour (plus) walk to get there was sooo worth it. Being at the top of the city, there was a cool breeze blowing and I decided it was a great time for a nap. So on a bench in the shade, amidst other tourists checking out the view, I had a nice little 30ish minute nap. It definitely broke into my top 5 naps ever, so that was bueno. I spent the next couple hours wandering the park, stopping to listen to other musicians (they were everywhere, and were all really good), and appreciating the various famous parts and monuments within the park. Gaudí – the dude responsible for the Sagrada Familia and this park – definitely had some crazy going on. But the good kind of crazy, evidenced by the thousands of people enjoying his creations across Barcelona.

The rest of the that day was very chill – I took the bus back to our hostel (again, very simple – Spain public transportation continuing their record of excellence) and relaxed for the rest of the night. A couple of us ordered pizza from a recommended local place and took it easy. The next day we slept in again (our rationale was that you enjoy the city more if you’re rested.. makes sense right?) and then headed to the Parc de Montjuic – it was only a few blocks from our hostel and I’d read it had some pretty great views of the city. Barcelona definitely corners the market on beautiful mountainside parks. However, on the way, we encountered a tiny parade with “gigantes” – giant puppet-esque people we actually had just finished learning about in our culture class in Madrid. The park was very nice – we climbed up to a nice shady spot with stairs and all chilled out with some music and conversation.. and maybe a little napping. We had to continue the tradition of spending the last day of each weekend excursion lounging in a local park, after all. And the view of Barcelona and its port, of course, was incredible.

ALRIGHT getting closer to the present day! Power through, I’m getting there. So, we arrived back in Madrid late that night, and woke up early the next day to make the bus leaving for 7:30am to Granada. I have to admit I was really sad to leave Madrid, and would have been content to spend the next 2.5 weeks there. Although, now having been in Granada for not even 2 full days, I am more than happy to be here. Anyways, our bus was pretty classy and we each got a pair of seats to ourselves – aka there was some serious nappage getting done over the 5 hour ride down to Granada. We arrived around 1pm and met our host moms – mine is AWESOME. She’s so nice and is more than happy to converse with me despite my still a little broken Spanish. We had our first meal of ham/cheese spaghetti, salad, and watermelon for desert. There’s also another student living here with us – Anna from Australia (originally Hong Kong but she’s studying down under for her “uni” as they call it). She’s learning Spanish from scratch, so it’s such a cool mix of cultures and language skills under one roof. One roof which happens to be an adorable little apartment – tasteful and spacious and airy and generally cute. Libby and I definitely lucked out with our host home.

After lunch with our host mom and Anna we headed to the Centro de Lenguas Modernas for our first afternoon of classes. Turns out “classes” included “massive city-wide scavenger hunt”. I can undoubtedly say that it was the most fun scavenger hunt I’ve ever been on. We explored almost the entire city, which helped me to decide that Granada is the the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to. Yeah, I know there’s lots of “most ___” and “best___ of my life”s in this post – but what can I say.. Spain is just incredible! And during said scavenger hunt, we stopped for some tasty smoothies… dare I say the tastiest smoothie of my life?

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After the scavenger hunt (which really only consisted of visiting various parts of the city and taking pictures there.. like you even need to ask a group of 5 college girls to remember to take pictures.. pshh) we had a scheduled dinner of drinks and tapas at a local tapas bar. I can’t even express how much of a fan I am of drinks and tapas being a scheduled, and paid for (thanks program fees!) event during my study abroad program. Notice to all students: Spain LBAT is the way to go!!!

Today started off with classes from 9-1, then we returned for lunch again with the host mom. Then we had an excursion to Alhambra – an originally Arabic ancient fort/castle/city/palace built in 889. That’s a three digit date in case you guys missed that. It overlooked the entire city and so we got to see an absolutely breathtaking vista. I know I’ve mentioned a lot of those, but this one, of the city of Granada, is undoubtedly the most entrancing and unique view I could imagine. You have the entire city, a monastery in the hills, and then the plains and mountains off in the distance. Mountains which, might I add, are completely SKI-ABLE in the winter and a mere 30 minute bus ride away. PLUS these ski slopes are unique because there aren’t trees – so it’s basically completely awesome. Anyways, here’s one of about 4 or 5 different view of the city/mountains we got:

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Yeah. Exactly. Gorgeous is probably the word you’re looking for. It was also incredibly hot, but that’s a smile price to pay for seeing one of the most visited sites in the world. After touring the whole area, which was chock full of beautiful and intricate architecture, carvings, and wall and ceiling designs (not to mention gardens), we headed back into town to get some homework done (we had to interview people about their thoughts regarding the current economic crisis in Spain) and then back home for dinner. After which Libby and I had an hour long discussion with our host mom regarding the current economic situation in Spain, complete with arguments regarding the causes and effects of the situation. Just had a casual intelligent conversation completely in Spanish – the usual. Oh how I love studying abroad. We’re now up to date, so I’ll leave you with one picture of Alhambra!

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Hasta luego!

Remember that one time I ran with the bulls? July 8, 2013

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Well I definitely just crossed something off my bucket list that I never actually knew was on there… running with the bulls in Pamplona!!!

We left at 5:30am on Friday to get to the train station in time for our train at 7:30 from Madrid to Pamplona, and the entire weekend, for me, was absolutely incredible! Most definitely the highlight of my study abroad experience so far, although only having been here for barely a week and half I can’t wait for what’s to come!

So now allllll about Pamplona: we arrived around 10:30 at the train station there. The train was on time and so convenient – it makes traveling so easy! No one had directions to our hotel, so we wandered in the general direction we thought it was for 2 or 3 hours. It was completely on the other side of town, so it was quite the trek. We stopped for lunch along the way, and I got a tasty bocadillo of chicken, tomato, and lettuce (a huge sandwich made with baguettes). At the hotel, we chilled out and napped for a few hours. Some of us had an eventful night the previous day, so the sleep was much appreciated. Then in the evening we all headed back into town for the nighttime festivities! The festival of San Fermin didn’t start until noon the next day (Saturday), but the town was full of partying nonetheless. To prevent a 45 minute trek all the time, we mostly took taxis to and from the hotel over the weekend (about 2 euros a person when we split a cab, so not too bad). That night we went out and walked around town – already very much alive with the nearly 2 million people that swarm to the town of a mere 200,000 residents for the festival of San Fermin. After staying in the main plaza amidst the crowd, we left when the concert stage shut down around 1 or 2am.

The next day I woke up a little late with a few others, and we went to the mall right across the street from our hotel to pick up some white clothes and a red bandana and sash – necessities for the festivities over the next 9 days. Dressing up along with hundreds of thousands of other people was SO MUCH FUN! It definitely complicated finding anyone in particular, since everyone looked the same in the crowd, but seeing packed streets full of thousands of people dressed the same was so neat! Around 11:45 we took a taxi into town, just in time for the opening of the festival of San Fermin at noon. We made our way into the outskirts of the crowd in the main plaza, not close enough to see the stage but definitely close enough to hear cannons going off to announce the festival’s start, and more than close enough to get completely sprayed with wine! That’s the hallmark of the start of the festival,  and we definitely left with wine-soaked white clothes.

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The craziest part was definitely the crowds though – when we headed into the side streets we were thrown into an absolutely crushing mob of people. Definitely an insane experience that we would have to get used to for the rest of the festivities! And, as we found out later, the people that were already partying at noon are the same people we saw the next morning after dawn still carrying on. I don’t know how the Spaniards do it for 9 straight days!

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So after a few hours of the crowds, finding food after searching countless streets and ridiculously crowded bars, and talking to newfound friends in one of the many parks throughout the city, we called it a day and headed back to the hotel. For me, at least, I planned on running with the bulls the next morning – and wanted to have plenty of rest.

Turns out, casual things like running with the bulls are easier said than done. The group that planned on running decided to watch videos and do some homework just to make sure we gave ourselves the best chances possible.. of survival. Such a Techie way to approach the “situation”. After over an hour of “highlight reels” and “worst gorings” compilations, we were all pretty quiet and contemplative. We had narrowed down our strategy to a few key pieces of advice:

1. If you fall, stay down. Countless people had told us that if you try and stand up, you’ll get knocked down by the bulls and/or crowd. The rule is to curl up and put your hands over your head and wait until someone taps you on the shoulder. We were told that the bulls would jump over you if you stayed on the ground. Some pretty scary advice.

2. Stay to the inside of the turns, especially on Deadman’s corner, because the bulls lose traction and slam against the outside wall when they’re running around. If there’s one place you DO NOT want to be.. it’s between a rock wall and a 1200 moving mass of horns and hooves.

3. Don’t run. Our teachers, guides, even fellow students .. could not express this enough.

Needless to say, falling asleep that night was not easy. I literally thought I was going to die. I’ve done some crazy things, but I can’t think of any that actually made me face possibly dying. Literally dying. It was more than terrifying. But I knew I just had to do it. Sometimes I don’t understand myself, and when I get an idea in my head, whether it’s erging for 24 hours or cliff jumping or running with the bulls… I HAVE to do it or else. I was already committed mentally, so it was just a matter of following through.

5:30am: The next morning we were all strangely calm – walking to the city before dawn to make sure we were let in. Turns out, we ended up climbing through a crowded fence into the street right in front of police officers. “Getting in” wasn’t as hard as we had expected. And the city was completely different from when we had left it the last afternoon. Passed out and sleeping people were in every spot of open grass, trash was piled in the streets sometimes knee high, and awful.. awful smells were drifting heavily through the entire town. Day 1 down.. 8 to go. Good luck Pamplona Sanitation Department.

6:20am: We get into the street and picked our spot – about a hundred meters up from the starting corral and on the inside of the first turn. We bought our newspapers – kind of a trademark item the runners have (supposedly to be able to tap fallen runners to alert them it’s safe to get up). The 1.5 hour wait was strangely calm. That all changed when things started picking up. The police started closing the gates – we were stuck inside whether we liked it or not. You saw the experienced guys casually smoking a cigarette, even reading their newspapers amidst the anxious crowd. We opened our newspapers.. to find profiles of all 6 bulls we would be (hopefully) evading. No thanks.

7:55am: The canción de San Fermin is sung 5 minutes before, 3 minutes before, and 1 minute before the run starts. For some reason, after the first singing the crowd panicked and bolted. We knew that wasn’t right, but when thousands of people are screaming and sprinting – you don’t stand still. A hundred or so meters down and everyone finally realized it was a false start. Probably caused by tourists who hadn’t known there were 3 singings and not just one. We had to quickly get back to our spot – the false start had pushed us farther up the street than we wanted to be. Had we started at that new spot, we might’ve gotten caught at “Deadman’s Curve” when the bulls passed.. something that was most definitely not wanted.

8:00am:We walked back and had a few more minutes of increasing anticipation.. until BOOM. The first cannon, signaling the release of the bulls, went off! The crowd erupts into excited yells and everyone starts jogging down the street. Then BOOM the second cannon goes off a few seconds later – signaling that the last of the bulls has left the corral. That’s like the branding iron on a bull’s rump (ha ha ha) because suddenly you’re sprinting along with an incredibly frantic crowd, whipping your head around to glance behind you every chance you get. Turns out, you can’t actually see the bulls until they’re right next to you. But that’s okay because the terror amongst the crowd increases exponentially when the bulls are on you.

8:00:40am: When I heard the fear and volume spike in the screams of the people behind me, I jumped to the wall and pressed myself against it as much as possible. It was incredible – a memory I see as a flash and slow motion all at once. I remember seeing a flash of brown and white run by, then very clearly seeing a guy on the ground – not even curled up, just spread across the center of the road. Then, two brown & white speckled bulls IN TANDEM leap over this guy. They got some serious height and I cannot believe I was literally mere feet away from a pack of running bulls.

Luckily, the bulls passed me right where I wanted them to: immediately before the first gradual turn, where the street was wide enough to where I could safely (statistically) get far enough to the side to let them pass me. After that, it was incredible relief. For a few seconds. The crowd, not knowing that the bulls had all passed, was still very panicky. I was still running, but just to keep up with the crowd and keep moving on the course. I ran the rest of the way with a crowd that was still terrified to run in the middle of the road for fear of more bulls charging up the streets. In all the chaos I had actually forgotten about the steers; there are six bulls released and then six steers to prod the bulls along. The steers are a lot slower than the bulls, so they passed me right as I was running in the street leading into the stadium. Luckily the crowd again alerted me to their presence, and I jumped into a group of people fighting for a spot on the side of the road. The steers passed by, and suddenly I was done! I still had to get out of the crowd, now packed in the tunnel to the stadium (the doors are closed once all the bulls and steers are inside), but knowing I was free from fear of bulls suddenly coming up behind me was such a relief.

Everything else that day I saw with rose colored glasses. I had run with the bulls in Pamplona (on the first and busiest running, mind you), and lived to tell the tale. We had the rest of the day to kill since our hotel checkout was at noon, so we found a shady spot in a park and relaxed in the grass for the entire day. It was a sad goodbye to Pamplona – the city that gave me one of the best weekends of my life. Hopefully I’ll return one day.. until next time, Viva San Fermín!!!

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Madrid, España! July 4, 2013

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Well my official study abroad experience is now a few days underway! After weeks of beach, family, and even some paddle boarding in Portugal, I am now through a week of classes here in Spain! On Friday the 28th my dad and I flew out of the Lisbon airport bright and early; we had a mere 1 hour flight to take us to Madrid. We had the whole day ahead of us, so we started off by dropping our things off at the hotel and wandered a few blocks until we found a cafe to stop at for an early lunch. The immersion into Spanish was immediate.. as our waiter didn’t speak English at all. I had obviously expected to be using Spanish all the time, but it was just a huge transition from Portugal where almost everyone at least can hold a basic conversation in English. The menu was completely gibberish, and I made a mental note to study lots of Spanish food terms. I had a sandwich and my dad got calamari, so even though ordering the first meal was a struggle, we were full and ready to take on the Museo Reina Sofía.

The main contemporary art museum of Madrid, it held hundreds of works including those of Dalí and Picasso. Honestly, it made me realize contemporary art just isn’t my thing.. seeing the paintings of such famous artists was really neat, but after a couple hours of seeing exhibits ranging from a piece of wood on the ground to a sink with toothbrushes (all surrounded by guards directing you to not touch the art, by the way) we headed back to the hotel for a little siesta. To me, the best part of that day was the evening; we walked into the city towards the Plaza Mayor and got tapas at the Mercado de San Miguel – a wonderful little indoor market downtown where we enjoyed “pimentos de padrón”, gazpacho, and some local cervezas.

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We ended up walking around for hours – seeing the Palacio Real, Puerta del Sol, and generally wandering around dozens of Madrid’s many side streets packed with people, bars, restaurants, and cafes.

The next day we woke up and got a workout in at a local crossfit box – only a 1k jog over and we were able to take advantage of all the equipment during their “open box” period for free! I got to use the erg and my dad even bought me a t-shirt! So a very successful morning.

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After quick showers, we headed back downtown (now only a 15-20 minute walk we knew well) and ran into a protest marching down the street! We were able to bypass it, though, and got some lunch before touring the Palacio Real – the largest palace in Europe! Since it was built, every Spanish monarch has resided in the residence except for the current ones. However, it is still used for important events or ceremonies even today. My dad and I were both tired from all the touring, so we relaxed at a cafe with drinks and tapas for over 3 hours! Really living like the spanish, we enjoyed our food and drinks while sitting in the shade – avoiding the heat of the day.

Finally, Sunday, we got another short workout in – this time at the Parque del Retiro. The massive city park was not only very beautiful and filled with people, but it was crisscrossed with tons of shaded pathways used by runners and bikers alike. The rest of the afternoon was filled with a bus tour, where we got to see all the sights in the city that would’ve been too far apart to walk to. Then we walked to my residence here at Calle San Lorenzo, and my dad flew back to the US Monday morning – leaving me here to experience Spain for another 4 weeks!

This week so far has been wonderful – we have about 4 hours of class a day, and then a guided afternoon excursion. My favorites were the Real Madrid Stadium (where the beautiful and, obviously, Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo plays) and the Prado Museum (the 2nd largest art museum in the world, only behind the Lourve), where I got to see paintings by Vazquez, Goya, and Rembrandt.

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Now, with classes done for the week (who doesn’t love Fridays off??), I’m packing and planning for our trip to Pamplona! It’s only a once in a lifetime chance to see the Running of the Bulls.. or maybe participate in it.. I guess I’ll find which out by Sunday!

A few weeks in Ibéria! Portugal, to be exact. June 6, 2013

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I’d always hoped to study abroad, and with my Spanish studies in high school and now Tech, a chance to use and hone those language skills seemed like the best way to go! So, here I am now less than 3 weeks away from my study abroad experience in Spain! Since the program doesn’t start until July, I decided to spend the early weeks of the summer in Portugal; my mom’s birthplace and where my grandparents live for most of the year. I hadn’t visited the country or my Portuguese family in years, so I am incredibly appreciative of the time I have now!

Having traveled to Portugal a few times before, I expected to arrive to sunny skies and balmy beach weather. Unfortunately, I forgot the fact that even vacation spots have bad weather.. and I arrived to rain and cold.

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My shorts and t-shirt were definitely not the best travel outfit of choice. However, immediately after picking me up from the airport in Lisbon, my grandparents and I stopped for breakfast at a cafe down the street from the apartment we’re in. Some fresh pão (bread), a pastel de nata (a DELICIOUS egg-based pastry very famous in the country), and a bica (Portuguese espresso) made things right. After that, we headed straight to Portimão – about 3 hours south of Lisbon in the Algarve region. The drive passed quickly since the scenery was beautiful: the plains of Alentejo, the region of the country between Lisbon and the Algarve, made for great views. Oh and not to mention I fell asleep after about an hour.

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After 12 hours of airplanes and airports and 3 hours in the car, not to mention a day and half without sleep… the first thing I did upon arriving to the house in Portimão wasobviously to go for a run. I planned on checking out this gym I’d found online – it was supposedly only a couple miles from the house, so I figured I’d jog out there and back. I now know there are absolutely zero gyms in this town, knowledge that would have been helpful on that run. As it was, I wandered around town for about an hour. After giving up on finding the gym, I decided to run out to the beach and back – I ended up putting in like 9 rambling miles that first day. The next day I decided to embrace my nature (that is, my unique lack of any sort of internal compass) and just explore the nearby countryside. Runs with no plans never fail to disappoint. I stumbled across some pretty scenic views and, after aimlessly running up a maze of cobblestone streets, even found a picturesque little church at the top of a small town.

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The only downside of my unplanned run was getting caught in a rainstorm, but it wasn’t so bad. And my previous fears of encountering unfriendly wildlife proved to be unfounded – the only living things I encountered on my route were some curious street dogs, a couple disinterested horses, a flock of sheep and a few baffled citizens. Turns out running (and all organized exercise in general, for that matter) isn’t a “thing” here. I’ve gotten some pretty odd looks for sure.

After a couple weeks in the south, enjoying the beach and my afternoon runs, we had to return to Lisbon to pick up my brother and mom. We headed up a couple days early so that I could check out some of the sights in the city. In one day I saw tons of churches – I swear there’s one on every block, each one older and grander than the next! – and monuments all over the city. Though I have to admit, my most exciting moment was finding the Lisbon rowing club. It wasn’t too fancy, but some people happened to be working there at the time I walked by, so I got to check out their facility and some of the boats. It definitely made my day to have a little rowing experience, especially after the disappointment early on in the summer of finding out the rowing club in Portimão (which I had hoped to row out of while I was there) had been closed.

The next day, after picking up my mom and Sam, we headed back out to see some more sights – mainly Os Jeronimos and the Monument to the Discoveries. Both some of the most famous things to see around Lisbon, and both incredibly huge. The Jeronimos, for one, is just impossible to capture in a picture. Started in 1501, it took around 100 years to complete, and the cavernous monastery is probably my favorite church ever. Which is saying a lot in Portugal! Not to mention it holds the tomb of Vasco da Gama, arguably the greatest explorer ever to have lived. And then, right across the street, you have the Monument to the Discoveries, with over 30 famous Portuguese heros (all related to the many Portuguese discoveries) depicted on it. Both sites are awe-inspiring, and remind me what an incredibly history stands behind this small country.

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After our time in Lisbon, we were definitely ready to head back south towards warmer weather and beaches! It’s always nice to visit with family, which we have a lot of around Lisbon, and to see all the sights in the city, but there’s nothing like home. Here’s the view from the roof – overlooking estuaries stemming from the ocean a few miles from the house.

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For now, I’ll be enjoying the beach and the town – getting some sun and brushing up on my Spanish while I wait to begin new adventures in a new country! 3 weeks and counting!

Until then.. you’ll find me at Praia da Rocha.

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