Walking 50 kilometers: from Almendralejo to Merida

IMG_6972

Who in their right mind would spend their Saturday in the blazing hot sun walking 50 kilometers from one Spanish town to another? Me, apparently.  (I’ve also walked up and down the Grand Canyon in a day, which was equally epic.)

I got my thirst for adventure from my father, who is currently trekking in the Italian Dolomites, just him and his backpack. This insatiable drive has taken me all around the world. At age 27, I’ve explored 19 countries, WWOOFed in New Zealand, volunteered in Southeast Asia, and taught English in both Japan and Spain.

My friends are now nurses, lawyers, and PhD students, but I try not to compare myself to them. Sometimes I feel I’m wasting my time – What am I doing here alone in this random city? I ask myself, lugging my backpack around – but then I make a friend, climb a mountain, or discover something amazing, and everything feels worth it. When I run into my students outside of the classroom and they greet me with a big smile and stop to chat, I feel like all my work is validated.

Living in Almendralejo, Spain last year was quite a challenge for me. With a population of 30,000 and approximately 11 native English speakers (all of whom were working as teachers in the same program as me) the town was definitely not a tourist destination. One thing that Almendralejo does have to offer, besides jamon (which I don’t eat as a vegetarian, oops!), is its location on one of the Camino de Santiagos (there are more than one!), multi-week historic trails that cross Spain.

My roommates and I were hosting two raw vegan couchsurfers, An from the Netherlands and Iñigo from Spain, and their dog Ella who they rescued in Portugal. They were on week two of the Camino de Santiago starting in Sevilla and heading towards Pamplona. My roommate Margrit made carrot and squash soup and they made a prune, leek and white bean stir fry. We conversed about travel, veganism, and spirituality.

IMG_6047

I was fascinated to learn about their raw veganism. For breakfast, they enjoyed five oranges each – eaten slowly and deliberately –  and for lunch, they made mashed banana pudding (10 bananas each!) with cacao powder for added flavor. They had calculated how many calories they burn while walking and knew that each piece of fruit they ate could adequately fuel them.  Having once been a raw vegan myself for two months at Bahay Kalipay Retreat in the Philippines, their ideas about food and spirituality resonated. When I eat cleanly, I feel purified and strong, like I have superpowers

I woke up the next morning feeling inspired — and not just about food — so I asked them if I could join them on their 15 km walk the next day. I was a bit nervous, because I felt like I might be imposing, but they welcomed me gladly. I think society shapes us to feel cautious about asking for things, but I’ve decided to practice assertiveness. When traveling it is always beneficial to ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is that someone tells you no.

After reaching the outskirts of town, we followed a long highway with very little traffic, until we found the trail, a  flat dirt road with olive trees on either side. We chatted and walked for about 4 hours together to Torremejia, a town between Almendralejo and Merida. We found the frutería just before they closed, and Iñigo asked if they had any discounted bananas for a few hungry hikers. A few minutes later, we were dining on our banana pudding. 

IMG_6052 (1)

Lunch with An, Iñigo and Ella.

I took the bus home, feeling inspired and satisfied with my experience. I continued the raw food experiment for a few days after they left, dining on oranges and bananas for breakfast and lunch, and found myself feeling satiated and clean.

A few weeks later, I learned I had a three-day weekend, so I immediately began researching different travel options. I had already been to Salamanca, Valencia, Badajoz, and a few other nearby towns, so I was unsure of where to go at first. But then I remembered An and Inigo and Ella, so I decided to do a solo day of hiking from my house in Almendralejo past Torremejia to a city 30 kilometers away called Merida.

Armed with a camelback, snacks, and sunscreen, I set out on my journey at 7 am on a Saturday morning, my lazy city just seeming to wake up. Walking through town, I saw grocers carrying boxes of oranges to the front of their stores. I bought an orange and sat in a park in the end of my town, noting the windy but clear day, and contemplated the day to come. I felt excited but also nervous.

2 hours later, under a blazing afternoon sun, I recalled words from my friends who had declined my invitation to join me: “You’re walking to Merida? Are you crazy?”  “I like going on walks for one hour, not for ten…”

I felt pretty down. I seriously thought about taking the bus home. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? I asked myself, sweating profusely and reapplying sunscreen every few minutes. But I had made myself a promise, so I turned on a podcast and kept on trekking.

I bought some bananas, a bag of peanuts and a bar of chocolate when I reached  Torremejia to ease the boredom and loneliness. I followed these gray trailmarkers next to the road to find my way.

After Torremejia, the trail undulated through a grove of olive trees, and my mood improved…but I guess I was distracted by the scenery and ended up going the wrong way. I found myself at a dead end in the middle of a field with no trail in sight. Stepping around mud, looking around for the trail, completely alone, I had to decide what to do. “You can do this, Amber…” I said to myself out loud, taking deep breaths. “You’re going to be fine…” I decided to retrace my steps until I saw a farmer off in the distance coming towards me on a very slow tractor. I waited at least 5 minutes until he finally approached.

“¿Hola, como estas? ¿Dónde está el camino?” I asked, my voice cracking with a bit of desperation.

“Esta alli.” He pointed across a field of grapes. I was on the wrong side.

“¿Puedo pasar?” I asked, praying he would understand my American gringa accent.

“¡Por supuesto! Va!” He told me I could cross his field.

I felt totally elated. This was one of those moments in travel, those extremes, when you are totally unsure of what to do in one terrifying instant, and just a few minutes later you’re back on track. Traveling solo forces you to face moments like this alone, but when you overcome them by yourself you feel a huge sense of accomplishment.

The rest of my journey was punctuated by rests in the hard to find shade, eating a few more bananas and most of my chocolate bar, but I finally made it to Merida around 7 pm, 12 hours after I started. I was sweaty and sore, but extremely satisfied and proud. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad about my adventure.

When traveling alone, I get chances to talk to people I otherwise would never meet. That’s part of it’s magic. We can be inspired, make new goals, and take action to achieve them.  Not only does solo travel give me the opportunity to spend time alone and contemplate my life , it forces me to face challenges that I otherwise would never have experienced. Overcoming these scary moments alone gives me power and confidence.

IMG_6989
Advertisements

Debates about bullfighting and singing the water cycle

Life as an English Teacher in Spain

It’s hard to believe I’ve been teaching English in Spain for 8 months! I live in a pueblo called Almendralejo, which is in the region of Extremadura next to Portugal. Lucky for me there are 11 other English teachers who live in or near Almendralejo, and I’ve made some really close friends with the other teachers.

Here’s a group of us teachers from the beginning of the year. We’re all American girls except for two British boys. We’re missing a few people in this picture though.

School Life

I work in two schools, one public and one private, in two towns nearby, and teach both elementary and high school students from ages 7 to 16. In all of my classes, there is a native Spanish teacher in the classroom with me, but I’m responsible for planning and teaching most of my classes alone.  I appreciate this freedom and I feel that these months have helped me grow a lot as a teacher.

Something I’ve been doing with all of my students recently is starting each class with meditation. I ask students to sit with their feet on the floor, and pretend a string is pulling up the top of their head, and we take 10 silent breaths together as a class. I count the breaths. There are some giggles, but I find it a good way to get everyone grounded and focused.

In my elementary classes, I’m teaching social science to energetic 7-to-11-year-olds, with topics from geography to the water cycle to world economy. I design classes to include reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We often begin by reading out loud – usually, I prefer everyone to read at the same time so everyone can participate instead of just listening to one person. If there are some problematic words – for example, they say “Eh-spain” instead of “Spain” – I’ll get everyone to repeat-after-me, and check pronunciation individually with plenty of “good jobs” and high fives. Later, I’ll ask students to copy down new vocabulary or make a mind map in their notebooks about what we’ve read, and I end every class with a game or song.

After I finish with these high-energy group, I walk across the sunny campus to a junior high class with my bilingual group studying history in English and talk with them about life in Ancient Greece, where we often do role-plays.

After a 30 minute break, where teachers drink coffee and chat and students play or socialize outside, I head to my 4th ESO high school class comprised of 16-year-old students who are extremely rowdy but also extremely intelligent. When I first enter the classroom, they often start applauding and hooting and hollering, probably just to test my reaction. I usually just smile and curtsy and play along, although at times I have had to put on my serious face and give a short lecture.

I’ve been teaching them once a week for the past 8 months. When we first started, I tried doing cultural presentations with them, such as contrasting school life or holidays in the USA versus Spain, which had been working well with other students of their age. However, they were soon bored and understimulated, and I knew I had to change something. Since I had the freedom to choose any structure and topic for the class, I decided to push students to think for themselves, and started doing debates.

First, I made a questionnaire with 50 of the most popular topics for high school debate. In one class, I passed it out, and asked students to rank their top ten individually. Then I put students into groups of 8 (4 to argue in favor of a certain topic, and 4 against) told them that next week they would be having mini-debates in front of the class, so they had to choose a topic on the list as a group and prepare for it.

The next week, I was so impressed by their debates. They had chosen to debate single-sex schools, cloning, animal testing, gender equality, gun control, and bullfighting. Each student spoke eloquently and with confidence.

In the following weeks, I decided to expand on each topic that they had selected. I started each class with a video and comprehension questions about each issue, then passed out a news article which we read in class, highlighting new words and searching for grammar structures they were studying in their other English classes, and then finally opened up the class for discussion.

I feel so lucky I get the chance to work with these kids! What would you do with a bright group of 31 16-year-old students?

Some photos from the school year:

Teaching geography to elementary school students is fun! I elected some motivated students to come up and help me label the different oceans. 

I interviewed students in my 2nd ESO (the equivalent of 7th-grade junior high school students, age 12 and 13). I enjoy thinking of fun questions to get them thinking creatively.

In addition to the job I have in the public schools, I teach private lessons. I have 4 students – 3 children and 1 adult – and I walk to their houses and teach them in the afternoon. I cater my classes to their interests. The student in this class loves Pokemon and drawing, so we play a lot of games like Pictionary.

We also invented our own Pokemon!

Thanks for reading! Any ideas or feedback are appreciated!

My Recent Published Work

A few years ago, I was traveling alone in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contemplating five hundred chairs set up in front of the enormous Tha Phae gate in the old quarter, when I was randomly approached by another traveler: “Hey, do you know what’s going on here?” I was talking to perpetual vagabond Greg Rogers, who has been traveling for more than ten years after he sold his house, quit his job and decided to become a full-time travel writer. We never found out what the chairs were for, but I made a lifelong friend!

We started talking, and I learned about his success funding his travels from the different websites he runs. He found out I was a writer too and asked me to contribute to his travel sites. Now, five years later, we’ve kept in touch, and I just wrote an article called “How to Move to Spain” for his newly redesigned StartBackpacking.com. You can read my story here:
https://www.startbackpacking.com/travel/how-to-move-to-spain/

I taught English in Japan for two years with the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) Program in the mountinous and snowy Fukui Prefecture. There were over a hundred native teachers who comprised the foreign community in Fukui, many of whom became my close friends.

After I left, I was asked by our community magazine called JET Fuel for an interview. They talked with four people who had left the program and moved on to different things. I’m teaching English in Spain, Akito is starting medical school, Stuart is teaching in China, and Vienna is working for a Japanese company in Los Angeles.

You can read it here! My interview is on page 53.

My New Life in Spain

My feelings towards my new life as an English teacher in Spain change drastically from moment to moment. At times, I think… Wow. This is amazing. This is such an awesome opportunity to live and work abroad and experience a new culture. I’m so lucky. I have thoughts like this after a great class at school, or while exploring a new city.

Then there are other moments when I feel so lost… Amber, you’re ridiculous. Why do you keep moving to countries where you barely know the language?

I was stuck in this thought cycle last weekend at a salsa dancing club in Valencia. It was a combination of two new life challenges: speaking Spanish and my identity as a dancer. My thoughts were battling my experience, and I couldn’t help but think, You’re an athlete, not a dancer. And the noise from the club made it impossible for me to understand what the sweaty men were saying, even if they were speaking English.

These moments when I feel completely and utterly lost because of the language barrier remind me of my two years in Japan. From 2014 to 2016 I lived in Fukui Prefecture as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, and I also went into that experience knowing zero Japanese. (Am I brave or am I stupid? is a question I ask myself…) 

After leaving Japan, I only had two months of transition time at home in California, and then I traveled with my dad in France and Switzerland for three weeks doing via ferratas, and now I’m completely immersed in Spain. The food, the language, the culture, the history, people’s attitudes, the daily schedule, my role at school… so much is drastically different!

The newness can be overwhelming at times, but luckily I’ve found a comfortable apartment where I can decompress. I live on the liveliest street in a town called Almendralejo, population 34,000, with three flatmates. I have my own room but I share the living room and kitchen with two Spanish university students, Carmen and Fede, and another English teacher named Margrit from New York. We have a balcony overlooking a big plaza boasting three restaurants and a playground, which is often filled with kids buzzing around on scooters. I can walk to a bar or a grocery store in 2 minutes, and rent is ridiculously cheap.

I teach at two schools. One is a private Jesuit high school and elementary school in a pueblo of 2,800 people called Villafranca, which is about a 15 minute drive from my apartment. I catch a ride to school with a young teacher who wants to improve her English, so we alternate speaking English and Spanish. We’ve become friends, and  she’s invited me to go salsa dancing with her a few times.

The other is a public high school in a town of 3,700 called Hornachos which is nestled below a small mountain range. The weaving road to Hornachos, next to red flat lands and speckled with olive trees, reminds me of Australia. I pass the 30 minute ride to school by practicing my Spanish with my generous coworkers who give me lifts.

My work life is satisfying and challenging. When I first arrived here I told my supervisors that I had two years of teaching experience, and that I really wanted to take an active role in teaching. So in my 12 classroom teaching hours, I’m completely responsible for planning and teaching 8 of those on my own. After studying the material given to me by the main teachers, I design a lesson filled with interactive presentations, songs, games, role-play, debates, or whatever I can think of. I’m really grateful for the chance to use my creativity! 

At the elementary school, I’m teaching social science to 3 classes of rambunctious eight, nine, and ten-year-olds. The textbook features topics like “The Water Cycle” and “The Geosphere,” and it’s a great challenge for me to make these subjects accessible for them.

I use some techniques I learned in Japan, such as walking around and checking their pronunciation individually (with many smiles and high-fives!) I’ve learned quite a few classroom games for teaching vocabulary, and I’m always learning more. 

I’m picking up quite a few classroom management ideas, too. I use a call and response rhythm game or a countdown to get their attention when they become noisy.

In my free time, I go to the gym, dance zumba, cook vegan food, study Spanish, or hang out with my roommates. I travel at least once a month. So far I’ve been to Madrid, Caceres, Badajoz, Seville, Salamanca, and Valencia on weekends, and I have a long list of places I want to go!

Although it was a difficult decision, I decided to stay in Spain for my winter holidays. I will be volunteering at a youth hostel in a small pueblo outside of Granada. I hope that my experience there will be up to par to what I did last winter vacation!

Last Christmas I volunteered on an oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan, where I learned all about the process of farming oysters, and got experience life as a farmer for a week. In the village I only met two people who spoke English: Atsushi, the generous man who coordinated my stay, and Goshia, another volunteer from Poland who became a very good friend. Even though it was cold, my week volunteering there tops my list of experiences in Japan.

I love living somewhere new and learning how everything works! Atsushi told me that when he lived in Canada, his mind expanded 100 times, and I can completely relate. Every time I live in a new place, I can feel my brain growing… there are so many possibilities for this life!

 

 

 

Scaling Cliffs in Switzerland and France

 

Imagine yourself on a cliff, your harness tied into a metal cable via 2 carabiners and straps, standing on metal rungs looking straight down 800 feet. You are above an expansive green valley high in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, south of Geneva.  An hour ago, it was raining, but the sky has cleared, and rays of light filter through the clouds like a message from God.

21826964_1554674664571517_4051691170009448448_n

This is the view you see. Your heart is beating quickly, yet you are safe. Does this sound terrifying to you? Would you try it anyway?

In Italian, Via Ferrata translates to “the Iron Way.” The origins date back to the First World War, where some Via Ferratas were built in Italy to help troops cross over the Dolomites efficiently. Now, they are the perfect excursion for thrill-seekers, and make epic cliffs more accessible to adventurers of all ages and levels of athleticism.

I got the chance to try 17 via ferratas this summer with my dad in the Swiss Alps and in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, north and south of Geneva. We zoomed through valleys and up tiny winding mountain roads in a rental car, following advice from “Via Ferratas of the French Alps” by Richard Miller. Our original goal was to to cram as many vias as we could into our two weeks together.  Later our goal changed just to do the highest rated vias. Since my uncle Jimmy had been climbing with Dad a few weeks prior, he graciously left me his harness and carabiners, so all I had to do was buy a helmet and gloves and we were ready to go.
 The guidebook we were using rates vias from 1-5 and with three factors: difficulty, exposure, and accessibility, A, B, or C. Difficulty is how physically challenging it is, exposure is how high off the ground it is, and accessibility is how long it takes to walk to the start. Dad first wanted to check I was capable of managing the equipment, so we started with some easier routes. The first few we did in the Savoie region were a 2,2, A called St. Sorlin d’Arves and a 3,3, A at St. Colomban des Villards, Savoie. These required a low level of athleticism, and we saw kids doing them too.

Once I realized that I could easily do a 3-3, I tried to convince Dad to let me try a 5-5. He finally conceded at Les Rois Mages, Assois, France. The scariest part of that route is a single-line bridge, with only one shaky wire to walk on and one to hold on to, and a huge drop-off beneath you that you are forced to look down at as you sidestep across. (We always wondered how we would get back off if we fell off that part. I think I would go about it like a koala.) After that route, I felt the true draw of via ferratas: a combination of fear and exhilaration, and at the end a huge sense of relief mixed with accomplishment and achievement.

21433236_10155134241043768_5009459834346114100_n

This was one of the scariest moments of my life.

This was my dad’s second summer of doing Via Ferratas in a rental car ($13 per day from the Geneva airport on the French side). He discovered them in 2010 when his friend Anne Claude took him on one in Engleberg, Switzerland.

“I kept thinking, ‘the Swiss are crazy,’ as I was climbing,” my dad told me. “But then here I was on a cliff with incredible views feeling safe. I was hooked.”

He bought the harness, helmet, and two via ferrata straps and caribeeners, and spent the summer driving around Switzerland in a rental car.

Getting to the via ferrata was often an adventure in itself. Many vias require a hike in, and sometimes it’s tricky to find the trail.  On Via Ferrata des Orres (5,5,B) in Crolles, France, we almost gave up after a 5 mile hike and bush walking next to the cliff face, but then I backtracked and realized we had missed the unmarked trail leading to the start.

21688081_10211982815779868_2688606574448869205_o

One of my favorite vias we did was Crotte a Carret (5,5,A) in France. After a 2 mile downhill hike, we reached the cave where it started. In the 1800’s, Jean Carret built a little dwelling in the cliffside next to this cave so he could do prehistoric digs.  Now one of the hardest vias in the world starts from inside it.

 

Another highlight was the via out of St. Hilaire du touvet, near Crolles, France. This via was a 5,5,A, with many laybacks and small holds. It was raining that day, so we weren’t sure if we would be able to do it. But we decided to hike to the start and see if the weather would take mercy on us. Luckily, the sky cleared just at the right time, so we were able to do the climb. I saw paragliders swooping by us along the way, as well as a mountain goat leaping down the cliff.​

 

Along the way, we stayed at youth hostels and cheap hotels. As I try to follow a mostly vegan diet I was mostly buying my food at grocery stores and preparing my meals on the go. We snacked a lot on trail mix and fruit in between vias. I enjoyed cooking for my dad in our hotel room.

 

When I’m doing a via, I forget how high up I am. Just like anything, it’s an exercise in mindfulness and being present. I’d try to unite my movements and my breath, and observe the climb before starting each section, planning my movements ahead of time. When seen in sections, a huge overtaking becomes a set of steps. This way of thinking reminds me of the main point of one of my Japanese students speeches: “Set small goals that you can reach!”

My dad and I talk about flow, which is the feeling you get when everything else seems to slip away, and all that’s left is you and the rock. You’re not worried about anything else, but completely and totally in the present moment, one with your breath and your motions. On vias, especially on difficult ones, I could feel my reality dissipate, all my to-do lists and worries about the future melt into nothingness, as I just focused on ascending the cliff I was dangling from. It’s a rare feeling, but I want to cultivate it in my every day life. I’ve had these moments fleetingly in yoga and meditation, or other sports like ultimate frisbee. All that matters is the task at hand.

Next summer, my dad will return to Europe to do more via ferratas in the Italian Dolomites, and I hope to join him! I’m so blessed to have an active and adventurous father, and I want to take advantage of these summers we have together to do something epic. Does anyone want to join us?