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.
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.
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.