Finding Malaga: Starting a new life in Southern Spain

Yesterday, I stood on my balcony, admiring the pink and yellow light dancing across the mountains.  I felt like an empty cup being filled with gratitude. I try to sink into it, asking myself, “How did I get to be so lucky?” I have to retrace my steps to remind myself how serendipity led me here to Malaga, a beautiful city in southern Spain, framed by the Montes de Malaga and the Alboran Sea.

Last year, I was teaching English in Almendralejo, Extremadura, a dry and flat region of Spain bordered by Portugal. This year, I’m in Malaga for my second year as an Auxiliar de Conversation, a program sponsored by the Spanish Government which employs native English speakers in public schools. I teach English, Social Science, and Natural Science to bright and boisterous kids age 6 to 13.

Instead of returning to California, I decided to enjoy my two-week Christmas last year vacation doing a solo trip around Andalucia. I went to Seville, Granada, Quentar, Nerja, and Malaga. In the back of my mind, I knew I was looking for my next home.

On Christmas Eve, I found myself at a long table filled with dozens of travelers from all over the world.

I spent Christmas in Granada wandering. I toured the Al Hambra palace alone. I spent  6 hours gazing in awe, trying to capture the intricacies of the mosaics and architecture in my sketchbook.

Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, Granada is a magical city with a population of 230,000. It’s big enough to have a bustling nightlife but small enough to walk everywhere, and the ambiance is buzzing with creativity and open-mindedness. There is a myriad of vegan restaurants, salsa dancing clubs, and an ultimate frisbee team. I could easily envision myself living there, except that I knew it would be cold in winter. As a California girl through and through, I wanted to be near the ocean.

This was the third Christmas holiday that I have spent traveling solo. I was volunteering on an oyster farm in Japan two Christmases ago. During these long holiday vacations alone, I’m always struck with intermixed feelings of pure joy – “This is so amazing! I’m so proud of myself for doing this!” and devastating homesickness – “What the heck am I doing here? I should be with my family…”

Nevertheless, I made new friends, including Rodrigo, a talented flamenco guitarist from Mexico. I met him while he was busking (playing music on the street, set up in front of an inviting hat/open guitar case) in the street near my hostel. Since I had plenty of free time I asked him if he would give me guitar lessons. The next day, he borrowed a friend’s guitar and gave me a private flamenco guitar lesson!

After 5 days in Granada, I continued to my next adventure: to volunteer at a youth hostel in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (It’s my 11th time using the website  to find places to volunteer, where I work for 4-6 hours a day in exchange for free food and accommodation. Some of my favorites have been the oyster farm in Japan, a dairy farm in New Zealand, an after-school program and cashew farm in Bali, and a peach and plum orchard in Australia.)

Quentar is a tiny mountain village a thirty-minute bus ride outside of Granada with a population of just 950 people. The hostel, called Fundalusia, boasts beautiful mountain views and feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Another volunteer from Scotland was there to keep me company, and we became friends. It was our responsibility to change the bedsheets, hang the laundry, sweep, mop and clean the kitchen. It took about 3 hours. Later, the afternoon task was to walk the two dachshunds in surrounding hills. In exchange, we had a place to sleep in a wooden roundhouse and a hearty vegetarian lunch. I found the work relaxing and easy and the food healthy and filling.

However, after a few days, I felt antsy. I needed to move. I had imagined that I would be meditative and relaxed here, but I began to feel stagnant and bored. Hiking with the dogs in the mountains made me miss my family, who I called almost every day.  While talking to my dad on FaceTime Audio, he told me about a town called Nerja he had seen on a travel show. So when my week was up, I took a bus towards the coast.

Nerja was sunny, so I swam in the freezing ocean (for about 30 seconds). I shared a room in a hostel with 5 travelers, a few of whom snored. Lucky for me I had earplugs. I found one kindred spirit, a 60-something-year-old German lady, and we walked barefoot on the beach and talked about spirituality.

I planned to stop in Malaga for just one day before heading back to Almendralejo by BlaBlaCar (a ride-sharing app that is similar to Uber but for longer distances) to relax in my apartment for a few days before starting school again. My plan was thwarted when I realized how much I loved Malaga. The beach, the mountains, the Cathedral, the nightlife… it reminds me of a bigger and busier version of my hometown, Santa Barbara.

Thanks to a friend I met through the Couchsurfing website, I had been recommended a slightly dirty but very charismatic and well-located youth hostel that was only 10 euros per night, and I decided to extend my stay.  The next few days were like a dream. During the day I hiked up the hill to the fort and was entranced by the view of the city. At night I went salsa dancing at Chiquita Cruz, my new favorite bar (which is now just a 15-minute walk from my apartment.)

I had only intended to stay in Malaga for one night, but 4 days had passed when I finally realized I needed to leave or I would miss my first day of school in Almendralejo. While traveling I always find myself changing my mind and wanting to stay longer in certain places. I’ve learned to leave my itinerary open. The same thing happened to me during my 10-day spring break in Barcelona. I had a flight on a Friday but ended up staying until Sunday and returning to Almendralejo in a 12-hour Blabla Car!

I left Malaga with a feeling that I would soon be back, and here I am. I requested to repeat the Auxiliares de Conversation program here and was luckily granted my request.

After a month in California and two weeks climbing via ferratas with my dad in Northern Italy and two weeks solo in Germany and Portugal (for a future blog post!), I finally arrived in Malaga.

The next five days were extremely stressful. I knew practically no one in this city, and I had to find a place to live. I spent hours using a myriad of apps and websites to set up appointments to visit apartments. I looked at 2 to 5 rooms every day, tramping all around the city in the blazing sun, feeling frustrated and lost. It was fun, in a way, to practice Spanish with locals and ask them about their homes, but it was so hot and I was frustrated with my homelessness. I eagerly anticipated the luxury of unpacking my belongings.

Finally, on the fifth day, I walked into this apartment and immediately felt a sense of home. It’s 15 minutes from the heart of the city. The room is bright and spacious. The price is fair. But most importantly, my roommates are three Spanish women who are friendly and willing to speak Spanish with me.

And here I am now, in that very room, after a month of teaching. It’s been a long, exhausting, exciting and fun-filled journey. I’m so grateful to have this place now to finally settle in.

In addition to my job, which is only 12 hours a week, I’ve already found formal Spanish classes, private students, a gym membership and an ultimate frisbee team. Now it’s just a matter of creating balance in my life with all of my hobbies and passions and also finding time to be silent and appreciate what I have.

Useful Websites for Solo Travel:

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