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.

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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 helpx.net  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:
www.helpx.net
www.couchsurfing.org
www.blablacar.com

Walking 50 kilometers: from Almendralejo to Merida

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Debates about bullfighting and singing the water cycle

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!