Category Archives: International

El Camino de Santiago

El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimmage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. The original path has pagan roots and existed long before Christianity with legendary Celtic witches residing on the rocky coasts of Galicia. In contemporary history, these routes have been popularized by thousands of pilgrims traveling to venerate the remains of the Apostle James and repent for their sins. Many people still hold this to be a religious or spiritual experience, while others simply see it as a hiking adventure. There are many different paths to take, but all end in Galicia. Last year alone, Santiago received over 200,000 peregrinos.

This past summer, after a wonderful weekend in Asturias visting with classmates, my friend, Jen, and I decided to embark on what if called the camino primitivo, or the “original way”. This camino starts in Oviedo and spans over 300km through Asturias and Galicia. It follows the first pilgrimmage route ever made to Santiago, undertaken by King Alfonso II of Asturias in the 9th century. Many people say it is the most beautiful of all the caminos and the poetic history made it seem irresistable to us. However, this camino also the most difficult with two mountains to cross and an uphill section almost every day.

This route is meant to take about two weeks (or more) to complete, but, being a little cocky, and the colossal goal-setters we are, we decided to try to accomplish this great feat in 8 days. Crazy, I know, but I’ve heard that word so many times in my life, it doesn’t even phase me. At our projected rate, we would need to cover 40+km a day to make it to Santiago in time for our flight home. “We can do that,” we thought.

Little did we know, the camino has other plans for us…plans involving non-pedestrian transportation. We were gravely wrong with our mileage projections and, unfortunately, our overly zealous goals dissolved rapidly. We ended up having to skip a section spanning 100km in order to keep on schedule. Although I still feel a little bit like a cheater, this was still one of the greatest adventures of my year in Spain and I would love the opportunity to do it again. I would even reccomend this excursion to anyone toying with the idea already, but not without a little advice, first.

So, for future peregrinos, especially those attempting the camino primitivo:

  • Buy a guidebook. Being very seasoned travellers, we immediately thought this might be a rip off or not useful, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. The pueblos and mileage help you keep track of your progress and offer insights on to the elevation of that day’s etapa. There is also usually a list of phone numbers for albergues, hostels, and hotels, as well as emergency numbers.
  • Stick it. We had debated buying walking sticks for a little while before embarking on our journey. To me, they seemed useless — extra weight for minimal support. While I still hold this opinion true for the flatter caminos, for the camino primitivo, these definitely come in handy during the uphill sections. On our first day leaving Oviedo, an old man in one of the first pueblos came out to us and gestured towards some hand whittled walking sticks he had had in his barn. This was just one of many kind encounters on our camino and the perfect way to begin our journey. The sticks actually did come in handy, not only for the walk but to us, they made us look more legitimate in the eyes of our pilgrim peers.
  • Absolutely do not rush yourself. Take each etapa as the guidebook suggests and rest as often as you need to. Not only will you end up exhausted and less able to complete the following day’s hike, but, in the words of one of our new friends, Rafael, “you will ruin your camino.”
  • Don’t take the hospedal route unless you’re prepared. A group of Italians were at the same albergue as us the night before the path forked and adamantly stressed the importance of the weather. Asturian fog can be blinding some mornings and many people get lost on this route. The path is much more overgrown than previous sections and there is much less signange. Our poor Romanian friend who took this route later told us he had gone 5 hours without water as he had gotten lost looking for the markers.
  • Don’t book an albergue just yet. Unless you really think there is a chance you won’t make it in time to get a bed, reservations aren’t necessary. The bigger towns have public albergues (around 5 eur a night) that are first-come-first-serve, but there are also private albergues (around 10+ eur a night) that accept reservations. We didn’t see much of a difference at most of the stops, so I wouldn’t say calling ahead is vital until you get closer to Melide. Here, the camino primitivo joins the camino frances, the route in which over 70% of Santiago pilgrims take.
  • Be ready for early mornings. Most albergues, whether public or private, have a mandatory ‘bedtime’ and almost all of your fellow walkers will be up and getting ready around 6am. If this does not suit you, I suggest packing earplugs and a sleep mask.
  • Take advantage whenever you can. When there is a fountain, drink some water and refill your bottle. When there is a grocery store, buy some snacks for later. Many times, we would arrive at an albergue and the town would be so small, there were no options to buy your own food and eating out for every meal can get expensive.
  • Do not put a time limit on yourself. If you’re local, don’t buy a return ticket ahead of time. If you’re international, plan on an additional 3-4 days after your projected completion. We met a few couples that took a day off after the more difficult etapas, so it would be beneficial to allow yourself that buffer room. Or, if you’re up for the challenge, the camino actually extends past Santiago de Compostela to Cabo Fisterra, or what it called, “The World’s End” and you may want to go further on your journey. For our journey, we learned after the first two 30+km days that our over-achieving attitude could not be supported by mere human bodies. Should this happen to you, too, at some point along the way, there are buses between towns that you can access, but be aware there is no transregional public transport between the borders Asturias and Galicia, only cabs.

If you plan it our properly and do your research, this can be one the most amazing experiences of your life. The physical challenge, the idea of spiritual solitude while walking, and some of the most beautiful countryside vistas in all of Spain are just some of the many reasons this pilgrimmage draws more and more walkers every year.

And finally, another great thing about the camino is the support from your fellow walkers. You will meet people from all over the world who will, at the very least, look at you and cheer you on with a quick “Animo! Animo!” and at the most, share their supplies or walk the whole next day with you sharing stories. In all my years of travel, I have never been to a hostel that was ever as welcoming and friendly as an albergue on the camino. Everyone is friendly and open and understanding. Everyone respects the quiet hours, as well as the non-quiet hours. No one locks up their belongings. In short, there is a communal understanding and camaraderie that you will not find anywhere else. That was what I took away the most — the supportive nature humankind is capable of showing, not only to new friends, but to strangers.

“Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” [Romas 15:2]

If you have any questions planning your trip, feel free to message me!

Buen Camino!

Always Make Sure to Double-Czech.

At this point in my life, I have been to over twenty countries on three continents, lived in four major metropolises in three countries, and have technically five visas in my passport. (Not all currently valid, of course).

This is a story of what happens when two well-traveled, educated and experienced young girls get too cocky…

I ran my first half marathon in the Fall of 2014 in Chicago, just before I left for Spain. One of my bucket list items for my year abroad was to run a race in a foreign country. My dear friend, Meghan, was also studying in Barcelona and we decided to register for a half marathon together. The one in Barcelona didn’t work out, because it was the same weekend as Carnival and clearly, we are women with priorities. Soon, our schedules filled up and we had to pick a race quickly. We had both been to Prague before and loved it, so when we found a race online matching that location, we jumped on it! (Traditional Czech food is also a wonderful post-run indulgence!)

We bought plane tickets, told all of our friends and classmates and even starting looking for hostels in the beloved capital of Bohemia. Thankfully, the prices were not as economical as we were expecting so neither of us booked quickly, favoring, as we usually do, to consult the other first. When it was my turn to search, I tried to download a map of the race to make sure we could at least get an AirBnb close to the starting line. Lo’ and behold, when I looked up the route, the image did not match what Google had labeled as central “Prague”. I zoomed out and started panicking…

The Prague Half Marathon we had been planning for, registered for and already bought plane tickets for was not actually in Prague.

Not even just outside of it. Not even close.

The race was more than two hours west in a whole different city called Karlovy Vary.

As you can imagine, the acronyms for many curse words and religious defamations ensued in our Gchat: WTF IS WRONG WITH US?! OMG. GODD*MN IT! HOLY SHIT. WTF ARE WE GOING TO DO?

As young and carefree as we may seem, we like to plan things out. I tell everyone that that is how I am able to travel so much — simply plan ahead. Plane tickets are cheaper, hostels are cheaper and you have more time to plan your sightseeing and make sure you use your time wisely. So now, here we are, mere days before the race, and we realize it’s not even taking place in the city we had been planning on for more than three months. We still had no place to stay and now we had to plan connecting transportation to make up for our blunder. We had clearly gotten a bit too cocky with years of traveling experience under our belts and planning many other trips simultaneously.

Quick to adapt, though, and infused with surging panic attacks, we swiftly found an AirBnb host the first night in Prague and a truly lovely Couchsurfing host in Karlovy Vary. THANK GOD. There was also an economical bus in between the two cities and we were going to be able to make the race on time, as it began in the evening. Phew! Damage control at it finest!

We arrived in Prague without any problems (ahoj!) and our first host was adorably amiable. The young artist and resident cat subsided our fears of something else going wrong on this trip. Eventually, the morning finally came to take the subway to the bus station and grab our student coach to what English speakers call, Carlsbad. I talked Meghan into getting brunch at a restaurant I had found on a Czech food blogger’s website and we set out to eat there before our bus left. (Pre-run energy, right?)

After walking for what felt like eternity, but was probably more like 20 minutes, we found the joint. The place was just as adorable as I was hoping and it looked crowded, which we’ve learned from all our European friends is a very, very good sign. I went in to ask the hostess how long the wait was. “Do you have a reservation?” A Reservation? For brunch? Really? Apparently, since brunch is such a new concept in Europe, though it is gaining in popularity all over, it is still chic enough (in Prague at least) that you need to have a reservation. Dismayed, I quickly checked a couple of the other places on the list and on a closer note, they also needed reservations. Ugh.

So we gave up and moved on down the block to another place and set up shop for a quick bite to eat before our departure. Finally, everything seemed to be working out well — no more surprises, we thought. We were checking our bus tickets online when we realized that the bus stop where we were supposed to disembark was closed due to the race. NOT AGAIN. Now what? It seemed like everything was turning against us on this trip…nothing that was planned was working out as it should and everything we forgot to account for seemed to be nipping up in the butts.

With no time to come up with a Plan B, we raced to the bus station and hoped for the best. When we arrived in Karlovy Vary, we prayed our smart phones would work and followed Google the long way to the race expo. Thankfully, I’ve learned from the past 10 months of living on WiFi only that Google location services still work even when you’re not connected. We were able to get out race packets, “czech” out some of the vendors and meet up with our wonderful host, Betty.

The rest of the trip went quite swimmingly, though Meghan beat me by a landslide! The race was well organized, a bit small by comparison (about 3,000 runners), but much more professional and filled with the most able-bodied athletes I’ve ever seen in a public event. We learned afterwards that Karlovy Vary is a bit of a hub for athletics. I ended up beating my Chicago time by 10 minutes but still didn’t make my goal. I didn’t mind much though, because it was honestly the most beautiful event I have ever run. Seriously. If you’re into running and love nature, sign up for this race.

All in all, the race, brunch, the bus stop…I’d like to think this was fate’s way of telling us that no matter how much we’ve seen or how far we’ve gone, we still do not know everything.

And that’s just fine.

I think us making it to Karlovy Vary and being able to complete the race meant much more than simply being physically capable. So, be advised fellow travelers, always double “czech”! Here’s to less slip-ups and more adventures! Na zdravi!


You Know You’re Sicilian When…

I’ve seen a lot of these types of lists on the internet lately and haven’t been satisfied with any of them. So I decided to write my own. To be sure, though, I am not a usually fan of the internet listopia phenomenon currently sweeping every site imaginable. I just think it’s interesting that almost every ethnic, social, or cultural group deep down wants a list, that someone else has written, to legitimize their own belonging to that group. But we all have different experiences within each of these sociologically assigned groups, right? So why do we still look for a one-size-fits-all list to validate ourselves?

My mother’s family is all Sicilian and I have grown up in an environment that resembles many characteristics and attitudes of that culture. I tell people that I am ethnically half Sicilian and my nationality is American. I am extremely proud, while also acknowledging that every Italian-American family is different.

This is simply my recollection of what it means to be Sicilian or a true member of the Licata family…

  • You grow your own tomatoes and basil.
  • No one needs a recipe for meatballs and sauce.
  • Every family gathering consists of everyone talking over eachother.
  • You become keen to listening to multiple conversations at once.
  • Your grandmother trusts no one and tries to instill the same fear in you. She’s convinced everyone has secret motives.
  • Every holiday lasts all day and consists of eating and eating and eating.
  • Your grandmother knows every store owned by Italians within a 30 mile radius and you usually buy from them when you’re not cooking homemade, of course.
  • Your grandmother speaks Sicilian, not Italian.
  • As a consequence, your family members pronounce words like “rigotta” and “zazitsa” instead of “ricotta” and “salsiccia”.
  • You have handmade your own zazitsa with your Uncle Joe.
  • There are a lot of people named “Joe” in your family.
  • You have visited distant relatives still living in bel paese.
  • You commiserate with other Italians when Northerners bad mouth Southerners. Yes, Sicily is part of Italy. And no, we are not all mafiosi.
  • Every winter, you actually do roast chestnuts.
  • Pomegranates have been a staple in your family for generations and you get annoyed when some idiota assumes you’ve only started eating them because they are in fashion. No, I’m not a trendy hipster. I’m Sicilian.
  • Artichokes, artichokes, artichokes.
  • Family names include Dominic, Giuseppina, Giuseppe, Rosa Maria, Giovanna, etc.
  • You can still remember your great grandmother telling you what it was like to sail over to America. Two weeks without a shower. Yuck!
  • You talk with your hands. And you couldn’t stop even if you tried.
  • You always want to cook for people and you get offended if they don’t eat the whole pot.
  • You know how to play bocce ball.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the more people you meet, the more you realize your family has something special.

So here’s to every 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation immigrant who still celebrates their heritage with pride!

Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife

Carnaval – Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday.

The vast majority of the human population chooses to remember holidays with significant amounts of debauchery involved. Perhaps the most famous would be the period of partying before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Regardless of your religious or cultural background, if you have never heard of this celebration, I am shocked. I, myself, have a particular obsession with this Latin event.

In undergrad, I studied abroad in Rome in 2010 and had the chance to take part in Carnevale di Venezia. It was a wonderful experience and possibly one of the most fun weekend trips I ever took that semester! I vowed to try to spend Fat Tuesday, or the weekend beforehand, in as many of the most lauded locations around the world as I could. I was even in Goa, a former Portuguese colony, during Carneval in 2012, but was unable to attend due to accidents just outside Panjim. This time around, I knew I couldn’t miss it! I decided to try to most famous location in Spain for celebrating Carneval, the island of Tenerife.

I have never seen the same level of creativity in costume design as here! The whole weekend seemed much more like a Halloween infused Mardi Gras with different elaborate getups for every day. Some people were dressed as tropical birds, some people were dressed as animals, and some people were even dressed as the Easter Island moai! My shoes were soaked with beer and spilt alcohol flooding the overcrowded street parties and I can still hear the families cheering, “Guapa! Guapa!” as the beauty queens floated by in the cabalgata. From what I have read, the Carneval de Santa Cruz is much more similar to that of Rio de Janeiro. In Italy, the party is still a party, but the costumes are much more traditional. Possibly for tradition’s sake, but also possibly because it’s a bit colder there that time of year.

Either way, I am well on my way to my goal! Where to next year? New Orleans, perhaps?

(Forgive the poor photo quality, I think you can guess the state I was in…)

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