I love to travel. I have ever since I was a kid. The thrill of seeing new place, eating new foods, and experiencing things that are totally unique has been something I have always enjoyed. Unfortunately, before last year, it was not something I got do very often. I grew up working poor. It was pretty rare that we had extra money to travel. Sometimes we would do short trips, usually just within Michigan, but I always knew there were limits. That changed when I moved to Germany last year for the Academic Year in Freiburg program.
I received a scholarship to study abroad based on financial need and I was met with a new sense of freedom that I had never before experienced. Whenever I had time off from school, I went somewhere. Sometimes the trips were nearby and short, sometimes distant and for weeks on end. I visited nine countries not including my home base of Germany during my year abroad and all of those trips have only made my love of travel even stronger. I think about the trips I made and friends that I met on them every day and all I can do is smile. I learned so much about myself from solo traveling and each trip was an experience that I will never be able to recreate. The experiences that I had will be forever burned into my memory, and for that, I am extremely grateful. I could write a novel about my travels last year but since I only have limited space, in this essay I will to describe my trips to two places, Spain, which I visited twice, and Iceland.
My first trip to Spain began with a joke. It was a joke I am so glad was made. The summer before I left for Germany, I went to a concert with my really good friend Greg. He invited along an old friend from high school who was in town to visit. She was a Spanish girl named Laura who had been an exchange student at his school. We immediately hit it off and it was a great night, but before we said our goodbyes the next day, I mentioned that I would be leaving for Germany in just a few short weeks and that maybe we could meet up sometime while I was going to be there. She jokingly invited me to go visit Madrid where she lives any time and she would be more than happy to show me around. I assumed she wasn’t serious since I had only known her for a day but she said that she was, so I took her up on her offer. One day last October, I messaged her online and asked what she was doing two weeks from then. She said not much and asked me why. I booked a flight almost immediately.
I arrived in Spain two weeks later with just a backpack full of clothes and a camera. Laura picked me up from the airport in Madrid and then she brought me back to her house for a very Spanish lunch. What struck me as amazing was how natural it felt to be there. There was no awkwardness, even though we had met only once before. I had a week to spend in Madrid, with only a few things that I really wanted to see, but other than that, it was up to Laura to lead me around. She didn’t disappoint.
Laura took me on a free tour of Madrid and even she learned a few things about her city that she didn’t know beforehand. We went to Casa Botín, the oldest restaurant in the world, where I ate one of their famous dishes, squids stewed in their own ink, a dish I can only describe as dark and murky, the essence of the ocean. That meal was one that I’ll never forget. As for accommodations, I stayed in the cheapest hostel that I could find, a place in the center of Madrid that cost about $13 a night. Since this was the first hostel I had stayed in, I was a bit skeptical at first, but I grew to love that place. Even though it probably wasn’t the “cleanest” place I stayed during my travels, it is one of the ones I remember most fondly.
The thing that most surprised me about Spain, however, was the hospitality of Laura’s friends and family. At this point, I was pretty used to Germans, who are generally pretty reserved and take quite a bit of time to get to know. The Spaniards were the exact opposite. They had tons of questions and wanted nothing but to get to know me. They took me in as one of their own and treated me like they had known me for years. I only spent a week in Madrid on my first visit, but I went home with more friends that I know I will cherish forever than I ever could have imagined.
My second visit to Spain was a bit more planned out than the first. I went in March for spring break. This time it was for two weeks, the longest vacation I had taken in my life. I knew I had two places I needed to visit, Madrid, because I felt like I had more to see there and I was already comfortable with the city, and Oviedo, which is in the northern province of Asturias. Oviedo is a small town, about the size of Ann Arbor, and there isn’t much to see there, but I had met a British exchange student named Max earlier in the year in Freiburg and he was doing his second semester abroad there and invited me to stay.
I booked a flight to Madrid, once again just a backpack and camera in hand, ready for an exciting two weeks in the beautiful country of Spain. Laura once again met me at the airport in Madrid. I went on to have an awesome week of meeting new people, exploring the city (alone sometimes and sometimes with other people), and generally just having a good time and relaxing. I met people from all over the world, the US, Spain, Denmark and tons of other countries and every one of them had an interesting story to tell. At the end of the first week, I was sad to leave. Madrid had become almost a second home to me at that point and I knew I was going to miss it and all the people I met there, but it was time to move on. I took the metro to the bus station and booked a ticket to the north.
That bus ride was long. Really long. It was something like eight hours to get there but I was fascinated the entire time. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the view out of my window. The sites were unlike anything I had ever seen. Deserts, mountains, the ocean, all within a few hours of travel. I’m sure the other passengers hated the sound of my camera clicking every few seconds but I didn’t even care. Eventually I reached the bus station in Oviedo and Max was waiting for me.
I hadn’t seen Max in months. We had become close friends while he was in Freiburg and it was interesting to see how he lived in Spain. Things seemed more carefree than what we were used to back in Germany. Maybe it had something to do with the weather. It was beautiful and sunny and there was always a distant ocean breeze. We visited the ocean once. We drank Spanish cider on the beach, played soccer with a group of people who spoke about five different languages in total and ate some great food. I spent my time in Oviedo relaxing like I never had before. There is something calming about not knowing what’s around the corner and not caring, because you know that whatever it is, you’ll take it in stride and enjoy every moment of it.
This feeling has never been more intense than during the time I spent in Iceland. I could write a novel about that trip. It was life changing. I only went because I needed to get back to the US after my study abroad year was over. It was cheaper to buy a ticket to Iceland and then one back home than to just get one straight home, so I figured why not check it out. With the last bit of money I had, I spent a short three days in the country. During those three days, I had nothing planned and that’s exactly how I wanted it. The biggest thing I did was hitchhike west. There was a place I wanted to visit, Hveragerði, the most geothermally active part of the country. The only problem, it’s about 100 miles from Reykjavik and I had no transportation. I went to the lobby of the hostel and asked the cheapest way to get there. They told me to hitchhike. So I did.
An old woman was nice enough to drive me to where I wanted to go. She dropped me off and told me to walk over this mountain for a couple of hours and I would like what I would find. She wasn’t wrong. I found valleys and hot springs and rivers the temperature of a hot tub. It was like another planet, unlike anything I had ever seen. A young couple drove me back to Reykjavik, and I thanked them for their generosity and trust. Then I was on my way back home the next day.
Through my travels, I have learned more about myself than I had ever planned. I learned to trust my judgement and my decision making, and when to ask for help. I learned to trust people, and to accept their kindness. Growing up the way I did, I never expected to have experiences like these. I never thought I would get to travel the world. But I have, and it has only strengthened my love for travel and furthered my desire to visit new places. Where to next? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out.