It has been pouring down rain all day; I have never been so wet, and cold in my life. The kind of cold you feel in your bones. We have been hiking since dawn; my poncho dramatically rips off with a sudden gust of wind .In such a way, as if god himself is punishing me for something. Everything I own is wet, making it even heavier to carry. It is only my third day on the Camino, A 800k hiking pilgrimage in Northern Spain. I approach a store, and go inside to buy a poncho and dry off before continuing. There it Is, a vase of white lilies. A sign everything is going to be okay, I am exactly where I need to be.
It has been one year since losing my brother. But he did not die, I lost him to himself. I am mourning someone I never truly knew, his demons weighing heavy on my shoulders; On the Camino even a feather weighs a ton. I suffer a few more days, before having a breakdown in a hostel basement while washing my lone two outfits. Out of supplies and cash and with badly blistered feet, I decide to take the next day off, almost ensuring I will not finish on time. Realizing suffering is a choice; I chose to no longer suffer.
The day off is spent meeting new friends, drinking way too much sangria, eating fresh local octopus, and making dinner together in our hostel kitchen. The hostel, an old church perched on top of a hill in the middle of town. The days are long, the distance far, but I am never truly alone. At times I am thinking about life, other times about nothing at all. My mind is completely silent.
Dawn, with its damp smell, cool air, and mystifying fog, quickly becomes my favorite time of day. The sounds and colors of nature as the sun rises and the local cattle wake up. I am following my heart and body, walking only as far as it tells me each day. Nights are spent with new friends at Pilgrims dinner and bedtime is before sun set in tiny bunk beds.
At Cruz de Ferro, I told the universe I forgive and left my rock among the others. Although I didn't believe it myself, I put the words out into the universe. The burden of guilt would be left there with my rock.
A few days later, I finished, finally making it to Santiago. At the pilgrims mass a few powerful words spoken clearly in English during the closing prayer. "Forgive those who have lost their way". I knew it was time to forgive and move on. A massive weight was lifted from me, a weight which was never mine to carry. I found the last thing I expected along the Camino, forgiveness.
I just finished hiking a portion of the El Camino de Santiago; I have been in Spain now for twenty days. After spending an extra day in Santiago to reunite with friends, I decide to spend the following day alone in Barcelona, before heading home. Having booked the budget airline fight the night before, I will have exactly twelve hours in Barcelona before catching a plane back to Madrid and then home. Any alteration in this plan will result in missing my fight home to Florida. I am staying at a Hostel on the beach, an eight bed coed dorm. Though I never see any roommates, I know they exist merely from belongs left behind for the day. Wet clothes hung from bunk beds, cell phone chargers plugged into the wall, and backpacks stuffed to capacity resting on the ground. Apparently it’s the Night of San Juan; a celebration lasting well into dawn. Roaring bonfires lining the sand along the beach with fireworks lighting the night’s sky, shadows of people can be seen in the darkness for miles, it’s a surreal and magical sight. Not a well organized festival, it seems effortless and uncomplicated, almost as if it’s a coincidence everyone is here at this very moment and time. However the electric energy is contagious and unmistakable.
Its 2:00 am and I am trying to sleep before my fight, the noise and energy outside are keeping me awake. I am lying in my top bunk, wide awake, reminiscing on my day. A few hrs ago, I arrived in Barcelona with no pan other than to drink sangria on the beach and be a tourist. First stop after checking into the hostel was a café on the beach, a few steps away. Being the budget traveler I am, I chose a pitcher of sangria instead of a glass, because well why not? I people watched for a bit while sipping sangria, and planning my day. Deciding to do the Hop on, Hop off tourist bus to see the most I can, in the least amount of time. I pay the tab and was just about to admit defeat with the pitcher of sangria, when the waitress asks if I want the remainder “to go”. In my broken Spanish and her broken English, somehow I wind up with the leftover sangria, the contents of the cup so heavy, I need an extra cup to reinforce it. I leave the café; rather stumble away from the café, to go sightseeing for the day.
I used the Hop on, Hop off bus route as my personal taxi. Seeing and experiencing everything I set out to; including The Sagrada Familia Church and Park Guell. I arrive back at the hostel just after sunset and notice a large number of people gathered on the beach. The energy draws me in, I am memorized and curious. As I stand at the edge of the sand where it meets the sidewalk, too shy to join, a handsome, tall, blond, Dutch boy approaches me. He looks me in the eyes, smiles and says “I know you”.
I smile back and laugh; explaining that he could not possibly know me, as I have only been in Barcelona a few hrs. At which he replies “you are the girl that drank a whole pitcher of sangria earlier”. Embarrassed, I laugh and change the subject, he offers me more sangria, of which I except. With the festivities happening all around us, we sit on the sand talking and drinking sangria for hrs. He is an ex pro basketball Player for the Netherlands, here with his coworkers on business. He’s spiritual, does yoga and knows of the Camino. Worried about my fight in a few hrs, I leave without even getting his name……..
Hidden within the Walt Disney World compound lies a little known secret. A local’s only secret to experiencing Disney without the ticket, without the kids, and with adult beverages. That is the Monorail Pub crawl, 100% not endorsed by Disney. When it comes to Disney World Florida, the two must do adult only activities are the Monorail pub crawl and drinking around the world at Epcot. However Epcot is expensive and you will pay between $8-12 for each drink. Other than Epcot no other Disney park sells alcohol, but the Disney Resorts along the Monorail do! The monorail system was designed to get those staying at the three expensive resorts to and from the park quickly and easily. This makes for the perfect Disney pub crawl without the hassle and price of a ticket. Three Resorts with 8 bars constitute the unofficial pub crawl. The Polynesian has 2 bars; Trader Sams and Tambu lounge. The Grand Floridian has 3 bars; Mizners lounge, Citicos lounge and Narcossee’s Barr. Contemporary Resort also with three bars; California Grill, The Outer Rim and Wave longue. The best part is that wherever you are along the pub crawl when the fireworks start, chances are you will be able to see them if you step outside. The best pace to see the fireworks is the California Grill. Its first come first serve, so you will need to get there about an hr early. Fireworks start around 9pm or 10pm at Christmas Time, make sure you check with someone at the resort for the exact times. Another perk is free parking, but you may need to try more than one resort. Simply tell the security guard you are going to dinner and drinks. When we went this year one resort was full but another resort happily let us park. Locals parking free at the resorts and going to the parks has been a problem for them. So make it clear you are going to the bars. Even better would be to have actual reservations, and just not show up for them.
Cons: We went early December and though it was listed as a “not busy” time the resorts were crowded making it impossible to get seats at bars and restaurants, I would imagine it’s always this way. After the second bar we ditched the plan and just went with the flow. We mostly wound up getting caned beer at cafeteria style restaurants and shopping in the resort stores. When it was time for fireworks were not at the California Grill as planned, instead we were at an outside cafeteria restaurant at the Polynesian with a beautiful view of the fireworks and a caned beer. My advice would be to use the listed bars as a guide and just go with the flow.
The streets are dark, illuminated only by the glow of street lanterns. The style you exclusively witness in Europe. It is cold and damp precisely what you would imagine of a mid January night in London. The gigantic red double-decker busses and nostalgic back taxies buzzing through the street. We are on foot looking for a pub, about fifty of us, the first night of my first bus tour. We are not waking as a normal group would; we are weaving in and out making small talk with each other. Oh the things I would do different, if I had only known this group of people would become my forever friends, family bound together by wanderlust.
As we stroll along the wistful walkways, I hear a voice from behind me say “It’s a bit nippy ah”. In the most handsome voice and accent I have ever heard. I turn around to see an attractive 6” blond, blue eyed Australian in his mid 30’s. Wearing merely a jumper and jeans, the airline lost his luggage.
The story goes as you would imagine, we have a steamy romance through the streets of London, Paris, Rome, Miami and Vegas. But my story doesn’t end there. If it had, it would have been perfectly fine, but it didn’t. Our love affair ended after the holiday, but another love affair was born. A love affair with the world and everything in it, my story was just getting started.
My story does not start or stop with a boy; it starts and stops with me. I don’t know when my story will become “our story” and I am okay with that.
On my first solo coach tour, I was not prepared for what was about to happen; my mind was about to be completely blown, forever changing my perspective.
From second one, I started to change, it felt good, and it felt right.
Mark Twain once said “Broad wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in ones little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” Not prepared for the emotions and romance of Europe. Its images, the experiences forever burned into my soul. Travel enlightened true passions for history, food/culture, art, public transportation, as well as helped me to view the world through a different lens and lead me to discovering my true self.
1. Traveling makes you a super cool history buff.
History was never my strong subject, to be honest; I don’t even remember taking any history cases. But I must have, I’ve seen these paces before. But this time it was clearer, it was real. Walking the streets of London, looking out at all the old buildings, I remember thinking to myself “man this is cool”. Now I read history books for pleasure instead of fiction.
2. Traveling makes you a foodie.
Travel teaches you food is so much more. Food not just represents nutrition; it represents culture, family, and love. Throw out that western diet, fast food, fast life. Travel teaches you to slow down and enjoy your meal. Travel makes you more food adventurous too, fish is always better with the head still on! Upon coming home you will never again restrict your diet, food is also memories.
3. Travel makes you an art critic.
Art becomes so much more than a painting or statue, it enhances the soul. George Bernard Shaw said “You use a glass mirror to see your face, but you use works of art to see your soul”. Your appreciation for the arts will forever change and, you may just find yourself writing, coloring or learning to play an instrument in your spare time. Something changes within you when you see the Mona Lisa or The David for the first time
4. You will have a new found appreciation for public transportation.
Unless you live in a big city known for its underground system, chances are you rarely if ever use public transportation. Before traveling, I never took public transportation or walked anywhere, I thought of it as a sign of being poor. You learn to love the interworking of a city’s underground, bus and train systems. It’s not a sign of being poor; it’s being smart, adventurous and well traveled.
5. You will start to see the world through a different lens.
Almost immediately you start to see the word through a different lens, you start to see the word the way it truly is. A place of love, with more good than bad. You start to see the good in people, and may even befriend your neighbors upon coming home.
6. You will find your authentic self.
Above all with leaving your comfort zone and seeing the word you will chip away at finding your authentic self, the person you were truly meant to be. Travel enriches your soul forever; you start to find joy and fulfillment in experiences not things.
I will forever be in your debt for saving me from myself. You gave me the ability to safely see the word alone, forever changing the way I view it. I always longed to travel but thought it was out of my grasp. When I heard of Contiki, I was already 30 years old and had been working as a Registered Nurse for 8 years. Through word of mouth, from an acutance on a coed rec. league, I heard your name for the first time. Even though I was a nurse, at 30 years old my life was passionless and unfulfilled. I was burned out in my career, and hadn’t lived any of my dreams.
That was all about to change when I booked my first Contiki holiday, the month of my 30th birthday.
I was alone and scared to death, I remember thinking to myself “what have I done” while riding the London Underground in route to meeting my first tour. Little did I know, I would never be alone or feel alone ever again, after that first group meeting. I made lifelong friends from all over the word and saw paces most people only dream of.
Every year after that first holiday, I took another Contiki holiday. Saving and sacrificing all year to afford it. That was until this year, when I turned 35 and aged out. I thought when the time came and I was too old, my travel days would be behind me. Instead, I feel ready and able to travel on my own, thanks to everything I learned on Contiki.
Travel allowed me to see the bigger picture; Yes the world is big, but it’s not such a scary pace. The world is a place filed with good people, good food, history, culture, art and love. Travel taught me to play with the world and enjoy the journey. Along the way you may just see things through a different lens and find joy, fulfillment, and your authentic self.
Thank You Contiki,
Melissa Fontana, RN
Fort Lauderdale, Fl