Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Need a hug?

“We made it!”

Backpacks and walking sticks crash loudly on the floor as pilgrims, young and old let go of the burden they have been carrying along for the past month.

We are in Santiago de Compostela, in front of the cathedral on the Plaza del Obradoiro. We have made it, we have walked about 800km to reach this point, all the way from the French border. The St James way.

Sitting in the shade under the arcades of the Town hall, I observe the flow of pilgrims spreading in the vast square with a smile. Some look exhausted, some look happy, ecstatic, some have a sad face. Everyone its emotions.

Arriving here can be overwhelming: It can represent liberation after days of struggling, fighting against the physical pain or mental torture while crossing long stretches of emptiness in the Spanish “Meseta”. It can also symbolize the end of a long adventure, a beautiful human experience with encounters and spontaneous friendships.

I have lived both sides. I once hated this city but I learned to love it again on my second camino. Two different experiences that helped me grow.

It was almost noon. Most pilgrims started heading to the cathedral where the daily pilgrim mass is held. Arms around shoulders, singing, laughing loudly. All the sounds expanded to fill the square, making it a place of celebration and love.

Except for one pilgrim that caught my attention. A lonely old woman leaning on her walking stick avoided the crowd and sat in a corner. She had a confused look and a tired face.

From under my hat, I kept looking at her, wondering what she was thinking about, how she was feeling. She seemed to have walked a long distance according to the tan lines she had.

Minutes passed and she was still sitting alone, staring at the cathedral without moving.

I stood up and approached with a smile.

Good day peregrina! You made it! Congratulations!”

A shy smile enlightened her face as she tried to mumble in a broken English “Thank you very much”.

I looked at the crowd heading towards the entrance of the cathedral while she started packing her backpack to attend the mass.

I have noticed something since you arrived here. You are alone, and something bad happened

She gave me a puzzled look as her smile slowly faded away.

Do you know it is considered a crime..” I paused a few seconds, looking deeply in her eyes. “.. to enter Santiago after all this walk and not receive a hug?”

She hesitated for a moment, trying to understand the sentence then smiled as I took her in my arms for a warm loving hug. She needed it, I felt it. She held me close to her tightly when the bells pounded the beginning of the mass.

Her eyes were filled with tears of gratitude as she took my hand and pronounced something in a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t need to ask, it was all in the eyes. I just smiled and let her go.

Buen Camino of Life” I whispered to myself. A little human warmth can make a great difference sometimes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Barcelona top 10 places to visit

During my short (almost 2 week) visit in Barcelona, I took some time with a friend to wander around and visit this city everybody seems to talk about yet few have visited. I actually loved it and it won a place in my “List of towns I could live in”.

Here is my top 10 places not to miss in Barcelona (in no particular order):

1- La Sagrada Familia:


Maybe the most famous landmark in Barcelona. This unfinished cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudí in 1883 (and supposed to be completed in 2026, on the 100th anniversary of his death) is seen from everywhere, sitting like a spiked beast in the center of Barcelona.

Describing the cathedral would take me ages, I’ll leave that to more adequate websites. However, it is not possible to just pass by next to it without stopping to stare at one of the millions of details ornating the many facades of the structure. It just makes you feel so small..

Also as people always ask: “Chose your favorite side”: The modern and abstract-like facade resuming the history of Jesus in very cubic style statues? Or the “organic facade” that seems like a jungle of stone plants with many reference to mythologies. I personally prefer the latter one but would love to see the whole cathedral completed and rise in all it’s glory to the sky with no less than 18 towers.

(Oh and don’t be fooled by the postcards of the cathedral without cranes.. they are photoshopped.. Cranes have always been there for yeaaaars!)


2- Park Guell:


There are many parks in Barcelona, but by far the most interesting and impressive is the garden complex designed by Gaudi again (originally meant to be a housing complex). It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

This maze like park is so rich in architectural designs and elements easily identifiable as Gaudi’s work that you definitely need many hours to just enjoy every detail, every corner... Or you can just sit on the grass and let Barcelona’s sunshine caress you while reading a book… Or maybe sit on the Terrace surrounded by mosaics and listen to the different bands playing around while socializing… How about climbing to the highest point where a cross stands overlooking the city.. In any ways, you will never be bored in that park.


3- Santa Maria del Mar:

A cathedral built “by the people, for the people”. It’s an imposing and austere structure from the outside as well as the inside comparing to most cathedrals in Spain. It was built in the XIV century in a Catalan Gothic style.

The cathedral is huge and the interior appears surprisingly luminous. The lack of decorations and golden facades which the Spanish are so fond of make it seem cold but gives a sense of peace and purity. The acoustic is also impressive and I wish i had the occasion to hear someone play the organ hanging on one of the walls.

A virtual tour of the inside of the cathedral.

4- Palau de Musica:

One of the gems of Europe. This Palace (concert hall) located behind buildings, hidden from sight was built in only 3 years with a starting budget of 6000€. It was designed by the famous spanish architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner.

The Palau de Musica transported me into a “victorian style” world, where I could almost feel the rich Bourgeoisie attending an opera while the Phantom is stalking from behind one of the 18 muses that ornate the stage! I was constantly amazed by the richness of the details and the fabulous stained-glass “skylight” representing a Sun in the shape of a drop of water.


The guide (yes, it is a guided tour), instead of trying to explain in words, gave us a taste of what the organ sounded like: I definitely had an eargasm! It was enough to understand how majestic and enchanting this place was.

(Photos were not allowed so I took the skylight from wikipedia … )

5- Hospital Sant Pau:


Built by the same architect that did the palau de musica. This hospital complex is so rich in decorations that it almost made me feel like breaking my leg to be admitted in.

Although the exterior looks beautiful, I was curious to know what the inside looked like. I only was able to trespass and enter the undergrounds where and web of tunnels link all the different sections together.. It looked more like a bunker than a hospital.


6- Montjuic:


(I have already talked about Montjuic on my photoblog so I’ll just repost it here. It also remains one of my favorite places in Barcelona.)

Montjuic, the "Hill of the Jews" is located on a hill in the city, overlooking Barcelona in all its glory.

There is a beautiful fortress located on top of it that served for many inglorious purposes during the war. It was a prison for political prisoners as well as the site of many shady executions.

Later it served as the site of the International Exposition in 1929. It also hosted the Spanish Grand Prix, an Olympic Stadium, a National Museum of Art de Catalunya, a botanical garden and a cemetery.

7- Las Ramblas / Barri Gòti:

Las Ramblas is a 1.2km long street that has become mainly a popular touristic attraction with many shopping centers, markets and artists along the sidewalk eager to distort your face on a sheet of paper and sell it to you for a fortune. If you are into shopping, you definitely have to go there.

Otherwise, why not get lost instead in the maze-like streets of the “Barri Gòti” (the gothic quarter) where hidden treasures appear at every corner and old shops wait for a lucky customer to enter their world and be transported to a different dimension, back in time. It is the oldest part of Barcelona and you can easily feel it. Many of the streets also end up in squares where you can just sit and enjoy and cup of coffee while the flock of tourists stroll up and down the Ramblas a few steps away.

8- the Beach:


How can you visit Barcelona without having a walk on the beach? Although not the best beaches I have seen on the Mediterranean coast, it is still nice to catch up with some friends, have a short walk on the white sand and sit in one of the many chilingitos (mini-bars) while enjoying some tapas and a cool glass of sangria!

9- Montserrat:


While not really IN Barcelona, Montserrat is located 40km outside the city but is a site worth visiting.

A Benedictine abbey built in the mountains, it is home of the famous “Black Virgin” of Spain.

One can only be impressed by those huge stone monoliths guarding the Basilica that only made me lose my jaw..


I did not have the time (or will) to stand for hours just to take a snapshot of the Virgin of Montserrat so I just went in the souvenir shop to see what it looked like. The black color of the skin comes from all the candles that have been burning around for years.


The whole place is also worth the walk and one can only feel a sense of peace while climbing up the mountain, following the yellow arrows that lead the way to Santiago de Compostella.


10- Just Barcelona:

Actually… To be honest… The way all those magnificent structures seem to blend in the city makes the whole of Barcelona a pleasure to be in.

It’s not only the structures but also the many details on buildings, benches, fountains, light poles make it a city where you cannot get bored.

Of course, not to forget the magical atmosphere and the friendliness of the spanish people.. Barcelona is truly a city to visit at least once in a lifetime and let it take you by the hand into a fantastic world of details and history.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

I am a Traveler, not a Tourist.

You may pack up and leave to a foreign country for some quality time alone or with a partner. You may follow a guidebook or join a tour to discover new places. You may sleep in a fancy hotel.

You can do whatever you want, but I insist on one thing… I am NOT a tourist. I am a traveler.

I travel to a foreign country, not to “relax” after a stressful year of work, but I travel to discover something new.

I travel outside my comfort zone, and put myself in unexpected situations instead of taking my own comfort bubble with me wherever I go.

I travel to learn about cultures, traditions. I travel to grow spiritually, to share, to teach.

I take my time, I WALK, I go slow instead of taking the bus tours that go too fast. I might get exhausted physically but I come back mentally recharged. It’s not about seeing a lot in a short time, it’s about immersing in.

I try to learn the language, at least a few sentences. I try to communicate with the locals to discover the places to be, instead of following guides or famous places. I try to show I care.

I am the guest, I respect the hosts and the place I am. I am not in a Disneyworld where I NEED to get what I paid for.

I eat with the locals in small restaurants, or in their home instead of searching for the big chains that offer me food I already know.

I carry the minimum with me, I take only what I need instead of huge luggage of unwanted and unneeded stuff. Less is more. 

I travel, I live the moment, I live my journey.

I break the barrier between the rich world and the locals.. I go where they go, I live what they live. How many Indians visited Taj Mahal? How many Peruvians climbed to Macchu Pichu?

I try to contribute into making the place better, I try to contribute into improving the condition of the people, into adding value to the place I am instead of making it a more appealing touristic place. I do not suck the soul of the place.

I appreciate what is offered to me, I am grateful instead of ordering or “wanting”.

I become a nomad, I melt in.

I become what humans always were.. travelers.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Just a day in Barcelona

Just like every morning for the past few days, a loud BANG awakens me around 6AM.

My Peruvian friend (who gladly offered me a bed to sleep on) has just left the old apartment, ready for a day’s work as a taxi driver in the streets of Barcelona.

I try to go back to my dreamland but all I manage to do is roll around in bed endlessly until I finally decide to get up and start my day.

Sitting in the poorly lit cold living room, I slowly munch my croissant with a cup of tea while observing the decoration around me. Family pictures stuck under colorful fantasy frames, crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary gathered in a corner silently returning my gaze under the dancing flame of a red candle, Peruvian puppets hanging on the walls gathering dust…  These all belong to the personal world of my friend I had met a few months ago on the Camino de Santiago. It’s his connection to his family, culture, tradition.

As I wash the dishes, I try to figure out what my plan is for this day. A quick peek at the window confirms that Barcelona is still refusing Autumn. It’s a bright sunny day! Will it be a walk on the beach with tapas and sangria? Or just being lazy reading a book in one of the many parks of this huge city?

I gather my notebooks and some reading material in my bag and grab the keys hanging next to the door. Time to enjoy the sunshine!

As I slowly walk down the stairs, I look at the time on my old mobile phone and notice the date. November already… Each step down suddenly feels like a descent in the depths of my past.

It was exactly two months ago when I left home, my job, my family and my friends to travel around the world as I wish. I was unhappy with the life I was living. It was superficial, materialistic and unexciting. I needed a big change, I needed to live my dreams and unite my passion of photography with my thirst of discovery and knowledge.

I prepared my travel plans and gathered all the money I could and saved for the past years to enjoy my trip without stressing out about financial issues.. at least for a few months.

It was a hard moment to face, leaving all my past life behind, as well as my comfort and family but the excitement about traveling overtook my anxiety and I finally left the country with no regrets, no looking back.

Since then, I had traveled in a few countries in Europe and walked for 900km in Spain, reaching Finisterra and back. And now I was left wondering where to go next, what to do? Money was running out fast as long as I stayed in Europe, I had to leave the continent or find an income.

As I open the door, a bright sunshine welcomes me in the busy street. It’s a perfect day to make decisions and plan my next step. As much as I am enjoying my time in Spain, I reminded myself that I wanted a Round-The-World trip and a big cultural difference.

Standing there for a few seconds, a Chinese shop caught my eye. With a smile I start walking towards the metro station. Everything is a sign: I am going to Asia soon.