Category Archives: Travel

Strangers like me: Meet 22-year-old Stephanie

This week’s edition of “The Strangers Like Me” is a Throwback Thursday of sorts. My friend Stephanie is here in Europe for two weeks to visit me. It had been nearly a year since I saw her last.

We were roommates last summer when we both interned in Nashville, Tenn. The rooms we subleased were Craigslist finds, so we didn’t even know each other’s names until she moved in just a couple of days after me. I was going through a tough time the first few weeks we were there, but her spirit lifted me right up.

We spent our days eating popsicles, watching all 10 seasons of “Friends” and going on musical adventures around town. It was one of the most beautiful summers of my life. It’s funny how such close friends all start out as strangers, and isn’t long before you realize they might be strangers, but they’re strangers like me.


Meet Stephanie from West Palm Beach, Fla.

Where’d I meet her? 
Nashville, Tenn.

Where else would she like to go?
“If time or money weren’t a thing? Space. The moon. ‘Cause why not?”

What’s the happiest day of her life?
“Have you ever heard the song ‘Ocean’ by John Butler Trio? It might sound weird to say this, but listen to the song, and you’ll understand. I saw them live when we were in Nashville, and he played it and I cried. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Especially since I had listened to it a million times beforehand, so hearing it live was incredible. That was the closest thing to magic I had ever seen in my life  I said that right after.”

What’s on her bucket list? 
She wants to finish getting her pilot’s license.

What’s the weirdest thing she’s ever done or experienced?
“So, it was the night that I hung out with those kids, Monday night. First of all, it was weird because I’m usually not the kind of person to walk up to people and say, ‘I’m going to hang out with you.’ They said, ‘Yeah OK, sit down.’ It was just the weirdest because it ended up being six complete strangers from all different parts of the world. We never ran out of things to talk about. At some point we found a guitar, and every time something happened, we started singing about it and just making up random lines …

It was weird in the best kind of way because they were the kind of people you know for five minutes and they would already respond very lovingly. Within a few hours, there was enough connection to hug each other by. It was just weird how quickly that can happen when you just really connect with people. I didn’t get their numbers. I didn’t get their names. It was literally just ‘OK, goodnight. I’ll never see you again.’ We’ll never have a reason to communicate again, but I enjoyed at the moment and it was like, ‘Have a nice life.’ I don’t know, it was weird.

I thought about trying to get their names or their numbers, but there was a mutual understanding that it would mess it up. It was perfect the way we left it.”

What’s one thing she wishes she could change about the world?
“I think it’s very broad but people’s priorities. I guess I just feel like people complicate things so much, including myself. If they do things that make them happy or do things that make other people happy, it would be so simple. If you want to go somewhere, just go. If you want to eat something, just eat it. If you want to dye your hair neon blue, just do it. No one else should care.”

Strangers like me: Meet 20-year-old Ana

Boy, did ever get to know the person I interviewed for this week’s installment of “The Strangers Like Me” well. We didn’t stay in the same hostel like the other people I typically interview. Nope, it was more like we slept on the street next to piles of trash, in an ATM vestibule and at a bus stop on a single night in Pamplona. Why? Despite both arriving three hours early to the station, we missed the same bus to Paris that ran from the Spanish town famous for the Running of the Bulls. (Blog post on that festival forthcoming.) That’s what happens when a bus station chooses not to post an up-to-date schedule of departures and hires unhelpful transportation officials.

With hostels all booked up and the bus station closing at midnight, we faced the harsh reality that we would be spending a night roughing it in the streets among all the drunken revelers partying until sunrise. Alone, I would’ve been petrified, but I was so glad to have Ana with me for this experience, having only met her after we both realized our bus left Pamplona without us.

We frantically booked a flight for the next day while in a bar blaring Jennifer Lopez at 2 a.m. We laughed hysterically about our exhaustion. We sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to ourselves — ironically, of course. But honestly, despite all headaches, what a wonderful place the world truly is that two strangers could lift each other up in a traveler’s worst-case-scenario situation. She might have been a stranger, but she was a stranger … like me. Here’s to hoping our paths cross again soon, Ana!


Meet Ana from Chicago, Ill.

Where’d I meet her?
Pamplona, Spain

Why she’s in Europe?
She’s doing a two-month research program in Madrid, and she was looking for a weekend adventure.

Where else would she like to go?
Somewhere to see the Aurora Borealis — the more exotic the location, the better.

Why does she believe schools should teach students more about empathy?
“It’s not as much as a focus, especially in America where it’s always you, the individual. You work as hard as you can, and it’ll be worth it in the end. I don’t think that the impact that people have on each other is really emphasized anywhere.”

What’s on her bucket list?
She wants to do a poetry slam and paint something large, abstract and colorful that could go on a wall.

What’s the weirdest thing she’s ever done?
“Once I went to the mall with my friend, and we were just having a really bad week. Everything was so hard, and we were like, ‘I just want to get out of here.’ So we went to the mall and went up to random people and asked them, ‘If you had a super power, what would it be?’ They had interesting responses. My favorite one was from a girl who said, ‘I would want to have all the candy in the world. That would be my super power.’ I was like, ‘Would you share it with people?’ And she was like, ‘Nope, no one can have candy except for me.'”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 22-year-old Catherine

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.


Meet Catherine from Yoshkarola, Russia

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling?
She just finished up studying abroad in Germany and chose to vacation in Spain. 

Where else would she most like to go?
England, both London and the countryside

What’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her?
Attending university in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is 24 hours away from her village by train. Though it’s been a challenge, it’s given her more career opportunities.

What’s on her bucket list?
“I know that it’s never happened, but I’ve always dreamed about some specific skills, like (learning how) to control wind. It’s like a fairy tale, a thing that’s never happened  but still, maybe.” (She also wants to go parachuting and visit famous world cities.)

Let her tell you about the first time she saw the ocean.

“Until I was 21 years old, I had never seen the ocean or swam in it. It was in Italy, and it was good weather, and everything was beautiful.”

“What did that feel like the first time you touched the water?”

“Ahh!” (Laughs.) “I can’t (name) this emotion, but it was, ‘Ahh!'”

El Colacho takes leap of faith in Spanish festival

When you ask 17-year-old Estafania Gonzalez about the time her parents laid her down on a mattress in the middle of the town square for a man dressed as the devil to jump over her, the details might get a little hazy.

“It was good although I can’t remember it because I was a baby,” she coolly tells me in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Maybe it’s for the best that she doesn’t. If it weren’t for the event’s holy Catholic ties, this could be the sort of thing that haunts you for years.

At the El Colacho festival in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, the discordant clanging of church bells overhead and a single foreboding drum can’t hush the wails of infants dressed in their laciest bonnets and softest onesies.

Parents tenderly coo and cradle, but not much can be done. What’s seen cannot be unseen. After more than seven hours of preparatory festivities leading up to the main event, the babies know what — or rather, who — is coming. It’s time for a dance with the devil.

El Colacho babies
All  participating babies are less than a year old but are wise and wary about what’s in store.

Getting myself into something

Prior to leaving for Europe, when curious friends asked me to rattle off the festivals I’m attending this summer, I’d always say something along the lines of, “Oh you know, Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina, a baby-jumping festival … ” I could never get farther in my list without first clarifying what I meant by “baby-jumping.”

“Like, a festival where a bunch of babies jump?” some would ask.

No, no sillies, that wouldn’t make much sense, now would it? Babies don’t have the motor skills for that.

I only confused them more when I went into further explanation. The only fact I could really offer up is that families in this tiny Spanish village cleanse their children of original sin and protect them against childhood illnesses by having a man dressed as the devil, or “El Colacho,” leap over them. The ceremony falls on the same week as their baptism.

To be honest, I didn’t know much more than that. For a festival that’s been around since 1621, not much information can be gleaned from the web aside from a sparse Wikipedia page and the same wire story.

With a population of about 300 people, Castrillo de Murcia isn’t exactly a happening place. There are no hotels, no markets. The village used to have a school when there were actually enough children who lived there. Nowadays, a book cart will occasionally pop by in the summer to provide some entertainment.

The village is located in northern Spain, about 19 miles away from Burgos as the crow flies. On Corpus Christi Sunday, the only ways to get there are by taxi or by rental car, the latter of which is out of the question for someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

Terrified of what I was getting myself into, I obsessively emailed the owner of my Burgos hostel asking if he had any tips about getting to the festival or knew of anyone else going.

Even he had never heard of it and only had so much advice to offer. “We can find you a taxi to get there, but don’t forget you’ll need to get back,” he wrote.

(I envisioned El Colacho to be a testament to my capabilities as a solo-traveler. If I could make to and from Castrillo de Murcia alive, I could survive anywhere else.)

Of course, the hostel owner didn’t know of anyone else going either. That is until an Italian photographer, who was also staying in my hostel, said he was going, too.

I was relieved to have company for the day and not to be slapped with an $136 cab fare for a round-trip ride. I learned later we’d be among only a dozen or so other non-Spaniards attending the event.

From the moment we arrived to the town, I felt as though my presence was a surprise to locals. Wearing jeans, Nike sneakers and mammoth of a camera bag strapped across my body, I clearly didn’t know what I’m getting myself into.

But I don’t have much time to be self-conscious about my laughably textbook American appearance. As black birds loom overhead, I begin to hear the beat of single drum, its pulse stirring whoever could hear it into frantic shuffle out of its way.

Then, a canary yellow figure appears. Its mask features a menacing black smile, furrowed brow and two red circles dotting the cheeks. He has no eyes and holds a whip in his hands. I swear I’ve seen this guy in a nightmare before.

It’s 11:30 a.m. and El Colacho and La Cofradía, or the church’s black-cloaked brotherhood, make one of the first of many saunters around the village.

El Colacho lunges forth,  repetitively swatting at those who taunt where it hurts most, and he does not care if takes out a few openly fearful and innocent bystanders either.

Wise village elders scatter out of the way.

Local teenagers with their surging testosterone linger a little longer, pushing their luck and El Colacho’s patience.

“El Colacho está boracho,” they shout, playfully accusing the masked figure of being drunk.

As for me, I just run.

But American Amy de la Fuente, whose husband is originally from the village, tells me the taunts are all a part of the fun. She took me under her wing after spotting my reusable water bottle, very American.

“There are certain chants they will say, so basically it’s kind of like, ‘Na-na-nana-nah, you can’t get me,'” de la Fuente says, who lives in Chicago, Ill. but visits Spain with her family every year.

“You see how close you can dance to him and how fast you can run away before he gets you.”

Taunting the devil
El Colacho spares no one from his whip. Those who tease get especially harsh lashings.

A family affair

As a fellow American, I’m fascinated by de la Fuente’s love for the festival. When her children, now 11 and 9, were babies, she made it very clear to her husband that she, too, wanted them to be jumped by El Colacho.

De la Fuente said the festival provides her the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself. She believes traditions can sometimes get watered down in the United States.

“I feel like with my heritage, I didn’t grow up with my mom’s side of the family, so when we went to visit, there were things that we did. But because we didn’t visit all the time, it was just occasional,” she says.

“And with my dad’s side of the family, there wasn’t really any tradition.”

Was she scared before El Colacho jumped over her children? A tiny bit, but her husband’s aunts reassured her that no baby had been injured in all of its history.

In fact, everyone I asked about injuries at the festival was proud to reiterate that fact.

“No, nunca ha pasado.”


“No, nunca.”

When I’ve mentioned the festival to those who have never heard of it, they sometimes have scoffed at the seemingly reckless disregard for health and safety regulations.

In recent years, even Pope Benedict XIV has encouraged Spanish Catholic leaders to not become involved with the festival.

But to those who have been partaking for years, the day’s rituals still hold deeply religious meaning entrenched in greater family bonds.

Estephania Gonzalez’s younger brother, 16-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, is finally getting his chance to play devil, a goal held among many of the younger local boys.

It’s his first year dressing up as El Colacho, and he can’t wipe the smile off his face now that he’s among a rank of men wearing the notorious yellow mask.

Carlos Gonzalez
The opportunity to become El Colacho is a privilege granted by La Cofradía of the church.

Though he can’t jump over the babies until he’s older, he seems content enough running about the streets in a deviant manner while whipping revelers with his hand broom. And he’s is learning what it takes to be a good Colacho, if there can be such a thing:

“Well, he is tall, fast and drinks lots of milk.”

He just has to look to those born before him if he’s in need of pointers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have played the role as El Colacho, his mother, Marife Gonzalez, says.

In many ways, I begin to feel as though I’m a part of the Gonzalez family, the de la Fuente family and all the families I speak with.

After learning that I only brought a bag of peanuts to satiate my growling stomach, Amy de la Fuente invites me into her father-in-law’s home to make me a sandwich.

Though I’m sure she would say a croissant filled with cold cuts and cheese is nothing, it’s the closest I’ve gotten to home-cooked meal in the five weeks I’ve been traveling. In this moment, it tastes like the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

And as my tongue messily fumbles over my interview questions, those I converse with in Spanish with answered me with a great amount of patience despite the language barrier.

El salto

Following the day’s earlier pageantry and church service, the village settles down for a mid-afternoon siesta, and I retreat to the fleeting shade to wait three hours for the festivities to continue.

All at once, Castrillo de Murcia springs to life again as women hang their finest linens outside their balconies and adorn them with roses. Originally a pagan festival, the people have sought to make it a more consecrated, Catholic one.

Four mattresses dressed in pastel sheets appear in the town square, and the crowd is abuzz with excitement. Soon, the babies are set in their places. They can wiggle all they want, but they won’t get far.

After taking pictures with their children to commemorate the moment, parents retreat to the sidelines with the exception of a couple of mothers who can’t will their bodies to leave the bedside of their babies.

After another few beats of a drum, quiet falls over the crowd. Before your mind can process that the jump, known as “El salto,” is about to happen, it does.

Two colachos this time take running leaps from the staircase descending from the churchyard, heading right towards the babies. Their sneakers, a blur against the pavement. Their masks, off  thank God.

It is believed that as the colachos make mighty leap after leap, so do the evil spirits from the souls of the babies.

In order to be eligible to jump, the men must be from the village himself or married to a woman from the village.
In order to jump, the man must be from the village or married to a woman from the village.

There aren’t any gasps from the crowd, only cheers with every successful jump. Within seconds, it’s over. Make that 393 years without an injury. To anyone who comes to this festival year after year, it comes as no surprise.

Girls recently confirmed into the church throw petals over the babies, and the priest blesses each of them.

To the American eye, the festival seems strange, yes. But for the people of Castrillo de Murcia, El Colacho is just a day in the life,  a day that recognizes just how fleeting, sacred — and yes, odd — this very life can be.



Strangers Like Me: Meet 24-year-old Maryam

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me,” but this week comes with a twist. I’ve met so many interesting people in Barcelona, so choosing a person to profile was a challenge. But as it turns out, serendipity had a very specific person in mind I should interview.

On Wednesday, my friend Gabriella and I trekked up to Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical dream of a place, Parc Güel, where we met Maryam, a dental student at the University of Pittsburgh. Due to some ticketing issues and time constraints, Gabriella and I couldn’t actually go inside the main part of the park. (No worries, we’re saving it for another day.) This meant we had to quickly bid farewell to our new friend after only having met her just moments before.

A few hours and a couple of pit stops later, I found myself getting off at the same Metro stop as Maryam on the way back to my hostel! For city with 1.62 million people with a big tourist pull, what are the chances?

Now generally, I only interview the strangers-turned-friends I meet in hostels, but rules are meant to be broken. Afterall, Maryam is traveler too and a pretty cool one at that. We both came from somewhere and we’re both going somewhere. She might have been a stranger. But then I realized she’s a stranger … like me.


Meet Maryam from Dallas, Texas

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
Having just finished up her second year of dental school, she doesn’t get a lot of free time. Now that she’s on a month-long break, the longest she’s had in a while, Maryam decided to travel all over Europe instead of returning home to Texas.

Where else would she most like to go?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Where is she happiest?
“I don’t think it’s like actually a place that I’m happiest. It’s more like the people around me and the things that I’m doing that make me really happy. When I was younger, my home, Dallas, used to be my happiest place ever, but then I moved around and  went to college, and I went to grad school. Everywhere I go and the people I meet, that becomes my new happy place, if that makes sense. My happy place is really anywhere that I’m happy.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Well, I feel like people’s bucket lists are huge things like skydiving, which is also on (my) list and ziplining. I want to zipline in a really amazing, beautiful place. But another thing that is small but I really want to do  because I’ve always lived in big cities  I want go somewhere where there are no lights and stargaze. I just want to spend the whole night stargazing because I love stars and I never get to see them that well at night. It’s so small, but I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Let her tell you about her family’s unlucky luggage.
“Well, this doesn’t happen to me anymore, but I’ve been traveling since I was younger to Pakistan because my grandma and my other family lives there and other places. Every time we would travel, every single time, our luggage would get lost. No matter what. We plan for it, like, ‘Our luggage is going to get lost.’ Every time I travel with my mom and my brother together as a family, our luggage gets lost.”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 28-year-old Heejung

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Meet Heejung from Seoul, South Korea

Where’d I meet her?
Seville, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
She’s taking a break from monotony of work to travel Europe.

Where does she find happiness?
“Turkey  the town is Kas  it’s on the seaside. The reason is, I met my Turkish boyfriend there one month ago, and l loved it so much.”

What makes her happy?
“I love to see the natural places, not the city. I love the natural places, the trees, the mountains, the seaside. It’s so strange because happiness, it’s so small. So like, you give me some chocolate, and it makes me so happy. I think happiness is so small, so I can find happiness always.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Actually, I didn’t write a bucket list, but I’m always doing a year plan, just for the year. This year my plan changed because I met my boyfriend in Turkey. So, I’ll come back to Korea, and maybe I’ll come back to Turkey again and stay there.”

Let her tell you about her couchsurfing miscommunication.
“I’m a couchsurfer, so in Tatvan, Turkey, I stayed in my friend’s home, and my friend has a flatmate, so there are two boys living there. One of the boys, he can’t speak English, so we met in Burger King together, and the host can speak English. The friend wanted to talk to me, and he (tried to tell) me, “Let’s go.” He is not good at speaking English, so he (accidentally) told me to get out. It was funny. He’s a good person  it’s just that he can’t speak English.”

Photo Gallery: Symmetry and sunburns in Seville

After nearly three weeks in the United Kingdom, I continued my journey to Spain, where I’ll be staying for about a month. My first stop? Hot, hot Seville. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees the first few days I was there, making me feel like I was right back in the South.

Even better, I kept recognizing familiar faces of other travelers in the city’s quaint streets where everyone strolls at a slower pace. I wish the same could be said about the way Sevillianos talk, but alas, my ears were given a major workout trying to understand the Spanish spoken by quick Andalusian tongues.

Despite some messy miscommunications, I loved it all. Pay a visit. But first, check out my favorite pictures from the trip:

Your best night’s sleep in a hostel (Yes, really!)

Between the bunkmate who’s snoring so loudly it sounds like she’s trying to pass an elephant through her nostril to the drunken bunch celebrating a World Cup win outside your window, it can be hard to feel rested while staying in hostels. Follow these tips, and learn how getting a good night’s sleep is actually quite eas—zzzzz.

Knock yourself out. Pack your days full of activities and walking. Make yourself so tired that by the time your head hits the pillow, you feel as if you can’t keep your eyes open any longer. By the time your noisy roommate returns, you’ll already be a couple sleep cycles in to not even notice.

Invest in a quality eye mask and ear plugs. No, not the ones from the plane. Cheap foam earplugs can fall out easily, and you don’t want an eye mask that’s so thin you can still tell there’s light shining through it. I suggest REI’s cushioned eye mask and ear plug set. The mask has an adjustable strap and feels like a cloud is snuggling the heck out of your face. The ear buds are a dream, too.

Opt for a smaller room. Fewer roommates mean fewer interruptions. But when your wallet just can’t swing for a smaller, more expensive room at every hostel, designate just a few nights here and there when you treat yourself to a smaller room to catch up on sleep.

Create your own privacy curtain. Privacy curtains are a luxury in the hostel world, but if they don’t come standard at your place, no worries. Go for a bottom bunk, and drape your bath towel overhead of your bed. Voilà! Instant darkness and a chance for your perpetually damp towel to finally dry.

Strangers Like Me: Meet 19-year-old Fergus

Happy Thursday! I’m rolling out a new weekly segment that features (just some of) the interesting people I meet during my European travels. Though it might not have the same photographic merit, think of it as an international version of “Humans of New York” that focuses specifically on people’s bucket lists and their definition of happiness.

By attending and writing about cultural festivals, you get to learn a lot about what locals value in life, but those traveling among you have just as interesting of stories to tell. That’s why, for now, this segment will solely focus on the people I meet in hostels.

Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.


Meet Fergus from Christchurch, New Zealand

Where’d I meet him?
London, United Kingdom

Why is he traveling? 
He’s taking a gap year and volunteering on a farm in France.

Where else does he want to go? 
Athens, Greece and Iceland to see the Northern Lights.

What was the happiest day of his life? 
“Probably in Queenstown, and it was like two days before New Year’s. We rented out this huge house, like a holiday home. Me and this guy were skating down this huge hill, and I broke my arm, which sucked. But it was still one of the best days of my life because we were just hanging out and going to the hospital. We were drinking, obviously, like a little, not too much. I don’t know, it was just such a good day because we were just hanging out and being carefree, I guess.”

What does he want to do before he dies?
“Skydive, 100 percent. I want to swim with a great white shark and dolphins and a manta ray, like a really big manta ray. I want to go to all seven continents. If I could visit every single country, (I would), but definitely all seven continents. I want to live in Asia with the people there.”

Let him tell you about his milkshake tattoo. 
“Me and my friend were going to go get some money out from some ATM, and then we start walking there. Because I’m in Bali, people just come up to you on the street like, ‘Come to my store, come to my store.’ People hand out business cards, and (a man) gave us his business card and around the back it said ‘tattoo.’ We were talking about tattoos, and we were like ‘F–k, we should get tattoos.’ So we ended up walking down this back alley, which seemed a little bit dodgy, to this tattoo studio, and it was called ‘Panda’s Tattoos.’ So this Indonesian guy at the Panda was like, ‘What do you want done? I’ll do whatever you want.’ So we started drawing, and obviously I drew a milkshake or a doughnut, and then I flipped a coin, and it was a milkshake.”

Photo Gallery: Tales from Morocco’s blue cities

There are cities that look great in every tourist’s photos, and then there are cities so beautiful that no photo, no matter how expertly taken, could do a justice. After visiting Morocco this weekend, I feel the country’s emblematically blue cities of Chefchaouen and Asilah are a lot like that.

As Americans we hear a lot about Islamic countries, how frightening and different they can be, but we rarely experience them for ourselves. While I did feel a bit of culture shock while visiting, many of the Moroccans I met were wonderful, complex and kind.

I’m thankful that they shared a bit of their hometowns’ beauty with me, and I only wish I had more time to get to know them better. There’s always next time, I suppose. Here are a few of my favorite photos from my adventures: