5 Tips for the 20-something traveler from the Veteran Traveler.


Yesterday was my 30th birthday.   I decided a few weeks ago to spend my 30th birthday in Portugal and Spain. Portugal was country number 35 which blew my goal of  visiting 30 countries by 30 out of the water!

Anyway, I am having a fabulous 30th birthday trip but  I also keep noticing that the other “world travelers” suddenly seem impossibly young.

I watched a shiny new group of travelers at the airport earlier this week.  A few years ago I might have joined in on their political discussion or accompanied them on a adventure to see a kid named Zven jump off a cliff.   However, as I listened and watched I was suddenly and acutely aware that I no longer fall into the category of 20-something hostel going, dreadlock donning, backpack toting traveler.

That was me for a time (minus the dreadlocks).   I did that. I was that. I had the unbelievable fortune of spending a large portion of my 20’s traveling the world. I visited 35 countries, countless cities, numerous landmarks, and have had a lifetime worth of experiences to show for it.

And while I will never stop traveling, my traveling looks different now. I have traded in the hostels for comfortable and cozy Airbnbs. I wear adult clothing, shower regularly, and do not have to worry if a girl named Forest is going to use my toothbrush in the community bathroom. I have traded in my flip flops for professional looking flats and the awkward heavy backpack for sensible rolling luggage.

So, Instead of being the crazy old lady trying to fit in with the cool kids at the airport, I sit back and listen to them with a wise knowing smile.   I let them have their youthful moment. My time has passed.

I smile as I watch them go on their way to learn whatever they are going to learn on this adventure.   I am glad that I got to experience that in my 20’s and thankful for the lessons I have learned now that I am in my 30’s.  

I have learned so much about travel and life and myself in this past decade. I may no longer be a cool youthful traveler, but I now have a new role. I am the wise sagely veteran of the trade and I have some tips for the 20 something Travelers.

My top 5 Tips for the 20-year old traveler.

#1  You don’t have to use a backpack to go “backpacking” through Europe.

Ok. I know that the backpacks with all of the patches look cool. I know that they make you feel like you are a down to earth, granola eating, world loving globetrotter. I know that they differentiate you from the retired couples who are on their 5th Viking Cruise through Europe. But lets face it. Giant backpacks are TERRIBLE. They are big and bulky and painful.  Basically they are THE WORST.  And they make it difficult (nay… sometimes impossible) to move around the tiny little European shops/ hotels/ restaurants.

Not only are they torture devices designed to leave permanent indents on your shoulders, they are also black holes that swallow up your belongings. In fact packing a backpack always has the following stages:

  1. Painstakingly spend 20- 40 minutes Rolling/smashing your belongings inside the backpack and tucking everything into all the little compartments and side pockets to “save space”
  2. Realize you packed something you currently need
  3. Spend the next 10 minutes groping around in search for said item in the unending abyss that is a travel backpack
  4. Empty entire contents of backpack onto the floor around you
  5. Locate said item only to discover that it is irrevocably wrinkled
  6. Repeat Process

And there really is no need for this painful and frustrating luggage system. Unless you are hiking, or camping, or walking El Camino de Santiago, there is not a reason to tote all of your possessions on your back like a pack mule.  All cities and even all little towns have sidewalks or roads that can be used to easily roll your bag to your hostel/ hotel/ airbnb and leave it there.

Use a small carryon sized roller and It stays perfectly controlled at your side the whole time! Long gone are the days where you have to make sure you don’t knock over a display with the 40-pound growth on your back.

Now that I am older and wiser and use rolling luggage I am so much happier and less encumbered with my stuff. Not once since my conversion to the church of the rolling luggage have I thought….Gee….I really wish I could hoist up this bag and carry it on my back right now.  I am certain there are no actual benefits to the travel Backpack. Take it from the old 30 year old traveler-Rolling Luggage is the way to go. It may not be as cool, but it is definitely more liberating and so much better for your back.

#2: Leave the fancy camera at home

Unless you are Ansel Adams, leave the fancy cameras at home. They are big. They are bulky.   And they are expensive.   Therefore they make you paranoid, encumbered and nervous. They are also literally a giant “I’m a tourist Sign” you wear around your neck.  

Also, because you have to actually download the pictures onto a computer before you can share them, they often stay on the camera during and oftentimes even after the trip. I have discovered that I never end up doing anything with my “Fancy pictures” and I often regret not having the photos on my phone. No one wants to wait until they get home to post photos. It is more fun to post as you go.

And honestly most of us are not trained to use the manual cameras properly anyway.   So, unless you really know what you are doing and are in fact going to do something with the fancy pictures, leave the big bulky cameras at home. Blend in with the locals and just use your phone.

#3 Don’t get an international phone plan. Be present!


Use your phone to take your pictures, but that is it!   Instead keep your head up, your eyes open and your heart ready to learn and grow.   I have never gotten international phone services. Wifi is so available and prevalent there really isn’t a need to pay for an international plan.  And really, as long as you can find Wifi at least once a day- that is all you need.  The rest of the time just live in the moment!

There are times international data would be helpful, but honestly, it is much more fun and novel to be unplugged. Perhaps one of the reasons I love traveling internationally is due to the fact that when I travel I am completely unconnected. I’m not constantly checking my phone for emails or updates or likes or new posts. I am truly and completely present in the moment.   I am only concerned with the here and now.

Plus going “unplugged” has forced me to become skilled at map reading and navigation. I am not typically the most observant person. I don’t often notice the mundane and I don’t pay attention to my surroundings unless forced. When I travel without a phone or GPS to guide me I have to notice everything or I would be lost.   And sometimes I do get lost….and that is ok too! Some of the best things on my travels have come from being lost!

You don’t have to have all of the answers. Sometimes the struggle and the wondering and the figuring it out on your own is part of the journey.  So, keep your eyes up off your phone.  Stay unplugged and learn to rely on your own intellect, not Siri’s.

#4 Talk to Strangers


Everyone is put in your path for a reason. The best thing you can do while traveling is talk to those around you. You never know what friendships may be forged, what advice may be given or what help may be offered.   I can’t tell you how many blessings have come from talking to random strangers on my travels.

Years of traveling alone had done much to improve my deftness of making a certain type of acquaintance I categorize as “stranger friends”.   These are random people I have met on my travels. These friendships are sometimes fleeting in length but essential and no less true than the ones formed in more traditional settings and with more natural tenures.   And sometimes these friendships have foraged into lasting real life friendships.

I am so thankful for the friends God has sent me during my many journeys. These friends provided me comfort and companionship when I needed them most.  And sometimes they provided just the assistance and guidance I desperately needed at just the right moment.

For example, Last night I was alone on my 30th birthday.  Yet, in line for drinks on a rooftop bar in Madrid I met another solo traveler.  She and I started talking and roaming the city together.   We shared a meal and even later on a birthday churro!  We had a lovely time. It all started because I turned around and started talking to her.  Even if you travel alone, you never have to be alone if you don’t want to. 

You travel to learn about the world, and meeting random people is the best way to learn and grow!  You never know what truths they can speak into your life-or what truth you are meant to speak into theirs.  God sends them to you for a reason.   

I have had many stranger friends show up in my life right when I needed them most.  You just have to have the courage to look around and talk to people.  And while the names of many of these stranger friends escape my memory, their phantom faces often flash across my mind.   I wish them well, I thank them for the kindness they showed this random traveler and I thank God for sending them to me.


#5 Go for it!  Don’t be afraid to spend your money.  

Let me preface this with saying that you should NEVER go into debt to travel. I have never been in debt because of my travel purchases or decisions. I have lived frugally and have learned how to creatively travel on a teachers salary. In fact out check out my blog on how to travel extensively on a teacher salary.   I save fiercely for travel, but once I’m abroad I have learned to not be afraid of spending it.

I learned my lesson early on in my travels that it is better to spend your money on the experiences in front of you than to hoard your money and leave with regrets. I call this the Gondola mistake.

The first country I traveled to independently was Italy. Venice was the first city I visited and I didn’t take a gondola ride. The ride would have cost me 40 Euros. I had 40 Euros. I just thought that was too expensive and I didn’t want to waste the money. Looking back now, this seems laughable to me.  I was in Venice and I didn’t go on a gondola ride! Really?!  For what?  Something as common as money?

40 Euros? I’m sad to admit that I have spent that much on a big brunch before.   I would not have missed those 40 Euros for one second. Money has come and gone since then. What has stayed was the regret of missing out on a lifetime experience for fear of spending too much money. I now have a desire to revisit Venice in order to have a gondola ride in Venice Italy.   And it will most certainly cost me more than 40 Euros to revisit the city.

You see, this experience taught me that sometimes things are expensive when you travel. But if you are there you might as well do and experience what you came there to do. (Within reason).

I often ask myself if my decision to buy or not buy passes the gondola test.  First I make sure I have the money.  Remember- Never go into debt for travel.   Then I ask myself, will I get home and regret that I didn’t spend the money. Will I feel the need to return to do this experience in the future? Will I spend more money on a return trip than just doing said activity now?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions I go for it. I spend the money, because money can be regained. Experiences, once lost, are lost forever. I will never again be able to feel the joy of taking a gondola ride in Venice on my fist day in Italy on my first international trip.   So, my advice to the 20 something traveler- Just go for it!  You have my permission.   Open your heart and eyes for any new or interesting experience and live your life as fully as possible. 

The world is so full and so interesting!  Take it from the seasoned traveler- The world is an amazing place if you just have the courage to step out your door and look!






Sevilla: The Soul of Spain

IMG_3031     The air smelled of oranges, the heat radiated spices and the very ground seemed to vibrate with the music and rhythmic stomps of a 500 year old Flamenco tradition.  Everywhere you looked you could taste the culture and feel the intensity of this city.  Madrid may be the life giving sustaining heart of Spain, but Sevilla….Sevilla is the soul.


IMG_3289Just like the powerful Flamenco dance, Sevilla is a city that captivates you with its intense passion, mysterious sadness and old secrets.  Like any exotic temptress, its the mystery that draws you in.  You suddenly have a deep desire to expose the stories behind those soulful sorrowful eyes.   As you navigate the labyrinth of ancient streets, dark alleys, and ornate plazas that comprise the beloved Barrio De Santa Cruz district you can’t help but be captivated by this city and wonder at her past.  Every corner you turn there is another chapel, mosque, synagog or cathedral that exposes a new layer, yet gives no answer to the city’s enigmatic charm.


There is also a beautiful story of intricate Moorish architecture and artistry.  The city is mysterious, yes, but it it is also beautiful and full of flavor, color and life.  I had the best mojito of my life on a rooftop bar overlooking the gorgeous and enormous (3rd largest in the world) Cathedral de Sevilla.  I stood in awe of the  lavish rooms,  decadent court yards and exotic gardens of the Moorish Palace Real Alcázar.  I have visited several fascinating places but this palace built in the 14th century one was one that truly left me speechless.  It was unlike anything I had every experienced before.  I had no words to describe the paradise that I had entered with its intricate maze of gardens and ponds and palm trees.   I had no idea that such a place like this  could exist in real life.

IMG_3197  IMG_3064I didn’t really have a plan of action as I wondered the city of Sevilla.  Like most of my travels I just set out aimlessly to see what I would see.  On my way to a city park I stumbled upon the Plaza De Espania and I instantly knew I had just discovered the best jewel of the city.   This larger than life plaza became my favorite spot in all of Spain.  This colorful courtyard  was built for celebration!   It was a magnificent square that was specifically designed to showcase Spain in 1929 world fair and it brings to life the beauty of Spain and its unique culture.  It too is among the top of my favorite spots to visit in the world.  And between you and me, that is saying something.   IMG_2935

Sevilla is one of my all time favorite cities.  It has so much to offer and so much to give.  Every corner you turn there is something new to see and discover.  It has such a rich history and is simply dripping in culture.  I loved every second of my trip.  I will never forget exploring the vibrant bustling night scene which literally ended with fireworks.  My heart is still recovering from watching a powerful performance of a real flamenco expert.  Her intense performance had so much intensity and soul I couldn’t help but feel her pain and heartache she stomped and moved passionately across the stage.  Her emotions were so vivid and real that the audience truly felt them with her as she expressed them in dance.  I still wish I could accurately capture the larger than life architecture sprinkled amongst the palm trees throughout the city.  If you want to truly know Spain and her beauty, life, heartache, and mysterious charm you must visit Sevilla.  Only there can you truly get to know the depth of her character and soul.


2013: A year of Adventures


The first of the year always brings with it reflections of the previous year.  I started to get down on myself for not accomplishing everything on my lofty “to do” list for the year.  I may not have lost the weight I wanted, wrote a book, or learned a new language…but as I reflect on the things I did accomplish I realized it might not have been as unproductive as I originally thought.  It turns out I had quite the year!

Things I Accomplished in 2013




1)  I finished my Master’s Degree and Graduated from Purdue University, ( I ran a race the day after I finished my degree.)


2)  I ran a two 5k races, two 10k races and my second 1/2 marathon!   13.1 Miles!


IMG_29923)  I returned to Spain….and it was even more beautiful and meaningful than the first visit. I visited my favorite parts of Madrid and we were reunited like the old dear friends that we are.  I also had the chance to make “New Friends” of the enigmatic Granada, the majestic Alhambra, and the leisurely Mallorca.  Most importantly, God spoke directly to me during this return pilgrimage to Spain, and I learned how to Abide in His love and through that, my joy was made complete.  This return to Spain last April was one of the most spiritually rewarding experiences of my life.  I will always treasure this trip, as I will always treasure Spain.


4)  2013 will be the year that I lived with my brother.  We shared an apartment this year and on top of being the best brother anyone could ask for, he has also been a great roommate! I respect and admire him so much for the incredible man he is. it has been great fun living together!   I will be forever grateful for the this time we spent together here at Ashley Place.  Derrek is more than my brother, he is one of my best friends.


5)  I attended my first professional soccer game… a Quarter final championship league game at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium in Madrid.  I  wanted to go but I couldn’t afford even the cheap tickets.  However, God provided above and beyond my expectations!  He took the opportunity to show off and I was GIVEN 14th row VIP tickets!  It was an incredible once-in a lifetime experience!



6) I was awarded the Lilly Grant witch funded my summer research trip to Asia. I planed and organized this massive 2 month expedition.  I found the schools, teachers, and translators necessary to complete my research, as well as plan all the travels, get my visas, and arrange all my 19 different flights.  It was a massive undertaking that included 15 different cities.  In two months I didn’t spend more than three nights in a row in the same bed. A large part of my year was dedicated to planning and implementing this project, but I learned so much about the Asian academic systems and the unique Asian Culture.   This trip also allowed me to add seven new countries to my map which include; Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, China, South Korea, and Japan.  It even extended my total country count to 25!  (I only have 5 more to go in my whole “Thirty before I’m Thirty” plan!)


7)  It has been an amazing year of adventurous firsts! I walked the great wall of China and I explored the ancient temple complexes in the Cambodian Jungle.  I got a real Thai massage in Thailand. I navigated seas off the coast of Phuket in my Cave Canoeing adventure.  I rode (and fell in love with) an elephant named “Sabo”. I saw the most beautiful orchids in the world at the Singapore Botanical gardens and I journaled in front of my hotel room window that displayed the mighty Petronas towers of Kuala Lumpur.  I saw an epic light show dance across the Hong Kong Skyline,  I stood in attention with the ancient Terra-cotta warriors of Xi’An,  I explored the streets of old Beijing, ran to the birds nest and visited a real silk factory.  I attended both a dumpling feast and a tea ceremony.  I sailed down the river Li and witnessed its glorious 20,000 peaks!  I met the kindest people I will ever know in a South Korean coffee shop.  I ate a black egg that had been boiled underground in the sulfuric waters under Mt Fuji.  I attended a festival in Kyoto, saw the Golden Pavilion, stayed in a traditional Japanese Ryokan (inn) by the sea where I slept on mats on the floor and bathed in (public) natural hot springs.  I also visited a real Ninja House!




8)  I also dated someone for the first time…it turns out I am not really good at that sort of thing. I really prefer my independence it seems.  However, it was a great learning experience and I am glad that I went on my first real date in 2013…..finally!

9)  I had a student teacher teach in my classroom. (I know! When did I become old enough to be the one imparting wisdom to future teachers?!)   I did not enjoy this experience as much as I had expected as it was more difficult for me to give up control of my classroom than I had anticipated.  Maybe there is a theme here and in 2014 I should work on being less independent and more collaborative.

10)  This year I also took a chance and applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in Finland.  This is perhaps the biggest adventure I have dared to pursue.  It would mean me leaving my teaching position in Westfield for a few months to head to the Nordic Country of Finland for a 4-5 month research project.  I will not know until April if I will be accepted into the prestigious Fulbright community, but I put myself out there and dared to dream.  Who knows what the next year will bring, but I think I can content that 2013 was an amazing year.       Image

HERE is to another great Year!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Redeeming Love


Last month I returned to Spain.  I had not traveled for a few months and I was getting restless.   I mistook these feelings of restlessness as a superficial need to satiate the little bug inside that feeds on travel and adventure.  This human weakness might have contributed to this building desire, but I now believe there were more powerful forces at work.

God needed to talk to me.  He needed me to truly stop and listen.   And He, being my creator and God, knows my heart better than anyone else.  He knew that during this particular journey my heart would be most readily available and my ears would be more receptive to His message.   This is often the case when I travel and perhaps why I pursue it so fervently.    I am not usually the type to be silent or still.  My life is always in a constant state of movement and I am very rarely alone.  I flutter from one social gathering to the next.  As a true extrovert, I gain energy from being in the presence of others and have several different groups of friends that appease my need for social interaction.  However, when I travel, I find myself alone for hours on end; at airports,  around cities, parks, beaches, forests, ect.   Don’t get me wrong, I have become quite an expert at finding “stranger friends” to talk to along the way.  These friends are always blessings sent by God to teach me and quench my need for human interaction, but on the whole my travel experiences force me into a mindset of  introspection.  When I travel, I truly slow down.  I truly listen; to myself, to my heart and to my God.  I am silent and still and my heart is in a state of constant gratitude and worship.  This provides the perfect platform for God to teach and mold me.

This particular trip my soul was in perfect communion with God.  I finally began to understand something He has been trying to teach me my whole life.  The completeness of His perfect love.   I have always had a hard time understanding unconditional love.  When people meet me it doesn’t take them long to recognize that I am habitually apologetic…..I’m sorry.   This stems from my unconscious fear of doing something wrong to loose peoples love.  Now multiply that fear by a million and you can understand my inability to understand why a perfect God could love someone as imperfect as me.  I have never truly believed that I was acceptable in His sight.  I believed in the forgiveness I earned from the death of Jesus but I never truly understood the completeness of that forgiveness.  If I am being honest I have always seen God as someone who merely tolerated me.  I could not picture God’s love for me as it is described in the Bible….the kind of love a groom feels for his bride or a father feels for his child.    However on this trip God opened my heart and showed me the power of his amazing grace and redeeming love.

God used several mediums to explain this love to me during this trip to Spain and  proved his love through several blessings.  One powerful tool was the book “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers.  I very rarely take books with me when I travel as I don’t often have time for them.  This time I made an exception and I started reading this book on the 5 hour buss ride from Madrid to Granada.  This fictional book is an allegory of the Biblical story of Gomer and Hosea which is in and of itself an allegory of God and His people.  The novel tells the story of a righteous and Godly man who rescues and marries a prostitute.  The prostitute cannot understand his forgiving love and kindness and runs away from him to rejoin a life of prostitution….THREE TIMES!!  Throughout the book it is so evident the love the man has for his wife and how deeply her desertion hurts him.  The reader feels so confused…why would she run away from such perfect and complete love?  Doesn’t she see that He really does love her and that she is the only one who won’t forgive her past and move on?  Why is she wasting her life listening to lies of  her worthlessness while the Author of Truth is screaming promises of love, forgiveness and redemption?    This truly is a powerful novel and I highly recommend it to any woman who sometimes struggles with understanding God’s love.

This book started an amazing dialog between God and myself during my stay in Spain early this April. I, like the woman in the novel, never felt fully accepted by God.  I never believed I deserved God’s love.  However this book helped me understand the foundational and most liberating truth.  I was right.  I don’t deserve God’s love.  I am a sinner and what I deserve is death.  But God loves me anyway!  This is the life changing earth shaking Truth with a capital T!  It is the one that Satan tries so hard to conceal!  He makes us feel inadequate and like we have to earn God’s love….which is impossible and therefore fuels our feelings of inadequacy.   The truth is there is NOTHING we can do to earn it.   It is given freely and completely.  That is the beauty of the gospel.  It has the power to turn a hopeless story of sin and its consequences into a story of perfect and merciful redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

This trip to Spain was truly a love story between me and God.  The entire week I remained in His love and my joy was made complete just as Jesus promises us in John 15: 9.  There were times I thought my heart would explode for the joy and love I felt.  There were times when I could not contain the worship in my soul and I wept.  I wept  in Retiro Park when I realized all of the amazing ways God had taken the hopeless situations of this past year and turned them into demonstrations of His glory and love.  I wept when God used a painting at the Thyssen-bornemisza Art Museum to speak directly and clearly the promises of my future.  I learned how to abide in His Love and God poured His blessings like rain on my life and my soul.  With joy, rather than condemnation, I began to understand what only a truly redeemed sinner can.  In a spirit of continual worship my heart  happily sang  “I don’t deserve this love or these blessings” and God’s quiet, constant and graceful response was the same “I know, but I love you anyway.”

Wandering in Madrid

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 6.22.32 PMMost of my days in Spain were spent aimlessly wandering around the streets of Madrid.  I liked living in a big bustling city.  Everyone always had somewhere to go, see and do….but not me.  I just sat, watched and walked.  I walked from Plaza to Plaza, bistro to bistro, and museo to museo.  I ate more olives (aceitunas) than one could possibly count.  Green olives, red olives, black olives, reddish brown olives and I swear some were even purple….. This olive based diet was not a product of my obsession with this vegetable-fruit (although I do love them), but rather because every café, restaurant, bar or bistro in Madrid supplies its patrons with a deliciously endless plate of complementary olives.  Couple that information with the realization that the wine was quite literally cheaper than a glass of water and you have discovered my daily lunch menu.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 6.32.02 PMMy first few days in Madrid I explored all of the big tourist spots.  I visited the Plaza Mayor, The Royal Palace, The Opera House, Botanical Gardens, The Soccer Stadium and The Bull Fighting Ring.  But after a week or so I settled down into a routine of exploratory leisure.  I woke up late in the morning, got dressed, walked to the Metro station and started my day in front of the Banco de Madrid.  Here I would get some breakfast, which usually consisted of a chocolate croissant and a café con leche.  I would sit outside and eat it while I watched the businessmen and women hectically go about their day in this bustling city center.   When I was finished with breakfast and people watching I would start my daily stroll through the city.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 6.37.56 PMI always took the Metro Line 9 and then I always transferred to line 2 at Principe De Vergara station even though there were other stops that were just as easily accessible and direct.  I choose this particular exchange because of a street musician who’s violin filled this station with sounds of Vivaldi , Mozart and Chopin.  Sometimes it saddened me at the number of people who took his presence and talent for granted.  Everyday the same thankless crowd would walk by without a single glance or indication on their daily commute to their busy jobs.  Yet I suppose I was just as guilty.  I justified myself by the fact that I often stood and listened and give him an euro each day.  Yet I did nothing more than wonder what had led him to this life.  Did he know how much joy his notes brought me everyday? Did he know that I organized my daily commute so that I could hear him play?  I wonder if he is still there playing, providing a beautiful and consistent service for those who are too busy to listen or care.  Yet I am sure he will be missed once the station falls silent.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 7.05.08 PM

My stroll varied each and everyday but generally consisted of the same elements in different variations.  The best route would start at the Peurta del Sol to visit the infamous bear of Madrid Statue.  I did not stay here long because during my tenure in Madrid this plaza had become a makeshift tent city full of thousands of  “angry youths” protesting the Spanish government.  It was a sort of precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement that would happen a year later in New York.  I could understand their plight.  Spain had a 24% unemployment rate at the time, yet most of these “angry youths” looked pretty content with their jobless career of getting high and making a mess of the beautiful city square.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 6.30.31 PMI would continue my journey  from the crowded and somewhat shady Puerta de Sol to the Plaza Mayor.  Here I would stop and look at the street artists and visit some local shops.  This ancient City Square is beautiful and full of rich history, yet it is also a tourist trap.  The restaurants surrounding the Plaza are inauthentic and drastically overpriced so I would stroll onward.  I’d get lost in the cobbled stoned back streets of the old city to find a cozy little restaurant off the beaten path.  I would finally find a place away from the expensive tourist restaurants filed with English menus.  And I would sit and eat my free plate of olives and drink my seemingly perfect glass of wine while I journaled, wrote post cards and reflected on a perfect day strolling around the city.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 6.27.34 PMAfter I had my fill of wine and reflection, I would continue my promenade through the city.  I strolled past the Gran Villa, the Plaza de La Cibeles, the most beautiful palace/ government building in Spain, the triumphant archway of Puerta de Alcala and on to El Parque del Retriro, which is one of the most enchanting and peaceful parks in the world.  I could spend the entire day just in this big city park watching the boats paddle in the pond in front of the Monument to Alfonso the XII.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 6.24.12 PMThe best part of my Madrid Wanderings was that I never knew where I was going to end up.  Each and everyday was different and I simply followed all of my whims and fancies.  Inevitably I would stumble upon some festival of some sort either at the park or the Plaza Mayor.  My favorite day was when I happened upon a used book festival.  I spent hours combing through the giant outdoor library.  That is the beauty of an unplanned day, each new café or park or monument becomes a little gift.  You can take the same path the same day for 20 days in a row yet each day has its own little discovery or gift. Each day can be a new adventure if you only allow yourself to open your eyes and truly see the world around you and if you are not afraid of getting a little lost along the way.

Spain: All in God’s Perfect Timing

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 11.24.23 PMSpain.  Just the word alone elicits an almost Pavlovian response from all of my senses.  Suddenly, I smell the oranges of Valencia and hear the pounding of the Flamenco dancers under palm tree lined pavilions in Seville.   Spain.  My mouth waters for the taste of olives, jamón, wine and paella while my soul aches for the creations of Gaudi’s genius and my heart yearns for Madrid’s ocean of culture.

It took me a long time to get to Spain.  In retrospect, it was a trip almost 10 years in the making.   My obsession started in 10th grade when I took my first Spanish class.  I worked harder in this class than any others.  I vowed to one day live or study in Spain and therefore I worked tirelessly to learn the beautiful Spanish language to the best of my ability.  Oh- How many nights did I fall asleep at the wee hours in the morning going over another deck of Spanish flashcards!?

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 11.27.09 PMThe opportunity was never right in High School, but I told myself I would student teach in Spain.  This was something that I planed for and pursued all four years of college.   My senior year I was accepted into the international program at my school and I was on my way to Spain at last!  However, something fell through at the last moment and my placement was cancelled.  I was devastated.  Spain had been my plan for the past seven years and suddenly it was gone…like a puff a smoke.  I sobbed that night.   Spain was taken from me and I didn’t understand why.

We say,  “Things Happen for a Reason” often in our society.  This gives us something to say to those who have had disappointment in their life.  We say this when something happened/didn’t happen the way we really wanted it to go.   We say this to sound humble and gracious, but it takes a lot of grace to actually KNOW in your heart that things happen for a reason; God’s reason.  Sometimes we never know why things truly happen, but God has a perfect plan for our lives we just have to have faith and humbly know that that He who created the universe and He who IS and WAS and IS TO COME may have a better grasp of what is good for us than we do.  In this case, however, I have the unbelievable gift of knowing why Spain was “taken” from me.

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 11.35.40 PMGod, in His infinite wisdom had more planed for me than my impatient heart could have ever conceived.   Instead of spending the last semester of my college experience off campus, He gave me one of the most rewarding semesters of my life.  I was able to host a comedy show call Friday Night Live, I fulfilled my duties as a VP for Student Government, and I was voted by my classmates to be IWU’s Senior of the year at graduation.  If I had been in Spain I would have missed out on all of those blessings and I would have peddled away so many precious “last moments” with my dear friends on a campus that I LOVED.

photo-14_2More importantly, God’s choice to not send me to Spain allowed me to say goodbye to my grandfather.   My pops, a man who more closely resembled Christ than any other man I have ever met, fell very seriously ill the last month of my college career.   He truly lived a life of love like that described in First Corinthians 13:4.  My pops was patient and kind. He did not envy, and did not boast. He was not proud, self-seeking, nor easily angered.  He did not keep a record of wrongs.  He did not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.    Pops was a farmer.  He loved the land, and worked hard everyday to glorify God and live a life producing all of the fruit of the spirit.

Because I was not in Spain, I was able to be there when he got sick.  I can still feel the whiskers on my cheek from when he kissed me goodbye for the last time on this earth. I cherish that moment above any other in my life so far.  That last kiss on my cheek from him means more to me than any study abroad experience ever could.

I could praise God and His wisdom for that reason alone.  But God is even MORE faithful than I could ever imagine.  I may not have been able to student teach overseas, but instead God blessed me with the opportunity to spend 8 incredible weeks in Spain.  This was God’s plan, not mine.  And as always, His perfect plan was infinitely more superior than the one created by my limited human brain.

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 11.27.45 PMThe summer after my second year of teaching I got the opportunity to live with a family in Madrid in exchange for a few English lessons. Instead of six weeks of stressful student teaching, defined by me yearning to explorer the city while being held captive by grading and lesson planning duties, I spent two beautiful, perfect, unrestricted months soaking up every ounce of experience and culture possible.  I spent my days blithely wondering around the city of Madrid, observing life, reflecting and growing.

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 11.31.56 PMSpain changed me.  It was an incredible experience, for numerous reasons in which I hope to share in future posts, but most importantly it demonstrates how faithful our God is.  He knows.  He Cares.  And He is continually weaving together a stunning masterpiece that is my life.  Our God is so faithful and in control and if we patiently seek Him and His will, sometimes we get to see the intricately beautiful ways He mends and molds our threads together to create a masterful work that glorifies Him and His unending goodness.

**** Side note:  11 is my favorite number and Spain ended up being my 11th country.  It was the 1st of 11 countries I visited in 2011. (11 in 11).  This post randomly ended up being my 11th post. God is just so good and just so clever sometimes!