Eight lessons learned (mainly the hard way) during Semana Santa

Pasos! A Semana Santa staple.

Pasos! A Semana Santa staple.

I would in no way classify my Semana Santa trip as a raving success. By the time it was over, I was exhausted, pissed at the world and in need of complete isolation.  Of course, it wasn’t all bad. I saw some beautiful places and met some amazing people along the way, and even during some of the not-so-pleasant moments, there was always a lesson. In this case, there were many!

Scenes from Sevilla

Scenes from Sevilla

This trip was actually life-changing for me. Everything I learned can be divided into a three separate categories: lessons I learned about Spain, lessons I learned about myself as a traveler and lessons I learned about myself as a person.

Lessons I learned about Spain

The meaning of a symbol for one, is not the same for all

Semana Santa brotherhoods processing in Madrid

Semana Santa brotherhoods marching in Sevilla

Before I left for Sevilla, I was warned told about the Semana Santa processions, which sounded so cool to me, until a friend showed me video coverage.  As an African-American, it was hard not to prevent the visceral reaction that flooded my body as I watched videos of the religious brotherhoods that led the processions through the streets on the way to the Sevilla Cathedral. The similarities between the costumes of these religious brotherhoods and those of the Klu Klux Klan, a supremacist hate group in the United States, was undeniable and completely shocking for me. As my friend showed me video, I actually started to tremble and told him to turn it off, proclaiming that there was no way in hell I would go to Sevilla for Semana Santa if I’d be surrounded by people dressed like that. He calmly explained that just because one group can take a symbol and turn it into something evil in one country, it didn’t mean that same symbol had the same meaning somewhere else.

Professional shots of past Semana Santa celebrations in Sevilla, courtesy of Sevilla tourism

Professional shots of past Semana Santa celebrations in Sevilla, courtesy of Sevilla tourism

His words rang through my mind as I fearfully booked my ticket to Sevilla, knowing that I had to push aside my own preconceptions and experience a side of Spanish culture that would be new and different for me.  More importantly, if I wanted to stop letting a Klu Klux Klan symbol scare me (which is the whole point of the group, anyway), I needed to see that symbol outside of the context in which I knew it. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t jump and feel an accelerated heart rate the first time I saw two people in full costume walking to the church to get ready for their procession, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see that not only men were allowed to participate in the Catholic procession, but women and children as well.  I also learned from Sevillian friends that walking in one of these processions is a huge honor, one not to be taken lightly, and that the robes are penitential robes. If you’re Catholic and reading this, you know that penance is a huge theme of Lent, the season right before Easter, so it all makes sense.  Semana Santa in Sevilla was eye-opening and an experience I’m sure I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

The north of Spain is basically another country

Budapest? Florence? Prague? Nope! La Coruña Town Hall!

Budapest? Florence? Prague? Nope! La Coruña Town Hall!

Dare I say it, but at this point in time, the way I feel about Spain is the exact opposite of the way I feel about America: I prefer the north to the south.  Northern Spain is absolutely beautiful.  Sure it’s a bit colder and there’s more rain, but the result is stunningly green mountains and valleys, and more diversified cuisine offerings.  I also personally love it when the weather isn’t the same ALL the time. During my short time up north I experienced sunny days, foggy days and cloudy days, which made for excellent photo taking opportunities (who wants 1000 pictures of nothing but blue skies? BORING).  The best part about my time up north? THE COAST!! I’m ashamed to say that this trip was the first time I’ve been in close proximity to the ocean since moving to Spain. This makes absolutely no sense because I have been a water baby my whole life and I feel an immediate sense of peace whenever I’m near the ocean.

Soaking in the scenic coastline of La Coruña

Soaking in the scenic coastline of La Coruña

Speaking of the coastline and crazy climates, I had one of the strangest fog meets ocean moments I’ve ever experienced that provided a sick photo series. When I was in La Coruña on a perfectly sunny day exploring the Tower of Hercules, I noticed that a cloud of fog was building in the distance over the ocean but it seemed to be so far away and no cause for concern. In literally seconds, the wall of fog picked up it’s pace and was accelerating fast towards the city and looked like something out of a green screen influenced, end of the world movie.  I alternated between taking photos and debating on whether or not to start running because it was hard to tell if the fog was simply fog or a fast moving storm.  Eventually I scurried back towards the path to the Tower and let myself be enveloped by the mist that was so thick that it completely enveloped the Tower and made it impossible to see, even from only 25 feet away. It was such a powerful moment with nature! Something I never would have experienced in Madrid!

Crazy fog approaching La Coruña!

Crazy fog approaching La Coruña!

Now for all you Southern Spain lovers, I’m aware that there is a coastline in the south of Spain, I just haven’t been yet so therefore north beats south in my mind 🙂

Lessons I learned about myself as a traveler

I should really rename this section as “Lessons I always knew about myself as a traveler but chose to ignore and therefore I ended up miserable” buttttt that’s a bit long winded.  I put myself in so many situations during this one week that I absolutely cannot stand.  I feel like it’s one thing to put yourself outside of your comfort zone but it’s a completely different situation to force yourself to do things (usually for the second or third time) that you do not like just to prove something (to whom? I have no idea). So, let’s start with the bad and end with the good.

I am not a backpacker

In my mind, backpacking is not just about wearing all your shit on your back, it’s a lifestyle.  There are so many travelers and travel bloggers out there who can do it right and I am simply not one of them.  In my mind, a backpacking trip usually means hitting a lot of destinations in a relatively short period of time, keeping all your stuff in one, tidy place and having the ability to comfortably crash anywhere from a hotel, hostel, someone’s couch or any other location you deem to be safe, and traveling on a relatively tight or restricted budget.  Mistake number one for me was the idea that I MUST go on this trip. My Semana Santa trip was a result of previous plans falling through, and instead of deciding to stay home and explore Madrid, I threw together a trip that was filled with too many destinations on a too-tight budget.  Not having enough money when you travel leads to all sorts of other fears and led me to choose a variety of lodging options, none of which were my preferred option, hotels.

In the hopes of saving some cash, I booked private rooms in Airbnb apartments and couchsurfing opportunities (I swore off hostels months ago, only happened once).  Now, I did not have a bad experience anywhere but I simply wasn’t comfortable.  Something strange happens to me when I feel like I don’t have my own space after hours spent exploring a new city or town.  I need time to decompress after a long day out and about and for me that usually means needing to sit in silence.  That did not happen once for me while I was away.  While airbnb and couchsurfing are a great way to meet people in the place that you are visiting, when you are staying in their home, there is a pressure to talk to your hosts or engage in someway instead of just going in “your” room and closing the door.  My God there were so many times when I just wanted to close the door! I also had fun experiences like no hot water, or figuring out how to use a propane tank without blowing myself up and broken showers where I stood under tiny streams of water hoping that I could get my soap to lather.  It comes with the territory!  All in all it taught me to go with the flow of things and how to appreciate the luxuries I had back home in Madrid (like a powerful, hot shower) and one travel lesson I plan to hold tightly to: If I don’t have the funds to book a completely comfortable lodging situation, I’d rather shorten the trip or not go at all.

Even though I was poor, I ate well in Northern Spain. Food is cheaper!

Even though I was poor, I ate well in Northern Spain. Food is cheaper!

Going along with the backpacker lifestyle, many props to those of you who can keep all your belongings in one small pack. I freaking HATE the feeling of living out of a suitcase.  Even when I worked in public relations and would travel somewhere for work just for one night, I would completely empty my suitcase, hang things up and put items in drawers and then pack up in the morning. Maybe I’m insane but it gave me a sense of peace. Being on the move so much during this trip and staying in other people’s homes didn’t give me the opportunity to unpack anything which stressed me out a bit. Oh well, lesson learned!

I need a routine, even when traveling

Maybe I’m just too old for this shit. Haha, kidding…sort of.  I’ve realized that I really need a routine when I travel if I have any hope of getting anything done.  If I don’t have a routine, you can bet that I’ll end up spending 6 hours in a hotel room watching “Scandal” and wondering what the hell just happened to my life.  What I noticed on this trip is that spending only two nights in a destination is too short of a time for me to develop a routine. It’s also too short of a time to get a deep sense of a destination and I’m usually left wanting more as I board my plane, train, bus to somewhere else.  New travel rule for me? I need at least three nights in a new place, period. There’s nothing like the regret of feeling like you didn’t get to explore a place that you really enjoyed.  I always try to tell myself that one day I’ll go back, knowing that it probably won’t happen.  This happened to me in Oviedo, my favorite destination of this Semana Santa road trip. Oviedo had that perfect mixture of historic, cozy and cool. The old town area was full of ancient gorgeous cathedrals and churches, while the downtown area had sleek restaurants and fashionable boutiques.  Oviedo is also surrounded by mountains begging to be hiked and explored, all of which I had no time to do. I’m super bummed I couldn’t spend more time in Oviedo but who knows, maybe I’ll make it back there one day!

Hanging out with this guy who also likes Oviedo, apparently.

Hanging out with this guy who also likes Oviedo, apparently.

Train travel is my new favorite

My dad always makes fun of me for choosing flights as my preferred mode of travel, especially in Europe, because he doesn’t understand why I want to just fly over everything and not enjoy the scenery. As a typical 20-something ready for instant gratification, my usual response is “I just want to get there”.  Well, Dad, you may have been right.  I took my first European train trip from Oviedo to Madrid (more on why I chose that route later) and it was wonderful. The train is way more comfortable than most budget airlines, and the scenery of rolling through the mountains in the north of Spain was absolutely breathtaking. Also, the Renfe trains don’t have wifi and while I first saw this as a negative, it forced me to stop and take in my surroundings and just appreciate the moment. Can’t wait to do it again!

ALSA buses are the jam!

I took a picture of a stranger just so you could get a feel for these bitchin' seats. Don't say I never did anything for you!

I took a picture of a stranger just so you could get a feel for these bitchin’ seats. Don’t say I never did anything for you!

Continuing the theme of surprising new favorite ways to travel, the ALSA Supra bus route that I took from La Coruña from Oviedo was banginnnnn! I am no stranger to bus travel, having hauled myself on the NYC to DC bus route hundreds of times with a variety of different companies, but this bus was the most comfortable I’ve ever been on in my life.  The soft, leather seats were enormous and featured personal screens in the headrest of the seat in front of you with a selection of movies, television shows and music. Even movies in English! WHAT? On a bus?! There were also individual cup holders, tray tables, reclining seats and a fully functioning bathroom that was way less scary than airplane bathrooms. I can honestly say that by the time I arrived in Oviedo, I wish my bus trip had been a few hours longer.

Lessons I learned about myself

Deep down, I’m still a good little Catholic girl

I went a little church-crazy in Oviedo.

I went a little church-crazy in Oviedo.

HA, lies! What I mean by that bold statement is that historic traditions and artifacts that have to do with the Catholic church (or any house of worship for that matter) still bring me the biggest joy in all my nerdy bones.  I was raised Catholic and although I don’t feel as Catholic as I used to be (whatever that means), experiences like Semana Santa processions, walking into 1000-year old cathedrals and one particularly jaw-dropping religious experience in Oviedo still tug at my heart strings like nothing else.  In Oviedo I was lucky enough to be invited on a tour of the city by an incredibly talented guide who fed me nuggets about the history of Asturias, the Camino de Santiago, the principality of Oviedo, and broke down the history of the Cathedral de San Salvador.  I’ve been to my fair share of cathedrals in my life and while each has its own unique story, I rarely come across any information or artifacts that will truly shock me. Welp, not this time.  After walking through the cathedral my guide, R, led me to the Cámara Santa de Oviedo, the Holy Chamber, also known as the chapel of San Miguel.

Entrance to the Chapel of San Miguel

Entrance to the Camara Santa de Oviedo

The chamber is home to a variety of religious relics and artifacts but there is one in particular that is the pride of the chamber, and only available for public viewing one week a year – Semana Santa. LUCKY ME! That precious artifact would be the Sudarium of Oviedo, or the Shroud of Oviedo, a bloodstained cloth claimed to be the cloth wrapped around the head of Jesus Christ after he died, as mentioned in the Gospel of John. Um, excuse me? Although I am basically the most skeptical person in the entire world with this kind of stuff, I was frozen in place and stunned into silence.  The cloth is believed to have been taken from Palestine in year 614 and brought to Spain shortly afterward, and various tests have proved the age of the cloth, AB-type blood being the same type of blood found on the Shroud of Turin (the shroud claimed to have covered Jesus’ body), and the bloodstains as a result of head wounds produced by something sharp (presumably the crown of thorns).  Real or not, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the presence of such a precious religious artifact. I didn’t know whether I should bow, get on my knees or stay as far away from it as possible (even though it was protected by gates). Instead of freaking out, I took a cue from some of the other tourists by taking a photo and tried not to cry. What an INCREDIBLE experience! I feel so fortunate to have unknowingly been at the right place at the right time.

The Shroud of Oviedo

The Shroud of Oviedo

It’s ok to accept defeat

With all of it’s highs and lows, the bottom line is that this trip kicked my ass and it was basically my fault.  The more I travel, I’ve realized that I need to take care of myself in certain ways before, during and after a trip and I completely faulted on the “before” and “during” part.  I wasn’t eating properly and didn’t get enough sleep to take care of myself emotionally and physically, and I didn’t plan for the solitude that I crave in order to take care of myself mentally and spiritually.  During one particularly crappy moment in La Coruña, I found myself lying on the bed, crying in my dark room before finally shaking myself out of a tornado of self pity. I felt deep down that I needed to end my trip early and go home to Madrid after visiting Oviedo (and therefore skipping Bilbao and Santander), but I felt like such a failure.  I felt like I would be failing my blog readers and most importantly failing myself because all of a sudden I wasn’t that tough, adventurous girl I always thought I was.

The sunset that brought me peace

The sunset that brought me peace

I tearfully made my way down to the coastline to watch the sunset because I knew it would bring me peace, and suddenly I was smacked with this feeling of acceptance. You know what, I felt like shit. There was no reason to continue this trip if I was feeling physically miserable, and it was ok to accept the fact that I was wrong about the way I planned it.  I was ready to admit that the trip had defeated me and I found strength in that. Why continuing fighting or forcing the trip, only to possibly invite awful things to happen just because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind in the first place?  I went back to the apartment, booked my train trip from Oviedo to Madrid and I was rewarded with one of my favorite sensations, relief. Happily, I’ve been back in Madrid for about three days, feeling rested and rejuvenated for the week ahead of me and able to experience gratitude over all of the lessons I learned this week. Looks like a happy ending after all!

Back home! Haha this was actually in Sevilla but you get my point :)

Back home! Haha this was actually in Sevilla but you get my point 🙂

Have you ever been completely wrong about a trip or journey you planned? Ever cancelled a trip in the middle of it because it was kicking your ass? What did you do for Semana Santa? Let me know below!

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