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A Real Education

by Carrie Gross
(St. Louis, MO, USA)

It was sometime after dark when I stepped off the train in Pamplona, Spain. Somewhere during the 4-hour journey between Barcelona and Pamplona I had completely lost track of time. All I knew was that it was much later then I usually like to arrive in a new city, and I was completely exhausted.

Although I had been planning this trip to Spain for the past year, my lack of preparation was shocking to those I met along the way. Two weeks into my journey I was still without an itinerary, maps, phone, or any way to connect with the world around me. I had immediately thrown out all guidebooks given to me by concerned family members and decided to leave everything up to chance, the locals, and those little internet cafes that popped up along the way. I was here to learn, but not by reading any book. I was here to learn about myself, my capabilities, and to find that inner confidence that only true self reliance can give.

Even coming to Pamplona had been done on a whim. And now that I was here, standing outside an empty train station in the dark with 30 pounds of luggage strapped to my back, I needed some direction. I spent the next few hours wandering the streets of Pamplona, hoping that I’d eventually stumble upon a youth hostel. So far, hostels had been my main means of accommodation as I made my way from Malaga, a city on the southern most tip of Spain, to Barcelona in the north.

Though I had no way of checking the time, I could feel it getting later and later as the piazzas emptied out and the streets were abandoned. By now there was a slow drizzle coming down and though it was still warm out, the raindrops stung as they hit my skin. Each drop accelerating my feelings of desperation to find a place to stay for the night and forcing me think that maybe I had been too hasty. Maybe just one guidebook would have been ok.

“Albergue juvenil?” I looked around to see where these words had come from, and saw an old man hobbling towards me. It was obvious he was a local. He had 3 plastic bags full of groceries on his left arm, while his right hand held tightly onto a wooden cane. He repeated the question as he got closer.

“Albergue juvenil?”

All I could do was stand there and give him a blank stare. I had not bothered learning any Spanish before the trip and bringing a book of key phrases would have gone against my every fiber. So consequently, this blank stare had become one of my signature looks. I watched as he dropped the bags and cane, put his hands together and laid his head on them as if they were a pillow. I was beginning to understand.

He motioned with his hand for me to follow him. I grabbed my backpack and silently walked beside him for 5 or 6 blocks until we reached a run down building with blacked out windows and an oversized wooden door. From the street there were no obvious signs of life coming from the building except for a small hand written sign in the corner that said “hostel”. The old man pointed at the sign with his cane. At first just lightly tapping it and then, as if desperate to get a response from me, began violently stabbing at it.

“Yes. Hostel. Thank you…Gracias!” I smiled and made the gesture of wiping pretend sweat off my forehead, hoping this was the universal sign to show the feeling of relief. The old man smiled turned around and slowly shuffled away.

I read through the long list of names beside the buzzers by the big wooden door, finally coming across one labeled Hemingway Hostel. I pushed the corresponding button and within seconds got what I could barely make out as a “hello?” through heavy static.

“Hello? I’m looking for the hostel. Is this the Hemingway Hostel? I need a bed…please.”

The only answer I received was the sound of the buzz of the door as I was being let into the building.

I slowly crept up the dimly lit staircase, making my way to the fifth floor. From under one of the doors I could see a stream of light pouring out and heard laughter on the other side. I stood there for awhile, soaking in the sounds. These people seemed relaxed and happy. These people had probably been here for hours. They had probably already cooked and eaten their meals, taken their long hot showers and were sitting around sharing stories. They had done things the easy way.

Wandering the streets of Pamplona.

I wish I could say that I learned something from this experience. That I sat down that night, and using the hostels computer made arrangement for the last two weeks of my trip. That I developed some kind of plan. But the truth is, that for me, the not knowing was the best part. I loved the uncertainty. Each day was unknown and unpredictable. And when I did overcome a challenge, it was thrilling and I felt a great sense of empowerment. So in the end, by doing things my way, I had learned valuable lessons that no guidebook ever could have ever taught me. I had learned a lot about myself. It was my own kind of education.

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