Being abroad can be an adventure, it can be a dream. But that’s not usually the dominant feeling during the journey, nor is it the ideal that is falsely portrayed on Instagram or cleverly captioned Facebook albums. Abroad, while usually considered an overall success is something anyone will tell you was the best decision they’ve ever made. Still, it’s work and at times, it’s failure.
With my time winding down here in Málaga, I’ve been thinking about how defining moments of failure can become learning experiences, for better or worse.
Always know what line you’re on.
I’ve never lived in a city before, so coming to Málaga was going to be a new experience on multiple levels. Public transportation is something I had almost no experience with before coming to Spain, so my luck was what saved me from any mishaps the first few days going back and forth from the city center. In my mind, I just had to pay attention to what number bus, and what side of the street I was on to get home. As it would happen, I used this failed logic in the exact place where this didn’t apply. You see, the buses I take, the 3 and the 11, split at this roundabout in the center. This must have been day 3 or so, and I wasn’t aware of this. I wasn’t super familiar with the area either, but after a certain point I could tell that I was not going in the direction I needed. Thankfully, the last stop on the bus route is also the first stop to go back, so while I was about an hour late for dinner, at least I didn’t have to do too much to get there.
You would think this was the only time this happened to me, but it wasn’t. At Oktoberfest, while trying to escape after a morning and the better part of an afternoon at the festival, I was destined to make the same mistake again. Only this time, I was without the ticket to prove I wasn’t taking advantage of Germany’s honor system on public transport. If you’re caught it can result in a triple digit fine. Somehow, I realized I needed to get on the opposite line, but not before I got flung across the car because I didn’t have a good grip on the bar. Miraculously, I made it back to the hotel, but the common theme of making the same mistake twice in the span of 3 months was not lost on me.
If you don’t know some part of the native language, you’re screwed.
Ah Morocco. It was a beautiful place and I hope never to return until I forget the horror that was this trip. In Morocco, European SIM cards don’t work, so in terms of maps, language apps, etc., you really are on your own. Morocco, is also a predominantly Muslim country, so while it is in some ways a playground for Europeans, access to alcohol is still fairly limited. Apparently right around the corner from our hotel, there was a liquor store, so a friend and I went to buy wine. We were given poor directions, and when we stopped into a grocery store, the man told me to go to another liquor store that we had passed off of the main road in Tangiers, maybe a 15 minute walk from where we were. I had thought this was going to be a quick trip and I wasn’t exactly wearing a Maxi dress, so it was clear that I was a Westerner— a marker you really don’t want to have after dark in Tangiers. It was now rapidly approaching night so I was diligent in noting the path we were taking so we could get back quickly. And that was going fine until we were nearly at the main road and a guy on a motorcycle began harassing us and acting like he was going to run us down. After spending way too much on wine, we were anxious to get back to the hotel; it was now nighttime. My friend said she remembered the way back going off of the main road, and after that motorcycle incident, this seemed like a better option. Now I’m usually the person who is in charge of navigation, so when I began to feel uneasy about where she was leading us, I figured it was because I wasn’t the one leading us back. Well after about a half hour, it was clear we were not where we needed to be. My friend didn’t have her phone. My cell phone didn’t have coverage and the map on my phone that we were using, wasn’t giving us an accurate location as to where we were. Essentially, we were lost, so very lost and it was going to be up to me to get us back .
This is where my high school French kicked in. Given the way we were dressed, asking men for directions was not exactly an option, and when we approached some Moroccan women, they only spoke Arabic. Luckily, there was a group of kids playing nearby who spoke French, and they were able to get us at least walking towards the beach where our hotel was located. Then I saw a woman and an older man walking by, I asked them if they spoke French and the man told me told me he was a French literature professor. Perfect. And somehow, in my moment of panic, I was speaking near perfect French and understanding everything he was saying. He offered to walk us in the direction of where we needed to go, and insisted we take a taxi back, now that it was dark out. So while he accompanied us, I explained to him who we were, why we were there. He told me he was originally from Casa Blanca and we had a profound conversation about how the West sees Moroccans and Arabs as terrorists, but this moment that we were having was a perfect example of how kindness transcends all of that. I couldn’t agree more. As we were about to get in a taxi, the woman he was with asked what my background was. When he told her I was American, but my family was Hispanic they laughed because thanks to my ethnically ambiguous looks, she thought I was Moroccan or a “regular Fatima.”
When we got into the taxi, we spent about 20 minutes trying to get the driver to understand where our hotel was/what its name was. The only saving grace was I could feel that we were going in the opposite direction we needed, and eventually got him going back towards our hotel. But during all this he still wasn’t understanding the pronunciation of our hotel, and had to pull over to a taxi stop to ask for help from other drivers. Eventually he got it…the issue was we were using the Spanish pronunciation, the only way we had heard our hotel said. Our program dictated that everything we spoke and heard was in Spanish, which was probably the stupidest thing that could have happened apart from telling students on my program not to worry, everyone speaks Spanish in Tangiers.
At this point we had been gone almost an hour and a half for a trip that should have been at most 10 minutes. Naturally, our third roommate was panicking. We arrived at dinner just before they were going to tell our director and have the boys on our program sent off to search for us, so the whole situation could have been a lot worse. So if you ever find yourself in this situation, a physical map and a phrasebook will probably save you more than you can imagine.
Keep your purse close, and your purchases closer.
When you’re traveling the worst thing that can happen besides having wallets, passports, or cell phones stolen, is forgetting purchases in cafes, restaurants or on buses. And yes, I made it out of Barcelona, Munich, and Rome without any of those precious and essential items stolen, which is more than I can say for other students who have traveled to these destinations. But within my first few days of Málaga, while setting aside my bag with a brand new shirt and shorts I had bought to make room for another person, I forgot my precious cargo. That’s how you end up paying double the price for the same pair of shorts.
Eat, Pray, Love says to maintain abstinence during the journey. Actually do that.
Going abroad, everyone told me that while I was away, to go meet a nice Spanish boy and get in a relationship. That was certainly not my plan. I was supposed to be doing this for myself, with zero thought for anyone else during this journey. I was going to Eat, Pray, Love this trip. And I did not, at least in the first semester. I won’t get into the details, but old habits die hard. I think I would have enjoyed my first semester a lot more if I wasn’t worried about people hundreds of miles away from me, or the consequences of being involved with them in the first place. Being abroad is hard enough without getting your heart broken. So, save yourself the trouble, and leave romance behind if you can. Going abroad is about you, so don’t let yourself make even a single part of it about someone else.
Bathrooms breaks aren’t guaranteed and Bed Bugs *CAN* happen to you.
This is my trip to Portugal. After spending the night in the outskirts of a medieval Spanish city, we were going straight on to Lisbon, which is some 5 hours or so by bus. We’d all grabbed a coffee before we had gone into some old towers surrounding the historic center, and then we were shuffled back onto the bus. Almost all of us had fallen asleep not long after, and for the first time during my time abroad, I needed to stop while I was still on the bus. Now I had woken up because the bus had slowed down, so I thought we were stopping at a rest area, which would have been normal considering it had been about an hour we were on the road. At this point my friend woke up and she needed to go to the bathroom too. But as we passed gas station after gas station, rest area after rest area, it was becoming evident that wasn’t happening. Normally we pass these smaller rest areas for a larger one to accommodate all of us so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. But now we were in the countryside with nothing coming for miles. I messaged our program director’s wife, who was up front with the director and the driver to let her know, but as we had just entered Portugal, it was likely she didn’t have her roaming data on. Luckily, others up front had said they needed to go too. Unfortunately, we had about a half hour before we were going to hit the next one. At this point our director can see that a lot of us clearly need to use the bathroom. As we saw the next gas station come into view some 25 minutes later, he could see the relief and excitement on our faces. And that’s when I nearly lost it because he let us go right by it. Yeah that’s right. He let us go right by it—he didn’t tell the bus driver. At this point the coordinator can see that I’m really about to lose it, emotionally and physically. I was in a rage that I hadn’t felt before because up until that moment, you could say that it was my fault that I hadn’t said anything earlier. Now that we had passed the literal last location for miles and our director knew…that was borderline unforgivable.
After another grueling 20 minutes, our director was finally compelled to tell the driver to stop off of the highway. We ended up at a checkpoint, and I, along with 7 other girls and the director’s *wife*, sprinted off of the bus. I jumped the barrier, and tried to step down into a ditch so I could relieve myself, but still be covered from the spectators on our bus. I didn’t have time to make it behind some small warehouses some 50 meters away. I ended up having a misstep on the way down in the ditch and in my white jeans and sandals, landed in a hidden brook. Now it’s important to recognize that most people in general, think that I am a princess or something, but my general reaction to all of this was fairly nonchalant. It continued to be so when the bus driver refused to let me get my luggage so I could at least change out of my pants and clean up. I mean, how much worse could this get?
When we finally made it to the second rest area, they let me get my suitcase where I luckily had makeup wipes, extra jeans and flats to clean up and switch into. But my director made the fatal mistake of acting surprised when he saw the condition of my attire while getting my suitcase. I’m sure he saw the disdain that I had for him, especially given this all could have been avoided if he had planned this better or had the decency to stop the bus at the gas station he let us go by. After I got cleaned up and entered the rest area, I found out there wasn’t even enough food in this establishment for all of us, so we were back on the bus, again, for an additional half hour for our lunch. But the errors of this trip were far from over.
On our last overnight of the trip, we stayed in the middle of nowhere in Portugal. The town was tiny, and the hotel we were staying at actually operated out of two buildings. After dinner, while my friend was showering I went to plug in my laptop to charge, and after moving my bed frame a few times to accommodate the charger, a bed bug fell on my hand. Yes, a bed bug. I quickly put it underneath a cup for proof and proceeded to do research just to make sure this was what I was looking at. When my friend got out of the shower, we conducted a test, and yes it was bed bugs. And that’s when my director didn’t pick up. Nor did the coordinator. Finally it was my director’s wife who picked up. She was also the sub-director for the program, so she was our final defense against the insanity of our director. She, along with a receptionist came over to look at the situation. And that’s when the receptionist tried to make it seem like we had just left the balcony door open while at dinner, or that it was just the sheets that needed changing. Even when I insisted that it had come from the bed, she kept saying that their hotel was full and there was no way she could do anything about it. When we told her she was going to have to give us the number of another hotel or inn or something to stay in, that’s when she was able to find another room. After doing another test, and confirming this room was ok, only then was I slightly less paranoid. During all of my time abroad, this was the one thing that I had feared the most happening, and I thought it was something I was never going to encounter. It was a close call to say the least, but just another reminder to check your beds.