May 25, 2018: The day that I embarked on my biggest adventure yet. For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to leave the east coast and the small, rural towns that I have occupied for the first 20 years of my life. On this day, the countdown was over 一 I was starting my travels out to Lisbon, Portugal.
I began planning this trip during the summer of 2017, shortly after my father died unexpectedly. Most of that summer has been blacked out of my memory, but I knew that I couldn’t just spend the rest of my days grieving, so on a whim one warm August morning, I booked the trip.
This trip, through EF Ultimate Break, would be a ten-day-long excursion, spanning three cities: Lisbon, Portugal; Madrid, Spain; and Barcelona, Spain. This trip is something I’d dreamed of since I was nine years old, singing along to the “Cheetah Girls 2” soundtrack into my hairbrush. The movie, which was filmed in Barcelona, was (and quite honestly, still is) one of my favorite movies of all time.
There was one catch to this trip: I would be traveling to Portugal by myself. My excitement to travel overcame my anxieties about entering a new country by myself. My excursion began in Portland, Maine, where I flew down to Washington-Dulles International Airport for a six-hour layover before my overnight flight to Lisbon.
Through the last year and a half, everything in my life has changed. One of the only constants in my life has been my mother, and I do not think that words could ever properly express just how much she has been there, even during times when she is unable to hold herself up. It had been nearly an hour since I had last seen my mother, but I was already panicked about not seeing her for ten days.
My first struggle on the trip happened while I was still in the airport in Portland. I had packed my belongings incorrectly and had to throw away an entire bag of toiletries. Immediately, I panicked, called my mother, and told her how I was not ready to do this trip alone. I remember her telling me over the phone, “Honey, this is just one bump in the road. You’re fine.” Tears sprung to my eyes because for the first time I was venturing without my mother by my side. For the first time, I was completely independent, but no matter what, she was still there.
While hanging out in my terminal at Washington-Dulles during my six-hour layover, I binge-watched “Gilmore Girls” and wrote in my travel journal. I even made a few friends in the terminal.
The flight to Lisbon was long and I did not get a single wink of sleep the entire flight. I would like to blame this on excitement, but the three drinks that I inhaled at the Starbucks next to my terminal gate would beg to differ.
The first step out of the airport in Lisbon is a moment that I will never forget. The sun was bright, the air was fresh and my hopes were high. This was uncharted territory on my map and I was thrilled to see what the world had to offer me.
Because of the way that I booked my tour, I stayed in hostels in each city. I met up with a tour group in Lisbon and shared a room with five other girls. Despite the small rooms, small showers and uncomfortably warm nights, the bonds that I made with all of the girls are what contributed to the experience and made these ten days the most incredible.
Portugal was stunning. The history there is rich, the views were incredible, and the hills were steep. During the day, our tour guide, Antonio, would show us some of the highlights of the city, and then come afternoon, we would have free time to roam around and go back to places in which we wanted to spend more time.
One of my favorite excursions in Portugal was the walk (more like the climb) up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge. The trip to the castle was exhausting and felt like it would never end, but once we reached the top, all of the pain and soreness that existed within my body went away. From the top of the stone castle, you could see the entire city. The view was breathtaking. I tried all the wine and sangria that my body could handle and took in the culture and views every second that I could.
I could go on for hours about my love for Spain. Being in Madrid did not seem real. This trip had been planned for so long, I had to pinch myself every morning just to make sure that it was not a dream. Here, we visited several different historical sights and buildings. Among my favorites were the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Museo Reina Sofía (Museum of Queen Sofía), and an event in the Plaza Mayor where a helicopter dropped 100,000 poems. I was able to see Picasso’s Guernica in person, I heard the tales of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and I ate more paella than my body could handle.
The dropping of 100,000 poems was incredible. After spending the day in Toledo, Madrid’s neighboring city, my tour group and I returned to the Plaza Mayor where a helicopter was circling, getting ready to release the poems into the city. As the slips of paper began to fall from the sky, hundreds of spectators jumped for joy in hopes that they would catch one. After a few moments, I caught one, and then as we began walking back to our hostel, another one practically landed in my hand while I was walking.
The last stop on my trip was Barcelona. This was the part of the trip that I was most excited about. One of my favorite songs, Ed Sheeran’s “Barcelona” had been playing on repeat during the months leading up to the trip. Everything about this city felt like a dream, from the buildings designed by Gaudi, to seeing the Sagrada Familia in person, or the Park Guell, where “Strut” from the “Cheetah Girls 2” was filmed. None of this experience felt real at all.
One of the last nights of my trip fell on the anniversary of my father’s death. The feeling hit me like a ton of bricks. I had planned that morning to go out to a few bars that night with a few friends that I had made on the tour but realized shortly into the day that I needed to tend to myself, so I stayed in and dealt with my emotions. Losing a parent is hard, but losing a parent as unexpectedly and unsettlingly as my siblings and I did has made every emotion that much more difficult to process.
I counted my blessings every single day. A year earlier, I was not even sure that I would be able to return to college. Losing my dad took such an emotional toll on my body and mind.
What people don’t tell you about dealing with a death is that the pain you feel never truly goes away, you just find a way to deal with the grief. For myself, I found solace in writing and staying occupied. I also decided to take some of my grief and turn it into good and signed up for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out Of the Darkness Walk in my father’s name, and between my siblings and I, we raised over $350.
My last day on the Iberian peninsula was bittersweet. While I was excited to go home and sleep in my own private room, I knew that there was so much more left for me to see. Summer classes were waiting for me at home and my car was in need of some love. But in these last ten days, I had learned so much about myself. I was a brand new person with brand new experiences under my belt and I traveled to a different country by myself. I realized that I am independent, I am strong and I am brave.
My biggest inspiration through all of this has been my mother. On the good days, she’s there. On the bad days, she’s still there, with a smile on her face and arms wide open. Seeing her deal with trauma with so much grace and class has made me appreciate the woman that has been there for every event in my life, from the boring band concerts in elementary school to the airport when I finally made it back to Maine after 12 hours in flights and layovers. Without her raising me to be independent and courageous, I would not have been able to take on this journey alone. She was there for every time I called home to panic or talk about the views and memories that I was making. I owe her everything.
To anyone that is struggling to come to terms with emotional turmoil, know that you are not the problem. Traveling helped me realize this. Take care of yourself, and find a healthy outlet to help yourself deal with these feelings. This can be through seeing a counselor, writing in a journal or going for a run. Whatever you do, make sure you’re putting yourself first and making your health a priority. You are not crazy and you are not defined by the past.