Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A New View on Triathlons and So Much More

Rain is pitter-pattering on the roof of our RV as we snuggle into the final moments of calm before the storm.  It’s only 5 am and in a few short moments the coffee will be brewing and the camper will be alive with activity as everyone prepares for the anticipated day.  Sean gives me one last squeeze in our warm cocoon before hopping out of bed to begin his tediously prepared pre-race checklist.  Today is the day we trudged to Knoxville, TN for, and despite the pouring rain and ominous sky, the plan has not been foiled.  Sean and Pat will be tackling 70.3 miles of swimming, biking, and running on an increasingly treacherous course of rain, mud, chilly water, and wind.  I am participating in a relay, so only 6.2 miles of running is my responsibility.  It’s a family affair today as his mother, father, and future sister-in-law take on their own personal challenges.

Before this moment, as I have been attempting to learn and train for my first triathlon experience, I have only seen this as a physical test and a sport for athletes who need an outlet.  The concept of pushing your body to such a limit and devoting so much precious time to a seemingly arbitrary pursuit of physical training was so confusing to me.  But as nerves for all of us began to set in, I slowly realized it is so much more.  

We darted out of the camper so the boys could make their early preparation deadline before strapping on wet suits and swim caps to face the icy river.  As we stood with the first heat aside the river, rain dumping down on us, I felt a unique energy like never before.  And then as I watched my love march down to the dock below, leaping in the cold water with the other brave souls, it began to set in even more.  I watched them take off at the sound of the blaring horn, thrashing in the water with only the rumbling sound synchronized splashing below.  

Due to my relay position, I was not scheduled to run for hours.  I watched my team’s swimming leg and biking leg take off.  They bravely faced the conditions for the sake of our team.  As I watched the valiant competitors set off on their long wet bike ride, I spotted Sean.  Warmth rushed over me as I watched him saddle up on his steed and begin the next leg of his 56 mile journey.  I saw a stoic, centered, focused version of this man, further driving home the intensity of what we were out here to do.  Each triathlete trudging on appeared like soldiers as they pushed past the discomfort and darted by on their bikes.  

When it was finally my time to face the rain, I set off to run my run and finish; no more than that.  But as settled into my stride, a special energy took over me.  I reached mile three, shoes covered in mud and heavy with rain water from the deep puddles along the trail.  Halfway there.  A smile spread across my face as gratitude swept over me.  It was a heavy greatfulness that I could run with these people pushing themselves so hard.  It wasn’t a day of my own achievement, despite reaching a personal record.  It was oddly a day of reflection and deep appreciation for this type of commitment and pursuit.  This is much more than a test of physical strength and testing what your training yielded; it is a test of will.  It is a mental and emotional game and in the end the pursuer grows stronger in a profound way.  

I equate this struggle followed by growth with many moments in my travels.  This is my strongest reference to pushing myself to discomfort to achieve deep inner transformation. Now, as I dig my heels in for my own first full triathlon attempt, the training process is going to have so much more meaning.  Pushing through the pain doesn’t seem so torturous anymore knowing that the efforts will yield a massive high and so much more.  Suddenly I get it and it makes me wonder what else is out there that will bring this indescribable uplifting feeling of achievement and growth... The adventure continues.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Quiet Snow-Covered Thank You

As I stare out of my picture window to the heavily falling peaceful snow, I feel a strange sense of calm and appreciation.  Today was a strange day as this mid-April freak snowstorm surprised us all.  Today was also the day of my final interview of many with a company I have been pining after since I discovered their existence months ago.  As I sat speaking with each member, and ultimately the company's owner, I discovered that this truly is the job and the organization for me.  I have fretted and wallowed, been absolutely frustrated and hopeless in this seeming perpetual job search, but today I got the overwhelming feeling that it is almost over and somehow I have come out the other side in my best case scenario.  When my last "dream job" fell through I considered submitting to the road more traveled and pursuing a path that I once loathed.  But I wouldn't let myself give in.  How I've gotten here to this point is a mystery to me but surely no accident.  I've stuck to my instincts, my passion, and my dreams and low and behold, I am just hours away from hopefully reaching this career pinnacle.  It is an empowering feeling and a much needed sense of accomplishment.  So it is possible.  It is possible to shape life to fit your vision.  Even when I want to give up and make life more easy for myself, I just can't.  It will come together if you persevere and keep believing.  And even if the verdict is in tomorrow and I don't have this job, I know I tasted the dream and it is achievable.

I have gone through my fair share of hard days and self doubt, believing I would never find those illusive things that will bring me bliss.  But in the end I have continued on relentlessly without settling for second best.  Nine months ago I was without a home, lost and clueless about every facet of my future.  Now I have found the love of my life and this beautiful home in Colorado and a network of amazingly supportive people and hopefully the absolute perfectly matched job.  I gaze back out at the snow covered street under the hazy night sky and say a quiet thank you to this brilliantly mysterious and wonderful life.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vicarious Adventures

It's been over three years since I embarked on my own epic adventure, uprooting from life as I knew it and changing my life by living abroad.  Now back to a more settled life, essentially moments away from pulling the trigger on a new career-oriented domestic commitment, I watch as my friends blast off one by one on their own big adventures in all different corners of the world.  Each destination represents a life voyage for these bold friends of mine.  It's been so incredible to watch as they contemplated, planned, and went for it, all beginning from an instinctive, yearning feeling.  I am so genuinely proud of each of you for not allowing the inevitable challenges deter you from your dreams.

One of you is on a physical challenge, out to face the forces of nature while becoming enlightened by a new way of living; another one of you is following your heart to be with your love on the other side of the world; some of you are off to educate and nurture the lives of people less fortune; and you two are itching a perpetual scratch to live among an entirely new culture together as a pair.  So I sit here, comfortable with my more "conventional" life in the States, and observe the journeys of you incredible seekers, out to face your deeper fears in order to follow a passionate quest, unique to each.  Good luck friends, and congratulations for taking the leap.  I wish it was possible to come visit each of you and share a piece of the experience.

I am learning that there is a time for living life in a mode of discomfort, yet constant excitement, and a time for nesting and learning other life lessons in a different way.  When I sat on my favorite beach in the Canaries at the end of my long sabbatical from convention, I knew it was time to close that chapter.  Another chapter with stories of international adventures and self discovery will open again for me, but for now I will humbly accept that this is not my time.  It is your time though, so when I am dying for that lifestyle and feeling once again, I will rely on living vicariously through you.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

I've made some stark discoveries as I once again float in the limbo stages of unemployment.  The process of career trial and error is exposing my past utter naivety.  I spoke loudly about the simplicity and satisfaction of living to the beat of your own drum, carving a path that veres away from the highway of life that so many seem to take.  My belief at the time was that people choose to take the easy road when they choose convention and that I was somehow above this commonly selected avenue.  But as I've struggled with the challenges of scarcity due to relentlessly standing on my principals, I've discovered that my principals were admittedly narrow and limiting within themselves.  I had this distant idea that I was being nobel by flying about the fringe, but really I was also engaging some real avoidance tactics.  The rose colored glasses that I was unaware of having on my face have fallen off and now a part of me feels foolish for my blatant rebellion to conventional living.  My peers who stuck with their demanding jobs but walked home with a paycheck have earned resources that can be used as devices for freedom and flexibility that I no longer have.  These luxuries have run dry for me and now I am faced with the simple need for financial stability.  Our society has a way to it and the more I fight it, the more I seem to get left behind.  At one time in my life it took great courage to step away from this life of conventional living; now it takes courage to reenter it.  The principals I once stood on have not vanished, but they have changed.  I will never vanquish my feisty rebellious nature, nor do I desire that end.  But I do need to act with realistic reasoning and face my idealistic self head on.  Life is a constant journey full of winding roads and ever changing paths.  This process of merging onto the highway of conformity has been terribly uncomfortable and humbling, but what I am learning is that life does not have to be such a battle and so terribly defeating when it doesn't turn out like the dream.  And also, that dream changes forms as time goes by.  Life is very good for all intents and purposes.  It's time to swallow my pride, put on my big girl pants, and gracefully step into a new frontier.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A White Weekend

The powder days have officially commenced as we set sail for higher land and hit the slopes.  This weekend was the first ski weekend of many to come and the fresh dusting of amply falling flakes made it the ideal way to break in the season.

After a restful night in our perfect little cabin-like condo in Dillon, we awoke to a thick layar of fluffy snow, still silently falling, inviting us to come play.  We joyfully piled on layers of ski pants and warm jackets, gathered our boards and skis, and made our way to the base of the lone ski covered pist at Keystone.  A sea of young enthusiasts were geared up from head to toe, adorning their labeled swag and hoisting colorful boards and skis.  These early season skiers are the enthusiasts that had been eagerly awaiting this moment to dig out their equipment and feel the powder beneath their feet.

We gleefully crammed into the warm gondola with a set of new friends, toasting to our arrival over a couple of early morning brewskis.  Once at the top, skis securely in place and position assumed, I glanced over at my trusted companion once more before embarking on my first Rocky Mountain run.  The fresh powder smoothly glided beneath my skis.  Gradually my motion became more fluid after years of dormant ski legs began to return.  Picking up speed I shifted side to side methodically.    A rush of joy swept over my entire body as my muscles remembered the movements perfectly and I quickly entered into the zone.

The first run was a dream, but as the day continued the mountain became more and more congested, people making their way down the single open slope at various speeds and patterns, tracking out the soft powder and replacing it with icy patches.  Eight thousand people on a single slope proved to be a hazardous scene.  We continued cycling through this one hill, but as the conditions grew more aggressive, snow pelting into our faces, creating a mask of ice, we decided to take one final run back down to the base.

Despite the overwhelming crowds, the day was deemed a success.  We warmed up over sandwiches and local brews before getting down to our skivvies and dipping into hot-tub bliss, soaking our tired legs and dipping into pure relaxation.  All that was left to do was sink into my darling's arms with a giant grin of satisfaction.

And as we returned to the condo, resting on our bed in the loft, I gazed out the window, reflecting on how absolutely fortunate I am to be here.  This weekend will be a reoccurring one as we have access to the many surrounding slopes and this fabulous place in Dillon all season long.  It is truly hard to believe that this idea that was once so far away and vague has now completely come to fruition.    Here I am, surrounded by a peaceful winter wonderland, with my sweety, and the best slopes in the world are at our finger tips, ready to be explored all season long.

The Adventure Isn't Over

I am guilty of blog neglect now that my adventure has apparently concluded.  But this morning, after reading over a friend of mine's new blog, I feel re-inspired to return to my documentation and reflection of life as I live it.  She is heading out to New Zealand on a one way ticket after spending a short two and a half months here in Denver, trying to sort out life after corporate.

As I browsed her past posts, I stumbled upon an entry she had written back in August about an epic climb to the top of Mt. Bierstadt we completed triumphantly.  The hike was incredible and a notable achievement that once upon a time I would have eagerly reflected on in Linzer's Adventure.  It was an important reminder that just because I'm not galavanting around a foreign country, life is still exciting, inspiring, and full of adventure.  So I make the hesitant commitment now to be more diligent with my writing inorder to record brilliant moments, introspective insite, and breath taking images from this new perspective.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Trifecta

As life in Denver begins to set in, a deep connection with my previous existence abroad begins to taper off.  I can’t tell if this is a natural process I should accept or if I should be grasping desperately to some remnants of a life that once was.  It's only been a matter of months since returning to the "American life", departing from Lanzarote a mere six months ago.  I can still recall the feeling of being surround by Spanish culture, driving that blue van, living the island dream.  And beyond that, I recall the constant state of being a temporary installment, a mysterious foreigner, wondrously absorbing the unfamiliar nuances of being in a different country. 

But as I contemplate and reminisce about a significantly different reality I was previously living, I have to stop myself in the daydream and acknowledge what the process has ultimately culminated to become.  In this very moment I sit two miles high, gazing upon the bare ski runs of Vail’s slopes, a short drive from my Denver home.  And what waits for me in the city are the very things I’ve been striving for and dreaming of throughout my journey, what I coined as “Linzer’s Adventure”. 

This blog began as a collection of thoughts, discoveries, and observations about life as my perspective shifted, rapidly altered my perception of the world.  I moved about from one new destination to another, experiencing a brand new world, and instantaneously opening my eyes to how different life could be.  The two and a half year journey fundamentally changed a part of me, while simultaneously helping me reconnect with who I am at my core.  Being in Madrid and on the islands, backpacking through a myriad of incredible European cities, and connecting with marvelous individuals from all around the world are experiences in which I will forever cherish.  But when I step back to reflect on the overall mission of the adventure, I see that the ultimate objective was to step away from an all too familiar world; to peel back the heavy layers of a ubiquitous way of life and attempt to discover true fulfillment.  I needed to know what direction to point my arrow in order to feed a passion that restlessly stirred beneath the surface. 

This mission was an experiment with no blueprint to follow.  And, miraculously, it worked.  All the agonizing over which lifestyle to adopt, what career could possibly fulfill me, which destination I could feasibly call home, how I would make a powerful mark on the world; it at last has begun to take shape.  OneSeed Expeditions, Denver, CO, and a slew of like-minded people seemed to float into my life like a strategically placed combo at the hand of a force much bigger than me.  And what accompanied my move and a start to a new career was a breadth of possibilities, a home amongst one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world, and (arguably the most important) a companion in which I have always searched for and knew would one day find me. 

So while I miss the time spent exploring European cities and dipping into Spanish culture, I know this is exactly where I need to be right now.  Denver may not be a permanent home and there are still many adventures far and wide to come, but this is undoubtedly exactly where I am meant to be.  If it hadn’t been for all the wandering and searching, I may never have found this perfect trifecta of a home, career, and love.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Another Pleasantville Day in Denver

Even the dogs are extra happy here

Denver, CO is a hug of a city.  With over 300 days of happy, sunny days per year, people seem to float through life in this town.  Nobody is moving too quickly whether by bike, car, or foot, it's not unusual for bars and breweries to be packed after 3 pm on any given day, and even the homeless people that fill the city seem to be happily getting on with their lives.  Money is spent on hiking boots and camping gear, epic seasonal ski passes, and shopping sprees to REI.  There is never a lack of social gatherings and the people are friendly to a point where it is a tad bizarre.  Yes, Denver is a cozy, humming, merry city that has welcomed me with open arms.  It is a rare case in the US that people have a work-to-live mentality that is quite contrary to most other major cities in the country.

With all of this said, my wanderlust, inquisitive self has to wonder, what's the catch?  Life appears so easy and pleasant here that it leaves little to be challenged.  As I cycled through the park from my lovely home to this mellow coffee shop just blocks away, people walking their dogs and engaging in Sunday afternoon chit-chat, I couldn't help but get a vibe of Pleasantville.  So why do people live in places like Manhattan, London, Miami, LA... Why do people cram into busy cities, deal with climactic challenges, work around the clock, and face ugly commutes?  Maybe because this seemingly "hard life" lends itself to an opportunity for growth and a sense of accomplishment.  A year ago I was hopping from metro to metro, dealing with my tiny, old, street facing apartment in Madrid and living a very different kind of life that was fabulous in an entirely different way.

Work accompanied by a local craft beer, straight from the office keg.

This question that has been introduced into my reality does not include a clear answer yet.  Maybe Denver is on to something.  Maybe this attitude about life takes a certain edge off that we as humans need to be able to relax and enjoy.  For now I am enjoying my hug, embracing this wonderfully easygoing lifestyle.  With weekends full of mountain hikes, camping trips, and music festivals, and the stresses of the work day ending promptly at 5 o'clock to take advantage of countless happy hour options, I am not complaining.  My desire for things like competition, struggling through the unfamiliar, being a stranger to a new land, still keeps a part of me dreaming of a future departure, but for this moment it works.  We should all have a license to be this pleasantly content, even if it is just for a snapshot in time and at the expense of some level of inner growth.  It's hard to argue life in Pleasantville.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Vision of Peace Through the Olympic Ceremonies

Admittedly the opening ceremony for the Olympics last night started off slow with several instances leaving me scratching my head and trying to piece it all together.  The dream scene seemed odd with that giant baby, and the entire first half hour consisting of a hodge-podge of people stomping around in a giant cluster were less than impressive.  Criticism is flying all over Facebook this morning, understandably so, but in the end I feel more than satisfied.

The thing is, what makes these ceremonies so special is not the cinematic or theatrical representation of the home country; it is the joining of the nations that occurs half way through and then witnessing the culmination of the entire world celebrating together in one small space.  For me, each marching group of athletes, adorning their home garb and proudly waving their flag, gave me an incredible feeling of satisfaction and appreciation.  The organization of the parade of nations is perfect, separating the various cultures and nationalities merely by alphabetical order.  And as they placed their waving banners along the grassy hill top, equally represented regardless of size or number of athletes, we could all clearly see that we are neighbors to each other, not distant foreigners.

I attribute the enjoyment of watching the commencement of these games to the traditional significance of them, what they represent, and all the boundaries they manage to cross.  As the final torch was lit and one brass flower peddle for each nation was individually set a blaze, my heart fluttered.  When the peddles rose, creating the symbolic Olympic flame, it was quite honestly an emotional moment.  This show transformed from being about Britain and became an ode to world unity.  The grand finale, sky lit up with an epic display of fireworks and Paul McCartney belting out Hey Jude as the crowd sang in unison “Nah nah nah nah- ne-nah nah, nah ne-nah nah, hey Jude!” sent goose bumps down my spine.

These global games mean more to me this year than any year prior due to my personal world exploration that has exponentially increased in recent years.  In contrast to four years ago during the last summer games, I have now lived overseas, visited many different countries, and become deeply bonded with new friends from all around the world.  In this very moment, as I await a rapidly approaching move, I am essentially without a home and have been in this situation for a while.  It brings me even closer to this idea that the world is my home and I am a global citizen.  At the same time, I feel a new appreciation for being an American, oddly enough.  After spending so much energy trying to disassociate with my home nation, watching them walk in last night in all their glory helped me to better understand where all that patriotism comes from.  We truly are a great country and for the first time in years, I’m eager to establish my home here on American soil.

What a wonderful power this athletic competition can have.  At least for this spectator, I have a heightened awareness and love for my fellow nations, and simultaneously feel so proud to cheer on the states.  Could it be possible that for this little snap shot in time we can have a fleeting image of something that somewhat resembles world peace?  If that were true, then maybe, somehow, in the words of Paul McCartney, we could begin to make it better, better, better, better…

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Life is Like a Box of Golf Balls...

The best analogy I've ever been able to come up with when pondering what it may feel like for life to perfectly come together would be comparing it to golf.  Stay with me.  While I am no golfer, I have experienced the magical phenomena that occurs when the head of the club meets the tiny golf ball at the perfect angle and in the ideal spot, creating that "ping" sound that sends the ball sailing straight for it's target.  It's only happen a few times for me, but all of those other attempts where I'm hacking at the grass, whiffing the ball, or directing it in a horizontal trajectory, make these unique, dead-on hits feel incredible.  Many more skilled golfers hit the ball just fine, but still experience the "ping!" moments only on rare occasions.  But it's those pros who have found a sweet spot and stayed with it, achieving greatness in their game and rarely missing that perfect match up of ball to club, who are the people made for the game.

This is a lot like life to me as I scavenger through the various options of occupations, activities, geographies, and lifestyles.  I've experienced an increasing number of "sweet-spot" moments peppered throughout my days, becoming more frequent as I learn the lessons of life.  But then something miraculous happened.  Could I have made a whole in one?  This new job is the culmination of my pursuits and Denver appears to be a fertile breeding ground for joy.  And since accepting this new role and planning my rapidly approaching move, every shot is sailing right off the tee.  I don't know what to accredit this sensation or stroke of luck but to the same force that pros are gifted with as they consistently play on par.  I have to assume and hope that in some way I found my match and for that, every shot is lining up.  It's taken 27 years and relentless persistence, but I have this striking feeling that I may find my greatness, at least for the moment, in this next pursuit.  While it must be nice to be a golf pro, this experience proves to me that we are all pros at something, it's just a matter of taking enough swings to ultimately find the sweet spot.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A New Adventure Begins

And so it is official-- the end of one adventure ushers in the beginning of an incredible, very different new one.  After an excruciating two months of scattered ideas, disparate thoughts, and incomplete plans, the best case scenario has somehow come to fruition.  I feel compelled to write this entry as a personal reminder to not give up on the dream, no matter what anyone says or what you may have to give up to do it.  The job:  OneSeed Expeditions in Denver, CO, bringing adventurous and socially conscious travelers to sought after destinations for weeks of trekking, camping, and experiencing the local culture.  With part of the sale going toward women to start businesses in Nepal, my philanthropic contributory itch is satisfied.  My role: bringing these trips into people's lives anyway I know how and helping this incredible start up grow. For me, the mission of finding the perfect balance, that essential transition out of the epic vagabond adventure and back into functional society, is deemed a success.

As always, there has been a massive lesson learned as I fit together more pieces of the giant puzzle we call life.  There is a natural flow of things.  It's our responsibility to adamantly strive for what feels right down to our core.  I am living proof.  As the dollars dwindled and loud voices of discouraging forces challenged my big plans, I somehow managed to mottle through and keep pushing for what I knew was right.  Contemplation of settlement constantly plagued me, festering when complacency fell upon me, but I knew that it would drive me crazy to do something out of desperation that felt so wrong.

What I've discovered is that as you persist in carving out your path, the core feeling of either dread, or excitement, contentment, or discomfort become increasingly striking and impossible to ignore.  It's scary to start with nothing and figure out what to do with your life, seemingly out of mid air.  But there are signs, and when you listen to that internal voice with complete assurance and confidence, it will tell you what to do.  Have faith that there is order to it all.  Making sacrifices and being persistent and patient are part of the challenge, but in the end it's worth the roller coaster ride.

So now begins a new life.  There is hard work ahead and closing the door on this phase of free spirited travel and discovery still leaves me with twinges of sadness now and again.  With that said, finally I feel a sense of satisfaction and closure with this chapter.  Jumping back on a plane to run off to Spain or some other foreign locale is no longer a tempting distraction.  Instead I have a feeling of deep appreciation for all of those supremely meaningful experiences and, in retrospect, I can say with complete assurance that the time spent abroad, every ounce of it, was precious.  It achieved what it was intended to achieve and so much more.  Denver will bring a new type of fulfillment to the forefront as I am at last ready to dedicate my time and energy into something bigger than myself.  The previously terrifying idea of commitment is now the one thing I welcome.  Hello new life, I think we are going to get on quite well.

I leave this entry with a quote that sums it up quite perfectly:

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.  Don't be trapped by dogma- which is living with the results of other people's thinking.  Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary." -Steve Jobs

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Run Bulls Run: A San Fermin Story

The five of us pour out of our tiny Euro rental car after the long voyage from Madrid to the Basque country.  We’re decked out from head to toe in our white digs, smacked in the face by the rapid temperature drop,  and totally unprepared for what will become one of the most fantastically chaotic weekends that can only be summed up as a perfect debacle.  Little did we realize that in just moments we would be covered in red wine, dancing in the streets, and beginning a sleepless marathon with thousands of heavy party animals from all around the world.

The highly anticipated annual festival of San Fermin, held in the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, is a week long time honored tradition where hordes of crazy locals and visitors run through the streets with massive bulls taking their final journey from their corrals and into the main bull arena.   It is considered the most internationally renowned celebration in Spain. Its roots date back to as early as the 16th century but San Fermin’s boost of worldwide fame can be attributed to Earnest Hemingway’s account of his experiences in the 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises.  For some, San Fermin is a chance to witness a part of history; for others it is an opportunity to party nonstop; and for those brave (or crazy) enough, it’s the possibility of being able to get a glimpse of the bulls while run alongside them.

Our group was here for all of the above.  As Spain expats, my fellow English teacher buddies and I couldn’t miss this highly anticipated event.  How perfect that a few of my dear friends and brother decided to make the voyage thousands of miles from the US to join in the revelry.   We agreed to rent one car and squeeze in to meet other friends who were already way ahead of us.

Accommodations for the week were slim pickings and cost an arm and a leg, so we jointly shared a tiny hotel room outside of town for the seven of us.  The tight sleeping arrangements were of little concern to us as we arrived and eagerly hopped on the regularly running shuttle where the party was already underway.  It dumped us off in the city center and we dove into the sea of white and red that was buzzing with excitement.

Our first mission was to make a few essential purchases:  signature logoed red scarves to finish off our uniforms, bocadillos to provide sustenance (these common Spanish hoagie sandwiches were the only food we were able to get our hands on for the entirety of the weekend), and lots and lots of red wine.  We filled giant clear plastic cups and peculiar leather satchels with cheap boxed vino tinto (red wine) and hit the streets.  Before we knew it we were completely immersed in the celebrations, jump-roping with strangers in the center of a spontaneous dance party, frolicking in the bull stables, and having an all out wine fight in Plaza de Castillo, Pamplona’s central square.  Hours slinked by as we lost all conception of time and reality.

Eventually our brave bull runners, my brother and Carolina friend, decided a bit of shut eye before their daring dash was a wise decision.  But with more of my local friends joining us to continue the all out fiesta, it took little contemplation to conclude that a few of us would probably not be seeing the inside of that hotel room before the 8 a.m. run.  We proceeded to let the good times roll as the streets became even more chaotic and the real party heated up.

More hours slipped away and before we knew it the street cleaners were clearing the way for the morning event.  My local amigo brought the three of us that remained to a spot that was prime real-estate to be front and center for the main show.  Makeshift wooden fences were constructed each morning for a select few to grab a spot above the crowd.  We wrestled and elbowed our way to a sliver of fence and at 5:00 a.m. we proceeded to shiver away the next several hours, straddling a wooden log as our buzzes wore off and a mean rush of hunger and sleepiness swept over us.  All we could do was wait and hope that we would at least get to witness my brother and friend’s proud moment as they dart by us, triumphantly outrunning a herd of agitated bulls.

Three hours have now past since we found our tiny sliver of fence to prop ourselves up on as we eagerly wait to see our companions run by.  The hunger and exhaustion have past and at this point we are simply delirious.  The others from our group have joined us, comfortably squatting behind the fence, and all of us are eagerly await the big show.  

There is a sea of heads in front of us, packed into the narrow streets of the old town and pouring out into the clearing ahead.  Thousands of adrenaline pumped runners are bouncing up and down, bursting at the seams with pent up excitement and anticipation.  Spectators craning their necks, squeezing onto the tiny balconies, and climbing anything they can find, fight for a glimpse of what is to come. Reporters take their position and rescue workers prepare stretchers for the fallen ones.  This continues for the next half hour.  Finally a ripple of shouting and intensity rushes over the jumping participants. 

The first bull tears through the crowd and a herd of men barrel past us.  My hands full with cameras and trying to prop myself up on the wobbly post, I fix my eyes on the plethora of people running for their lives.  The next several bulls run by in mere seconds.  Desperately scanning the scene for my brother, all I can see is a mass of white shirts and red scarves, and the frantic expressions of those crazy enough to take on this adventurous endeavor.  At last I catch a glimpse of one familiar face as my brother is triumphantly completing his mission. 

 It’s been less than five minutes since the run began and the crowd is already dwindling.   Once the last of the runners reach our spot, we at last can peel ourselves off of the fence and begin to make our way towards the bull ring, the bulls’ final destination.  At this point, a new level of tiredness falls upon us as we approach the 24 hour mark of this sleepless adventure.  Desperately, we search for my brother and friend becoming increasingly hopeless to finding our needle in the haystack.

Finally, after an hour, the boys proudly march into sight, glowing with elation.  We discover that after the run, the true dare devils convened at center stage within the bull ring to go toe to toe with young steers.  With nothing but a thin layer of rubber separating the sharp tips of their horns with the novice “bull fighters”, the steers frantically bucked about and crazy thrill seekers got their fix.  The boys share with us their unbelievable accounts of this rare experience.  My brother recalls: 
“There was a pack of guys, 30 of them or so, crouched down at the opening of the gate where the bulls run out.  They expected the bulls to jump over them, but to their horror, one bull lowered his head and plowed right through the bodies… The craziest one of them all was a Texan, adorning his cowboy hat.  He jumped on the back of one of the steers and rode him as if he was in a rodeo. “

Their enthusiasm pumps us up with an essential second wind.  There is nothing more to do than celebrate, so at 10 am we find the nearest eatery where we pop a bottle of bubbly and share in the revelry over bottomless glasses of cava.  We find ourselves in a new state of delirium and spend the afternoon roaming about the streets yet again, as parades march by, children and adults play in the streets, and a new batch of visitors join in the fun.  With nothing but a short siesta on the grass in the central plaza, we all are running on nonexistent fumes.

Once arriving at the final anticipated event of our journey, a live outdoor concert by a local celebrated band, we are dead.  Our mission has been accomplished: we squeezed as much excitement as possible out of our San Fermin weekend.  Like sardines, we finally crash in our tiny hotel room, all seven of us somehow managing to carve out enough space to slumber.  And in the morning, we hop back into our little car, saying farewell to San Fermin and still in a foggy state of disbelief about this incredible two days that we would not soon forget.    

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Top Five To-Dos in Madrid

The traditional Spanish capital of Madrid is often overlooked as a top European destination, getting lost in the shadows of other cities like Paris, London, and Rome.  But with a plethora of outstanding food, a world class football team, green space galore, world famous art, and rich culture Spanish culture around every turn, it is fascinating how more tourists do not flood the streets as they do in these other hotspots in Europe.  With so much goodness to take in, how can visitors possibly decide how to fit it all in?  Here is a top five list of must-do activities for those fortunate enough to discover this absolute Spanish gem.

5) Tapas, Tapas, Tapas

 From upscale eateries to tucked away bars, one thing virtually all of the restaurant establishments in Madrid have in common is tapas.  This tradition of serving a small taste of food with each beverage began centuries ago as barmen sought out a solution in the hot summer months to keep pesky insects away from patrons’ drinks.  They would place a lid on the glass that was often a small plate, and eventually began to add a snack to the top, realizing that people tended to drink more when they were eating.  Since then, the Spanish have become increasingly creative in their tapas offerings.

Some minimal bars will merely plop down a pile of potato chips or fresh olives, while others provide creative pinchos (small bites served on top of a piece of bread) topped with goat cheese, salmon, or foie gras, to name a few.  One famous tapas bar in Madrid, El Tigre in the Chueca district, offers massive plates full of rich Spanish tortilla (popular egg and potato dish), fried croquettas (breaded balls of creamy dough), and spicy chorizo (Spanish sausage), piled high and free with the purchase of a cold drink.

4) Futbol!

After winning their third consecutive world championship, mentioning team Espana is a must.  And with several of the country’s team members regularly playing for local team, Real Madrid, catching a game at Santiago Burnabea Stadium makes the top of the list for things to experience while in town.  The famous football stadium is located in the north of the city, not far from the only towering skyscrapers in Madrid.

During off season or when there is a break in the action, the impressive sports arena offers comprehensive tours year around where visitors get a sneak peek into the modern dressing rooms, presidential balcony, press box, and trophy room, along with a walk around the pitch and a full panoramic view.  When it is game time, an elite group of the world’s finest football athletes show their skills.  World Cup and Euro Cup leading goal tender, Iker Casillas, and notorious celebrity sports star, Cristiano Ronaldo, sport the white B-win jerseys and guarantee an exciting match.

3) Green Space

Walking through the streets of Madrid, gazing up at the impressive architecture boasted throughout the main roads, it’s clear that this was a capital made for a king.  This goes for the parks as well.  The most central and famous park is Parque de Retiro, which was originally created for the royal family to enjoy a peaceful get away, or retirement, from the palace.  Today, several kilometers of green expanse and hidden nooks are free rein to residents and visitors to enjoy a leisurely day at the park.  In the center of the grounds is an elaborate fountain pouring into a small lake where paddle boats are offered at a steal.  Within the grounds are also small art exhibits and the famous glass palace, Palacio de Cristal.

Madrid’s largest park, Campo de Casa, was formally hunting ground for the royal family and now offers hiking trails, sports facilities, an amusement park, and a zoo.  And if that isn’t enough green, there are numerous smaller neighborhood parks always a stone throw away.

2) Art and Museums

Art is plentiful in this culturally rich Spanish city.  The most famous of the art museums is the world renowned, Museo de Prado.  It holds seven centuries of Europe’s finest art work, including the most impressive and largest collection of Spanish paintings and sculptures.  People come from far and wide to spend hours making their way through the massive halls of this monumental structure.

For a taste of modern art work, the Riena Sofia does not disappoint.  Fascinating seasonal exhibits utilize the senses and technology to create an entire art experience and great works of modern art geniuses span the walls.  In addition to the Prado and Riena Sofia, throughout the city there are always various temporary exhibits displayed anywhere from train stations to plazas.

1) A Walk through the Old Town and Beyond

The best thing to do in Madrid is simply walk around and experience the sheer greatness of this impressive Spanish city.  The best place to lose oneself is in the old town.  Plaza Mayor is situated in the heart of Madrid and must be experienced more than seen.  The accordion plays softly, couples amble by, and patrons fill patios.  People watching here is a must.  Beyond the walls of the square is the Mercado de San Miguel, filled with the finest food products and perfectly prepared cuisine.
Not far down the old cobble stone streets, the crowd parts and the massive palace, Palacio Real, fill your view.  The spectacular grounds give way to incredible views and tours are available to get a taste of Spanish royalty.  The famous opera house, culturally rich neighborhoods like La Latina and Lavapies, and the center of Spain, Sol, are all a short walk away.