Bret and I instantly connected through writing and in person. We had the same ideologies in life and the same hunger for learning and knowledge. I loved his intellect and southern charm, his kindness and gentleness. Our grander visions in life meshed so well, we became soul mates instantly, although I was stubborn at recognizing this in the beginning!
So after we met, we were attached at the hip, we took some courses together, we played soccer and worked out together, we clubbed together, which I have to stop there and say; my favorite memories were when we would dress to the nines and hit up the raunchiest nightclubs in downtown. We'd go, just us two, and dance dance dance! I love that about us, we didn't care what others thought, we liked the excitment and we liked to let loose together! Anyways, Bret was working at San Francisco Rose on Greenville and I was at Chili's when we first met so we shared common interests in bar tending and restaurants, which made our relationship easier given the long hours and late nights! At that time Bret decided to ditch college, institutionalized education just wasn't for him. He is extremely bright and given his education at Jesuit, he already had a solid foundation. Bret always said he knew he would find his path unintentionally and so his relaxed "go with it" attitude was a perfect match to my overly ambitious quest to plan for my future. Bless him, he would sit and listen to my crazy and spontaneous ideas and carefully and logically try to construct what he was getting into! Those were always loud conversations!
Since Bret and I were around each other constantly, Mirna and Bret formed a friendship of their own and we all three clicked exceptionally well from the get go! Mirna and Bret liked to poke fun at my extra sensitive, gullible and transparent ways, while Bret and I always joked of Mirna's forgetfulness, scatter brain and procrastination!! Mirna was always best at taking stabs at Bret... Bret is like his dad, you get him angry and you get bit hard. My sensitivity doesn't allow for those stabs so I always chose my jokes carefully ;) Mirna was the best roommate a girl could ask for in a best friend. She was clean, respectful, communicative and fun! If I said, "party tonight?" Mirna said, ok! If I said, "wanna make dinner," Mirna said ok! If I said, "Mirna let's go out and run naked down Henderson Ave ( with a little alcohol persuasion)," Mirna would say ok!!! She was my ultimate adventure buddy... we did it all! So when I said, Mirna let's go study in Spain, Mirna said ok ok!!!! So spring 2008, Mirna took "leave from Idle Rich Pub, I left Tecole as it was closing and opening back into Blackfriar Pub, and Bret was hired on as a barback. This was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one!
Mirna and I planned to be in Spain for four months, living with a Senora, Conchita. Traveling together was a new challenge for us, because as you know, it brings out a different side of you. Our relationship was challenged immensely, but we tried to stay positive. Barcelona was a whirlwind to say the least. Parties until sunrise, then head straight to school! Fortunately, I had saved all my electives in college for my senior year and since I had such great grades, my dean allowed me to study away my senior year and take all those electives!!!!( normally you can't study abroad after junior year) so Barcelona was not about school, it was about culture, about differences and similarities, it was about recognizing human connection, as well as realizing my own potential. I met so many amazing people and took such neat classes. When traveling to Morocco we interacted with ladies at the University, we learned how they really felt about the hijab, we interacted with villages no greater than 400 people and learned the struggles they overcame just to get an education. Most students felt bad for these people who seemed to struggle, but I saw no differences in the struggles all humans face at one given time. And, I saw the struggles to be beautiful in a way, overcoming these obstacles gave these people strength and will, it also gave them bravery and stamina. Without struggle, how do you ever find peace? This was my theme throughout my trip. I quite feeling sorry for the way others lived and started to respect them for how they handled these struggles and of course their triumphs. Things we value in the west that mean so much to our every day lives, I noticed, were not missed by many in other places. Who cares about having no Walmart Supercenter, who cares about pooping in a toilet dug in the ground, who cares about having to walk miles to work and did it really matter that families lived together to save money? This was the beginning of my deep love for Cultural Anthropology.
I had a wonderful Anthropology professor in Spain who traveled with us to Morocco. Brilliant man, quiet, full of experiences, but lonely. He was a traveler at heart and seemed to have been roaming for a while. I met a lot of these people. One day while road tripping to Rabat, I asked him if he knew of any tips on traveling on a budget. I had met many backpackers in Europe who seemed to be having adventures of a lifetime and I wanted in on the action; I was already planning a backpacking trip in my head for when I finished school. He gave me a piece of information that changed my life forever. He told me about Couchsurfing. I wrote it down and looked it up when I got back to Barcelona only to find this was my answer to traveling for extended periods of time on a dime!!
I will elaborate on Couchsurfing later, but I can't touch on our studies abroad without mentioning a life altering experience for Mirna. ( and all involved) Mirna and I decided to plan our first weekend trip away from Barcelona and go to London with a couple of friends from the program. We were so excited about seeing another European country for the first time and were anxious from all the other students' stories, since we didn't begin exploring until a month in. So we get to London and our hostel is on the outskirts of edgy and good town. Most hostels I've stayed in exceed the reputation of a shithole, but this one lived up to that name. It was literally being built as we were there! Stinky, dirty, full of people in the halls, outside smoking and in the T.V room! Loud and very very unprotected. Locks didn't work and I wondered about thieves. So we check in and get situated, no mind to the condition of the place because it costed a whole $10 per night! Mirna had made a few complaints about feeling bad and saying her neck was real sore, but I kept insisting it was because she slept with her head down on the airplane tray the whole time! How do people do that! Lol! So that night we explore a bit, but Mirna went to bed early and we thought that was for the better. One intellectual conversation after another, I was up late talking with many guests. ( one reason I love hostels so much, the travelers are sooooo interesting, and you learn a lot from them!) so I was surprised with my lack of sleep, that I was up before Mirna. Mirna decided she must have the flu and said she would hang back and try to get more rest. She had a fever, was nauseous and her body felt sore. We thought the same, so mentioned we'd check on her later if she didn't call first. 4pm roles around and no word from Mirna, we had gotten lost around town and this ruined our plans to swing by and check on her during lunch. Worried, we headed back and couldn't believe what we saw. First of all, I know Mirna like the back of my hand, so when we walked into our 12 person bunk room, and Mirna was laying on her back in the middle of the floor with her arms and legs out wide, I knew something was horribly wrong. Mirna won't even walk barefoot in her own house! There was an innkeeper working there and staying for free, who had commandeered a bed in our room. She had books stacked up tall all around her and was reading a political book when we walked in. I immediately went to Mirna and tried to see why she was passed out on the floor. The girl said she had been there for hours and that she had been moving from bed to bed. Red flags everywhere, Mirna doesn't do things like that! So I tried waking her up, her head in my lap, I am trying to see what's going on. As if she was born yesterday, she was acting like a toddler. Spitting at me, jumbled speech and her eyes, they were glazed. When I realized she had soiled herself I became scared and angry. I was pissed at that girl. She said she just thought Mirna was hungover! So I begin talking to the other girls about what to do. It's sad coming from a country where ambulances cost thousands of dollars, we actually were trying to figure out how to pay for the ride! I snapped out of it when the Canadian innkeeper remarked, I'll call you one, they don't cost here. So instantly I agreed and the ambulance was there quickly. Mirna fought them the whole way, I was too scared to cry, and I could see the fear in their eyes. I knew it was bad. We took the train to the hospital and when we arrived they had given Mirna a spinal tap. She had Bacterial Meningitis, the absolute worst kind, the one that leaves brain damage. The three of us immediately were treated and vaccinated and then sent to a B&B in Chelsea, as sort of a place of incubation. We were under strict rules not to leave for the first two days. The school in Barcelona shut down for two days, while it was quarantined and we learned of another student from another program who came down with it a week later. We partied with that same person before we left. Then we learned an old man had died from meningitis weeks prior in Barcelona. Mirna was in the hospital for a painful two weeks. We came back to Barcelona after one week and had to say goodbye. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but Mirna's father was there and that made me feel better. We wondered if she would recover with little to no damage. All the internet articles pointed the other way... she simply had it for too long we thought. Miraculously, Mirna did recover, but had to cut the trip early and go back home to recover fully. It took her I think a good year to physically and mentally recover and I believe the only long term permanent symptom she still has is a constant ringing in her ears. The docs said she was hours from death and if we hadn't acted when we did, she would have died. I've only had a handful of close relatives die so almost losing a friend (sister really) was very eye opening to me. I think it certainly made me feel closer to Mirna on a spiritual level, a stronger energy emerged. A more mature relationship had emerged and it was almost like we knew what was best for each other all of the sudden. We both had the ability to imagine each other's paths and give each other constructive criticism in the best way possible! Mirna and I were beginning to see each other's opportunities, and so after Barcelona we spent the next year settling into our jobs at the pubs and saving money!
After coming home, I felt inclined to have a plan. I needed to formulate what career was best for me and the closest thing I was interested in was Cultural Anthropology. I loved research and thought long term field studies on a particular culture would suit me well, so as soon as I came home, I began thinking of graduate school. However, I knew I wanted a small break between school to work at the Friar and travel and also to give myself a break from the grind! That break from pressure into choosing my next move ended up being one of the best decisions I had made yet.
Coming back to the Blackfriar was heaven sent! The place was an absolute zoo and for anyone wanting to be in the scene, they went there on Friday and Saturday nights. The line to get in would wrap around the corner and serving drinks was hysterical. I remember dodging the crowd with a tray full of drinks by ducking low near everyone's waist, hoping that that round wouldn't crash down because it would take ten more min to fill the order and get it out to your section! Sections were nonexistent after 11pm as the crowd got so heavy everyone resorted to standing and squeezing in like sardines. I loved it! When most waitresses cringed at having to fight the space and fight people walking tabs, I embraced it. Eventually I learned to ditch my trays when I could and got very good at holding many many drinks in my hands. Instead of going back and forth into my section I would take all drink orders in one swoop so wait time was less but I pushed to sell shots because they were short and easy to move. I memorized orders so I didn't have to carry a pen and paper and this made wait time even less.. if I got a drink wrong I would convince the person they needed what I brought them instead! I learned to sell and selling was my strong point. I was able to always convince customers they needed this or that and whether I really knew much about the beer or liquor I sold, I could convince them otherwise! I made lots of buddies and even became a sort of matchmaker, helping guys ask out girls and being the good wing woman/cocktail waitress. I came to really develop relationships with my customers and they ranged from lawyers to accountants, from students to frequent travelers and then the community of folks who lived in Uptown, normally moving in from California and other states or just graduating. I began to tell my customers and friends my dreams and goals of traveling and noticed a big interest from their end. They encouraged me and I soon began to learn that one way to substantiate my actions was to pass my thoughts through them first, sometimes thoughts I would have on the spot. For instance, I would tell someone of my intentions to backpack more and then they would start asking if I've traveled before and I would tell them I studied abroad and before I knew it, I would burst out with, " I'm going on a big trip soon I just don't know where yet," and they would say oh you should go to xy&z! But really that thought of a big trip was way more underdeveloped that I had led to believe! Before too long I had recommendations on places to go and I began looking these places up and taking ideas! I got a journal and began writing down places and tips, as well as resources for traveling and instead of forgetting what I wrote, I would take that info and research what was written. Soon a nice trip began to formulate and I could see a path or plan in the making.
During my first year and a half at Blackfriar something else unfolded I hadn't anticipated; my introduction to Couchsurfing. I came back from Spain in spring 2008, graduated from UTD that December and so by 2009 I had all the time in the world to plan my trip and figure out my next move! Remember that professor who had mentioned Couchsurfing as a wonderful way to travel on a budget? Well, while flipping through my journal from Spain I came across his advice and remembered this could be a way for me to travel frugally on my, then, very loosely planned backpacking trip. So I began looking into how it worked and what I needed to do. For those of you who have never heard of Couchsurfing, CS is a non profit org. Which is a database where travelers can stay with locals wherever they go, for free. The idea is cultural exchange and is for those who love meeting and exploring other people. CS is not for everyone and requires common sense, flexibility, instinct and trust, so with that said it is hard to get involved with CS if you don't actually get involved. The way it works is, you create a profile, which must be complete and detailed, then you acquire feedback from travelers after they stay with you and vice versa. The problem is getting started because most people won't stay with you unless you've had experience and feedback. This was a huge dilemma, I hadn't planned on traveling until my trip but I needed experience and so I began looking for ways to get recommendations and build my account so I could build a good reputation. I soon learned that there were CSing groups in most cities where the locals would meet with all their guests. It was essentially a community of Dallasites and their world travelers who got together weekly at various bars around town. So I began going and meeting these locals. I organized my first meeting at Blackfriar and paid the tab just to introduce myself and make a loud presence. It worked and soon enough I was acquainted with many travelers and hosts who began giving me reviews, by the time I left for my trip I had enough feedback to grab hosts attention abroad!
I had secured my mode of travel, backpacking; I had secured my lodging, the next thing was to figure out my route, my budget and how to stay safe as a single female traveler, especially in most of the countries I had planned to visit. The task seemed daunting but Blackfriar and CSing continued to be my biggest promises to actually making the trip happen.......read more next week and find out what happens!