January 31, 2019

Flying Home Via Madrid

After a few days in Seville, we headed onward to Madrid, the last leg of our journey.

I'd checked on train tickets from Seville to Madrid and saw the number 74. Assuming it meant 74 euros total for 3 travelers (since that's the way Alsa's website works), I thought it was a done deal. But nay, Renfe shows you prices per individual ticket rather than the total. So booking passage to Madrid became a little more difficult.

Instead of a 4 hour, 200 euro/passenger train ride, we opted to spend half that for a 7 hour bus ride (via carrier Socibus). Mr. Go likes buses better anyway, something about a better scenic view than trains. Given my tendency toward motion sickness, I was not looking forward to it.

We downloaded shows on our phones to keep Babs entertained, made sure we had puke bags handy and set off.

ProTip: Much of the time, bus routes, especially between smaller destinations, are not listed online. Save grief and money by going to the bus station beforehand to scope out the destinations and timetables. 

I stocked up on some snacks prior, because I had no idea how many times the bus was going to stop. I'm glad I did. We had one 15-minute stop about halfway through the trip, at a roadside gas station.

Babs felt sick for a little while, so I held her head over the plastic bag. Luckily no vomit, but she fell asleep with her forehead sagging against my palm.

She'd been snoozing on my lap for about 10 minutes when our bus was stopped and searched by the Guardia Civil. I knew I was completely innocent, but my heart started thumping anyway when the golden retriever came on board to sniff everyone. Two passengers had to deboard for a search. After a quick search of the luggage under the bus, we were released.

We stopped in Madrid, just a few kilometers from our airport destination, so the bus could top off on some oil, I think. A Spanish girl translated for us, but we were not convinced she knew what she was talking about. We loitered in the bus station for 20 minutes until the bus returned and brought us to the airport, where we called the SHS Hotel Aeropuerto shuttle.

We'd been using Airbnb this whole time. This was our first actual hotel since the States. Aside from the outrageous restaurant prices, it was lovely. Crisp sheets, an unending flow of hot water and good wifi.

Madrid has great public transportation, and between the hotel shuttle, the train and the green bus (with a stop directly outside our hotel), we were able to make the 7km jaunt from our hotel to city center for the next two days.

We didn't do a whole lot of exploring in Madrid. We were Over It, and cities aren't our favorite anyway. Madrid didn't even seem to have an old town proper. The Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol that are touted as the 'center' of the city were simply large plazas surrounded by shops. We didn't see any of the narrow cobblestone lanes that marked our other Old Towns.

Madrid felt like New York City to me. As we were making our way to the Puerta del Sol to check it out, I looked down the major pedestrian streets to find a sea of people. It made me shudder. We didn't spend much time there.

Instead we walked through El Retiro, one of the city's big parks. Mr. Go wanted to take a boat on the lake, but when we reached it we realized the lake was no more than a large pool. So we walked around it, then headed off for sushi.

Sibuya Urban Sushi Bar was phenomenal. As a large city with something for everyone, we found plenty of gluten-free options. Celioso was an exclusive gluten-free bakery with cupcakes, cakes, breads and cookies. Not all-star caliber, but we were tickled to sit down for coffee and cake just like Spaniards.

The next day, we managed to slip in just ahead of the lunch rush at the #1 rated restaurant in Madrid Los Montes de Galicia. With entrees starting at 20 euros, it was one of the pricier meals, but still cheaper than some mediocre meals in Denver, plus it was absolutely delicious. They served us two free tapas plates, plus a free dessert for Babs, who, as per usual, charmed all the wait staff.

We were so clever to book our flight to Spain in the evening, so our bodies could sleep on the long 9-hour leg. For some reason we neglected to do the same on the return journey. Our flight back to the states left at 8am (via Wow & Norwegian Air) which meant taking the airport shuttle at 5am.

With the sunlight streaming in through the plane windows, it was nearly impossible for Babs to snooze. We cajoled her into a 20-minute nap but for the remaining 8 hours and 40 minutes, she was wide awake.

We watched a movie, we listened to a book, we had snacks out of my backpack, she colored a little, took seventeen trips to the bathroom. She was a wreck by the end, tired but wired from a day of inactivity.

We landed in Chicago at 3pm, (10pm Spanish time). Then we proceeded to stand in the customs line for an hour. Due to the government shutdown, there were very few staff working and it was chaos. Finally we got our bag, got our rental car and drove an hour and a half to a Motel 6 in Saukville, WI.

It was 6:30pm (1:30am Spanish time) so we picked up a pizza from the Domino's next to the hotel. Babs couldn't stay awake long enough to eat it, so we saved her slice for her breakfast. (At 2am when we all woke up.)

At a 24-hour Subway we realized we could have basically an omelet by piling veggies on their egg patties. We puttered around at 24-hour Walmarts and Meijer (Babs needed snowboots) until it was time to return the car to the Green Bay airport and meet my in-laws, who would deliver us home.

The feeling of walking into my house was beyond lovely. I thought my house was small before, but after living in European apartments for months, our place seemed enormous. It was clean and spacious and smelled like home.

Not even the 2 feet of icy snow could spoil my happiness at being home. Re-integrating into U.S. society was easy. I appreciate the dependability so much more. And the ease of everything! To be able to call or go somewhere and explain what I need and to understand instructions.

I feel like I'm still processing everything. The ways in which we stretched the limits of our capabilities will have lasting effects in every area of our lives. The experiences and lessons we learned will continue to affect us as we reintegrate ourselves into our lives, as does any stint of extended travel.

We've already had a few conversations about what adventures 2019 will bring us, but for right now, we are thoroughly enjoying home.

January 21, 2019

Arcos de la Frontera & Going to the Hospital in Foreign Country

Our second house sit of the trip brought us to Arcos de la Frontera for 10 days. (More on becoming a house sitter in this post.) Mr. Go and our friend had their own Airbnb for the first two days while Babs and I cared for three lovely cats.

It took me another day and a half to recover from my food poisoning while Mr. Go and our friend explored Arcos, which is really quite tiny. The charming whitewashed old town, with its castle and church high on the hill, was rife with shops and restaurants.

The narrow lanes climbing up the high hill were a struggle for automotive traffic. If a truck had to stop to make a delivery, all the vehicles behind just had to wait. And pedestrians had to find a doorway to hop into when a car went by or else be nicked by the side mirror.

Our apartment was incredibly comfortable. We had a clothes dryer for the first time in two months and relished the efficiency of not waiting for the stuff on the rack to dry in the sun. The homeowners were an American & a British former American and very much our kind of people. She left games and markers out for Babs and upon her return, brought a gift from Barcelona for her!

There was a playground directly outside our front door that was always filled with kids. Annoying on New Year's Eve when they were tossing firecrackers at our windows, but otherwise fun for Babs to walk outside and have kids to play with. One girl with whom she played several times saw us on the sidewalk one day and greeted Babs with a hug just like they were old friends.

The cats were indoor/outdoor, but still somehow felt clean. As clean as a cat can be, anyway. It was a breeze to care for them. I never realized how lovely it is to have the warm weight and gentle vibration of its purrs on your lap (or chest, or hip). The oldest cat was a snuggler and slept in bed with Mr. Go, while Babs and I cuddled in the other guest room.

In the coming week we would discover several lovely hiking trails around Arcos, some that led to the lake and others wrapping along the river and around the castle.

But after two days in Arcos, our friend left for home and Mr. Go joined us at the apartment, tired and wrecked. As I was putting breakfast on the table, Babs headed upstairs to wash her hands, caught her toe on the first step and BAM, started screaming.

Her parents frantically rushed to her. All teeth were intact. There was no blood. That was good. I scooped her up and a second later, the blood came in big red drips. Mr. Go removed the paper towel after a moment to inspect then looked at me, face sheet-white, "We have to go to the hospital."

I had been dreading this situation, but knew it was all but inevitable. With three people on such an extended stay the odds were someone was going to need medical attention. I was just glad there was nothing broken.

Luckily, Mr. Go's Airbnb host had given our friend the phone number of her taxi driver friend, who'd driven him back to Jerez that morning. I called him and managed, in Spanish and a panic, to arrange a pickup.

Google told me there were two hospitals in Arcos, but it was a Saturday, and hours of operation on weekends were spotty. Our taxi driver, Juan Luis, bless him eternally, knew where to take us.

We checked in at the window and were pointed down the hall. I had a child who needed stitches, so when I saw an open door and a nurse in the room, I went in, I didn't care that she was still waiting on a patient. My typically hesitant Spanish was forced out of me by a million years of maternal instinct.

"Mi hija necesita puntos."

She pointed across the hall to the waiting room we hadn't noticed before. But before we sheepishly sat down, she removed the paper towel from Babs' chin to take a look, probably thinking these silly Americans were overreacting. But her eyebrows shot up and she nodded at me. Yep, stitches for sure.

There were two or three people waiting, and two or three nurses on duty. We were seen within 10 minutes. I was instructed to lay on the bed and hold Babs on my chest, pinning her arms down. Mr. Go was to hold her legs. One nurse held her head while another did the stitches.

To her credit, my daughter was so brave. She cried for a few minutes after the injury, but not a tear after that. Not even when they gave her two shots of anesthetic in the chin. She wound up with three stitches.

A doctor did a brief exam of her chin and jaw to check for anything broken. She spoke about a dozen words of English and not very confidently. We were to come back in 7-10 days to have the stitches removed. We asked what questions we could and thought we sort of understood the instructions. But when Juan Luis dropped us back off at home, we scheduled a consultation with our dear Doctor Friend in Colorado. DF told us the stitches looked well done and gave us the run down.

"It's really hard to mess up the aftercare for stitches," she told me, sensing our panic through the video screen. Nothing could have eased my worry any better.

DF recommended leaving the stitches in for 3-5 days, so we split the difference and on day 6, went to the other hospital in town, as it was closer to our apartment. But the nurse told us the stitches weren't ready to come out. So we tried again the next day, at the hospital we received the stitches.

Luckily, our previous doctor was there. I'm pretty sure she let us cut the line of 5 or so patients. We slipped in and within five minutes were out again.

Mr. Go had purchased us Arch RoamRight travel insurance before our trip and the hospital took that info on our first visit. I'll update this post if/when the bill comes in the mail.

We took it easy after the injury. Probably too easy. We made Babs drink her meals through a straw for several days, worried about her jaw and spills down her chin.

Arcos was very comfortable. If there hadn't been an injury we'd have been going out way more often to explore. We liked the small-town feel, the beautiful scenery and the charming old town.

But we were getting kind of tired. We'd been exploring Spain for over two months. Always thinking about what we should do next, where to go and how to be prepared and safe. Entertaining Babs and ourselves, struggling to communicate, to keep putting ourselves out there even when it was uncomfortable, because otherwise what's the point?

Taking a slice out of our normal routine to live in a different country has not been easy. It has been beautiful, delicious and fun. Navigating medical issues in a foreign country (various infections, bloody noses and stitches) were some of the more challenging moments, but challenges of all sizes came daily.

I was ready for a rest. To let my brain rest by falling back into the comforts of the known, of an old routine. I needed a break from exploring. I'll be ready for more before too long, but we were counting the days to our flight back home.

We just had a few more days to spend in Seville and Madrid first.

January 18, 2019

Jerez de la Frontera: A Vagabonding Christmas

We departed Seville after two nights via our very first Renfe train, simply because Alsa did not run a bus to Jerez. The Santa Justa station is big, beautiful and comfortable, with plentiful restaurants (including a McD's with free wifi) and shops. It's big enough, but you won't get lost in it.

We purchased our train tickets online because we were nervous. There were no extra processing fees, and you don't need paper tickets. Attendants just come around the cars after takeoff and check the ticket on your phone.

It was a comfortable 1-hour train ride. The train is steadier than buses, because they go in more or less a straight line and don't have to contend with Spain's plentiful traffic circles. You can also always be sure there is a bathroom on board, a plus when travelling with kiddos.

We spent the night of Christmas Eve in Jerez, after a slight miscommunication debacle with our Airbnb hosts in which we were both equally to blame. We wound up loitering around Jerez for a couple hours with our heavy packs before they were able to meet us to hand off the keys.

After we checked in, we picked up some groceries (cookies for Santa, sherry for us) and set about prepping for Christmas.

For the previous few days, we watched some Christmas shows on Netflix and talked about Santa Claus, trying to make the holiday festive and exciting for Babs. She'd written a letter to Santa while in school in Albir, and we mailed it from a Correos box in Galera.

In Seville, Mr. Go had snunk out to buy a small toy or two that we'd scoped out earlier and some wrapping paper. Our apartment had a small potted plant, so Babs and I drew some decorations on the back of the cookie-box cardboard and cut them out. We left Santa his cookies and an onion for the reindeer (we forgot to buy carrots) and let the magic happen.

Without snow, big dinners and a decorated tree at home, it was a very different feel to Christmas. The day snuck up on me. Honestly, I didn't miss the holiday all that much. I was perfectly content letting the day go by just like any other, walking around with my family, enjoying the sun and life in general to its fullest.

But we tried our best to make it a special day for Babs. It helped that Spain is big on Christmas, and every town had twinkly lights and trees in their town squares. I think she had a good time, sneaking out of her room in the morning to peek at what was tucked around the makeshift tree.

Christmas Day we welcomed a friend from the States who'd come to visit for the week. We had our Christmas lunch in the main plaza and wandered around the streets as night fell and the lights came on. I was surprised at how many restaurants were open, both on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Most of the shops were closed and most of the good restaurants too, but it was no trouble to find a place to eat.

During the day, we walked around exploring. We toured the Diez Merito bodega (a winery for sherry), which was wildly unimpressive. Our guide was doing her work study and though she did her best to do the tour in both Spanish and English, we still could understand only every other word. At the end, we were able to taste some of the sherries, and were able to discover sherry is not our thing. The sweet sherries are like syrup and I'd rather drink a red wine than a dry sherry.

But Jerez is famous for its sherries, as one boundary of what they call the Sherry Triangle in Southwestern Spain.

On our last night in Jerez, I woke up in the middle of the night, managed to slither down from the top bunkbed in a flop sweat and was violently sick. From the Mercadona bagged roast chicken, the bottle of sherry consumed that night, the chocolate our friend brought from home as a Christmas gift, or a hellish combination of the three, we'll never know. I was sick all morning, leaving Mr. Go to clean up, pack and corral our party on his own.

The four of us took a 40-minute bus to our next destination, Arcos de la Frontera, where a pet-sit stint and a hospital adventure awaited us.

January 16, 2019

Seville, with Kids, on a Budget

From the cave, we took buses to Seville, with a stop in Granada just to sleep for a few hours.

It was my undying wish for a hot shower and to wash the fleas off the clothes in our duffel, but alas. The cheapest Airbnb we could find in Seville did not have that squeaky clean feel I was so desperate for. Despite the animal dander still clinging to my clothes, I refused to get into the moldy shower stall.

Grubby accommodations aside, the city of Seville has wonderful history, mind-blowing baroque architecture and the perfect Spanish Old Town. We nearly got lost in the higgledy piggledy cobblestone streets on our first day.

You absolutely could spend days, not to mention a bunch of money, touring historic buildings, museums and shops, but you may not be surprised to learn that my most favorite things to do in Seville were 100% free.

TO DO: Plaza de Espana y Parque de Maria Luisa

My #1 must-see in Seville was the Plaza de Espana. A street performer was making a million shining bubbles for kids to run through and it gave the place a magical feel. With arched bridges over the little mote, bright and intricately painted tiles adorning the spires, it was a romantic's dream come true. We even photobombed a couple getting their engagement shots taken.

You can wander through the pillars and arches, go upstairs for a nice view of the park or hire a boat to motor you around the moat, but that last one sounded silly to me. We enjoyed the water and the fountains by walking around, and didn't spend a centimo.

The Plaza is set at the north corner of the Parque de Maria Luisa, which was my second favorite thing. Stroll through the hedges, marvel at the architecture of the surrounding buildings, let your kid play on the playground. We could have spent all day meandering through the grounds.

Between the Plaza de Espana and the Real Alcazar is a little park where they had a fair of sorts set up. Carnival rides, bumper cars, a ferris wheel and an ice rink, plus churro and other food vendor stalls. We spotted it at dusk, because of the lights, and it definitely looked more charming at dusk than in the daytime, when we had time to get back and explore it. But we spent too much money to let Babs ride some rides anyway, because she's a good kid and deserves to be scared on a rollercoaster.

La Catedral de Sevilla

One of the big attractions in Seville is the Cathedral. The third largest church in the world and the largest gothic church in the world, it covers 23,500 square meters (253,000 square feet). Christopher Columbus is entombed there.

It started out as a mosque, built in 1184, but was consecrated a Cathedral in 1248 and had Gothic and baroque additions throughout the centuries.

We managed to time our visit to Seville on the worst possible day, the days leading up to Christmas. The tourists were so thick you could almost crowd-surf down the street. The line for the church went halfway down the block.

Luckily, after passing through Seville to Jerez, then Arcos, we decided to return to the city for a few nights on our way up to Madrid. Early January was a much calmer time, though the tourists never really stop flowing through the city.

Inside is cavernous, with stained glass, pillars and arches, alcoves of 15th-century artwork and shrines. There are slivers of time when you can climb the tower for free, but we paid the 9 euros/adult to spend an hour gawking at the cavernous cathedral, the ornate organ, the shrines, the tomb of Christopher Columbus, and climb the bell tower, La Giralda.

The view of the church spires from the tower is like something out of Beauty and the Beast.

Our Airbnb on our second run-through of Seville was a mere block from the Cathedral, tucked in charming Old Town right off a lovely square of orange trees, next to the Spanish turron (fudge) and sweets shop, Sabor, where much of the time they have baskets of samples and offer free tastes.

Comer: La Brunilda

We ate at plenty of bad restaurants. We were charged inordinate amount for tiny tapas plates, like they were almost daring us to complain. But I can recommend La Brunilda. It's tucked off the main drag and there was an actual line outside waiting for it to open. Everything was amazing, though a little pricey for our vagabonding standards. But totally worth it.

Shower Thoughts:

During our first pass through Seville, the square in front of the cathedral and in the Plaza de Espana were lined with horse-drawn carriages pulling tourists on sightseeing tours around the city for entirely too much money. Babs liked seeing horses up close.

But then we saw a horse slip on the stones and fall hard on her knees with a disconcerting clatter and it made me sad. We had just finished reading Black Beauty (for the second time), and I wondered how happy those cab horses really were. I wondered if they were being cruelly exploited to serve tourism and I wondered if we weren't an unwitting part of it. We want to travel too, to see these wonders dropped all over the globe, to experience different cultures, to learn their history.

Seville was a tourist hub on par with Granada, understandably so, given the beauty and the incredible history there. And I felt the same way about it as the Alhambra. Too many souvenir shops, too much comfort, too many American accents.

In any case, it was beautiful and we enjoyed our days in Seville. I'm glad we were able to hit it a second time and visit the Cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Seville, we were headed to Jerez, where we would meet up with a friend from Colorado and spend Christmas.

January 9, 2019

Get Free Lodging Internationally: House and Pet Sitting

When in need of a pet-sitter in the past, we've used Mindmyhouse.com with great success (this post), but as potential home- and pet-sitters, we went with TrustedHouseSitters.com, for the sheer volume of available pet sits. The fee is a bit steep at $120/year, but having scored 17 nights of free lodging so far, it's already paid for itself.

This article has a good breakdown of the different house-sitting websites out there and even some coupon codes for discounts. On TrustedHouseSitters, you can sign up for a Home Sitter or Homeowner membership separately, or combine the two for an extra fee.

The competition can be stiff, so make sure your profile is as complete as possible to make homeowners feel comfortable with you. We even added a video to introduce ourselves. I applied for 7 house sits, each of which had up to 10 other applicants. We were chosen for two sits, would have gotten three but the travel dates didn't end up working out.

Our first house sit was located in the tiny (pop. 1200) cave town of Galera.

We got some lovely mountain scenery on our walks with the dogs. Galera doesn't have much to distinguish itself, other than the Tutugi and Castellon Alto sites, where artifacts (and even 3000+ year old mummified human remains) from ancient settlements were found. The Galera museum houses the mummy and you can visit for 2,50 euro.

There's a little copse of English and English-speakers in Galera. Our Scottish neighbor acted as our homeowner's assist, bringing us pellets for the stove and other supplies. He has three dogs of his own and would sometimes join us on walks. In fact, the whole neighborhood was littered with cats, dogs and at least one chicken that we could see.

The cave in which we resided was small but cozy. It had all the modern amenities you'd expect, just carved out of the side of a mountain instead of built with bricks or wood.

Lucky for me, Mr. Go is an early riser, and so was tasked with feeding Meg, the 13-year-old dachshund. Each morning he did acrobatics in his efforts to clean up her overnight accidents before she stepped in them as she tried to remind him from under his feet that she was hungry, while also feeding her quickly to quiet her frantic whines before she woke Babs. For as slow as she moved the rest of the day, for 10 minutes around feeding times, she was as sprightly as a pup.

After everyone had breakfast, we took our morning stroll with the three other dogs (Meg took a nap after the morning excitement), and sometimes the cats tagged along too. Of the remaining three dogs, Bobblehead had hydrocephalus and was unable to walk on her own, Benji probably had fleas and Pippin was a bully with an underbite. (She was our favorite, though.)

We love dogs of all shapes, sizes and special needs. And these dogs were quirky and charming and we will talk fondly of them for a long time. But between poor old Meg's incontinence and handling Bobblehead, who inevitably lies in a little bit of pee until I can get her puppy pads changed and bathe her, I had a hard time getting myself to feel clean, and that wore on me by the end of the week.

Bob's hydrocephalus also means she needs you to hold her head into her bowls to eat and drink, and needs to be carried in a sling for walks, which we never begrudged. (The sling was pretty fun.) But I did learn through experience to put a puppy pad in the sling for when she needs to wee during a walk.

The two cats were self-sufficient in the way cats are. One was MIA for the first 36 hours we were there. I haven't cared for a cat in my adult life, and had to remember to clear all the food off the counter if the cats were in the house, lest someone help themselves.

The homeowner was super nice (she even gave us a lift from the next town over) and really appreciated the daily updates I sent her, complete with pictures of her menagerie. She left a box of Christmas decorations out for Babs to put up around the cave, which helped us to feel festive on our unorthodox holiday.

The owner had warned us to be vigilant for fleas and on our last few days in the cave, flea bites started showing up on Babs' arms. The homeowner had another week out of town, so we were to hand off the cave and crew to the next home sitter and give her all the complex instructions. However, she was late and we had to split to catch our bus, so the owner's sister stepped in to meet the next gal, though I did give her a call after we were settled in Seville to give her a few key pointers (mainly, to put a pad in the sling).

The seven days we spent in The Cave were challenging in some ways and undoubtedly memorable. Each dog was lovable and I appreciated them all. We had missed snuggling with warm, furry pups. Though I tease that our own is a nuisance, it made me miss my Flotsam.

After the house sit has been completed, you have to request a review from the homeowner via TrustedHouseSitters.com. The homeowner also has to request a review from the sitter, which is a flaw in my opinion. It allows both sides to potentially hide bad experiences from prospective house-sits.

But we got a stellar 5-star review to add to our profile. Here's hoping it will inspire confidence in homeowners to choose us for future house sits wherever in the world we go.