The Year of Countless “First Times”

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View of Granada from Alhambra Palace (Spain). Photo by Cherie Orwoll.

As this year is slowly coming to its end, I can’t help but look back to everything I have accomplished during this time. 2015 has indeed been my year. It has been the year of many “first times” – the year that gave me so many moments of bliss, moments that will make my heart smile as long as I live.

As the year began, I set up this blog to write about my travels. I had wanted to do that for a long time, and it is the first one among all the “first times” I have experienced this year. I have doubted myself, thinking that I wouldn’t last long and that I would soon give up my writing. But I have managed to keep it up, and soon my little blog will be exactly one year old. There is a special person, someone who played a big part in the creation of this webpage, who always encouraged me to keep writing, to keep posting; someone who read each and every one of my articles, examined all of my photographs, and gave me honest advice time and time again. This person believed in me and cared for me when I didn’t believe in myself and when I needed to be cared for more than ever. He knows who he is, and I could never say a big enough “thank you” to him to show how much I appreciate everything that he’s done for me.

Throughout the year, I have received private messages from some people, mostly people I would never have expected to write to me or to follow my blog. But those individuals have written such beautiful things to me about how my writing inspires them, encouraging me to keep doing it. Each person who contributed to my motivation in this way has been an important support for me. If only a handful of people want to read what I write here and find it interesting or useful in any way, then I have accomplished my goal.

Today, this blog is still small and humble, but to me it is like a dear brain child, my way of telling everyone at home, and everyone who wants to listen, about my travels and thoughts.

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Feria del Caballo, Jerez de la Frontera (Andalusia, Spain).

Soon after launching the blog, I left my home to travel to southern Spain, where I spent six months living and volunteering, first as an au pair in a Spanish family in Jerez de la Frontera, then at Finca Natura in Alora, near Malaga. Those are my first Workaway volunteering experiences. And oh my, what experiences they were!

All the people I met, all the places I saw, all the delicious food I tasted, all the flamenco passion that touched the very core of my soul, and all the sherry wine of Jerez that I drank! I finally perfected my Spanish, and I learned how to ride a horse – another “first time” thing I had always wanted to do! I also got my second tattoo made in Alora, where I connected with several amazing souls at Finca Natura. There, I had the privilege to enjoy all the delicious food my amazing boss (and now also a dear friend) Andy made for us and the guests. Plus, I enjoyed the perfect Andalusian sunshine beside the pool, sipping cocktails and fresh lemon water, blissfully naked – my first time in a naturist/nudist environment! I traveled around Andalusia, sometimes alone, and sometimes in company. Madrid, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz, Cabo Roche, Vejer, Bolonia, Tarifa, Gibraltar, Tajo del Aguila, Sevilla, Cordoba, Rota, Alora, Malaga, Granada, Sierra Nevada, Ronda, Caminito del Rey, countless beautiful beaches, . . . I have made so many memories; I could never retell them all. My only regret is not having enough dedication to my writing and missing out on describing several amazing places I visited. At least, I took pictures of everything and shared them with everyone who follows this small journey of mine.

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Beach of Cabo Roche, Conil (Andalusia, Spain).

When the volunteering came to its end, I traveled to Lisbon, a city that has captured my heart and that is calling me to go back to its Barrio Alto. There is a special jazz bar over there, a place where I spent a night sipping cocktails and getting to know one very special soul, quite an old soul I believe. The same soul that took me there in a small aircraft, all the way from Jerez de la Frontera, to share with me his big passion – flying, and to show me one of his favorite cities through his own eyes. During those short ten days, I discovered what it feels like to be accepted fully as you are by another person, every best piece of you, and every worst piece of you equally, without any judgment, without expectations. I learned what it feels like to be spoiled and taken care of, to be the center of someone’s attention, to feel safe enough to relax fully into my own feminine self. And in that side of myself, I found infinite strength.

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View from Santa Justa Elevator in Lisbon (Portugal).

The second part of that hot Andalusian July saw me reunited with my Erasmus family in a house near the beach in Puerto de Santa Maria. After spending a few days there, we crammed our things into our backpacks, gathered a few mostly broken tents, and set off to enjoy the Alrumbo Festival at the seaside. Three days of music and friendship; drinking all kinds of stuff and smoking all kinds of stuff; sleeping (or at least trying to sleep) on the ground, in the grass, in the dirt; waking up to the exhausting heat of a Spanish siesta; buying ice in bags for 5 euros just to slide the cubes down each other’s backs – because walking to the beach was simply too far down the road!

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Erasmus family on one of the beaches of Canos de Meca (Andalusia, Spain).

As the month of July was coming to its end, so was my Spanish adventure. As my plane took off from the airport in Madrid, I realized two things. One – after a year of struggle to get over a heartbreak that only the selected few had even known about, my heart was finally at peace with itself again. And two – I had lived in Spain for over six months – the country that was always at the center of my heart’s longings, the language that always sounded so sweet to my sensitive ears, the people that I always connected with so easily. I made it – I made one of my big dreams come true.

What was supposed to be one month back at home in Croatia turned into three months. Too long for me. Yes, I reconnected with my family, and yes, I reconnected with other special people in my life. But my soul was restless. I had found my wings, and I was afraid to let them rust as I started to relax too much back into my comfort zone.

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My grandma walking towards our neighborhood in Osijek (Croatia).

For weeks and weeks I thought of nothing else, I concentrated on nothing but job applications, cover letters, and e-mails to various jobs abroad, in various countries. Finally, in October, I landed a job in Vietnam. Four weeks later, my bags were packed, my documents settled, I said goodbye to my family, and looked back at Zagreb with new melancholy in my heart as the plane carried me towards Doha, then Ho Chi Minh, and finally Thanh Hoa City.

My first official job as an English teacher. The first time I am living alone. The first time I am earning my own money and taking care of myself. And all that in a distant country, surrounded by people who mostly don’t speak any of the languages I’ve mastered, and immersed in a profoundly different culture. The culture shock was harder than I had expected. I had wondered more than once if I had maybe bitten off more than I could really chew. The rust was harder to shake off this time – it had been collecting over those three months spent at home, and now it was biting on my precious feathers. I needed to swing those wings a bit harder this time.

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The view of the street from my hotel in Thanh Hoa City (Vietnam).

Giving up was never an option for me, and I pushed through the initial feelings of helplessness. I am living in effin Vietnam! I have done all this by myself. Sometimes I forget these things. But there are moments when I remember and when I realize how much it means in the context of my own life, and in those moments I feel present and fulfilled.

The year 2015 has been a hell of a year. The year of travel. And travel, for me, is life. It has been the year of wonderful friendships; I have met both people who inspired me, and people who believed that they could learn something from me. It has been the year of getting over heartbreak, but also the year of new loves and romances. It has been the year of many tears cried in those lonely nights, but also the year of laughter and endless sunshine. It has been the year of parties, and the year of peace, too. It has been the year of countless goodbyes as well, another year throughout which I have collected carefully so many moments for future nostalgia and melancholy, two mistresses always close to my heart.

Today I am happy, and I am proud of myself, and I am thankful to every single person and every single thing that has emerged on my path through this marvelous year. There is a teacher in every single detail that we cross on our ways, if only we are willing to listen.

And it was not flawless – I’ve had some hard times, too.

But I like my flaws; I like the flaws in others, and the flaws of life itself. Without them, nothing would be nearly as special as it is. Besides, I like to remember the good things. And even the bad things that linger in my memory – I always find new ways to appreciate them, to learn from them, and to keep them close to my heart; to love them just as much as the best ones. Because, in the end, what truly matters is our attitude about a certain event, and not that event itself.

My life is not perfect; it is not always fun, amazing, and easy. But it is extraordinary. And that is, after all, everything that I have ever really wanted. Not to have a perfect life, but to create a life that I can be in love with.

And now I am.

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Driving on a motorbike through the streets of Thanh Hoa (Vietnam).

Happy new year to all of you who are reading this.

And if you still haven’t, then may you fall in love with your own lives

in the upcoming 2016! Cheers!

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