When Plans Fail

The best plans are those that start off seemingly failed only to lead to incredible experiences that would otherwise have been lost. I drew this conclusion from the weekend I had organized to participate in an activity in a remote village somewhere in Serra da Estrela, a place I really wanted to go. I didn’t reach Serra da Estrela, nor did I participate in the activity, but I was welcomed by a very unlikely place that offered me the one thing I, unknowingly, really needed: peace of mind.

The week began with an invitation from the Parish Council of a small village in Serra da Estrela to participate in and write about the re-enactment of an ancestral activity, a way to preserve the knowledge of yesteryear and pass it on to the younger generation. This is the kind of work I love, where I anticipate talking to the elders and having the opportunity to gather countless stories and knowledge from the past. However, in the middle of the week, I received a message informing me that the activity would be postponed. My visit on that date no longer made sense.

In the meantime, I had already mapped out – and started – a two-day route to get there, with stops at other places I also wanted to visit. I usually take advantage of my work trips to organize small road trips and discover little secrets from my “wish to visit” list in the interior of Portugal.

Instead of feeling discouraged or thinking about giving up, I embraced the unexpected as an invitation to slow down, reduce the number of kilometers, and spend more time in the places I had only planned to pass through. I now had the best ingredients to let myself be dazzled: time and unpredictability.

I arrived at my first stop earlier than expected and, instead of settling in and preparing for a restful evening, I left the car, the backpack, the external demands, the shoes, and, barefoot, I started walking along the path, beginning right in front of the door of the little house that would be my shelter for the night.

Pracana Cimeira, in the municipality of Mação, in the heart of Beira Baixa, has a population of seven inhabitants. The paved road ends at the last house in the village, and all you can hear are the birds, the rustling of tree branches when the wind passes, and the water flowing abundantly from the village’s two fountains and the stream that invites us for a swim.

In places like this, when external noise quiets down, the internal volume of what inhabits the mind tends to increase. The previous week had been one of much anxiety and worry. Of course that all of it came to the surface as I walked alone, surrounded by silence. At first, I was angry with myself for being in such a privileged place and, instead of enjoying it, letting myself be overwhelmed by a succession of stories and worries. Then, forcing myself to take a few deeper breaths, I decided that, instead of following the flood of drama my head tends to create, I would take the opportunity to do an internal purge and leave behind all those mental habits that weren’t helping me move forward.

As I moved further into the mountains, I practiced the exercise of, instead of following my mind into catastrophic future imaginations, choosing to feel my feet touching the ground with each step, becoming aware of my body’s weight sinking into the earth, and listening carefully to the sound of each of the dozens of birds that passed by me. I recalled one of the many lessons from my meditation practice: we can always choose where to place our best attention.

By giving it time and allowing myself space, nature always has the power to calm me down. The natural and wild world, where everything is present, everything is now, and nothing exists beyond the current moment, reminds me that the future I create in my imagination is just that: imagination! And that I have the great gift of being able to imagine (and, consequently, create) different scenarios much more aligned with what I dream for my future. The good news is that this is a gift common to all human beings.

The next day I woke up early as usual, and, breathing in that earthy, green scent, the last thing I wanted to do was leave. Before departing, I promised myself to return later this summer. Then I headed to another magical stop where, thanks to the cancellation that offered me more time to slow down, I encountered an elderly lady with a wonderful life story, I had the privilege to hear.

I’ll leave it for the next post!

I love you, so farewell for now

Lisboa. Contemplar o Tejo

Despite choosing a semi-nomadic lifestyle, living constantly between travels in recent years, the intervals when I returned to Lisbon were filled with the joy. Joy of being close to my roots, in a beautiful city with its unique light and coziness, and home to some of the people I love the most in the world. I particularly remember the years I worked in the UK and the good feeling growing inside me whenever the time to travel back to Portugal for holidays or a long weekend was approaching.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, during one of these returns, when I realized it would not be possible to go back to England, I thought that this unexpected stay in Lisbon could be used to honor my city and enjoy it leisurely, calmly, giving me the space to figure out what I was going to do with my life from then on. Little did I know that, during my walks through its streets, Lisbon would reveal more to me than just a confirmation of the passion I have for it.

I spent a couple of months wandering around Lisbon, on unhurried and plan-free days, just enjoying. In my leisurely pace through a city that had known me in a rush for so many years, I chose to observe its streets as if I had never seen them before. One day at Rossio, I stopped right in front of the National Theater D. Maria II. How many times had I been there? Countless. Yet, I am sure that, on that day, it was the first time I truly looked at its facade. It has been there since 1846, but only at that moment did the pillars, windows, and beautiful statues guarding the main entrance start to exist for my eyes.

I also realized that, unlike London, a huge and impersonal city where I felt the weight of loneliness, it was not hard to find old friends in Lisbon. It happened more than once, during these aimless walks, to encounter a familiar face that sat, by chance, in the empty chair next to me on the subway. Taking advantage of the coincidence, we decided to get off at the same station to walk to one of the terraces on Rua Cor de Rosa in Cais do Sodré and talk about life, arrivals, departures, and plans for the future. On the way, we stopped suddenly, amazed by street artists playing on Rua Augusta, becoming aware of where we were: one of the most beautiful streets in the world, connecting the city center to the Tagus River, ending in an impressive Triumphal Arch, opening to Terreiro do Paço, where the city surrenders to the river.

These were very good months, during which I confirmed, in my slow rhythm, my love for Lisbon also in familiar places like Chiado, which welcomed me during my academic years, where hipster shops and gourmet restaurants bloom wherever there is a small space. Or the old Bairro Alto, guardian of some of the unspoken secrets of my adolescence and, alongside Fado houses and typical restaurants, hosts art galleries, second-hand bookshops, artists’ studios, tattoo shops, bars, and nightclubs.

Lisbon is the place where I was born, where I grew up, and where I began to be the person I am today. It has been the witness of the best and worst life has offered me. It was so good to feel welcomed by it during those months, giving me time for it to reveal to me that my future, at least the immediate future, would not be here. During my walks, Lisbon showed me that it was succumbing to gentrification, unrestrained haste, mass tourism, and loss of character. Lisbon was in a hurry to enjoy the prominence that international eyes had suddenly given it, and a part of it got carried away, enchanted, without thinking about the consequences. And I, who was on the exact opposite movement, in search of a life lived leisurely, more authentically and close to nature, I realized that in order to keep my love for my city, I had to step away.

Deciding that it was not in Lisbon that I would live, made it an even more beautiful and sunny city, confirming my unconditional love for it. Sitting quietly by the Tagus River, eating an artisanal ice cream near the Cais das Colunas, I bid farewell on the eve of moving to Alentejo, where I currently live and from where I depart and return from my travels and adventures around the world. This decision reinforced the fascination and pride I have for my hometown, in which I still trust that someday it may tell me that the time has come to welcome me back entirely.

The Hidden Spiritual Gem of Catalonia

Catedral de Manresa

What’s so special about Manresa, an industrial city in central Catalonia, Spain? Why should I go there? Little did I know that, on that morning, as I resisted getting on the bus that would take me there, I was about to change my entire perception about faith.

At first glance, it seemed that apart from the famous Santa Maria de la Seu Basilica and St. Ignacio de Loyola’s cave, there was little else to see in Manresa. My mind kept telling me that it wasn’t worth the visit. Staying a few more days in Montserrat to explore it more deeply felt like a better option. But despite the noise in my head, something unexplainable kept pushing me there.

Upon arriving, I was greeted by cloudy and uncomfortably hot weather. It didn’t help with my grumpiness. I went up and down the street but couldn’t find the restaurant that had promised me the best vegetarian paella. Then I decided to look up instead of down, and there it was: on the first floor of a building, the door opened to a beautiful white dining room. When the paella arrived, accompanied by the welcoming smile of the chef, I realized I was putting too much effort into maintaining my bad mood. Everything was delicious and done with so much dedication. Even if it was only to honor the Chef’s work, I needed to surrender to what was and summon a more relaxed state of mind.

And there it was, my first wise decision of the day: to change my mood. As is often the case, reality started to change accordingly. From then on, I started to realise that Manresa was probably the right place to be at that exact moment of my life. I just needed to be willing to give it a chance. Why?

Enter Jordi Piñero, a historian and investigator whose work is focused on the holistic aspects of Manresa’s historical monuments. He invited me to visit the Cathedral as he started explaining how it was carefully built in a very special place: a strong telluric current – a geomagnetic movement generated by Earth’s magnetic field, flowing parallel to its surface. Or, from another perspective, an energy field with the power to influence our well-being. My skeptical brain looked at a gothic Catholic church from the 16th century and wondered if this was not just a coincidence. Back in those days, people didn’t have our knowledge and surely they didn’t have the proper modern scientific gadgets to measure all these currents and geomagnetic movements.

There was more inside. As I followed him in, Jordi explained that the cross-shaped structure of the building represents a human figure with open arms. Along its centre line, it is possible to observe seven circles. “The 7 chakras,” Jordi said. I asked him how did our ancestors know? How did such a conservative institution as the Catholic church allow it? He just shrugged and explained that chakras have many names. “They represent human potential for spiritual evolution. It is a universal concept.”

The theory “everything is connected” makes perfect sense here. It now seems obvious to find the relationship between concepts of different religions and beliefs in one single monument built more than five centuries ago. I could have stayed there all afternoon listening to Jordi. My long quest to understand faith, the divine, and the meaning of human life was anxious to learn more. But there was more waiting for me, although I wasn’t aware of it yet.

I walked to the Cave of Saint Ignatius, a pilgrimage site where it is said that the Saint spent several months meditating and writing his famous Spiritual Exercises book. St Ignatius arrived there after a long walk of 2000 km from Loyola in the Basque Country, determined to discover, understand, and consolidate his connection with Jesus.

A Jesuit priest opened the cave door and invited me in. The priest briefly narrated the Saint’s life story, ending with a summary of Loyola’s spiritual findings: “To discover the light, one needs to conquer the ego. In order to conquer the ego, one has to surrender.” Surrendering has always been a challenge for me, a control freak. Just the sound of the word made my body retract. But a little tingle in the tip of my fingers awoke a kind of familiar yet new pleasant sensation.

As if he knew what was going on inside of me, from this moment the priest changed his speech from a simple Catholic point of view to the same holistic and integrative theories shared by Jordi earlier in the Cathedral. My host kept explaining that apart from whatever our beliefs are, during the course of our lives, between our 40s and 50s we start experiencing an urge to question, to explore, to transform (check!, I’m exactly there). We can embrace it and become explorers of our inner selves or ignore it and move on to the next phase of our lives. The Jesuits – inspired by Saint Ignatius’ experience – believe that we all should dive deep into this transformational opportunity, offering their expertise to guide anyone who feels the call to embrace the process. “That is the purpose of this Center,” he told me as the elevator door opened to the top floor.

There, he invited me into a large beautiful wooden room with a skylight in the middle illuminating an empty bowl resting directly below it. “We don’t care if you are a Buddhist or a Muslim or a non-believer. As long as you enter this meditation room with your inner bowl empty, if you silence your ego, if you surrender, you can experience the light filling your space. This is what Saint Ignatius realized on the 24th of March 1522, the day he became enlightened.” The moment the priest mentioned the date, the tingling sensation exploded through my whole body.

Throughout the day, I had been learning all these theories as if they were answers to my inner doubts about faith and religion. I was starting to understand that maybe we don’t need this or that symbolism to ignite our spirituality. It was becoming clear that it is not Christianity or Hinduism or Islam or New Age theories that hold the ultimate truth to transcendence. I was realizing that as long as I was determined to follow the path of self-discovery, I could become a better human being. By doing that, I would be fulfilling my share of the greater good of humankind.

As these thoughts were running through my mind, the priest mentioned that special date. A date so familiar and so important to me. It was as if that little detail had the power to hook all that I had heard so far and anchor it deep inside myself. On the same day, March 24th, but 450 years apart, I was born. Saint Ignatius solved the mystery of existence on the same day I arrived in this world, 5 centuries after.

At any other moment, I would only find it a funny coincidence and move on. But this day had become so full of revelations and epiphanies that I decided to accept it as a sign.

So, I – a skeptic, a woman of poor faith, an explorer of mysticism always looking for its flaws – I surrendered. I surrendered to that day and all it had offered me, I surrendered to my stubbornness and bad mood, I even momentarily surrendered to my ego.

What’s so special about Manresa? Now I know: It is the place where after so many years scattered, wandering around, I made peace with my faith. My God, what a long way I have ahead of me now!

Minimalism in Motion: How the Camino de Santiago Changed My Perspective

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te King

Have you ever planned a trip secretly hoping it would change your life?

This is a feeling I’ve experienced several times. However, it wasn’t what motivated me when I started planning my first adventure on the Camino de Santiago. Today I’m revisiting this past journey as I prepare to embark on my second Camino walk.

At that time, I felt I had already transformed my life too many times. My motivation for the Camino was simply a close connection with nature, an appreciation of silence, and the discovery of my physical limits. With a quite uncomfortable cervical injury, I knew I would have to balance the weight, walking time, and quality of rest very carefully. All of this with my expenses tightly controlled.

I began studying the backpack and what to put inside it a week before. What would I really need? A book! To entertain me on a 10-hour bus journey, and at dead times from mid-afternoon onwards. Also I had planned a few days of rest at the end and a book is always a good company. Furthermore, I never travel without books! This time, I was willing to take just one. A notebook and a pen, exactly for the same reasons as the previous item. The camera, of course. Water and some emergency food. Personal hygiene products including shampoo, shower gel, moisturizer, toothbrush and toothpaste, sunscreen, hand cream, and hairbrush.

Even without giving a thought to the clothes yet, the backpack was already overflowing and considerably heavy, in its modest capacity of 20 liters. I realized that, even though there was still a week left, my journey had already begun. Maybe I needed to make myself a little more curious and humble about what the Camino could teach me.

Firstly I needed to rethink my choices: the book was heavy and took up space. Out! I replaced the notebook with a small notepad that fit in my pants pocket. The camera meant carrying the battery charger. It was nonsense, I had my phone’s camera. The water bottle stayed, as well as little packs of dried fruits for emergencies.

When I reached the toiletry bag, I felt ridiculous. Shampoo and shower gel? Face and hand creams? The bag returned to the backpack with just a small bar of solid shampoo, sunscreen, a comb, the toothbrush, and toothpaste.

Fortunately when it was time to make decisions for clothes, I had already developed some knowledge and it ended up being faster: 2 t-shirts, 2 pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shorts, a light dress (you never know!), a swimsuit, a small towel, and a pair of flip-flops to air my feet at the end of each day.

Among the many unexpected lessons that awaited me, lightening the load of my baggage was the first that transformed the way I travel to this day. Now, taking the first steps in preparing for a new journey to Santiago, I recover this wisdom I brought with me from the first one. Especially because, after these years, in addition to a sensitive cervical spine, I also gained a titanium femur head and gluten intolerance.

If, like me, you want to avoid unnecessary weight in your luggage, here are four reflections that I always delve into when it’s time to start packing:

1. Plan in advance: Packing last minute is not a good idea. We loose discernment and end up carrying too much stuff, driven by the anxiety of haste. I remember once, still working in the tv industry, I was told I had to be in Los Angeles for a meeting in two days. Along with the excitement of going to this great city, came the stress of not knowing what to expect in terms of weather and not having much time to reflect on versatile outfit combinations. When the check-in moment arrived at the airport with a suitcase bursting at the seams with clothes (half of which I didn’t wear) I realized I had forgotten the essentials: – the passport! Nowadays, I start by making a list of items to take. Then I divide them into indispensable, essential, and dispensable. I then select as I evaluate the weight I am willing to carry with me. Regarding clothing, I choose versatile outfits that I can combine with each other, reducing the number of pieces.

2. Choose the right equipment: I planned to visit my brother in Norfolk the time he was living there. It was winter and I knew I would find snow and extremely cold weather. I looked at the biggest suitcase I had in the closet and threw in all the warm sweaters, wool socks, coats, scarves, and hats I had found. As soon as I started descending the stairs of my house, on the way to the airport, I realized I had made a mistake. The suitcase was good quality but it was also huge and I took advantage of all the space it provided me. The wheels barely slid and I had to pull it with both hands to bring it with me. Arriving in the UK – a country that is not famous for easy accessibility in its public transport network – going up and down metro and train stairs was a very sweaty adventure. At a certain moment, a helpful English gentleman, seeing me desperate trying to climb an endless flight of stairs, offered to help me. He regretted it as soon as he picked up that giant monster and felt its weight. But he didn’t show any weakness. He reached the top of the stairs pale and sweaty. I bet he never offered to help “damsels in distress” again. Nowadays, I prefer backpacks with good back protections, small and sturdy trolleys with an effective sliding wheel system. I know that, by limiting the size of my luggage, I will necessarily have to limit the choices of what I put inside.

3. Use luggage organizers: I learned to use them on a road trip through southern Europe. Always on the move, packing and unpacking the suitcase was a daily task. By the third day, I had exactly the same number of pieces but, with chaos installed, I could no longer fit them all inside the bag. That’s when my travel companion introduced me to the organizers. Although they may seem redundant at first, after this experience I guarantee they are not. Luggage organizers help maximize space and keep things tidy during the trip. I separate the objects by categories and use individual bags for each of them.

4. Enjoy the simple things: When you walk 100 km, having to carry everything you need to survive, gives you a new perspective about the weight and value of each object you decide to bring. The experience of carrying only the essential made me reconsider what really matters. Simplification became a choice, not only for trips, but for my everyday life. Since then, I try to adopt a more conscious approach to everything I own, opting for quality over quantity and valuing each object for its purpose and meaning. This change in mindset not only relieved the physical weight of my travels, but also brought a new meaning to my concept of freedom. Walking – and living day by day – without unnecessary weight on my back, allows me to be fully present in the moment. After all, the richness of life is not in the amount of luggage I carry or in what I possess but in the experiences I keep in my backpack along the journey of life.

Serra da Lousã: 6 insights of a challenging hike

Last summer, I set out for a hike in the Lousã mountain range. I’m usually comfortable hitting the trails alone. I have some experience in mountaineering, and this route seemed easy enough. Something that would take about two hours.

At the start, the trail offered a wide, well-defined path, with shade and coolness. It was ten minutes in this setting until I reached the river. From here, the ascent began. Nothing special. Then a bit steeper. Manageable. Even steeper. An hour later, I had to use three points of contact (two feet and a hand) to climb. There were high rocks and imposing boulders. “If the route is classified as medium difficulty, this climb must end soon,” I thought. And it did. An hour and a half later, it gave way to a steep descent on gravel that made me slip with every step. Half an hour sliding down the slope. It came to an end. Another ascent. This time on beaten earth but quite steep. Another hour. I was already two hours in, and another half when I finally reached the schist village. Beautiful. Magical. In ruins.

I stopped for a moment to drink water then continued while nibbling on a cookie. Maybe I got distracted with the cookie, with the village, or with my thoughts. When I recovered my awareness, there were no signs of the trail anymore. I wasn’t inattentive for long, but given my nonexistent sense of direction, it was enough to get lost.

I had three options:

  1. Venture onto another path nearby, risking getting even more lost in the mountains.
  2. Follow the asphalt road, knowing I had 18 kilometers of walking towards where I had left the car.
  3. Go back on the trail I had taken, knowing the difficulties I had already encountered on the way there.

A journey that would end in half an hour now seemed much longer.

In the paths I’ve traveled through the mountains of the world, I’ve always had difficulty dealing with the ascents. I look at them and think I’m not capable, my legs will give out, I’ll run out of breath. I suffer in anticipation. It’s a kind of vertigo but in the opposite direction.

What made me choose to go back the same way was the fact that I had spent so much time climbing. Now it would be almost all downhill, it would be faster. The ascents that would turn into descents shouldn’t be that complicated. After all, I had managed to do them.

Three challenges: Some fatigue, scorching sun, and lack of water.

I moved forward. Standing there certainly wouldn’t take me back to the start.

In these steps back, I realized that the climb I had undertaken was indeed difficult and time-consuming. This made the descent itself a challenge. I was amazed that I had managed to do it and almost rejoiced in the way destiny had found to show me the real extent of my physical capabilities.

Facing the adversity of the mountain is like realizing a dream or pursuing a passion. If not, let’s see:

1. For better or worse we are on our chosen path

Our dreams, just like paths, happen because we decided to take the first step. Whether it’s to connect with nature and landscapes that are only accessible through footpaths or to chase a purpose, it’s necessary to decide that we want to do it. And then, we act accordingly.

2. Even with the inherent adversities, the result is rewarding

The realization of a dream can fail. But the greatest frustration comes when it was never attempted. Just like a hike. There are places and landscapes that I would never have known if I had never penetrated the heart of some mountains through paths where only my hiking boots fit, one at a time. The villages, the streams, and the trees I saw, the sounds and smells of the mountain, I would hardly have experienced them if I had chosen not to leave the comfort of the car on the asphalt road.

3. Small goals add up to big results

When we start our journey, whether it’s the pursuit of a dream or winding trails in a mountain, it’s essential to set small goals that we celebrate as great victories. Sometimes the distance we need to travel to reach our destination can be long. That fact can be quite demotivating. On my way back, tired, without water, and with the sun burning, I kept thinking: just get to the top of that hill and rest, if I can get past that curve, then the path to the ruins is easier, or at the end of this descent, there’s the river, I can refresh myself.

4. Focus on the present moment.

On my journey back, there was a moment when I found myself slipping and losing balance. I slowed down and thought that risking twisting an ankle couldn’t be an option. So I paid more attention to my step, slowing down the pace and making sure I placed my feet on firm ground. I abandoned the anxiety and urgency to arrive. Sometimes, when we decide to follow the path of a dream, we let our minds dwell on a future where the path has already been traveled. The future is something that doesn’t exist yet. If we divert our attention from what we’re living in the present, we run the risk that it will never come to exist.

5. Silence the treacherous voices.

It’s important to recognize when our internal voices are just trying to sabotage us. Often these voices are only our unfounded fears. At one point on my journey, at the beginning of a steep, shadeless ascent, voices in my head kept repeating: “You’re not fit for this. You’re exhausted. You have no water. The sun that’s out will accelerate dehydration. Stop!” These voices are ourselves. As such, we have the power to control them. We have authority over them. That’s how I decided to put an end and tell them to shut up.

6. Celebrate each victory, big or small.

We become aware of our real value. Risking leaving our comfort zone to pursue a dream is a great achievement. Excessive modesty, undervaluing our true abilities, betray us as much as exaggerated presumption. We must enjoy the moment to the fullest, be honest with ourselves. In this experience, I had the opportunity to realize that my physical abilities and determination were much stronger than I thought. Furthermore, by making the return journey, destiny showed me that I have much more potential to tackle steep ascents than I had ever thought. Looking back now, it seems to me that it wasn’t even as much of an effort as I almost convinced myself it was at the time.

Traveling the world consciously and sustainably and sharing my experience, either through writing or with anyone who wishes to travel with me, is what I do and what makes me happy. The path I have taken to get where I am is very similar to my experience in the Lousã mountains last summer. The methods learned through experience in hiking, mindfulness, and writing have been good tools in this epic journey. After all, everything in life is connected.