The feeling of belonging to a group can be potent medicine to help ward off homesickness and loneliness. Even before leaving the U.S. I began to work on building a community in Spain. I got in touch with “a friend of a friend of a friend” who lives in Seville, I contacted the American Women’s Club in Seville, and I joined the Facebook group “Expats Sevilla”. And since my arrival in Spain, I have worked really hard at building a social network by attending “movie nights”, making coffee dates, and saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes along. Stretching my old comfort zone to a new size.
So when I saw a Meetup trip to northern Spain advertised, I clicked on the link. “Aventura Asturias” is a weeklong trip to the Picos de Europa national park area and includes hiking, kayaking, canyoneering, beaches, caves, guides, transportation, hotels. This is awesome! Sign me up!
I had been researching how to make my own trip to Asturias, but the logistics were daunting. I had met the Aventura Asturias group leaders, Manuel and his son Ramon, on a half-day kayaking trip on a local river and I was impressed with their knowledge and organization. Ramon speaks English tentatively, and Manuel knows a handful of English words. They warned me that I might be the only English-speaker on the trip. But I figured that it would be more fun to struggle with my Spanish skills in beautiful Asturias, than in hot Seville. And even if I couldn’t talk to anyone, I would be able to hike, and explore, and enjoy beautiful scenery.
When the bus rolled out of Seville our group of forty adventurers was anchored by 30 members of a local hiking club, including some families with ‘tweens’ and a couple of white-haired mountaineers.
The three sola women were Cristina, ‘Chio’, and me, so we three roomed together. My good luck – Cristina is bilingual! And she is so friendly! And she has a great sense of humor (even in English)! I cannot imagine a better travelling companion than Cristina. Together with Chio and Ramon, we made our own foursome, dubbed “Wikiwiki”, and we often hiked and dined together.
On the second day Cristina and I paired up for the 12 km kayaking tour on the Rio Cares. It was advertised as a beginner run with no experience needed. That sounded perfect to me, because despite my 35 years of canoeing experience, even a tiny rapid makes me tense. When Cristina suggested that I take the bow seat and she take the stern, I was happy to give her the steering duties. My primary objective was to avoid the embarrassment of being ‘the American who needed to be rescued’.
We shoved off from the sandbar together with the fifteen other kayaks. In the first minutes, boats were pointed in every direction, but Cristina quickly got our kayak into the center of the river and headed downstream. The current pushed a couple of other boats into the far shore and one boat turned over, while we got out ahead of the pack.
Cristina was giving instructions from the stern, but a strain in her voice let me know that steering wasn’t going as she wished. We were approaching a small rapid and we managed to get our craft positioned perfectly. But the first wave splashed over the bow and filled my seat with water. This was weird. I’d never before had to bail a kayak. We struggled to get out of the fast current and to the side of the river. When we were able to stand, we tried to turn the kayak over to dump the water, but it was too heavy. All the other boats passed us by, so we decided to jump in our half-full kayak and try to catch up with the fleet. But it quickly became obvious that we had a serious problem. “Dianne, we have to go to the shore”. So we again struggled to the side and pulled up on a sandbar. A minute later, our guides Ramon and Luis came from upstream in the two rescue boats. Luis was towing a kayak occupied by Eva and Maria. They had overturned at the very beginning and never managed to do more than go in circles, so Luis had them in tow. They all joined us on our sandbar and we convened over our boat.
Through the opaque plastic, we could see that water sloshed inside the hull of our hollow kayak. In fact, it was half full of water. No wonder we were sinking. The six of us rolled the kayak onto its side and water streamed out of a 10 inch long crack in the hull. Luis and Ramon concluded that this boat could not proceed, and they used a cell phone to call for a replacement boat for Cristina and me. It had been about 10 minutes since we last saw the rest of our group, so Ramon took off in his boat to catch up and tell them to wait for us. After 15 minutes more, another guide floated in from upstream with the replacement boat. Now the five of us set off and we left the third guide on the sandbank with our broken boat to figure out how to get himself home.
In our new kayak, Cristina and I proceeded expertly down the river. This was easy in a boat that was not half-submerged! Luis called out to us from his towboat. He saw that Cristina and I were both strong paddlers so he wanted one of us to take over Eva and Maria’s boat. Another pullout on a sandbar and a quick conference. Maria put her trust in me and volunteered to be my passenger even though she spoke no English. I was nervous to be responsible for her but I was pretty confident in my boating skills. Maria was a steady paddler so I was able to limit my instructions to “muy bien”, “momento”, and “fuerte!”. We moved steadily down the river and eventually we came to the sandbar where the rest of the group was anxiously waiting for us. We were greeted with a cheer, and Maria and Eva excitedly told about their rescue. I didn’t understand a word of the rapid-fire Spanish, but I did recognize “Deana”, and Cristina and I were eagerly pulled into the circle to be congratulated. And then I felt a hug around my waist and heard a timid voice say in English “Thank you for saving my mother”.
Awww! So cute! This was Maria’s 9-year-old daughter, “Maria pequena”.
“Saving” was a little bit of an overstatement, but I didn’t argue. My status as a member of the community was now secure. For the rest of the day, smiles were sent my direction and it seemed that everyone knew my name. I was “in”.
My celebrity lasted only a day, but it was replaced by genuine caring and fondness from the other adventurers. I was invited to join a table at breakfast every morning and I could feel watchful eyes on me whenever we were hiking on a dangerous section of trail. “Maria pequena” always had a shy smile for me, and her mother gave me an extra-big hug at the end of out trip. Cristina and Chio and I plan to meet again soon for another hike. I am happy to be a part of this new community!