It was one o’clock in the morning eastern time on August 18, 2001 and I was on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. The sun was rising above the clouds beyond my window while the stranger beside me snored loud enough to wake up the fishes swimming in the sea below. As I watched the morning unwrap itself, one thought entered my sixteen year-old mind:
What the HELL have I done?
Despite being the kid who lived in one town her whole life, never went away to camp and had the same friends since second grade, I found myself on an uncharacteristically adventurous expedition to Spain with a group of people I just met. My Spanish was barely passable, yet I had volunteered to spend two weeks living with my exchange student, Adali, and her family in the countryside of Northern Spain. Volunteered.
A little back story: I was born and raised in beautiful St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the U.S. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by conquistador (and all around badass) Pedro Menendez who hailed from a fishing town on the Northern coast of Spain known as Avilés. Sometime around the sixties, St. Augustine and Avilés decided to take their shared history to the next level by becoming “sister cities” (I’m not sure what steps are involved in this official process, but I assume it includes some sort of blood oath). Over the next few decades they often spoke of having a student exchange, but it wasn’t until 2001 that they were actually able to put things together and make the exchange happen.
So in early August before my junior year of high school, twelve students from Avilés arrived in St. Augustine along with their chaperones to spend two weeks experiencing all that Florida has to offer (which in August is heat, heat, Disney World and more heat). They returned to Spain a day before we followed suit, traveling for almost 24 hours from Orlando to Philadelphia to Madrid and then finally to the Asturias Regional Airport in its capital city of Avilés.
Though I was a little nervous at first, my fears were quickly assuaged by a group of great kids and a beautiful country. Fourteen days of exploration unfolded in such a hurry that I feared I would never be able to capture it all in my mind. But ten years later I still remember all of the sites–the cathedral and chapel at Covadonga, the open air anchor museum in Salinas, the crowded beach in Luanco, the modern sculptures on the cliffs of Gijon and of course the historical relics of Avilés. (Sidenote: I also remember the food–paella, calamari, boiled shrimp, empanadas and these potato & egg breakfast squares that I’ve never seen since but I swear I can still taste sometimes…).
But of all the incredible places I visited on my trip, one sticks out above the others. A week after our arrival, we spent the better part of a Saturday morning climbing to the top of a mountain in the Picos de Europa. We passed a small village and a contingent of wandering cows before arriving at the summit. Clusters of circular stacked stones were spread over the top of the mountain, the remnants of a fortress (called Los Castros) built by the Celtics around the sixth century. Even more incredible than laying your hands on a structure built before the birth of Christ was the view–three hundred and sixty degrees of green mountains. For me, it was a life changing moment perfectly built inside of a life changing adventure.
Also among my chief accomplishments for this trip, I was designated as something of a spokesperson for our group (perhaps an early nod to the public relations profession I would go on to pursue). I did a cable access interview (in embarrassingly bad Spanglish) and a few newspaper interviews as well as some correspondence with my local newspaper back home (if you follow that link and read my article, please PLEASE disregard the photo). I was even quoted in a Spanish newspaper following our arrival:
“‘No se nada de Aviles, pero espero aprender mucho en estos dias’ afirmaba Shannon O’Neil.”
(I think this is loosely translated to: “‘I don’t know sh*t about Aviles, but I’m gonna learn some stuff over the next few days,’ said ignorant American Shannon O’Neil.”)
It is painfully cliched to call a European trip in your teens “life changing” but there is no other way to describe it. I simply would not be the person I am today, ten years later, without that trip. It gave me confidence I didn’t know I had and a travel bug that I hope will never be satiated.
Life is a journey, it’s up to you to make it an adventure.