Cotopaxi, Active Volcano Visit

Good stories typically don’t begin with food poisoning, but this one does.

For the WorldTeach Ecuador End of Service trip, our cohort visited the cities of Mindo, Otavalo, Quito, and Cotopaxi. I knew that all of the cities were going to be amazing, but I was especially excited to visit Cotopaxi National Park, home to a huge active stratovolcano that all Ecuadorians adore as a landmark of their home country.

The volcano is located between Riobamba and Quito and acts as a landmark for those traveling between. The beauty of Cotopaxi does not transfer in photos. It is huge and snowcapped and is in stark contrast to the nearly barren landscape around it, dark and scrubby with bushes thanks to previous volcanic eruptions. Even Ecuadorians take every opportunity to stop and photograph the mountain — a phenomenon I witnessed twice while traveling with members of my community.

Unfortunately, on our last night in Otavalo, I made a bad impromptu decision to order fish at a restaurant, and knew pretty much instantly that I was a goner. I spent the long bus ride to Quito drinking water mixed with a Pedialyte packet and willing myself not to be sick. During our one day in Quito, I rested and willed my body to recover so that I could enjoy our very last trip as a cohort.

In typical style, the journey from Quito to Cotopaxi was not as straightforward as a foreigner might expect. Our WorldTeach directors had scheduled a van to drive our group, 6 volunteers and 2 directors, to our hostel. We met outside our hostel, Secret Garden Quito, early in the morning with our things packed. For sake of space, the driver strapped most of our backpacks to the roof of the van. As I was one of our members least likely to feel carsick on a typical basis, I sat in the back of the van. The journey was bumpy and windy and I tried my best to stare straight forward and breathe deeply. I had hardly eaten in 48 hours, but I still felt awful.

About halfway to Cotopaxi, our driver randomly pulled onto the side of the road and we saw 2 backpackers running towards our van. Confused, our director asked the driver why we were picking up more people when we had booked a private van. The backpackers soon piled in and we sent more of our belongings to be slung up on top of the vehicle. Space was now tight, but we embraced the moment and began chatting with the couple who had joined us. Soon after, we began off-road and spent about 45 minutes bouncing and jolting down a rocky dirt road towards our hostel — seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I think that the only places we passed in that 45 minutes of off-roading were a couple lone farms and a passing truck or two. Somehow, I managed to contain my sickness and we pulled up at the Secret Garden Quito’s brother hostel, the Secret Garden Cotopaxi.

The Secret Garden Cotopaxi is like no other hostel I’ve ever experienced before. It consists of several buildings spread across a hill and looks as if it would belong in Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit, which makes sense as some of the rooms are built to embody Hobbit holes. In the center of the small spread of buildings is the communal cabin located directly behind sprouting gardens and two large trampolines. On either side of the central building are cabins that house large groups with bunk-beds. Further up on the hill, visitors can find composting toilets and hot tubs covered by greenhouse roofs. Check out the drone footage video of the hobbit holes, housing, and Cotopaxi and prepare to be amazed.

Upon arrival, the entire hostel staff greeted us out front near the garden and helped unload our belongings into our shared cabin. We then entered the central communal building, passing through a bright sunroom filled with colorful hanging hammocks, giant bean bags, and 5 or so lounging dogs on our way to the main room. We plopped down on sofas and the staff began to welcome us and explain the daily happenings of the Secret Garden.

Included in your stay at the hostel is a guided waterfall hike the afternoon of your arrival, home cooked meals that suit dietary restrictions, and roaming access to the property. The hostel also offers excursions for guided horseback riding tours, a Cotopaxi summit, various hikes in the area, and a visit to the national park. Since our stay was a short one, we opted for the horseback riding tour.

In addition to a couple of permanent staff members, the Secret Garden Cotopaxi is run by employees who work for their room and board. I was fascinated by their stories. Many of the employees visited the hostel as guests and later decided to return to work for 3-4 weeks. However, nearly all of the staff that I chatted with had long outstayed their original plans. Some had even been there for 3-5 months and changed travel plans or job plans to stay and work for longer.

Their joy was palpable and I was intrigued by their lifestyle. After all, there is absolutely nothing in the vicinity of the hostel except for the surrounding mountains. They shared stories about the opportunity that the hostel provides to complete unplug due to their lack of wifi, the guests that they were able to meet, and about time spent exploring outdoors that the location provides.

For meal time, staff and guests alike gather at one large table in the communal center and talk over delicious homemade food. In the evening, guests and staff stay up talking, relaxing by the fire, playing card games, or enjoying a drink. I felt as though I was experiencing something really special surrounded by an international community of travelers. You had no choice but to experience the moment fully with no phones or internet and no where else nearby to rush off to.

Although I had to miss out on the waterfall hike due to my food poisoning, I was able to recover enough to join in for the horseback riding tour. Again, I was struck by contrast between the looming volcano, Cotopaxi, and the surrounding barren landscape. I don’t know how to exactly describe the landscape because I’ve never seen anything like it. I assume that after lava wiped some of the surrounding land, mosses and small plants began to grow. Today, the land is covered mostly by clumpy tufty grasses and small shrubs. It is also quite cold!

Cotopaxi was breathtaking from all angles and our 3-hour ride provided plenty of opportunities to stare and wonder. Moving uphill and crossing over small streams, I galloped on a horse for the first time and held on for dear life. I chatted with those on horseback around me and took moments to reflect on all that I had done during my 8 weeks in Ecuador. It was only fitting for the trip to end with another big step outside of my comfort zone. On our final leg of the journey I pushed through food poisoning, reflected on close friendships built over the course of the summer and got to know strangers over shared meals. I packed toilet paper in my backpack in case of emergency, I went faster on a horse than I would have thought I could, and I said goodbye to new friends not knowing when I would see them next.

My volunteer cohort


I understand now how visitors of the Secret Garden turn into short term employees who turn into long term family. It is hard not to experience this same feeling of aching to stay when you’re laying on one of the trampolines in the crisp air gazing at the stars witnessing Cotopaxi’s snow-topped beauty. I’m still not sure if the bravest choice is choosing to stay or having the guts to say goodbye.

Many of the photos in this post were taken by my fellow volunteer member and friend, Rachael Ferguson. Thank you for the amazing photos, Rachael!

The post above does not reflect the viewpoints of the WorldTeach organization or of the United States government.

 


Ecuador

Things to do in Burlington & Beyond

Elon students, and Burlington residents, this one is for you! In a small town like Burlington, it can feel like you’ve already done everything that there is to do. While at Elon I’ve scoured Trip Advisor and pages of date suggestions, but good comprehensive lists are few and far between.

So, I decided to compile my own — you’re welcome in advance. Save this post so that when you’re looking for a fun new place to try with your friends or a significant other, you don’t have to repeat the same old typical Saturday night plans. Get your bucket list ready!

I’ve split my suggestions into two main categories “Burlington” (under 25-minute minutes from campus) and “Beyond” (Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, etc). Within those categories, my favorites are split into: Outdoors, Fun activities, Culture, & 21+


Burlington

Outdoors

Haw River Trail (Shallow Ford) 

IMG_0651.jpgThe Haw River Trail is Elon's closest
real trail to campus. If you're in
need of a perfect start to your
weekend, head over with a friend.
There's also a great wooden platform
for yoga!
Saxapahaw Island Park & trails 
57505535689__5A79DF84-E236-4B93-870E-5362E10F3983-1.jpg 
Saxapahaw is an adorable town 25 min.
from campus. Eat lunch at the general
store and then do some exploring.
Cedarock Park
196D912F-87E7-4CF4-ADC7-99A71884752D.jpgCedarock Park is a 414-acre nature 
preserve and historic farm. You'll
find lots of families exploring
and can say hi to some adorable
farm animals.
Guilford Mackintosh Park 
 IMG_2844.jpgJust a couple of exits past Target,
Macintosh is a hidden gem. There are
several short trails, a lake, and
great picnic tables. I love to pack
a lunch and eat near the water.

Food

  • Colombian Cravings
    Located near Harris Teeter, this latin restaruant is a recent
    favorite of mine. Order a juice and prepare for savory
    meat and huge portions.
  • Da Vinci’s Table 
    IMG_7296.jpgA classic Italian birthday spot.
    Da Vinci's is a great place
    to take your visiting family 
    or get away for a date night.
  • Red Bowl 
    Red Bowl is a personal favorite of mine and has a great patio.
    
    Pro tip: go for the lunch specials for a much cheaper total 
    bill.
  • The Park 
    The Park always hits the spot on weekend mornings. It offers
    southern breakfast and diner-style food.
  • Catrinas Tequila and Taco Bar 
    Catrinas is located in Mebane and should not be judged by
    its outer appearance. It may be in a strip mall, but 
    prepare to be wowed by the tacos and wait staff.
  • The Verdict on the Square 
    Located in downtown Graham, The Verdict is the perfect place
    to grab a burger and a beer before you explore the town.
  • Saxpahaw General Store 
    IMG_2461.jpg
    As mentioned above, Saxpahaw is a 
    town you shouldn't miss. Eat at the
    general store where ingredients are
    locally sourced. Beer and drinks
    are available in the store and can
    be consumed on the porch. Check out
    more to do in Saxpahaw here.
    
    
  • Harrison's 
    Harrison's is a sandwich spot next to Harris Teeter that I 
    never noticed until recently. It's cheap, it's good, and the
    inside is cute and comfortable.

Fun activities

Fifth Street Books 
IMG_7567.jpgFifth Street Books is a warehouse in Mebane
with stacks and stacks of books for all ages
(and a live-in cat!) The organization is 
crazy, so spend an afternoon exploring
and picking out some new titles. 

Pro tip: Books are 
extremely cheap and they offer .50 book sales,
so keep up to date with their Facebook page.
Filament Coffee and Tea, Mebane 
If you have to do homework on a Saturday, Filament is the perfect
place to do it at. The atmosphere quietly buzzes in the 
background and the coffee is fabulous.

21+

  • Burlington Beer Works
    IMG_2689.jpgIt's finally open! Go visit Burlington's 
    new brewery in downtown Burlington right 
    next to The Blend coffeeshop. They offer 
    dinner, snacks, flights, and lots on tap
    for $5.
  • Cork and Cow
    IMG_9691.jpgI rarely suggest this place to people 
    sincepart of it's charm is that few 
    students go, but since I'm graduating,
    I guess it's okay! Cork and Cow is my 
    favorite spot to curl up with a book
    or do some evening work. They have 
    cheese plates, a large variety of wine
    and beer, and a perfect porch for a 
    casual afternoon.
  • Red Oak Brewery
    3F36AAE0-870F-458B-A685-2A34FC0FCDC7.jpgRed Oak's new lagerhaus is large and 
    impressive. They have stacks of games
    available to play and do weekly music
    trivia. On the weekends, there are 
    typically food trucks outside.
    
    Pro tip: You can also order pizza or food
    to the venue.
  • Piedmont Ale House 
    Piedmont is only 5 minutes from campus and has a great variety
    of pub food and drinks.
    
    Pro-tip: Go on a Thursday evening for half-price appetizers. 
    Every Thursday Piedmont features a local beer for $3-5. You
    also get to keep the glass!
  • Smokehouse at Steve's
    I didn't know that I needed Smokehouse at Steve's in my life, 
    but I absolutely did. Recently opened, Smokehouse at Steve's 
    offers huge portions of meats and your traditional BBQ sides
    and has a bar station with a large variety of sauces. Whether
    you're from Texas, Tennessee, or North Carolina, you're going
    to be impressed with Steve's.
    
    Pro tip: Steve's is also connected to its counterpart butchershop
    and local market, so if you're looking to stock up on things,
    you can kill two birds with one stone.

Beyond Burlington

Outdoors

  • Eno Quarry, Durham 
    A classic spot! Visit in the spring or fall and bring your
    swimsuit.
  • N.C. Botanical Garden, Chapel Hill
    IMG_0739.jpgI was amazed by the size of this 
    botanical garden all available for
    free to the public. Spend an 
    afternoon exploring the garden. There
    are also additional walking/biking
    trails attached to the property.
    
    Pro tip: There are free tours on the
    weekends, so look at their site in 
    advance if you're interested.
  • Duke Gardens
    Duke's campus itself is worth seeing, and their gardens are 
    impressive and free to visit. When you're in Durham, spend 
    an hour or two wandering campus and taking photos in the 
    gardens.
  • Umstead State Park, Durham 
    Umstead offers a ton of activities from fishing to boating,
    rock climbing, and paddling, so check out their site to plan
    a visit.
  • Conservators Center
                            
    IMG_5439.jpg
    The Conservators center is approx.
    30 minutes from campus and definitely
    worth a visit. The center homes many
    animals who needed a better home for
    various reasons. Tours must be booked
    in advance and are relatively 
    inexpensive.

Food

  • Dashi, Durham 
    IMG_3147.jpgGreat ramen, wonderful aesthetic,
    delicious food and drinks.
  • The Pit, Durham 
    If you haven't tried North Carolina BBQ yet, this is the perfect
    place to do it! The Pit is a bit dressier, so it's great for
    a special night out or a date night. Boxcar Arcade and several
    other bars are just down the street.
  • Gonza Tacos y Tequila, Durham 
    IMG_2558.jpgGonza is another great choice for a 
    celebratory dinner or special night 
    out. The tequila list is extensive
    and can be personalized in dozens
    of ways. Make a reservation if you
    plan to visit on a weekend.
  • Hops Burger Bar, Greensboro 
    Hops doesn't accept reservations, so prepare to wait. That being 
    said, your wait will be worth it. Their burgers are huge and 
    the atmosphere is fun. They also serve Cheesecakes by Alex if 
    you're still hungry afterwards.
  • Crafted The Art of the Taco, Greensboro 
    Crafted is a fun place to go for lunch or dinner in Greensboro.
    It's located right downtown so plan for a day of exploring and
    try a bunch of unique tacos when you're feeling hungry.
  • I Love Pho, Greensboro
    While I wish that there were more pho and ramen options near 
    campus, I Love Pho makes the drive worth it. It is also 
    located in a strip mall, so don't let that deter you. The bowls
    are huge and so delicious you'll want to go back.
  • Don Ishiyaki & Ramen, Greensboro 
    In my opinion, the best thing on Don Ishiyaki's menu is the 
    bibimbap. It comes piping hot in a stone bowl and is delicious.
    After the meal, Don Ishiyaki serves complementary ice cream.
  • Yogurt Pump, Chapel Hill 
    If you're exploring Chapel Hill on a hot day, you must stop at 
    the Yogurt Pump. It is tucked away on a back alley, so look 
    closely!
  • Morgan Street Food Hall, Raleigh 
    Morgan Street Food Hall recently opened and is the perfect place
    to reminisce on your days exploring European food markets abroad.
    It gets crowded on the weekend, but is full of a large variety 
    of cuisines and has seating indoors and outdoors.
  • Bella Monica, Raleigh 
    Bella Monica is a well-known Italian restaruant in Raleigh 
    perfect for a romantic date night. Make a reservation in advance!

Fun activities

  • International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro
    Learn more local North Carolina history by visiting the 
    International Civil Rights Center & Museum. The galleries
    are thought-provoking and engaging for learners of all ages.
  • Scuppernong Books, Greensboro 
    Support your local bookstores! Scuppernong is adorable and 
    located downtown. Check it out as you do your shopping and 
    pick up a new book or two :) they also have a small cafe with
    beer and wine, as well as regular events.
  • Explore downtown Chapel Hill 
    Need I say more? The town is beautiful and you really just 
    can't go wrong.
  • See a show at the PNC arena in Raleigh
    IMG_1697.jpgPNC arena offers a variety of regular
    shows and concerts. I recently saw
    Trevor Noah's comedy and show and
    would love an opportunity to visit
    Raleigh again!
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh 
    IMG_1681.jpgLooking for a free thing to do on an 
    afternoon? Visit the NC Museum of 
    Natural Sciences. Plan for at least an
    hour or two to visit, as the site is 
    huge. There are interactive centers
    on every floor and plenty to do for
    all ages.
  • NC Museum of Art, Raleigh
    IMG_1731.jpgThe NC Museum of Art has several 
    permanent free exhibitions ranging
    from modern art to classic European
    exhibits.
    
    They also have rotating ticketed 
    exhibits so check their site for 
    upcoming events and exhibitions.
  • Book a cheap Airbnb for one night 
    If you liked several of the things on the list and want to 
    make a weekend staycation trip out of my suggestions, I 
    reccomend using Airbnb! Airbnb has many rooms in Durham and 
    Raleigh for less than $40 a night. Share a room with a 
    friend and spend a weekend away from campus. Many hikes and 
    museums are free, so using Airbnb provides an economical way
    to see a new city.
  • Eden Movie Drive-In (Eden, NC)
    IMG_8777.jpgEden Movie Drive-In is the furthest 
    activity on this list, but makes for a
    fun friends-night-out. Located on the 
    Virginia/NC border, Eden Movie Drive
    often shows double-headers and is 
    inexpensive.

21+

  • NC World of Beer, Raleigh
    802889A2-4425-472E-8E5C-2DEF7EBBE57C.jpgThe World of Beer site describes
    themselves as a "Hangout featuring 500+ 
    global beers, lots of craft drafts & 
    tavern food in pub digs with TVs." Explore
    3 floors of beer including a rooftop or 
    choose to sit outdoors. You'll want to 
    look online at their beer list or use the 
    Untappd app to make your drink selections,
    as their offerings change daily.
  • Boxcar Bar + Arcade, Greensboro/Durham
    IMG_0858.jpg
    Boxcar Bar and Arcade is a fun spot for 
    a double date or group outing. 
    Reminisce on your childhood while you
    play Pacman or play Dance Dance 
    Revolution.
  • Unscripted Hotel Pool & Bar, Durham 
    E872F24B-B62E-40E6-B4DC-B9A5A2220376.jpg
    The Unscripted Hotel is a small boutique 
    hotel located in the heart of Downtown,
    Durham. The rooftop pool and bar are 
    public access and boast a great view of 
    the city. The pool is small, but the 
    weekend DJ and fun vibe makes it worth a
    trip. The food is pricey, so consider 
                           stopping by before or after dinner for 
                           a drink and swim.
  • Pour Taproom, Durham
    Pour is the only place on this list that I haven't personally 
    been, but I felt as though I must include it since it's 
    attached to the Unscripted Hotel and I've heard great things 
    from friends. At Pour, you pour your own beer and pay by the
    ounce by tapping a wristband at the tap.

Have anything to add to this list? Where are your favorite places in Burlington and beyond? Leave a comment and let me know! Happy adventuring 🙂 

United States

A Stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet – La Cascada Del Amor

As my senior year comes to a close and graduation draws nearer and nearer, I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the things that I have done over the past 4 years at Elon. While at Elon, I’ve accomplished things and gone places that my high school self would have never imagined. I’ve (almost) successfully completed student teaching, I’ve studied abroad not once but twice, I was awarded a research grant that allowed me to create and co-host the first ever Elon English Language Teaching Symposium, and I’ve met friends and professors who have encouraged me and mentored me through every step of the way. Thus, I’ve decided that I want to start writing again, particularly about things that I have experienced in the past 4 years, in order to process and to share.

A family member recently asked me if I will be scared to leave for a whole year in August when my Fulbright grant in the Czech Republic begins. I thought about it for a second. While I know that there will be moments of homesickness, of loneliness, or uncertainty, I would not say that I am afraid. The thing that I fear the most is missing out on opportunities because the fear of discomfort stopped me from taking a chance.

When I think about the moments that have stretched me, that have pushed me, and that have changed me, I realize that they all involve moments of discomfort or moments of challenge. Living in Ecuador during the summer of 2018 constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone. Each moment, big or small, held a sense of adventure and was so different from my previous experiences abroad. From learning to communicate in Spanish, to teaching at a summer camp, to constantly adjusting to the culture of always being late, I am proud to say that my time in Ecuador made me more flexible, more adaptable, and more considerate of others.

By the end of the trip, I could see the change in myself. I was more confident and had a newfound ability to take things in stride. I had gotten over food poisoning (twice!), taught students ages 5-15 and grappled with the language barrier, spent 8 weeks with no data plan, walked a mile just to print out my teaching materials for the week, and had trained myself to throw all toilet paper into the trash can. I felt like I could do anything. Which is why, on the End of Service trip, I decided to say yes to spending a day with strangers (sorry, Mom!).

backpackandbudget.jpg

One of our final destinations as a WorldTeach volunteer cohort was the city of Mindo, Ecuador. Mindo is located to the north west of Quito in the Andes mountains and has a population of around 3,000 people. It is also a cloud forest, one of the rarest types of climates in the world, in which the rainfall is heavy and condenses and floats near the trees because of currents and the mountains. In other words, the city of Mindo is a small jungle paradise with amazing biodiversity around the corner at every turn.

IMG_8456.MOVDSC_0050

On our first full day in Mindo, the other volunteers and I took the plunge into the cold Mindo river for a tubing expedition. When I hear tubing, I think of lazy rivers and pulling a cooler float alongside. We were in for a shock when we found out that we’d have a guide with us on our tubing adventure. Think white water rafting, but in connected tubes. We bumped our way down the rocky river, getting splashed with freezing cold water and laughing at the unexpected fear of being catapulted down the river backwards.

mindo

When we got out, the drivers of the tubing company took some photos of our group, and through asking them to share the photos, we ended up becoming friends and meeting for drinks that night. We salsa danced, learned more about the town of Mindo, and I got a chance to practice my beginner Spanish. They invited us out the next day to show us around town and on a whim, we said yes. I should preface this story by explaining that Mindo is extremely safe, and was definitely the safest place that I visited in Ecuador. It is a small community where everyone knows each other and people walk around the streets chatting and visiting. Even at night, we were able to walk around comfortably (which we did not do in Quito or in other towns like Riobamba where I lived).

Our new friends picked us up in their white pickup truck, and we soon learned that they used the truck for a taxi service around Mindo, especially around tourist seasons. I found it humorous that the truck had no “taxi” label at all. The driver simply stuck a white piece of computer paper in the windshield that read “taxi” when it was in service. (This should give you an idea of how small the town was). Luckily, my friend Emma spoke better Spanish than I do, so she helped to translate our conversations when necessary. Our new friends asked us if they could take us to one of their favorite local spots, a nearby waterfall called the Cascada Del Amor. We stopped on the way there at one of their favorite local cheese shops, and when we arrived at the waterfall, we were the only ones there. It was a short rocky hike to the waterfall’s opening – a crisp clear round blue pool with a medium sized waterfall as the backdrop. We stripped to our swimwear and dove straight in. I’ve loved the water since I was a little girl, and I wasted no time paddling to the waterfall side of the pool and climbing up the rocks to sit in the stream.

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There’s something so wonderful about discovering a new place when there are no tourists there. As I spoke with our new friends in choppy Spanish, I felt strangely at home as we swam and learned about each other’s lives.

IMG_8509

After our swim, our new friends explained that on the other side of the river, there was a resort where one of their friends worked as a server. They explained that if we wanted, we could go check it out and have a snack and dance some before heading back home. When we drove to the resort, I began to grow a bit alarmed. We were winding down dirt roads in the middle of the cloud forest. If I thought Mindo was a small town, this was even smaller. There were no signs of civilization in the area and we had been driving further away from the main road for about 10 minutes. Emma and I whispered to each other in English. Maybe we should just ask them to go home? Finally, we pulled up at a huge all-white building with a circular blue dome roof. I breathed a sigh of relief and we entered the main gate of the premises.

HACIENDA-RIO-BLANCO-1024x402.jpg

The owner of the resort later explained to us that they only recently opened with the goal of attracting more tourists to this remote area of the country. The resort has a pool, a hot tub, a sauna, a dance floor, and many of the modern amenities that you would find in a hotel in the United States (which was not the case at the hostels we stayed at!). It was a memorable night spent swimming and dancing with other hotel guests and learning about the struggles to find work that many locals find in the area, especially during the seasons that are not tourist peaks. For example, our friend the taxi-driver has to leave his home and go to Quito for several months of each year to make money to send back to his family. Saying yes throughout my time in Ecuador allowed me to make new friends, see new places, and learn much more of the language and culture. After all, the other volunteers I traveled with also began as strangers!

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Break outside the norm

At home, we tend to get stuck in our groups and our experiences without taking a chance. Comfort can encourage us to stick to the same routine. However, I believe that adventure can be found in little ways like trying a new restaurant, visiting a place in your own city that you’ve always wanted to go, or making a new friend and letting them teach you something. While you should always follow your gut instinct and learn strategies to stay safe in any country or area you are in, it is also important to not let the fear of trying something new stop you from making a friend, taking a new job, or spending time doing something that you’re passionate about.

Ecuador

Czech Republic Fulbright Finalist

Hi, everyone!

I have some exciting news to share with you all! I have been awarded a one-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant to the Czech Republic! I have accepted the grant and will be living in the Czech Republic as an English teacher between August 24th, 2019 and June 30th, 2020. Applying for a Fulbright grant is nearly a year-long process that taught me a lot about myself, my future goals and aspirations, and what I want in a future job. I am so thankful to my family, my Fulbright mentors at Elon, and the numerous professors and staff who have encouraged me and coached me throughout this process.

Today, after lots of waiting, I finally found out the name of my school and the town where I will be living in the Czech Republic. Therefore, I thought this would be a great day for my first blog post. In this post, I plan to answer some common questions that I have received about the Fulbright program and my placement. I plan to continue posting on this blog as I prepare for Fulbright and of course, during my grant year.

If you have any questions or ideas for posts, please let me know!

What is Fulbright?

The Fulbright Program began in 1946 under President Harry S. Truman with the goal of fostering relationships between citizens and governments of other countries. Today, there are Fulbright programs in over 140 countries that offer research, study, and teaching opportunities to recent graduates and graduate students. Applying to Fulbright is a long process! I spent two months researching countries and deciding best fit, several months writing my essays and working with professors and staff on Elon’s campus to complete my application, and then many months waiting for the results. The Fulbright grant covers my travel costs to and from the Czech Republic and provides me with a stipend for living costs.

How/Why did you pick the Czech Republic?

When applying for a Fulbright, you can only choose one country to apply for. The process is highly competitive and you will be living there for a full year, so it is extremely important to pick a country that suits you well. Here are some factors that I considered:

  • For many countries, you must be fluent in the language, so I knew those were automatically off the table.
  • Some countries place ETAs at universities or elementary schools, and I knew I wanted to teach at a high school.
  • I was not very interested in western Europe since I have already traveled there.
  • I have Czech and Polish heritage.

The Czech Republic appealed to me for many reasons. I traveled to Prague and Kutná Hora when I studied abroad and loved learning about the history of the country. The country is very centrally located in Europe with access to many great places. Towns are full of cultural events like music, plays, performances, and great beer and food are abundant. I enjoy learning about the country’s past as Hitler’s base during WWII and as part of the Soviet Regime. All of the placements in the country are at secondary schools and the school system is an incredibly interesting vocational-based system. Thus, I decided to apply!

Here’s a photo of me in Prague when I studied abroad in the Spring of 2017.

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What will you teach?

I will teach English! My school is a vocational school in the Moravian-Silesian region of the Czech Republic. Schools must apply and may wait several years to have a Fulbright grantee placed with them. My school has 750 students (65% female). Since it is a vocational school, students have “specializations” including hospitality, polygraphy, agriculture, business, accounting, baristas, and sommeliers. I have also been told that the school competes nation-wide in cooking competitions and projects and that they hope that I will be involved in these extracurricular activities.

Fulbright grantees teach about 20 hours a week. In my spare time, I will complete a supplementary research project and will participate in the extracurricular activities at my school. I also hope to find a language exchange partner to practice Czech with!

How long is the program?

The program is 10 months (August 24th 2019 -June 30th 2020).

Where will you live?

The town where I am placed seems like my perfect fit. It is small/medium sized, seems like it has plenty of cute cafes, and is sort of in two countries?! It is called Česky Těšín and is located on the far east side of the country bordering Poland.

Below, the region outlined in red is Česky Těšín. Poland is located to the right and Slovakia borders the country on the south side.

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In the photo above, you can see that the town is split by a river called the Olza. The town itself is actually in two countries. Part of the town (the Česky Těšín side) is located in the Czech Republic, while the other side (Cieszyn) is located in Poland. Altogether, the population is around 60,000 people.

 

How in the world did this happen?! You may be wondering, as I did just a few hours ago. This town has existed in some form since the 7th century and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and remained together until it was divided in 1920, splitting it into Poland on one side and Czechoslovakia on the other. Then, during the war, the region was annexed and almost the entire Jewish community was killed. After WWII, the original city borders were restored and now, you can cross between both parts of the city freely over a bridge.

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In terms of housing, I’m not sure yet where I will live! I have been given a mentor at my school who will help me find an apartment to rent.

What language do they speak?

In the Czech Republic, they speak Czech. Czech is a Slavic language that is similar to Slovak, Polish, and Russian. Since I am on a border town, I am expecting a regional dialect that mixes Czech and Polish.

How will you prepare?

This summer, I will be working part-time as a TA with Duke’s Summer Academy. In my free time, I plan to study Czech and read up on some Czech history and literature. Our Fulbright country director also puts us in touch with past grantees who have lived in our area.

I will have about 3 weeks at home at the end of the summer to pack and shop! Our handbook advises us to pack clothes that will suit us between 0-90 degrees Fahrenheit – yikes!

Thank you so much for reading and for your support. I hope that you will follow along as I embark on this journey. Na zdravi! Cheers!

This post is not an official Department of State publication. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the Department of State, the Fulbright Commission, or the host country.

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Czech Republic Fulbright

What teaching in Ecuador taught me

When summer camp began, I was really focused on what I would be able to teach my students in the short amount of time that I had with them. This is not a bad goals to have, but I was definitely too caught up in how I was going to achieve this instead of thinking about the students. As one of my professors, Dr. Carpenter always tells us, when you begin teaching you are too focused on yourself and not focused enough on the students and their experience in your classroom.

As the weeks and classes passed by, I found myself being able to forget myself more and more as I was teaching and instead, focus on the students to make sure that their needs were being met. I realized that I had to really listen to them and get them invested in the lessons so that they would care. This realization was a result of many lessons I received inside and outside of my classroom here in Ecuador. Camp is now sadly over and I know that while I did teach my students, they also taught me. The lessons I’ve learned here in Ecuador have already impacted me as an educator and as a person and I’m so excited to begin my student teaching this fall.

Lesson #1: Going with the flow

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love having a plan. I look forward to the start of each new semester when I can color code my Google calendar and perfectly plan each day so that I can maximize my productivity. Here in Ecuador, things definitely did not abide to my color-coded calendar. If you arrive early here you’re early and if you arrive on time you’re still early. While camp was supposed to start at 8:40 each morning, we never started until between 9 and 9:15, majorly cutting into my first lesson plan every day. At first, I was frustrated by my plans getting messed up and I started to put in a little bit less effort knowing that I would not be able to perfectly execute what I had in mind.

However, I soon realized that this cultural difference shouldn’t affect the effort I give to my students or the effort I give for myself. In many ways, “going with the flow” and throwing the plan out the window can turn out better. This way of living forced me to forget myself and my perfect plans and focus on what was best for the students. When we were asked to come up with a final presentation for the parents in just a few days, I realized that I was now more confident and capable because I had been asked to think on my feet the entire summer. I also realize that being flexible and having back-up plans is important in any school anywhere in the world. Sometimes, the people higher-up than myself will have requests of me that seem last minute or challenging and I know that I am now more equipped to deal with those requests in stride.

Lesson #2: Overcoming communication barriers

Throughout my time in Ecuador, I was challenged by the language barrier. When I first arrived, I could barely order food and make basic conversation. In Riobamba, I had to communicate with Ecuadorian volunteers, have school meetings in Spanish, and eat all meals with the priests while only speaking Spanish. I learned to communicate my needs, be a better listener, and be very patient. I now am at a very functional level! I definitely have not completely overcome this challenge by any stretch of the imagination, but I make small gains every day by committing to daily study, being patient with myself, and celebrating all progress.

Lesson #3: Achieving a balance between caring and in control

This lesson really all boils down to my confidence in the classroom and as a person. Before any new classroom placement or teaching task, I am always the most nervous about classroom management. I want the students to be able to see how much I care about their learning and about them as people, but I also know that I need to be in charge of the classroom in order to facilitate and maximize learning.

The first few days of teaching, I was extremely nervous and I was in my own head a lot. After a few crazy events – a fight in my classroom, students showing up late, and some chaotic moments, I realized that I was handling the situations without even thinking about them because my instincts and the things I’ve learned at Elon were kicking in. My students knew that I cared about them partially because of my classroom management and because of my high expectations of them. I once heard a student grumbling as they walked in that my class was her hardest and I silently cheered inside my head.

My most fulfilling teacher experience was seeing the transformation in my students from passive to active learners. With my older groups of students (11-15), I saw the most change. At the beginning of my time, they were quiet and just expected to listen and give one “correct” answer and then be done. Each day, I pushed them to have more conversation and to discuss the “why” of their answer. On one of the last days of classes, I asked them how they would like to run their final presentation and present to their parents. I was shocked when nearly all of the students raised their hands and began to offer opinions on how to get their parents talking. The ideas that they suggested were activities that we had been working on the entire course of the summer. It was amazing to see my students take charge in the classroom and see the value in the young leaders that they are becoming! The more of an active role I asked my students to take, the less talking and side conversations I had in the classroom.

Lesson #4: People matter the most

Lastly, the most important lesson I’ve been reminded of this summer is that it’s the people, not the places, that matter the most. This is my first time ever coming to South America and I had no idea what to expect. Would the people be different?! Would I be able to communicate?! Would I make friends?!

Now, as I sit here with my 7 year old host-sister who somehow understands that I can only understand if she speaks slowly and manages to communicate with me perfectly, I can tell you that these fears were completely erased as soon as I arrived. Even without perfect Spanish, it is possible to communicate with smiles, with the attempt to speak in a new language, and with putting in effort to make friends and learn each day. My absolute favorite days here in Ecuador have not been big trips, but instead days spent with new Ecuadorian friends that I made at camp or with my director and host siblings eating long lunches or meeting more of their family members.

I would like to thank my host family, the priests at UESTAR, for being so patient with our Spanish level and for opening the community center to us and always making us laugh. I would also like to thank my site director and her kids (my host-siblings), for treating me like family and for always believing in me and giving me the support and encouragement I needed. A special  Additionally, I would like to thank all of my fellow WorldTeach volunteers and the WorldTeach office staff for providing me with friendship and with advice no matter the time of day. I hope that our paths will cross again!

Ecuador Reflections Trips

Rafting in the remote Amazon rainforest

Go ahead and get out your bucket list because this trip needs to be added immediately!

At the beginning of the summer when I learned that some of the other WorldTeach volunteers were going to be placed in a small jungle town in the Amazon rain forest, i knew that I wanted to plan a visit.

Now that my service has ended in Riobamba (another post to come soon!) the time to visit Tena was finally upon me. Another Riobamba volunteer named Jenny and I made the 5 hour bus trip on Tuesday morning to visit our good friends.

Over the past 3 days, I’ve gotten to explore their town of Tena alongside them and my plans became reality. Since they’re basically locals at this point, they were awesome guides and showed us all of the great restaurants and some really cool swimming spots.

Some highlights and absolute must-do’s include:

Visiting a restaurant that doubles as a home to sloths called the Marquies:

Finding a great swimming spots around the city:

Taking a bus to go visit a little town that is home to monkeys!

However, the absolute highlight of the trip for me was a 1-day rafting trip that Jenny and I signed up for on Wednesday. I promise you that if you haven’t considered a trip to Ecuador in the past, you’re going to want to now!

A quick trip backstory:

On Monday evening Jenny and I signed up for a tour through a company called River People, and chose Wednesday knowing that if not enough people signed up for our trip we may get bumped to a later day. Sure enough, on Tuesday I got an email that our trip had been canceled. However, the company sent another email shortly after with the exciting news that a couple had signed up and our trip was back on. Great news!

At 8:30 the next morning, a man in the company van picked us up and asked if we had heard that we were actually going on a DIFFERENT trip than we signed up for.

In Ecuador, you never quite know the way things will unfold and things never seem to go as planned so we nodded that we were game for whatever the day had to offer and we headed off to meet the other couple and our guides at the company’s office.

At the office, we learned that we would have a hike with gear to get to the river where we’d be rafting, that we would have 2 guides (one on the raft and one scout in a kayak), and that this trip was an upgrade from the one I had originally signed us up for. It was then that I realized we were in for a treat.

A 45 minute drive from the office brought us into the middle of nowhere. It’s important to note that Tena is a small town of 30,000 people that really became a city simply because it’s the biggest collection of neighborhoods in the area. Once you’re outside of Tena, the jungle really begins. Aside from small communities and groups of indigenous peoples, it’s really just jungle as far as the eye can see.

The hike

Upon arrival at our hiking spot, a group from the indigenous community rushed over to begin hiking with the gear (including the raft and kayak). The guides explained to us that there are several groups of locals are all in competition for the job of helpng with our gear so the guides created a rotating schedule for helpers.

I barely made it down this hike with just myself so I have no clue how these people managed to carry our huge gear down the steep muddy path to the river. A “30 minute hike” was really more like an hour and since it rains at least twice a day in the Amazon, the paths were pure mud and rocks. I fell twice and the hike was so precarious that we were asked to wear our rafting helmets as we went. What trip had they signed me up for?!?

Finally, after an hour of slipping and sliding, I thought we were ready to raft and get in the water. But in fact, I was told that we were first going to hike to a canyon to see a pretty area and clean off. I was convinced that no site could be worth hiking in this mud but I figured I had come all of this way so I kept my mouth shut and kept moving.

Another 20 minutes later and we were rewarded beyond belief. The little jungle path opened up to a small circular clearing in the canyon with a pure blue pool of water being filled by a beautiful waterfall. Looking upwards revealed only a small circular opening in the tree canopy which allowed soft light and small sprinkles of rain to float into the space. Our small group of 5 was the only one there in this non-commercialized part of the jungle and we all quickly stripped off our outer clothes and dove into the pure crisp water.

We spent about 30 minutes swimming, crawling behind the waterfall, and exploring a little cave that you could climb into – guess what – a cave with ANOTHER waterfall. We all agreed that already, the trip was worth it.

This place might just have been the most beautiful place I’ve ever laid eyes on. I was absolutely blown away by the natural beauty – nature at its absolute finest. I feel so incredibly lucky to have visited such a place.

*unfortunately we did not have our phones but photos will be added as soon as the company sends them to me*

Rafting the Jondachi and Hollin rivers

The adventure continued as we had our safety briefing and began our 4 hour trip down the Jondachi and Hollín rivers. Our guide explained that he was the first person to ever lead a commercial group down the Jondachi. This portion of the Amazon is one of the most remote places to go rafting in the world and therefore, we had to take extra safety precautions.

Throughout the whole 4 hour trip, the only people that we saw were a group of indigenous people fishing and their village was a 3 hour walk away! Everywhere we turned, we were surrounded by the grand Amazon rainforest. Birds and butterflies that I’ve never seen before flew around us above and even the occasional sprinkling rain just made the place seem more beautiful.

Of course as we journeyed down, we also experienced the excitement (and one ejection!) from the raft. I felt like a little kid giggling as we flew down rapids and splashing the others in my raft as we got to know each other better.

Flips & flops

Even our flip on the “waffle maker” rapid was fun instead of scary thanks to our awesome guides who ensured we knew exactly what to do if we were in the water and quickly got us all back into the raft.

I am so glad that Jenny and I went with the flow (literally!!!) and ended up on the class 3 & 4 rafting trip instead of the more commercialized class 3 trip we originally signed up for. Living in Ecuador this summer, “going with the flow” has definitely had to be my motto, and I’ve found that I’m learning to deal better with stressful situations than I did previously.

Huge thank you to River People for the incredible trip, glory to God and Mother Nature for creating places more beautiful than I’ve ever imagined, and thank you to my amazon Tena friends for being our guides and showing us around!

What are you waiting for?! Head to the jungle, pronto!

Con amor,

Courtney

Ecuador Uncategorized

Peaking at camp and Chimbarazo

Drumroll please…Week 1 is done!

Get ready for a nice long blog post because so so much has happened in this one week spent in the beautiful Riobamba.

I am proud to say that I have now officially completed my first full week working at summer camp in Riobamba, Ecuador! Camp is absolutely my element. I grew up going to sports camps, church camps, and ranch camps and always treasured my experiences there and I find it so rewarding to be a part of a similar experience for these students here in Riobamba.

While I have taught for practicums and occasionally at my Elon placements, this is my first experience teaching every single day. It can be tiring, but it is so rewarding to see the students learning more English each day and getting excited about playing vocabulary games and using their language skills in class. Here’s a few photos below from our Friday fun day!

Daily camp life

Every morning, the other volunteers and I meet the students at the front of the school complex as they get dropped off by their families. The students are split into age groups (4-5, 6-7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15) and each have a female counselor and male counselor. These counselors are Ecuadorian volunteers who keep track of the students throughout the day, ensure that they all are going to the correct classes, and play games with them during lunch and free times. The Ecuadorian volunteers are all 16-18 and have one more year of high school remaining. It is an absolute life-saver to have them there at camp to help with the students and assist with language barriers.

Every day I teach three or four 40-minute classes and I see each age group twice a week. Thankfully, I also have an Ecuadorian volunteer that is partnered specifically with me who helps me out in the classroom. Her name is Valentina and she is the best! I typically try to explain directions twice in English with lots of hand motions and clear language. I also write the directions down on the board. If there are some students who are still confused, she is able to clarify the directions and help the students stay on track during the activities. She is so great with the students in general and I appreciate her so much.

Every week I am responsible for teaching vocabulary of a different theme. Last week, I focused on teaching professions and this week I am teaching about animals. The most challenging part of my volunteer position is making the lesson plans appropriate for each age group and properly challenging the students. There are 2 students who were born in America who are obviously very advanced, while others are at a beginner level. I know that this is great experience because ability-gap is also a major challenge in the United States! Every class, I feel my confidence growing in my teaching and am very grateful to have this experience.

As a whole, the students are extremely respectful and I have had no major challenges with classroom behavior thus far. At the end of each lesson, the students all thank me for teaching them and say “Chao!” on their way out the door which is pretty much the cutest thing ever. Another challenge for me has been learning to “flow like water” or go with the flow more. In Ecuador, things are not as pre-planned as in America. The first day of camp was mass chaos and we typically start each day late and there are times that I never really know what is going on. In my typical day at Elon, I plan out an hour to grocery shop, 2 hours to study, etc. Here, that is impossible! This majorly stressed me out at first but I am adjusting better each day.

Experiencing local culture

Fuego fiesta

I am so thankful that everyone we have met so far here has been so kind, welcoming, and patient with our Spanish level! Riobamba is a small city of 100,000 but it seems quite small town at the same time. María José knows absolutely everybody in town so always make new aquaintances when we are out with her.

One of the most special parts of puente living situation is that we are lucky enough to basically have 2 host families – the priests who live at the community center with us and our director Maria Jose and her family.

On one of our first evenings here, Maria Jose’s family and one of the priests took us out to the center of the city to join in on a Catholic/native celebration of saints. Maria Jose has a 7 year old daughter and a 15 year old son who are both so fun to hangout with. We enjoyed throwing sticks into the fire, dancing around with locals, and drinking a traditional spiced alcohol drink called Canelazo which is poured freely!

After seeing the fire in the center of the city, we went to another spot where more fires were burning and an Ecuadorian concert was happening. It was such a good start to the trip.

Family time

On our first weekend in Riobamba, Maria Jose also invited us to a big family almuerzo at her parents’ house in Chambo and to her aunt’s alpaca farm (yes, you read that right!).

Maria Jose’s parents’ house is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been. Chambo is a small town outside of Riobamba that is completely surrounded by gorgeous mountains. Her parents’ house has huge windows that showcase the spectacular view and a huge yard with fresh veggies growing and plenty of room to play outside.

I felt so instantly at home even with my floundering Spanish. Family time is extremely important here in Ecuador and we were at her parents’ house from 11:00am-6pm. We ate a traditional meal of hornado (delicious!) with white corn, fresh juice, and potatoes outside around a big table. After lunch, we lounged around inside and let our food settle and then decided it was time for some competition. Maria Jose’s family taught us Americans an Ecuadorian game that is sort of like a version of kickball except instead of kicking the ball you use a volleyball and hit it with your arms.

Maria Jose’s family is just as competitive as my own and I had so much fun running around and joking around with everyone. Many “vamos equipo, vamos equipo!” chants were made on this day.

The next day, Maria Jose and her husband and 2 kids took us out to a town in the mountains to visit her aunt’s farm. I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful the home and surrounding scenery are. Jose’s aunt and her husband built this home completely by hand. It magically manages to reflect and enhance the surrounding fields without taking away from the beauty. Inside the home is a workshop where the family creates hand-made goods that are sold around South America and in the United States. On the farm, the family raises bunnies, sheep, and alpacas to sheer for fur in order to make these products. From start to finish the family raises the animals, sheers them, turns the wool into balls of yarn, and handknits beautiful items. I could not leave without buying a beautiful alpaca sweater that I know will always take me back to this incredible memory.

I felt like a little kid running around the farm with Maria Jose’s kids, looking at the river below, and watching alpacas gallop around. It is in moments like this that the language barrier does not matter and that differences become small – I am reminded of my own humanity and of the beauty and grace in the world all at once.

Chimbarazo

This past weekend, our WorldTeach volunteer friends were kind enough to visit us from their jungle town, Tena. We had such a good time catching up, talking about teaching, and exploring more of Riobamba together.

The highlight of their visit was a group trip to the towering mountain nearby, Chimbarazo. Chimbarazo is the highest point on Earth because of Riobamba’s elevation and location on the equator and the 2nd tallest mountain in the world after Mt. Everest. The priests were kind enough to drive us all on this adventure and their expertise and explanations enhanced our experience greatly! Traveling with locals can never be beat.

The base of Chimbarazo is about a 30 minute drive away from our house here and you can tell when you have arrived because Chimbarazo is actually a volcano that erupted around 500 years after christ. The rest of the area is lush and green but once you reach Chimbarazo, it is as if you have suddenly transported to New Mexico or Arizona. The priests stopped a few times at a distance so that we could take photos (and see more alpacas!) and the wind was absolutely brutal.

Once we drove up further and reached the base level of Chimbarazo, it actually wasn’t as cold because the sun is so strong at that altitude. From this base level, we were able to hike up (about 45 minutes) nearly to where the snow-cap began! As a result of the altitude, my out-of-shapeness, and the steepness of the mountain, this hike was extremely difficult for me – altitude is no joke! Luckily I had friends to encourage me and I huffed and puffed my way up to 5,000 meters or 15,000 feet.

On the way home from Chimbarazo, we had to make a stop in a small village town when we saw that they were having a rodeo fiesta! It seemed as if the whole town was out on the streets and in the stadium watching the vaqueros lasso bulls. We were definitely the only foreigners there and I feel so fortunate for the little moments like this where I get to observe the traditions and cultures here.

Muchas gracias to the people of Riobamba for being absolutely incredible and to those who made it possible for me to volunteer here this summer! I cannot wait to see what the next 5 weeks will hold.

 

With love and gratitude,

Courtney

Ecuador Trips