Tractors, Mushrooming, & Drag Shows

At 8:30am last Thursday morning, I arrived at a field in nearby Ropice via car with one of Albrechtova’s agricultural teachers and three female students. Outfitted with my borrowed polka-dotted rain boots, I took in the view; after a few days of rain, the sun was glistening on the grass’s morning dew. I greeted two other students who had driven the tractor earlier in the morning to the field.

Translating, a student turned to me – “Our teacher wants to know if you’ve ever driven a tractor before.” 

I shook my head and laughed.

“Do you have a driver’s license?”

I nodded. “Ano” (yes), I answered in Czech.

“Okay,” The student informed me. 

“So first, you will sit in the tractor and watch two students drive. Then, it’s your turn.” While I had known for a few days that a tractor excursion was in my future, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be allowed to drive it myself. I looked a bit nervously at the few already-plowed perfectly straight lines. Who knew that I’d be learning to drive a big red tractor in a town of 1,500 in the Czech Republic.

I hopped in, ready to listen carefully in an attempt to not destroy their well-plowed work. Once inside, two agricultural students used their new tractor vocabulary to talk me through the steps.

“So, you will put down plow, press clutch and then first……”

“Gear,” Another student filled in for him.

“First gear. Then slowly release clutch and press gas here. Then you can go.”

“You want to keep the tire in the fallow.” The other student added as we bumped our way down the first plowing run. Despite the relatively simple instructions, tractor driving proved to be difficult at times. Driving is bumpy, you have to back up and avoid trees and other objects on the sides of the field, and sod occasionally gets stuck in the plow part of the tractor. Admittedly, I did kill the engine one time, but I was proud as can be when one student asked me, “Are you sure this is your first time driving a tractor?” 

For the rest of the morning, I alternated between riding in the tractor, driving the tractor, and sitting in the field with the students taking breaks. It was my first time interacting with a small group of students, and I value the time that we had to get to know one another. Students in practical fields have certain days “out of school” for practical lessons. Some professions alternate between one week of class and one week of work, while others have off a couple of days every other week during which they have practical experiences.

Visiting an animal exhibition with agriculture students

The students at Albrechtova have a wide range in English level, which is largely dependent on their chosen field of study (some will take advanced final exams called “Maturita” and some will not). And, interestingly, I’ve noticed that many students with advanced English either spend time watching English movies/videos or playing video games and speaking in English over a headset to native-speaking friends. 

A large majority of the students seem interested in getting to know me and take advantage of the chance to practice English no matter their level. It is wonderful to feel so welcomed. As I begin to build relationships in the school, I have been extremely thankful that many students have asked about the after-school clubs that I will soon be starting, have showed in interest in U.S. politics and the differences between our countries, and have invited me to join in on activities that they enjoy.

Just this morning, I said yes to attending a latin dance class taught by a student in about a week and going skiing with a student this winter (a sport I’ve never tried!). This year, I’m aware of the exciting opportunity to be both a teacher and a learner. In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to students about topics varying from American football, the difference in drinking ages and driving licenses, politics, healthcare, and university student loans. They’ve wondered and asked what students in the U.S. learn about the Czech Republic, whether or not I like Czech food and beer, and why I chose to come to their town.

Trying fried cheese & Czech beer – Smažený sýr and České pivo!  

Additionally, I spend time every day learning. My mentor has been kind enough to begin weekly (much needed!) Czech lessons with me, and I’m learning to distinguish the difference between Czech, Polish, and a regional dialect spoken in my area. I’m navigating a new school, different computer keyboard set-ups, and learning the proper greetings for people of various ages. Each week, I’m trying new activities and I’m learning to laugh at myself when I make mistakes. I’m navigating complex topics surrounding the current United States news and political situations. And, I’m learning to ask questions and listen to learn more about the life experiences of my new friends.

When I applied for Fulbright Czech Republic last October, I knew that being flexible and open were vital components for a successful application and a successful lifestyle as a Fulbrighter. Once I arrived here, I was reminded of how valuable these traits are because learning to “adult” for the first time in a foreign place can be challenging. For example, tasks that are mindless and part of one’s daily routine back home like running errands, paying a bill, or ordering at a restaurant become new adventures. I would like to give a major shoutout to the Google Translate app and especially, the photo → translate feature for saving me many times. I’m also lucky that I’m an adventurous eater with 0 food allergies!

One of my favorite things about Czech people is that they like to plan ahead and set times to do activities with one another. Going out to eat with friends is less common here, so many people prefer to go out for coffee or to try an activity. I love quality time and going to new places, and I am extremely grateful to my new colleagues at work for inviting me on many adventures already. 

This past weekend, I was invited to attend a drag show and to go mushrooming. Originally, I don’t know which invitation shocked me more — the fact that a small village restaurant was hosting a drag show event or the news that most Czech people regularly participate in the fall sport/hobby/obsession that is mushrooming. 

Both events were fantastic. At the drag show on Friday, I appreciated the attendees young and old who put their regular lives on pause for a moment to laugh and enjoy. My mentor translated some of the Czech jokes for me and I even was pulled up on “stage” with them to dance for a song.

I took Saturday to recover and to prepare myself for the full Czech “mushrooming” experience. On Sunday morning, I was surprised to see the crowd at the train station. The teachers accompanying me explained that Sunday morning is a popular time for many to head to the mountains for a day of exploration. There were older groups of “pensioners,” groups with mountain bikes, many with hiking gear, families, and others with baskets ready to be filled with mushrooms.

Enjoying the view with colleagues and friends

We rode the train for about 30 minutes south to a town near the Czech/Slovakia/Polish/Czech tri-border and began our walk up the hill. On our hike, we joked and laughed while they taught me about how to tell a good edible mushroom from a bad one. I made up nicknames for the bad ones – jellyfish mushrooms (nearly translucent), alien mushrooms (crazy orange colors), and monster mushrooms (large rotten ones). We spent the entire morning winding through trails, going deeper into the dark parts of the forest, and sharing the excitement when a good mushroom was spotted. There were many opportunities for good photo cameos with the beautiful mushrooms, which were surprisingly hard to find!

After a day of mushrooming, you’ll find Czechs sharing photos of mushrooms and discussing prime mushrooming conditions, but never sharing their prized mushrooming locations in the forest. After enjoying some freshly made cheese from a farm and a coffee at the top of the hill, we made our way back home where my mentor’s husband showed me how to clean and then cook the mushrooms. It was a rewarding feeling to make meals at home with our hand-picked beauties. 

This Friday, I am headed to visit a fellow Fulbrighter in a nearby town called Frenštát and we will then head to Prague together on Sunday for a second Fulbright orientation. When I return, my teaching responsibilities will continue to increase now that my school has a confirmed schedule for the semester. I’m looking forward to getting to know more students in small group settings and to building relationships with those in my community — two things that make life here even more of a home! 

 

 

Czech Republic Fulbright

First week of work & establishing new routines

It takes time for new places to become familiar, to develop new norms and routines after old ones have grown to feel natural. In May, the moment that truly jolted me and forced me to realize that my time at Elon was coming to an end was not my final day of class or even my final day of student teaching. I was shopping at Aldi one Sunday afternoon, picking out my weekly essentials and determining how to best finish the food in my pantry during my final week. As if she knew that it was my last grocery trip, the check-out woman even complimented my strategic placing of items onto the check-out belt (heaviest items towards the front, bananas and delicate items at the back, obviously). 

I took my bags to my car and then pushed my cart back up to the store entrance. At Aldi, you must place a quarter in the cart to detach it from the others. I locked my cart back into the bunch retrieved my quarter and then returned to my car. The loom of graduation hit me suddenly as I set my quarter back down in its home spot in my little Honda Civic where it would typically wait until the next Sunday where I would retrieve it once again for our Aldi trip. But, this time, I realized that there would be no more trips. Instead, I pulled out my wallet and set the quarter into the coin pouch to later be spent and return to its normal life as a quarter moving from wallet to store and back again.

Not unlike that quarter, I’d soon be leaving my home base at Elon where I’d been returning for the past 4 years to join society in new larger ways and to develop a new routine in a new location. Now, in the Czech Republic, my weekly Sunday grocery trips are at a store called Kaufland that is filled with familiar products labeled with different names, items I’ve never seen before, and a challenge that comes every time I check out and have to tell the check-out person, “nemluvim ceske.”

This week, I (mostly) successfully navigated my first week at school. I presented an introduction Powerpoint in 5 different classes at Albrechtova and began building relationships with students. While an introduction Powerpoint may seem like a small feat, finding my way through a new school with very different routines can prove challenging. For example, in the Czech Republic, teachers do not have a permanent classroom, but rotate every class and use an office as their “home base.” Additionally, when the school bell rings (or at my school, a fun song), that means that students must be in their classrooms — not the teacher. The teachers do not make their way to the classroom until the final bell rings, then making their way from their respective offices. At Albrechtova, classes are spread out over 3 floors and in two buildings that are a 7 minute walk away from each other (confusing!). Additionally, students rotate classes on a bi-weekly schedule and have different classes each day.

In front of the main building of Albrechtova

I’d also been warned that students would stand when the teacher entered the room. I’m not quite sure if the looks on their faces when they saw me enter with their regular class teacher was surprise or nervousness (I’m sure it wasn’t too different from the look on my own face), but over the course of the first lesson, we grew more comfortable with one another.

I shared photos with the students of popular Texas cuisine, our average weather forecast in Grapevine, my family and friends, and of course, Elon. In turn, the students then told me about their practical fields of study at Albrechtova (even in English classes they are divided by this field of study), and asked me a variety of questions about Texas, driving licenses, gun laws in America, the border wall, and the American healthcare system. I attempted a few Czech words, made references to High School Musical and the infamous yellow school busses that have been made famous in American shows and movies, and before I knew it, my first week came to a close. Next week will be another week with an adjusted schedule before the school releases the permanent schedule for the semester.

Over the next few weeks, my mentor and I will be setting up some after-school clubs that I’ll be leading. So far, our ideas for clubs include some small group extra English lessons, an American culture club, English teacher lessons, and lessons to the non-English teachers. Many students commute to school via trains and busses, so we will have to see what types of clubs students are interested in. While this may seem like a lot of extra activities, some clubs will be bi-weekly meetings and as Fulbrighters, we do not teach a full course load.

As the weeks go by, I’ll be continuing to both establish my new routines and seek discomfort through saying yes and embracing new opportunities and invites that come my way. And now, a new Czech Kč coin has made its home in a special spot in my wallet, ready to be deployed each Sunday on my weekly trip to the Kaufland grocery store.  

Photos from the week:

Above: Photos taken in Tesin during a tour of town given by a Albrechtova student

Below: Enjoying a local concert & Polish beerfest with my mentor and her family

Celebrating my mentor’s husband’s birthday

Below: Today I am enjoying a local coffeeshop on a rainy Saturday. In my free time I am writing, blogging, and studying Czech!

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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.

Czech Republic Fulbright

Initial Impressions + Brno ETA Orientation

Hello, everyone!

I have now officially been in the Czech Republic for one whole week! Each day has been full of meeting new people, getting settled in, and preparing for the months ahead. In this post, I will share an overview of my arrival to my town of Český Těšín, orientation in Brno, and cultural differences that I’ve noticed thus far.

As always, please leave a comment below if you have any questions or would like to request any specific posts!

**Český Těšín is pronounced (Ch-eh-ski Teh-shin).

Arriving to Český Těšín

In the Czech Republic, I have learned that individual teachers often take responsibility for hosting a “project” or beginning a new idea at his or her school. I was under the impression that my school had applied for a Fulbright ETA, but it turned out that my mentor, Gabi, was really the one who applied and has been planning my stay here.

Gabi and her family have been extremely generous to me already during my time here and I am looking forward to getting to know them even better during these 10 months.

Gabi arranged a flat for me at her next-door neighbor’s house. It is the upstairs portion of the home and is spacious and cozy. I have a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and a hallway with storage space for hats and purses and such. I knew as soon as I saw the purple bed and bookshelves that I would quickly feel right at home.

The flat is also in a great location. It is approximately a 10 minute walk to the school, a 10 minute walk to a grocery store, and a 15 minute walk from the train station and the border crossing.

Of course, my pillow pet swagasaurous made the journey
Experiencing a wonderful Czech welcome on the night of my arrival

After sleeping a lot and unpacking, I set off with the other Fulbright ETA in my town, Sarah, to explore the town. We are the only two Czech Republic ETAs who are placed in the same town, and I feel very lucky to have her here!

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, my town is split by the Czech/Polish border. It was an incredible feeling to walk across the bridge for the first time. While the Czech side feels more residential, it does have a few restaurants, grocery stores, and shops that are all very walkable. On the other hand, the Polish side is more lively with people out and about shopping and sitting outside at cafes and most people that I’ve met so far agree that it is more beautiful.

The Czech town hall and main square in Český Těšín
The Polish main square in Cieszyn
One thing I love about the Czech Republic so far is the importance placed upon having a beautiful backyard (always called a garden) and spending time outdoors.

My school placement

One thing I was surprised to find out during orientation was how much importance is placed upon our position not only as a teaching assistant, but also as an American ambassador in our towns. For example, we do not teach a full-time teacher course-load as it is also important for us to be active members of our towns and our communities.

The Czech Fulbright commission purposefully does not allow schools in Prague to apply for an ETA, and prefers to give opportunities to schools in smaller towns who do not have convenient access to native English speakers.

The Czech secondary school system is much different than in the US. Students apply to two secondary schools at the age of about 14 or 15 and can pick a school anywhere they please. In other words, many students commute to the school, which makes it challenging for students to stay for after school clubs or sports.

There are SO many types of speciality schools, but the two main categories (from my understanding) are “gymnasium” schools, which typically prepare students for university, and practical or vocational schools, which prepare students for trades and careers.

Vocational schools can have one focus or many focuses. Some types I’ve heard about so far include military, engineering, nursing, art schools, pedagogical teaching schools, forestry schools, and many more.

Here is a photo of my school, Albrechtova! It is home to 750 students and about 60 teachers and is located in 2 buildings.

At my school, I will teach English lessons every week to students of various ages and also visit practical lessons. Gabi informed me last night that some of my additional activities will include visiting agricultural classes and learning to milk a cow and plow with a tractor as well as collaborating with culinary students to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

I am hoping to run an after school English club, but I am waiting to see how the first week of school goes and what students are interested in since many commute. The first couple of weeks, I will mainly be observing as the school has a temporary schedule for a while.

I was surprised to learn that schools have no particular start time or end time. While the government sets a start date and end date for school, each school day can start and end at various times. If a teacher does not have a lesson until “3rd period” or is done at the end of the day, it is also fine to go home.

Additionally, it is easier to take students on field trips or outside during the day because there isn’t really a need for waivers and paperwork like there is in American schools.

Many of my students who work in trades such cooking or becoming a waiter work at this local coffeeshop called Avion.

ETA training in Brno

New friends!

I spent Tuesday-Friday in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city. Brno is located in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic and is very lively. My cohort of 31 spent each day from 8:30-5 in sessions about the Fulbright program, teacher training, cultural differences to expect, and safety guidelines.

In the evenings we tried local food and of course, some local Czech beer. It was so nice to meet the rest of my cohort and spend the week becoming friends. We have a limited amount of days allowed out of the country, and are highly encouraged to spend some weekends visiting each other and getting to better know the Czech Republic. We will meet again soon for a further orientation in Prague!

Enjoying various Czech folk performances in the Old Town Hall

Exploring the city of Brno

Cultural differences

Since I have only been here one week so far, I have not yet been able to ascertain more complex cultural differences. However, I wanted to note some smaller differences that I have either noticed or were discussed by the Fulbright Commission during our Brno orientation.

I think that this list will be fun for me to look back on after 10 months immersing myself in the culture.

  • Air conditioning is rare
  • Showers mainly have detachable shower-heads and not overhead showers
  • Bug screens are not common on windows/doors
  • The drinking culture is more relaxed and can often be seen on the street or in some workplaces
  • If a Czech person asks you to get coffee or come visit their vacation home, they firmly intend to set a plan
  • Shoes should be taken off in the home and some schools even require teachers to change shoes from street shoes to school shoes
  • Czech women have the ending “ova” added to their last names. For example, my last name would be “Kobosova”

People are known for being more direct and may smile less or appear less outwardly friendly to Americans

This evening, I am attending the birthday party of Gabi’s husband in their garden and then attending a local beer festival on the Polish side of town with a colleague!

Since school will start on Monday and orientation is now over, I will be spending this week observing various classes at the school, continuing to adjust to my new life here and building regular healthy routines such as cooking, walking/jogging in the local park, journaling, and studying Czech!

Thank you for reading,

Courtney

Czech Republic Fulbright

Packing for a year abroad: How I packed for 10 months in the Czech Republic in one suitcase

Hello! Or in Czech, Dobrý den! I am happy to share that I have arrived safely in my new home for the next 10 months, Český Těšín, Czech Republic. I am currently writing at a little table in my apartment overlooking the garden and several colorful houses in the neighborhood after spending the afternoon exploring the Polish side of town.

Since Český Těšín is located quite far from Prague (about a 4 hour train ride), I decided that it would be best to pack in one large suitcase and carry-ons. After learning the hard way at London Heathrow during my semester in England that lugging two big suitcases is exhausting, I knew that it would be better to pack light and buy things in the Czech Republic if needed.

My biggest piece of packing advice is to lay out everything that you want to pack in one central area. I set up a folding table and in the two weeks prior to my departure, I began to lay out items. Using this method helped me both to determine what I still needed to pack or purchase and where I could cut back.

When packing for the trip, I chose to pack lighter in categories of items that I knew would be relatively inexpensive and easy to purchase once I arrived (toiletries, shirts, decor, etc). I was more strategic with things that are either expensive or fit in a specific manner (think jeans, electronics, coats!)

The packing master (my mom!) helping me roll clothes

Luggage

For luggage I brought one large suitcase, which ended up weighing in at 49 pounds, one large backpack to put in the overhead compartment on the flight, and a black tote bag for my personal item that I plan to use as my work bag here in the Czech Republic.

I packed the heaviest items like shoes and sweaters in this backpack so that my suitcase would not go over the weight limit!

Carry-on items

From left to right: Laptop, important documents, small lock, water bottle, camera, portable charger, computer charger, kindle, airpods, regular headphones, snack pouch, various chargers, journal and pens, tic tacs, chapstick, money belt, passport + cover
Small purse and wallet

Tops

4 graphic t-shirts for working out, sleeping, traveling
3 workout shirts – one short sleeve, two tank tops

2 plain short-sleeve tops
Three long-sleeve layering tops (navy, dark green, black)
6 blouses (1 did not make the photo)
2 cardigans
4 dresses that all can be paired with tights in the colder months

Pants and shorts

Black jeans, blue jeans, black work pants, navy work pants
3 pairs of workout leggings
Sweatpants, pajama set, tights, spandex shorts
Two pairs of shorts

Shoes

Flip flops, sandals, black booties, workout shoes, sneakers, work shoes

Winter gear

6 sweaters of various weights
3 scarves

3 pairs of gloves, 1 hat, 1 umbrella

4 jackets: Medium weight coat, rain jacket, winter/cold rain jacket, light jacket

Random

1 swimsuit

Small daypack and travel towel
Pillow case (not the pillow), sleep mask, pillow pet

Mesh laundry bag
Small jewelry pouches with versatile jewelry

Thank you for reading and for supporting my new Fulbright adventure! If you’d like to continue to hear about my Fulbright adventures, please follow me on WordPress or like my Facebook page, @CourtneyTasteTravelTeach where I’ll be posting photos and sharing my blog posts! Soon, I’ll be posting more about my first impressions of my town and about Fulbright training in Brno, Czech Republic.

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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.

Czech Republic Fulbright

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