Fun From the Heights: Montaña Redonda

Aura swinging on the Montaña RedondaThe Dominican Republic is a country shimmering with a beauty that makes people fall in love. It is home to beaches that turn the heads of its visitors, with several considered amongst the best in the world. While it is true that this paradise has crystal-clear waters and white sand, the Dominican Republic is more than beaches. This Caribbean island has a series of places that frame stunning views, sending your jaw crashing to the floor. Places such as these show the unique side of this tropical paradise. One place that shows what the island is made of is the Montaña Redonda.

Location

You will find Montaña Redonda (Round Mountain) in Miches. This is a municipality in the province of El Seibo which is located in the eastern region of the Dominican Republic.

The best way to reach Montaña Redonda is by vehicle. Many people arrive by bus since Montaña Redonda is a popular destination offered by many of the island’s tour packages.

If you choose to drive to Miches yourself, be mindful on the way. The road has as many curves, twists, and turns as it does signs. Visit Montaña Redonda early in the day in order to leave Miches before dark to reduce the possibility of an accident.

Gorgeous farmland.

Once in Miches, arriving at Montaña Redonda is easy. With a GPS, people can enjoy access to the best views. You need to go up the mountain in a four-wheel drive as it’s too big a job for a smaller car. When getting to the base, there is a sort of taxi service to ferry you up the mountain, starting at $5.

What to do on Montaña Redonda

Once on top of the mountain, one of the first things to admire is the beautiful landscape that the height of the place offers. People can see all the green valleys famous in that part of the country. The natural environment is one of the greatest attractions of the place.

Apart from appreciating the flora, the Montaña has swings as part of the entertainment for visitors. When swinging above all the trees in the valley, a person can feel like they are falling. Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about; they are safe. Also at the top are hammocks where visitors can lie down and rest while taking in the views.

It is important to bring water and use good sun protection. At the top of the mountain, the sun is very strong and there’s a good chance of getting a sunburn. If you forget to pack a snack, no worries. On top of the mountain, there is a restaurant that specializes in a dish called Moro de Guandules con Coco. This is rice prepared with coconut milk and pigeon peas, something very typical here. Fried fish is another popular item on the menu. Besides juices and soda like Coca-Cola, people can drink the Dominican beer called Presidente. The prices are affordable — $8 and above will fill you up in style.

Something that all visitors usually do when they arrive at Montaña Redonda is to take pictures, but from a different perspective. The photographs look like you are flying over the mountain as you play on the swing. There are people in the mountains who will take your photo for you so you can get the best shot.

What other activities can be done while on Montaña Redonda?

After having enjoyed the natural beauty from the vantage point of Montaña Redonda’s peak, there are plenty of other activities Miches offers. These include Playa Esmeralda. This virgin beach is one of the most secluded in the entire country. To get to the beach, it is advisable to use a four-wheel drive vehicle since the road is not in very good condition. Nonetheless, it is still worth the journey. After a very hot day on Montaña Redonda, swimming in crystal clear water and sunning yourself on the white sand is an excellent way to end a stay in Miches.

A Dominican Republic beach with white sand and blue waters

by Aura De Los Santos

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

Ed GagnonEdmond Gagnon grew up in Canada. A retired detective, Ed now travels the world between writing books. One of the most unique places he’s visited on his journey was Vietnam. In this quick preview, Ed shares seven reasons to visit Sa Pa, Vietnam, which he’s written about in his book, A Casual Traveler

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

When it comes to traveling, I usually venture out on my own to explore new places. In the case of Sa Pa, in Vietnam, I booked a no-brainer packaged excursion from my hotel in Hanoi. Not able to read or understand the language, I felt it was the sensible thing to do. The trip included all travel arrangements, lodging, and two days of trekking in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, just south of the Chinese border. 

After a snafu on the overnight train and a shuttle bus kerfuffle, I found myself standing on the balcony of my Sa Pa hotel. The hotel balcony overlooked the mind-blowing Muong Hoa Valley, nestled in the highest mountains in Vietnam. I found it hard to imagine what I was about to experience hiking this remote alpine paradise. 

A Unique & Exotic Place

People say that Vietnam is a unique and exotic destination to explore and they are right. But if you really want to see a truly special place, travel 350 kilometers northwest of the capital city, Hanoi. From there, Sa Pa can be easily reached by bus or train. It’s the last Vietnamese outpost, before Lao Cai, a city on the China border. 

Sa Pa is a popular trekking base. Its 10,000 inhabitants consist mostly of people from the Hmong, Tay, and Dao hill tribes. Their villages are scattered throughout the remote valley. Some are only accessible on foot or by serious all-terrain vehicles. No paved roads exist between the hamlets. Much of what is needed is carried in wicker baskets by the local women. 

A photo of some of the village deliveries

Strolling the main streets in Sa Pa is like walking backwards into time. Uniquely clad women line the sidewalks selling their hand-crafted goods — some with woven baskets and others with colorful blankets, tablecloths, and placemats. Some, wearing the classic straw lampshade hats, sell fresh produce grown locally.  

Mountain Trekking

I’m not what you’d call an avid hiker, but when I saw the pictures and read about trekking through the mountains around Sa Pa, I knew it was an adventure I couldn’t pass up. The agents told me in advance that the hike was fairly rigorous and certainly not for the faint of heart. My guide gave me a taste of what I was in for on the afternoon of my arrival. She called it a warm-up, a short jaunt through town along paved roads and easy paths.

The half-day trek seemed easy at first, mostly because it meandered downhill. We walked along a ridge on the edge of town, taking in awesome views of the valley below. Lam allowed me a beer break at a cute little village café where I gawked at the huge mountains that marked the border with China. At this point, my guide sent a woman in our foursome back to the hotel. She’d gotten drunk from a hidden canteen she carried, and my guide was afraid she might fall down the mountain. 

The hike back to the hotel was a bit harder because it was all uphill. The incline made my calf muscles tingle, and the thinner air at that elevation had me breathing heavy. I felt proud upon the completion of my half-day hike. Nonetheless, my guide, Lam, burst my bubble saying it was easy and the full-day trek the next day would be much harder.  

The Real Deal

I awoke to fog so thick I could barely find Lam outside the front doors of my hotel. It was 9 AM, and upon seeing me she said, ‘we go now’. Walking through the low-lying clouds reminded me of entering a steam bath. I heard roosters crowing but couldn’t see anything on either side of the wet and slippery path. Some local kids tried to sell me a walking stick, but I was clueless as to what lay ahead and didn’t buy one. 

It didn’t take long to get off the beaten path, a place where only mountain goats and experienced locals trekked. I found myself balancing on the edge of soggy rice paddies and figured it was only a matter of time before I fell into one. Often, I lost sight of Lam because of my slow pace, only to find her further along the path waiting for me. I tripped and stumbled over loose boulders and rocks. Lam told me my feet were too big. 

Hungry and soaked from sweat, I eventually made it to our lunch stop. It was a picnic area with a covered patio and outdoor kitchen, perched on the edge of a gorge. I heard what sounded like rushing water but the fog obscured anything below me. An eerie-looking cable bridge shrouded in fog led to the other side of the river. We ate a fresh salad and a tasty chicken stir fry for lunch.  

Amazing Scenery

After lunch, we headed across the bridge and into another valley. Like a bedsheet being drawn back, the fog slowly retreated, revealing bright green rice paddies built on terraces that climbed the side of the mountains. Puffy cotton ball clouds sat atop the rocky peaks, crested by powder- blue sky. It was rural and rugged and wickedly wonderful all at the same time.   

Oxen and Water Buffalo grazed in fields and fat pigs played in muddy pens. Village men used hand tools to chisel and carve new terraces into the mountainside for their rice paddies. Dirty-faced and bare-bottomed children chewed on sugar cane and played, oblivious to the large and sweaty white man grunting and puffing on his way by. 

Two village children

Colorful Hill Tribes

The indigenous people were more colorful than the scenic valley they called home. Lam explained to me how at the age of 12, their culture expects women to weave, sew, and dye the materials to make their own clothes. The deep red and indigo colors may seem haphazard to a stranger but each village has their own particular outfits, some including headdresses or knee socks. I saw one woman stirring a vat of indigo dye, another weaving a basket, and plenty of others carrying them to their villages.

The men work the fields while the women tend their children and homes. The average household comprised itself of nothing more than a grass and mud hut, some built with wood and corrugated metal that villagers hauled up the mountain manually. Lam showed me her village and checked in on her kids while I snooped around town and took some pictures. 

She’d been guiding for seven years, picking up as many languages just by conversing with trekking tourists. She only earned a few dollars a day and she worked seven days a week. Nonetheless, Lam said it was better than trying to pedal cheap souvenirs. It was no wonder to me that she was in such great shape, hiking five to ten miles every day. Her sister minded the kids while she was away at work. 

A view of the valley, one of the many reasons to visit Sa Pa

Remote Mountain Villages

Each village we came across was different, although each was mostly distinguishable by the women’s attire. Some places were so remote access could only be made on foot or by animal. Lam commented after one of my trips and near falls that if I became disabled, she would simply strap me to the back of the closest oxen to get me down the hill. The vision worried me but I liked her sense of humor. 

I saw a man fishing from a boulder about the size of a large bulldozer. It practically blocked the stream. We had to walk across fields of bowling-ball-sized rocks in one dry river bed and a rickety bamboo bridge that crossed the water. Lam went first to watch me cross. She waited until I was about half-way to say she wasn’t sure the structure would hold my weight. A picture of me on the back of a smelly beast flashed through my mind and I scurried to safety. 

Lam grinned, turned, and carried on, expecting me to play the part of a good soldier and follow the leader. Our 10k trek ended at a mountain village that eventually met up with Sa Pa via road. I had time for a well-deserved beer and reflection of my all-day awesome adventure before getting on the shuttle bus back to the hotel. I wanted to hug Lam for getting me back alive but gave her a huge tip instead.

Land of Lam

My trip to Sa Pa and trekking in the mountains was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It is a truly beautiful and unique place that I will never forget. If you’re interested in reading more about my adventures, Land of Lam can be found in my travel book, A Casual Traveler

More of my travel stories can be found on my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Holiday Guide: Rest, Relax, Enjoy

By Dreams Abroad

Amidst a year like no other, we’ve all found new ways to bring people together, even when physically apart. The holiday season is for feeling grateful and giving to our loved ones. We are so grateful to our readers and writers for giving us their support. We asked the Dreams Abroad team which pieces they connected with this year. We’ve had new members, guest writers, many locations, and an array of professional tips that we shared over the course of 2020. Rest, relax, and enjoy our selections in our 2020 holiday guide. 

Our Holiday Guide

The Team Behind the Scenes: Dreams Abroad Ops

Our operations team is thinking of guests and professions this year, and here’s what Emma and Tyler have selected.

Emma Schultz

Emma Schultz picked two diverse but equally inspiring pieces on travel and on completing an internship abroad for our 2020 holiday guide.

Guest writer Lisa Mallett’s piece, Living In A Tourist Destination: Niagara Falls, Canada was one of Emma’s favorite reads this year. The guide offers incredible insight into the region and has lots of detailed tips on things to do in addition to admiring the falls! Emma hopes to travel there someday (hopefully sooner rather than later!) to enjoy some ice wine and a ride on the Niagara Jet Boat.

A photo of Horseshoe Fall

Emma also enjoyed Leesa’s interview with We Study participant Ajay Pfister, My L’Oreal Internship: A Dutch Workation. In this, Ajay details his experience interning for La Roche-Posay (L’Oreal) in the Netherlands during a global pandemic. He talks about navigating joining a new team while working remotely 50% of the time. Ajay’s comments on creativity, networking, and growth particularly resonated with her.

Ajay working from home for his L'oreal Internship

Tyler Black

Tyler Black chose two pieces that covered the difficult topic of coronavirus in Spain, where he lived for two years, and Mexico, where he recently visited.

Writer Edgar Llivisupa talks about teaching in Spain with Leesa Truesdell in his interview Living in Ontinyent, Spain While Social Distancing. This piece really hit home for Tyler because he was also an English teacher in Spain, and could really relate with the challenges that Edgar had to overcome. Tyler was also interested in hearing about life in Spain during the pandemic. Edgar’s positive outlook throughout the interview was reassuring during these difficult times.

A drinking fountain that Edgar noticed had been shut down as he started traveling again.

Tyler also relished Stephanie Vargas’ piece The Day of the Dead During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Tyler visited Mexico City in 2019 shortly after the Day of the Dead. Stephanie gave him an impromptu tour, so he was very interested in seeing how the city was dealing with the pandemic. Stephanie does an incredible job of detailing the changes that people have had to make this year in order to pay respects to their deceased loved ones. 

One More Edit: Dreams Abroad Editors

Our Dreams Abroad editors chose four very different yet equally great articles. 

Cassidy Kearney

Cassidy Kearney highlighted two very different pieces about traveling and studying abroad for our holiday guide. 

She really enjoyed reading about Emma Higgins’ month wandering around Vietnam. Emma saw so much of Vietnam, all while on a tight budget. From mysterious mountainscapes to towering skyscrapers, she highlighted everything that makes Vietnam an exciting destination point. Plus, the food looks amazing!

Hue Vietnam

Jiye Kang’s article about studying abroad in Haifa, Israel, was also a fascinating read. As someone who considered applying to a master’s program abroad, Cassidy found Jiye’s piece especially interesting. Plus, she’s studying archeology in one of the most archeologically-rich areas of the world. This is a great read to get to learn more about studying abroad, what living in Haifa, Israel is like, and to get some insight into the fascinating world of modern-day archeology.

A photo of Jiye brushing off an artifact at a dig site.

Matthew Hirtes

Matthew Hirtes recommends checking out two of our management members’ pieces.

While he is always drawn to Leesa Truesdell’s interviews because of the stimulating questions she asks interviewees to open up about their experiences, his first choice was this travel article from February. The colorful descriptions and expert photography transported him to Leesa’s epic birthday in Paris and he felt like he was actually there celebrating with her.

Champs de Elysse

October brought this superbly-researched guide to Pittsburgh from Tyler Black. Like Tyler, Matthew enjoys exploring a new city thoroughly upon relocating there. Tyler did so with gusto, which makes for an infectious read.

Explore things to do in Pittsburgh!

All the Way to the Top: Dreams Abroad Director

Leesa Truesdell

Finally, our Dreams Abroad director shares two pieces from Madrid, a place close to her heart, in our holiday guide. 

Leesa selected Sarah’s Guide to Moving to Spain because it is one of the most comprehensive guides to moving to Spain she’s read so far. She has fond memories of living abroad in Spain. Leesa recommends reading Sarah’s guide to get you overseas and to Madrid. If you’re thinking of teaching abroad, check out Sarah’s article to see how this is possible. It’s not as difficult or daunting as you might think. Live outside of your comfort zone and chase your dreams abroad! 

Sarah at the Jefferson Memorial while applying for her visa in Spain

Timisha’s most recent article about celebrating the holidays abroad reminds our director of her own holiday experiences, but through a different lens. This heartfelt piece is worthy of recognition and a read. Be sure to break out the eggnog and holiday cookies before reading this article to get the full effect. 

Timisha spends the holidays abroad

We hope you have a happy and relaxing holiday season. Our Dreams Abroad family will continue to share their experiences in 2021. Would you like to share one of yours? Join us by sending us an email or refer a friend who might have an inspiring story. You know where to find us. Happy Holidays!

The Con Dao Islands of Vietnam

michael carterWhere in the world are the Con Dao Islands?

If you happen to be wandering around Vietnam or are looking for your next tropical adventure, head east of Ho Chi Minh City to the port city of Vung Tau. The Con Dao Island group is a cluster of 16 islands located about 80 km offshore from Vung Tau. A now-daily high-speed catamaran service connects the mainland with Con Son, the only permanently inhabited island of the bunch. Traveling there takes about four hours overall.

A Con Dao Anecdote: The Day of My Arrival

Just past high noon, the ”cat” docks at the harbor, which is about 12 km from Con Son town. Con Son claims the title of largest community on the islands, proudly housing approximately 7,000 denizens. In Vung Tau, I had hooked up with a fellow intrepid traveler, Jim. Jim and I grew up in the same Canadian town; additionally, this was the first trip to Con Dao for either of us.

A-frame cottages at Con Dao Camping

I don’t know the collective noun for taxi drivers offhand, so I’ll use the term ‘annoyance’. Hordes of taxi drivers waited as we disembarked, certainly eager to offer their services. “Where are you staying?”, “Where do you want to go?” Impossible questions to answer, as neither of us had ever been there before and therefore, had absolutely no idea.

We decided to incorporate the distraction of snapping a few photos of the undeniably scenic harbor as an opportunity to ignore the mini-fleet of vultures. Soon, a bus pulled up beside us and the driver opened its doors — ”jump in,” he welcomed with hand gestures.

“How much?”

No reply.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked in broken English.

“Don’t know, somewhere near the center of town.”

Understood or not, the hand gesture came into play again.

I felt unquestionably uneasy as we boarded a bus going to an unknown destination with no set price. We were the only passengers. Ah yes, the joys of an intrepid traveler.

When there appeared to be enough buildings surrounding us to indicate we happened to be in some sort of town, we requested to get off. How much did we have to pay? Absolutely nothing!

Café Soleil

As we stepped off the bus, I noticed a sign on a tree that read ”Piano Café.” Across the street, a small, open-air spot named Café Soleil beckoned. The only person in sight was a bare-chested, middle-aged man. We ordered two ca phê den da, which they didn’t have. Fortunately, Mr. Bare Torso walked a couple of doors down the road and got two for us.

Coffee shop in Vietnam. Best Vietnamese coffee in town.

A woman and a small kid soon appeared. She almost immediately touched my arm and smiled. After returning, the guy wrote a number on a piece of paper. He then wrote 1975 and pointed to himself — indicating his year of birth. He handed the pen and paper to me, particularly intent. In an effort to humor him, I wrote 1976 and pointed to my chest. A confused look washed over his face and he shook his head in disbelief. I decided to come clean and wrote my true year of birth. He gave me a thumbs-up and revealed the other number he had written — 2047. The soothsayer foretold my longevity. I am not going to die until 2047.

Despite their hospitality, we still felt damned hot. Plus, we still didn’t exactly know where we were or where we were going to stay.

Hospitality Abounds

Jim had one of those so-called “smartphones” that some people seem to enjoy carrying around these days. With the aid of his contraption, he located a nearby place that promised something good to eat. Other than the three early morning beers on the boat, my stomach was empty. After a feed, we could ask around for accommodation options.

A tree in Con Son Town, Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

The phone map touted a restaurant called Villa Maison, supposedly only about three or four blocks away. As we headed out, an idle taxi saw us hauling our bags,  filled mostly with wine we had brought over from Vung Tau. He asks the usual “where do you want to go?” question.

“It’s OK, it’s not far. We’ll walk.”

“Come in,” he says, utilizing the traditional hand gestures that graduates of Con Dao Bus & Taxi Driving Schools are required to master.

The Villa Maison was indeed only about three blocks away. The taxi driver charged us… absolutely nothing! (Now I know for sure I was certainly on a different planet.)

A friendly Villa Maison waitress welcomed us with cold, wet face towels, a lemon drink, and iced water. No charge.

Without a doubt, great first-day hospitality all around.

What to do for a few days?

Relax. If you want nightlife, head back to Vung Tau. We ended up staying at a property known as Con Dao Camping. Not camping as we know it, but rather a collection of A-frame cottages that snoozed beneath some trees, necklacing a fine beach. I spent a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking that life was a breeze. Tourists and residents alike consider Con Dao a peaceful existence, but it hadn’t always been thought of that way.

Entrance to Trai Phu Hai Prison on the Con Dao Islands.

At one time, many called this island the Hell of Southeast Asia. The French called it the Devil’s Island of the east. Why? The island used to house some of the most notoriously horrific prisons. Wardens kept their prisoners in horrendous conditions. It was here that people were subjected to in the infamous Tiger Cages. This is an article on its own, but do some research on the Internet if you don’t know about the tortuous Tiger Cages.

Michael standing behind prison bars in Trai Phu Hai Prison

I spent a morning walking through the worst prison on the island, as well as a couple of smaller ones. They were truly despicable places.

More Than Horrific Prisons

But there is more to do than reading, writing, and hanging out in prisons. When you decide to get out of Con Son town and explore the island a little more, the best option is likely to rent a motorbike. Another option is what Jim and I decided to do — hire an elephant taxi. NO, not an actual elephant, but electric vehicles that act as a major taxi service both in Con Son town and around the island.

An Elephant Taxi. One of the many unique elephant taxis.

We stopped off at various near-deserted beaches. We spent probably too much time dangling from cliff faces that dropped off into the ocean, snapping a lot of pictures.

Rather than writing a lot of words using repetitive adjectives to describe ”scenic,” I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves.

The Life of Lassitude Comes to an End

This was a whirlwind 10-day trip to Vietnam from neighboring Cambodia. I spent six of those days visiting Con Dao.

With every departure from a new destination, I am always torn as to whether I will ever get to — or want to — return, or whether I will continue to seek out new destinations. I’ve been to Vietnam numerous times but this was my first to these islands. I think I’ll go back someday, but for the time being, my quest is to visit what is the unknown for me. If you happen to follow my adventures on Dreams Abroad, I hope to introduce you to both recently- visited places and newly- discovered ones.

To read more about Michael’s island adventures, check out Michael’s Tioman Tale Part One and his Tioman Tale Part Two!

A Tour of Taxco, Mexico: Part Six

Tyler blackMy time in Mexico City was slowly coming to an end. It was nothing short of fantastic. To read more about my trip, make sure you check out part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

I had just one last excursion left before heading home. This time, I was visiting Cuernavaca and Taxco, Mexico. I felt pretty excited about this tour because I couldn’t wait to see small-town life within Mexico. Operated by Olympus Tours, I highly recommend the excursion. The tour not only operated smoothly but was full of fantastic knowledge and interesting facts that kept me intrigued throughout the day.

The tour guide picked me up in a small van right at my hostel, Casa Pepe. Interestingly enough, I was the only English speaker in the van, as the other four tourists were from Colombia. Since I speak Spanish, I told our guide that he could stick to Spanish the whole trip so he wouldn’t have to translate back and forth between languages. He seemed relieved, but not before telling me in English that the sunburn on my face looked pretty bad and how much of a typical “gringo” I was. Okay, he didn’t say that exactly but that’s what it felt like! Luckily, the other travelers couldn’t understand him so I wasn’t as embarrassed.

Cuernavaca, Mexico

We set off south of Mexico City passing over mountains before arriving in Cuernavaca an hour later. I won’t lie, I was kind of disappointed right off the bat. We stopped in a small courtyard surrounded by three churches, each built during a different part of Mexico’s history. I do love old churches and cathedrals. That was one of my favorite parts of living in Europe. But I found myself rather bored here. We ended up not seeing anything else in Cuernavaca. After an hour of walking around the courtyard, we hopped on the bus and left. Thankfully, the tour got a whole lot better.

The square in Taxco, Mexico

Taxco, Mexico

After another hour-long car ride, we came up on Taxco, Mexico. Built on the side of a mountain, the town looked absolutely stunning from a distance. I felt really excited to try and make my way to the top to enjoy the views. The van let us off in the center of town and our guide walked us around a bit explaining the history of Taxco. Unfortunately, I was too busy taking pictures and didn’t listen to a single word he had to say. I can really be the worst tourist sometimes.

After showing us some points of interest that we could explore later, our guide took us to a jewelry store specializing in silver. Apparently, the areas surrounding Taxco, Mexico are filled with deposits of silver. The Aztecs used this area to make jewelry and decorations for their gods. To this day, Taxco silver is one of the most sought after metals. I bought a few souvenirs for my family because, well, when would I get this chance again?

A statue of text reading "mexico"

A Few Hours Left

Shortly after, I went to grab lunch with two of the people in our group at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the city. I found it incredibly challenging to converse and eat without constantly taking pictures of the view. The pair — a woman and her father — wanted to do a little bit of exploring in Mexico. I told them how much I’d love to visit Colombia and they gave a lot of great recommendations. It was also great to be able to converse in Spanish again and get some practice in. 

With only a few hours left in Taxco, I decided to walk throughout as much of the town as possible. This was quite the feat considering the town was built on the side of a mountain. My legs were on fire (probably still feeling the effects of hiking a volcano a few days earlier). Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience strolling through small streets and alleys, seeing everyone go about their normal routines. I stopped in some more shops to buy some souvenirs. My aimless wandering even led me to a great view of the Taxco, Mexico cathedral with the valley behind it in the distance. Visiting this town definitely made up for the rather slow beginning of the tour. I highly recommend taking a tour of Taxco. Words cannot accurately describe its beauty.

Time to Go Home

I filled the next morning trying to stuff everything back into my suitcase. I definitely bought way too many souvenirs on this trip, but it was worth it. Although my flight was at 1:00pm, I called an Uber around 10:00am. I figured there would be a lot of traffic on the way to the airport. And boy, was I right. What should have been a 35-minute car ride took a little more than an hour. Luckily my Uber driver was a very friendly man with a lot to talk about, so it helped ease my nerves a little bit.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about departing and not just ending this series on a good note. I’m here to tell you my little goof. If you remember from part one, I was given a slip of paper upon arriving in Mexico with all my passport information. It was almost like a tourist visa. I mistakenly threw it away. The lady behind the check-in desk refused to take my bags without that slip of paper. She told me I had to go to the immigration office to file a new one. Panic was setting in.

A beautiful field in Taxco, Mexico

Customs Snafu

I raced downstairs to the office. Of course, there was a line to talk with the agent. He explained that I needed to print out my arrival and departure flight information. So, I had to run across the hallway to pay a guy to print the documents out for me. After finally filling out all the proper paperwork, I then had to pay a hefty amount of pesos for them to authorize me a new tourist visa. And of course, they only took cash. I made sure to spend all my cash before leaving. So, I had to race to the ATM just outside the office. And that’s when my bank decided to decline my withdrawals. I was starting to imagine what my new life in Mexico would look like. At least I spoke the language.

A town square

Lesson Learned

Luckily, my bank sent me a text asking if it was actually me trying to take out money. Once I got that authorized, I was finally able to pay for my replacement tourist visa. My heart rate was through the roof. But, problem solved! I wasn’t going to be stuck in a foreign country. Moral of the story: DON’T THROW AWAY ANY DOCUMENTS YOU GET FROM CUSTOMS.

Thank you for taking the time to read this series on Mexico City. I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip and hopefully, it has inspired you to visit. Mexico City blew all my expectations out of the water. It’s a beautiful city filled with wonderful people and an amazing culture. It’s quite a shame that Mexico City, and the country in general, is viewed so poorly in our media. I’m so glad I decided to see it firsthand and witness just how wrong everything is portrayed. I encourage you to do the same.

Kayaking on the Gardon River

One of the most memorable experiences I have from my trip to Europe is kayaking and taking the leap into the Gardon River. It was a warm, sunny day in Collias, France when we were dropped off with our kayaks to begin our journey down the river. The scenery was beautiful, especially the striking Pont du Gard. In some areas, there were rocky beaches along the banks, and in others, there were tall rock walls surrounding the banks that almost resembled a small canyon. There was lush green vegetation all along the banks that swarmed with bees, and it was clear that this was a popular spot for locals to cool down on hot summer days, as many children and families splashed along the shorelines.

Leap into the Gardon River

We had the option of kayaking alone or with a partner, and I opted for the latter. I partnered up with Rachel from California who had also joined our travel group solo and had quickly become a good friend of mine. We had both kayaked before, so we were both thankful that we, as a team, were capable of moving down the river easily.

As we paddled down the river, occasionally small, green snakes similar to gardener snakes that we have in the US would slither past our kayaks on top of the water, with small fish swimming just below. Some of the travelers with us dare not put their hands into the water, due to their fear of the snakes. Others dangled fingers and toes in the cool stream. Wherever the rock walls closed in on the river, we noticed people, mostly children, climbing up the steep rocks to jump into the cool water below. Bill and Rachel (a different Rachel, from Texas) were also solo travelers on the trip, and the three of us discussed wanting to cliff dive from one of the rocks along the river, just as we had seen the kids doing. We continued down the river for a while, the warm sun on our faces, passing several groups of children taking daring leaps from the ledges above.

Perfect Time To Make the Leap

Then, as we rounded a deep bend in the river, we came upon what all three of us knew was our perfect opportunity to jump into the river. On one bank there was a rocky beach where we could pull over our kayaks to keep them from floating away. On the other bank was a tall, almost rounded boulder sticking out into the river, the perfect platform for making a jump.

We pulled our kayaks over to the beach and swam the short distance across the river to the boulder. All three of us worked as a team to climb up it, as it was very steep and tall. Bill pulled himself atop the rock first, using a nearby tree to climb up to a ledge of the rock that he could grab onto and pull himself over. Then Rachel went up after him using the same method, and I followed last.

The three of us emerged over the top of the rock to find several other members of our tour group with their kayaks pulled over to the same rocky beach across the river. My legs shook beneath me as I peeked over the edge and saw the distance between myself and the water below. This wasn’t my first time jumping off a cliff. I had cliff jumped into Lake Superior before in my own hometown. I hadn’t expected to feel quite as apprehensive as I did. Fortunately, at that moment I was the perfect combination of terrified and excited. I watched Bill as he took the first leap into the river below, and almost immediately after he hit the water, I followed.

She Who Dares

My heart was pounding as I fell for what seemed like forever. Once I finally rocketed into the water below, I accidentally kicked a boulder below the surface that I was hidden from view, scraping my right foot and leg. Even with the sudden, sharp pain, my head popped back up above the water with a smile already spread wide across my face. I was so happy I had gotten the courage to jump.

I think that sometimes venturing out of the country for the first time can feel a lot like jumping off a boulder into a river of snakes, too. It can sometimes be both terrifying, and exciting. Much in the same way I believed it was well worth it for me to take the jump into the river, I believe that making the decision to travel internationally is worth it as well. The opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture and to gain a greater understanding of others is one that should, in my opinion, always be taken. Taking the leap at that moment was extremely empowering for me, and it’s something that I will not soon forget.

Smart Goals of Teaching Abroad

“Madrid especially has won my heart.” – Cate Dapena

I will never forget my first encounter with Cate. I met her at the four-week CIEE orientation the morning after we arrived from the United States. While not a very talkative person initially, once you get to know her she has a sense of humor that can keep you laughing for days.

During our interview, she kept some of her responses short which reminded of the person I first met. Then, when she answered some of the other questions, Cate’s humor came out in full swing. Albeit hilarious, her responses were honest and real. Most of all, they made me realize that not only is she a woman of strength but also a woman of resilience. A woman who is strong but who sometimes has a softer side.

Meet Cate, the Rock:

Cate was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Wallingford, a nearby suburb. Just before beginning high school, her parents and their four youngest children moved to South Florida. Here, Cate finished high school and then attended college at the University of Miami. During her first few years of college, her eldest daughter, Kristina, was born. She was a single parent going to school and working, while also going to discos several nights a week. It was the 80’s.

After college, Cate and Kristina packed up and moved back to Philadelphia, where Cate attended law school. She describes this as the most challenging (and rewarding) time in her life; alone in the city with a young daughter and going to school full time. But she made it! She passed the bar exam with smart goals and worked for several years in the city until her second daughter, Tess, was born. Cate stayed home with Tess for several years and never went back to practicing law. She’s had every manner of job since. The legal field was not a good choice for Cate, but she explained there is a stigma attached to leaving it and it was a very difficult time for her personally.

She’s had some wildly diverse jobs since then and has worked with every imaginable type of person. She’s found that what works best for her in a job is a fast-paced environment, lots of contact with people, and the ability to leave the job at work. “Essentially, I’m a pretty ridiculous person, and I can’t be happy doing anything serious all day. It just doesn’t suit me,” says Cate.

Why did you choose to come to Spain/Europe?

“One of my life goals is to learn to speak Spanish and several of my family members have been to Spain and loved it. Also important to me was knowing there wouldn’t be a crippling culture shock. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle somewhere like Thailand.”

What are some smart goals you have while you are here?

Smart Goals“I want to learn to speak Spanish on at least a very basic level and to travel as much as I can. Before coming to Spain, I had never been to Europe and I wanted to take this opportunity to see as much of it as I can. Honestly, I think I may have already achieved my primary goal, which was overcoming the fear I had about moving here! I’ve always marveled at the adventurous spirit of people who just pick up and go to “foreign” lands. I was terrified to do it and was determined to face and overcome that fear.

My goal of learning more conversational Spanish is crashing down around me. The more people I meet through the English conversational groups I lead, the harder it has become to procrastinate. Everyone has been so gracious about volunteering their time to speak Spanish with me. I am very uncomfortable with “sounding stupid” (fear again) even though that is a requisite of learning a new language. It’s time I got over that. I am so happy to help other adults with the process — it’s time I allowed myself the same grace period.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what was your career field?

“I have done many, many things — from a lawyer to a diner waitress — but I’ve never taught professionally before. I’ve only ever taught my own children. ”

What did you think teaching in Spain would be like? Where are you teaching?

“I had no idea what teaching in Spain would be like. But, I assumed it would be similar to the United States educational system. At the time, I believed that I would be working with curious children sitting quietly, eager to learn. I could not have been more wrong. I am teaching northwest of the city, out in the Sierra, in a small public primary school.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad and also, why did you choose Spain over other countries?

“I chose to teach abroad because two of my nephews had done the program with CIEE and I followed their ‘adventures’ with awe and envy. I thought teaching abroad through an established program would be a safe and structured way to move to a new country where I knew nothing.”

What are your perceptions of Madrid so far?

Madrid teacher

“It’s a beautiful country. Madrid especially has won my heart. Since August, I have been able to see Valencia, Sevilla and even Paris. For me, Madrid is remarkable in its vibrancy and gorgeous architecture. When you come up from the metro on a sunny day and see Retiro or the buildings near the Bank of España, it’s breathtaking.

I do not, however, understand their relationship with dog poop. Here is a shining example of the achievements of humankind and everywhere you step you’re likely to land in dog shit. It boggles my mind. The sidewalks in this cosmopolitan city are dotted with caca. As kids today say, “smh.” At first, I wondered why everyone here was so fixated on not wearing their shoes inside their homes… and then I discovered the ‘Shit Syndrome.’”

What assumptions or expectations did you have before you came here?

“Because I was coming here to work in their school system with an established English-speaking program, I assumed that many people here would speak some English. I also assumed that I would be able to buy most of the same things I could buy at home. Both assumptions turned out to be very wrong.”

What has been the most difficult since you arrived?

“There are several things that have been very difficult. The first was the unbearable heat of the first two months. I have lived in Miami for fifteen years and have never been as hot as I was in Madrid this summer. My inability to communicate effectively has been extremely frustrating. It took me seven insane weeks to get WiFi activated at my piso because I couldn’t communicate well with the providers. Lastly, I have found it very difficult to be a “person of size” in a country where everyone is small and shorter than me. Buying my Converse All Stars was a tragic comedy. I ended up in the men’s department with the next-to-the-largest size they carry and several gawking sales-people gathered around to witness my extraordinarily large feet. Never again.”

What has been the best experience?

“The best experience has been discovering Madrid and the trips I have been able to take since I have been here. Madrid is an incredibly beautiful city and I feel comfortable and safe here. It also seems like a very tolerant society and I like that.

day trip barcelona madrid beach smart goals

I have been doing fairly well. It was rough at the beginning with the communication barriers, especially in regards to opening bank accounts and getting WiFi — you know, all those bureaucratic things. And I will never be able to adopt the Spanish timetable as far as meals go.”

We are now in the fifth week of classes, how is teaching going?

“I am not doing any teaching. To say I am a teacher’s aide is not accurate. I stand around and observe for the vast majority of the time. The teachers in my school spend a great deal of time on classroom management. There is a shocking lack of discipline.”

Using Smart Goals to Begin an Adventure Teaching Abroad

Cate persevered through a very difficult start to her Madrid adventure. She lives outside of the center of Madrid near her school. Things aren’t as accessible for her as they are for most who live inside the center of Madrid. However, Cate didn’t give up. She continued to push toward her goals in order to make things happen. After spending time with Cate, and becoming friends with her, I realize that one of the secrets of her success is her ‘ridiculous’ behavior that she says she has.

She embraces life and its challenges as they come. Each time a difficult situation arose, Cate got stronger and wiser about how to handle it. Madrid captured her heart even in the midst of all the chaos she was feeling. I look forward to seeing where she will be in a couple of months. She may not have the ideal job at the moment but with her wit, strength, and charm, I am sure a budding opportunity will arise very soon for her that will challenge and fulfill her.

To keep up with all that is going on with Dreams Abroad check out our Facebook community page and our Twitter page. Here we share current members stories and photos. Smart goals are just the beginning of your traveling or teaching abroad adventure!

by Leesa Truesdell