Sunday, July 31, 2016

"The hills are alive with the sound of music"

Ok so I know it's been a long long time since I’ve blogged. I'll make it brief just to update what's been happening.  I arrived in Austria at the end of August to begin my position as a resident assistant at the American International School of Salzburg.
It's a small school of around a hundred students consisting of grades 7-12, with a mix of both boarding and day students.  I had a few days to explore the city before orientation began and immediately fell in love with the city and the stunning Alps surrounding it.
I got a bike a couple days after I arrived
 and began exploring the many bike paths and surrounding area. I had visited Salzburg once 10 years ago but didn't remember much and was excited to be here again.  I have always loved the Sound of Music; and as I spend my first couple days wandering the city I stumbled upon some familiar sights.

After a few days, orientation began which consisted of long hours of reviewing both the student and resistant staff handbook, different procedures and protocols and expectations of both staff and students. 

We also spent time getting keys ready and organized, making bulletin boards of school information including information about ourselves, driving to the airport and train station, and long hours preparing for the students to arrive.  After a few days, it was finally time to meet the students and get the school year started.
As RAs, we picked students from the train station and airport, organized paper work, brought them to their rooms where they had to fill out a room forms and so on.  It was a bit crazy during the arrival days. After all of that was finished we had an orientation for everyone and then the next day was the first day of school.
For the first trimester another co-worker and I had our weekends on Thursday and Friday and the other three RAs had theirs on Monday and Tuesday because all five of us work throughout the normal weekend days.  Our typical work days consist of working from the afternoon when the students get out of school until lights out when they go to bed and on Wednesday mornings we are responsible for 2 PE classes.  There are various tasks throughout the day such as running errands for the school to the post office, bank etc, working in the RA office, doing active activities for students that need to make up PE classes or weekend activities, working in the computer lab, or monitoring either the boys' floor or girls' floor landing.
Each weekend we have different activities that we do either by taking the students by bus downtown somewhere or driving them in the vans to various places.  I had an exciting first few weekends where I went with the alpine sports club and had the chance to go both canyoning and ziplining. Others I spent going to English Club. We would go twice a month and work with little kids doing crafts and reading stories. I also had the chance to go summer sledding, went to a park a couple times where the kids get active doing various sports, and led exercise and craft activities on campus.
In September, Salzburg had a traditional country fair called St. Rupert's (Salzburg's patron saint).  I went during on one of my days off and walked around.  It had rides, games and market stalls with crafts and food. 
On another one of my days off, I went to Oktoberfest for the day in Munich, Germany which was just a couple hours away by bus.  It was fun to see and experience such a well-known festival.  The beer halls were enormous and elaborate filled with people drinking, singing at times, and often dressed in traditional clothes.
Near the end of October, we had a fall excursion with the school to Berlin.  We had only around 35 students who came as the junior class had a service trip to Romania and the remaining students went home. We took a bus overnight and had about 4 days there. Only 3 of us RAs went and the other 2 went with the junior class students on their trip.  We saw some sights such as: Brandenburg Gate, the East Side Gallery, Jewish Museum.  We also did a bus/walking tour, ice skating, and got some time off to eat great food and explore on our own. Our last day was spent at an indoor waterpark outside the city, which was so strange but pretty cool.  After we rode overnight on the bus back to Salzburg.  It was a quite a fun trip!
The last week of October, my mom came to visit for a week.  We spent some time around town.  We got out of the city one day by taking a local tour to the lake district.
We enjoyed a stop in St. Gilgen where we picked up a boat to St.Wolfgang which were both colorful and gorgeous.  The bright and vivid colors of autumn made the already beautiful scenery even more stunning.  Another day we rented a car and drove to Hallstatt, a quaint lake side village and an UNESCO "World and Cultural Heritage" site.  It was such a beautiful ride and fun to explore some new places outside of Salzburg.

Overall, I've been enjoying my gorgeous home here in Austria. Every time I go downtown I just feel like: I can't believe I get to see this all the time: the grand fortress, stunning churches, mountains, just a beautiful sight to see.

Friday, May 15, 2015

'I travel because my legs have to follow my heart"

Next, we arrived in Baños (meaning baths of sacred water), a small town located in the valley of an active volcano. After locating our hostel we walked across town to baths where we soaked in the hypothermal springs. There was a cold pool, warm pool, and super-hot pool.  It was busy, filled with locals on this Saturday morning, but it was cool to be able to hang out and not be surrounded by tourists, as well as soak in the views of the surrounding mountains and volcano.

We explored the small town, walking all around.  We chilled in a cozy cafe with hammock chairs, sampled some melcocha (sugar cane taffy). sugar cane juice, exotic fruits from the market, and listened to live music in the square for some event that was going on.
We ventured to "The Swing at the End of the World" with a new friend we met at our hostel.  It was a bit intense looking but totally incredible! After splitting the cost of the taxi up we decided to hike the couple hours back down.  It was quite steep at times, and we got rained on a bit, but it was worth it! The scenery of mountains and views of the town were stunning.

From Baños we took a couple buses
down to the village of Alausi where we would ride the Nariz del Diablo (Devil's Nose) train.  It has the steepest descent of any section of railroad track in the world as well as two switchbacks. The views of the Andean highlands were beautiful!

After the train ride, I headed up North back to Quito, while my temporary travel buddy headed to another city in the South. It's such an experience to travel alone and end up meeting people to travel with for a little bit! I arrived back to the city that evening and spent the following day there as well; enjoying the tasty food and juices of the mercado again, and exploring a couple places I missed the first time in the city.  The next day I went on a day trip south to Quilotoa, a water-filled caldera and the most western volcano in the Andes.

On our way there we stopped at an indigenous market.  It's unique to see markets not in the city, or catering at all to tourists in any way, a truly locals' market.  We first went to the livestock market where we saw llamas, sheep, cows, pigs, guinea pigs, chickens, etc for sale followed by the produce/other goods market.

After a while later we arrived at Quilotoa, formed by an enormous eruption of a volcano that collapsed about 800 years ago. It was quite spectacular!! We drove through gorgeous scenery and villages and stopped at the home of a local Andean family.  We learned a little bit about how they live in the highlands in their hut in the freezing weather, no electricity/hot water, very isolated, no transportation and the children walk miles to school because they are in the middle of nowhere.

The next day I took a bus to Otavalo, a small town famous for its indigenous population, the Otavalos.  Many of them travel around the world to sell their handicrafts or play Andean folk music. Every Saturday they have a mercado artesanal, a massive outdoor market that is so vast and extensive it feels like it takes over the whole town as it fills up the plaza and spreads throughout several streets.
The following night I caught a night bus for the long journey down to Puerto Lopez.
After arriving at this small village I walked around the town and just chilled out.  The following day I went on a day trip to Isla de la Plata (Silver Island) also known as the "Poor Man's Galapagos."  On the boat ride there we saw humpback whales (a mom and her baby), and as we arrived to the island we saw giant sea turtles.  Once hiking we observed blue footed boobies, frigatebirds, and lizards.  We hiked around the island seeing the blue footed boobies several times, even doing their mating dance which was too cool!!  When we departed we spotted several species of bright colorful fish.  The ride back was the most frightening time I've ever had on a boat.  They waves were ginormous; I was seriously hoping our boat would not be toppled over by the next smash.  We slammed through the waves, water sprayed up and rocked our boat repeatedly.  It was definitely a ride I won't forget.

After about 12 hours and 4 bus rides later... I arrived in my final destination in Ecuador, Mompiche where I would stay for a week doing workaway (it's an amazing site, also did one in England a few years ago).  I was alone for the first couple days, just doing general cleaning of the 4 story house completely open made of bamboo.  When a few more travelers came we started working on the bamboo by cleaning, sanding, scrubbing, and varnishing it.  This town was extremely tiny, so during my free time I usually read, strolled about the dirt roads, walked on the beach, and people watched from either the cafe or bakery I frequented. The life in a small surfer town is something else! It was quite intriguing to watch the daily goings on of people.
It was so great to be in countries where I could communicate and practice/improve my Spanish again. It's so different than traveling anywhere else in the world.  I am looking forward to more South American adventures in the years to come!
finally got a clear sunset on our last night

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right."

Ecuador (Part 1 of 2)

After two flights I arrived in Quito, Ecuador.  A couple bus rides later I was in the center of the old town searching for my hostel.  After dropping off my backpack I raced to the traditional mercado down the street and grabbed a delicious meal before it closed.  This 2-floor market was pretty impressive with flowers, fruit juices, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and several types of meals they prepare on the spot.
The following morning I discovered some tasty pastries taking the opportunity to peek into several of the gorgeous churches since it was a Sunday morning and I could get in for free.  The historic old town looked very similar to old towns in Europe.  Quito, along with Krakow was the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO.  It is one of the best-preserved, least-altered, and largest historical centers in the Americas.  The center square is about 15 miles south of the equator but it definitely was not warm.  That day I walked miles throughout the old town and explored the new town as well.  On Sundays, they block traffic so bikers and pedestrians can have the city to themselves. It was great!! There were tons of delightful plazas and lovely parks, impressive architecture, as well as delicious foods to try along with my leisurely stroll.
The next day I partook in a free walking tour of the city! These tours are always so informative. I love listening to the historical findings and important places of interest, along with the artistic and cultural aspects of my current location. Since it was a Monday we had the chance to observe the changing of the guard. Much to my surprise, I witnessed both the president and vice president in attendance.  Overall, it was a captivating event.

Next, it was time to venture into the Amazon!! This quest began first with an overnight bus, followed by a 2 hour truck ride, just me and this guy (I believe was the son of the owner of something to do with the park and me wondering why am I the only one going to this lodge??)  It proved to be an excellent time to practice Spanish though.  Next, there was about an hour and a half on the motor canoe, again it was still just me and a (new) guide.  Apparently everyone else that day was going to different lodges within the rainforest.  Finally, I arrived at the lodge! Thankfully after I had waited for a bit a group who had arrived the day before I had, returned from their excursion. I joined in with them for the rest of my trip! We had a few hours of free time which we took advantage of by lying leisurely on some porch hammocks.  I found myself extremely relaxed and enjoyed reading a good book on my kindle and chillin.
Later we went out on the canoe in pursuit of animal sightings.  We were lucky to see a sloth, pink river dolphins, and several unique birds. We then cruised to where the river merges into the lake where some of my fellow travelers chose to swim.  This was also where we would be observing the sunsets for the next few nights. They were absolutely spectacular.   We headed over to the edge of the rainforest to embark on a night hike in search of nocturnal creatures!  At night the rainforest appears to be an entirely different entity.  We ended up seeing a few things: a giant frog, spiders, interesting insects like leaf bugs, and an iguana.  

The second day we began with a visit to a native village to observe and learn about their culture and lifestyle.  There we helped make bread from a cassava (a starchy root), we dug up, peeled, grated, and sifted into flour.  With that, the local woman mixed it with water into a dough which she then baked over the fire! We took a brief hike and watched some fútbol.  Later we met a shaman which is what people use when they're sick because it would take forever to get to a hospital outside the rainforest. We learned about some of the medicinal practices used there.

After soaking in the sunset, we attempted to creep quietly on our motor canoe in search of the caimans that lurked in the water just below the surface. With only our flashlights and headlamps to examine our surroundings, we scanned the water in pursuit of red eyes that glowed from the beams of our lights. We saw a few babies which was definitely thrilling! I must admit's a bit creepy to be out on a tributary to the Amazon river in the black of night teetering in a canoe looking for creatures of the night.  The perfect end to the night as we journeyed back to our lodge was the totally astonishing stars and an amazingly clear view of the milky way.

Our third day we had an excellent day hike where we balanced our way through tons of mud, spotted different species of monkeys, and viewed many rare birds and plants only to be seen in the depth of the rainforest far from our lodge or boat.  We did some intense canoeing down the river (no motor and wicked hot) but the atmosphere of the river itself was quite serene and tranquil.  Sometime later while back at the lodge we spotted a third tarantula that liked to hang out in our dining area which we walked by without even noticing for a while... haha.  The final morning we awoke bright and early for a final bird-watching session by motor canoe where we spied birds as well as monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Not long after it was time to pack up and head out.  I had a travel buddy to join me on my travels with back on the boat ride, then the bus ride, followed then by an overnight bus ride to the next destination......Baños.