The Taxi Chronicles – Part 6 – Conquering a mountain by moto

Conquering a mountain by moto

Local transportation is always an adventure and you just simply have to go with the flow. When I made plans to go to Tubagua for the weekend, I had great directions from the owner, Tim, saying that I needed to take a carro publico from Sosua to Gran Parada and then a moto concho to Tubagua – el hotel el Tim en kilometre 19.

I had purposely tried to pack light for the weekend, but that is hard when you are carrying photography gear for work! I had my camera gear in one back pack and my clothes in another, so I thought that maybe it might be better to take a taxi rather than a carro publico and then a moto conch. I got Tanya, the school director to call a taxi that Tim had recommended and thank goodness she did because she had a difficult time communicating with him and she speaks fluent spanish! I wouldn’t have made it past Hola! In the end, we discovered that the taxi was only from Gran Parada to Tubagua, not from Sosua. So, off I headed on my local transportation adventure.

I left Sosua around 4:45pm from my Spanish school, Casa Goethe. I walked about six or eight blocks to the carro publico ‘station’. By station, I mean one area where the carros line up and fill up with people before taking off. It is actually quite organized as the cars are often in a line.

I explained to him, in very slow Spanish, that I needed to go toward Puerto Plata, but get out at Gran Parada. I asked him how much and he told me 50 Pesos. I thought he told me 500 though so I told him that was too much and he dropped it to 45 Pesos. HA HA HA YAY me! I sure drive a hard bargain!

They asked me to put my bags in the trunk. This was scary for me because I was carrying $10 000 in camera equipment! I didn’t really want to let it out of my site, but impossible to keep your bags on your lap inside a carro publico. There just isn’t enough room. It didn’t help that the carro publico was a smaller car than usual which meant that it was nearly impossible to fit the four standard people in the back seat. However, somehow we all squished in on top of each other. I was sitting in the back seat, on the edge of the seat, holding on to the head rest in front of me for support against the bumps and turns. I bravely explained to the driver (in Spanish) that I needed to get out at Gran Parada and tried to explain that I needed to be in the direction to Santiago. He didn’t understand and then he thought I was going TO Santiago … So, I had to re-explain and a couple of the locals in the car kicked in with their Spanish explanations too. The driver said he understood, the little ‘neon’ size car was packed with seven of us and off we went.

By about five minutes into the drive one of my legs was bruised from banging against the back of the arm rest, the other foot was asleep and I was tired of holding on to the head rest of the seat in front of me! Comfortable is not a word to describe this form of transportation.

About ten minutes into the drive, someone got out … unfortunately from the front seat, so no relief for the four of us who were sardined into the back seat. The total drive took about 15 minutes from Sosua to Gran Parada. The other gentleman that I was sitting almost on top of, and who tried to sell me cashews when I got in the car, told me (in Spanish) that he thought I needed to get out. I panicked a little and asked the driver. He had misunderstood and still thought I was heading to Santiago, but now he understood I needed Gran Parada and indeed, we had just passed Gran Parada! He pulled over, let me out and I grabbed my stuff from the trunk. Phew! It was still there!

I headed back down the road about 200 meters to where the moto conchos were all lined up. As soon as I got out of the car a guy on a moto concho was trying to get my attention. I wasn’t giving him the ok until I got closer and could see him and his bike though. As I approached, they both looked acceptable (man and bike), so I gave a nod and he immediately sped off to pick me up on the opposite side of the road.

I explained (in Spanish) that I needed to go to Tubagua and he immediately said ‘El Hotel de Tim?’ Phew! At least he knew where I was headed.

I slung my 30 pounds of camera gear on to my pack and my light weight backpack with clothing on my front and awkwardly tried to balance while swinging my leg over the bike. It was going to be a long drive to kilometre 19 on a bad road with backpacks on front and back! Ha! Little did I know that it was going to get worse!

The first part of the road was a little bumpy. My driver skillfully avoided as many of the bumps as he could and I felt fairly safe on the back of the bike. Then the road got a little worse and was a little bumpier. The road is paved but has sections which are only dirt or really bad pot holes. Cars go very slowly through these areas as they cannot avoid the bumps. Moto conchos go a little faster because they can weave easier.

I’m not sure at what kilometre we left flat road and started up the mountain, but I would guess maybe kilometre five. As we started up the mountain, I reached around and held on to the handle behind my bum. I really had no choice as I had 30 lbs of camera gear making me ‘back heavy’ and I couldn’t hold on to the moto concho driver because we were separated by the backpack on my chest. As the incline steepened, as did my fear. Now, I wasn’t really ‘scared’, more just uncomfortable. I seriously was going up a mountain with 30 lbs of stuff pulling me backwards and trying to hold on with one hand behind my bum, my stomach muscles tightened and my thighs probably gripping the guys legs pretty tightly. Let’s not forget the clenched teeth too!

By about kilometre 10 and still going up the mountain I started to wonder if I could clench all of these muscles and hold on for another nine kilometres. I had a hot / cold flash as I thought about the possibility of falling backwards off the bike with no helmet on … and I clenched my legs tighter.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been afraid at all if I was holding on to the guy in front of me or if I didn’t have the 30 lbs of camera gear on my back. I’m sure the moto concho guy would have loved for me to wrap my arms around him for the 19 kilometre drive, but, alas, it isn’t really appropriate to hold on with a death grip to your taxi driver! So, I refrained.

At some point as we bounced around and dodged pot holes, I asked my driver for his name. Surprisingly I only had to ask twice to understand that it was Miguel. I didn’t understand much else of what he said though. More because of the wind than anything though.

Shortly before arriving at Tubagua, Miguel pulled over and said hello to a woman who came over to the moto concho and hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I had no idea what was going on … why was my moto concho stopping on the side of the road to introduce me to a woman? Was I supposed to get off here? If so, where was the lodge? And, did he really know where he was taking me? He told me I wasn’t getting off there, and after the introduction was done, we continued on, up up up the hill for another couple of kilometres where he pulled over again by a small hut with a group of young guys sitting around.

I tried to get off the bike, but one of my backpack straps had gotten caught during the ride. Luckily one of the guys rushed to my assistance to untangle me. My dismount from the bike was certainly less than graceful with my front and back, back packs! And then, when both feet were on the ground I was stuck with a cord between my legs and it was stuck on the other side of the bike. For a brief moment I was having a flash back to my Galapagos Adventures with the Lifejacket Complications.

The young man quickly freed the cord and I was able to move. I asked ‘Cuanto cuesta’ (how much) and the same young man responded ‘One hundred’ (Pesos that is, not dollars). A moment later he was sitting down talking to his friends (in Spanish) and telling them that I speak English. Being brave, I piped up … ‘And Spanish too’. Well, I guess they were impressed! I then lost my bravery and followed up with ‘poquito’, meaning a little.

They then pointed up the hill and off I started trekking up the dirt road, to where, I still didn’t know. I hadn’t seen a sign for the Lodge and from the bottom of the hill I couldn’t really see anything that resembled a lodge. None the less, up the hill I went with two backpacks. I was happy to be on my own two feet and excited that I had conquered the mountain by moto concho!

Ooops … did I say that?

As you can imagine, when learning a new language, it is extremely easy to say ridiculous things. Sometimes you are aware immediately of your errors, sometimes not so much. Think back to a two year old trying to learn to say ‘truck’ … I’m sure you’ve heard the mistaken version, and if you are a mom, you may have been horrified when your child said ‘*uck’ in public when they really just wanted their little green toy truck … innocent enough!

I’ll be writing a blog post on my first two weeks of school, hopefully today to catch everyone up on what I’ve been learning. All is going well though. I’ve had some really frustrating moments and I’ve said some ridiculously funny things … (warning bad language below)! I don’t learn the bad words in school, but when you say something wrong and someone laughs hysterically at what you’ve said, you learn the bad words quickly so you don’t embarrass yourself again!

For example ….

Near my first home stay was a popular street called Calle Conde … one day I made the mistake of calling it Calle Cono (cono = *uck) OOPS! Good thing I said it to a friend not a stranger!

My second mistake was saying ano instead of ano (with an accent over the n). Ano (with an accent) means year. Ano with no accent means asshole/anus (literally!)

My third mistake was particularly hilarious … I was speaking in Spanish, trying to explain about the singer of a song I liked. I couldn’t think of the word for singer in Spanish, so I thought I’d be smart and make up a word and hope that it was right. A lot of words are similar to French or English, so it was worth a try ….

So, I said El singa bien. This was supposed to mean he sings good. What I actually said to my friend was that he was good at sex! HA HA HA How embarrassing! I actually did recognize immediately what I had said which made the situation worse because I started laughing realizing what I had just said to this guy. I couldn’t even correct myself because I still didn’t know the correct verb for ‘to sing’! Now I know that it is ‘cantar’.

Feel free to laugh at my embarrassment! I’m laughing as I relive this moment right now!

Other words that I have been known to get confused are the following:

casada = married vs canasada = tired
caballo = horse vs cebolla = onion
enojado = angry vs enamorado = in love
camaron = shrimp vs camarero = waiter

El Mercado en Santo Domingo

Mi primera lettra en Espanol. Este es mi tarea desde un excursion a el Mercado.

Hoy, mi clase es visitando el Mercado. Nosotros nos vamos en una groupa a nueve y media en guagua con cuatro profesors desde el escuela. Yo me siento con mi amiga, Jana y nosotros hace mucho calor.

Jana y Shari en el guagua
Jana y Shari en el guagua

Cuando llegamos, nosotros empezamos a la tienda de la dereche, con muchos personas. Es importante de tenr conversaciones con los vendadores para practicar hablando espanol. Yo hablo con la primera vendedora y preguntar cuanto cuesta port tres pinturas. Ella me dijo la cuesta en pesos, y es muy caro. Probablemente porque yo soy Blanca y un tourista. A mi no me gusta esto tienda porque muchos personas es alli, asi, nosotros vamos a otras tiendas en el Mercado. Muchos vendadores hablan en Ingles por los touristas, pero yo digo de ellos ‘Por favor, hablas Espanol, necesito practicar.’

Cuando yo veo pinturas que yo me gusta, yo quiero saber quienes los hacen. Un vendador dice a Katherine (mi profesora) donde los artistas estan, y nosotros vamos a mirar los trabajando. Los artistas hablamos y explicar los materiales tipico para los trabajos. Yo tomo muchos fotos de los artistas y muchos cosas a la Mercado. Muchos colores y muchos personas para hablar.

Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo - Mercado
Santo Domingo – Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado
Santo Domingo Mercado

Yo encontrato un hombre llamar Raphael y el hace cosas desde amber y larimar. Yo hago una larga conversacion con el. El dijo que el hace las cosas a la casa y vendes en el Mercado. Compro una par de amber aretes. El dijo mas que un mil pesos para empezar, pero al fin, el dijo por $375 Pesos y dijo que es porque yo soy Dominicana!

Raphael - Santo Domingo Mercado
Raphael – Santo Domingo Mercado

Me gusta el Mercado mucho, y pienso que yo regreso sola un otra dia antes regeso en Canada.

Two Weeks of Spanish School

I have officially been in Santo Domingo for just over two weeks and have now had 15 days of Spanish classes at Casa Goethe (or Instituto Intercultural del Caribe) They started me in a class that is kind of like beginner plus. I joined in with another student who had started from knowing nothing and was now on his third week of classes. So, I guess technically I am now on about week number six of studies even though I’ve only been here for two full weeks.

In the past two weeks I have learned A LOT. It is actually quite amazing when I sit and look at it all, but wow do I ever still find it difficult and somedays I just want to scream! It is so hard to not be able to express myself. I feel like I am always talking like a child. I know that it comes with time, but none the less it can be frustrating.

Pretty much everything in the past two weeks has been based on verb conjugations, with a lot of new vocabulary along the way. I have learned:

The difference between time and duration
The difference between para and por (to and for or sometimes for and for)
The difference between muy and mucho (used for saying very or a lot depending on the situation)
How to ask for the time (hour) and how to give the time (hour).
Desde / Hasta – From / to (I went to school from 9am until (or to) 12:30pm.
Verb conjugations for all verbs ending in er, ar and ir
Irregular verb conjugations
Tips on how to tell the difference between an object being masculine or feminine. Often if it ends in “O” it is masculine, ending in “A” is usually feminine.
How to talk about things that I like and that I do not like (verb gustar)
Vocabulary for items / furniture in a house – table / chair / sofa / bed / mirror / stove etc.
Vocabulary for – in front / behind / in / on / left / right / under / inside / outside etc.
Vocabulary for family – mom / dad / sister / brother / in laws / aunts / uncles / nephews / nieces / grandparents etc.
All numbers – for counting and for buying items – This has been one of my biggest difficulties, but mostly in the pronunciation and in hearing the difference between words that sound similar. For example, five, fifteen and fifty sound alike in Spanish, just like they kind of do in English.

We have also done a lot of chit chat, often about the differences between our own countries and the Dominican Republic. This has been interesting because we covered US, Canada and Switzerland in our class. We also had discussions about the men in Dominican who are always calling out to the women on the street and the cultural differences between the way men / women behave in Latin America verses North America and Europe (specifically Canada and Switzerland).

A lot of our homework assignments have been directly out of our workbooks. We’ve had to fill in sentences, answer questions and conjugate verbs. We’ve also had to write paragraphs describing our family, our Dominican accommodations and then talk about our dream house.

The two Fridays that I have been here we have had excursions. The first week, our entire school (about 30 students) were split up between five instructors to head out in the area for a scavenger hunt. We had to find 10 or 12 different businesses and at each one, ask them two questions. We then had to write the answers down and hand the paper back in. Unfortunately I didn’t feel that this particular activity was much fun or a lot of use to me as I was with students who spoke a higher level of Spanish than me and it was incredibly hot for walking around for two hours!

The second Friday however, we had a great excursion to the artisan market. As our homework, we had to write about our excursion. It was the first time I was really inspired to take photos. Just for fun, I will also post my Spanish home work that I wrote about the market.

Overall, the most difficult thing for me has been understanding what my professor (and the locals) are saying. Spanish in general is spoken very quickly. I’m not kidding when I say often people’s lips don’t even move! I still don’t understand my professor a lot of the time, but she’s pretty good at slowing down when I get completely lost and sometimes, if necessary will explain a concept for grammar in English and then give examples in Spanish.

Some days I feel like I will never understand what the locals are saying, but the more I venture out on my own, the more I realize I can understand. I’m still scared to death to call a taxi on my own or to try and figure out how to get somewhere new via public transportation, however I can now order and pay for my own food … buy something at a store or market and ask for directions and understand the answer (if they are not too complicated)!

My teacher is encouraging me to begin writing on my blog in Spanish, but I don’t feel I’m ready yet as my level of writing is still incredibly basic. However, I hope that soon enough I will be able to so that I can interest some Spanish speaking people in following along!

Brains in your head, feet in your shoes

How to make a Decision – Part 5

After my big self-debate over where to study Spanish, I had ruled out The Galapagos Islands because of it’s lack of business opportunity for me, it’s expense and it’s size. So, having decided on the Dominican Republic, I wanted to make sure that I chose a location that would give me a positive experience combing an active, vibrant community, business opportunities and be cost effective.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really do a whole lot of research on each of the cities / communities in the Dominican. I really just wanted to make a decision, go with it and get the remainder of my plans in order. I was pretty confidant that the most important component was going away to learn Spanish. I knew that no matter where I chose it would be a part of my School of Life education.

My main options for learning Spanish in the Dominican Republic were:

Punta Cana
Santo Domingo

I quickly ruled out the first three because I felt that they were too small. Right or wrong, who knows, but I felt I wanted to move forward and ixnay the options if they didn’t immediately fit my qualifications.

That left Santo Domingo, the capital of the Domincan Republic with nearly three million people, known for it’s history, architecture and vibrant dancing scene. It is a city that spans societal differences from poor and uneducated through to highly educated and incredibly successful. It raves of it’s strong Dominican culture, but has a splash of America that I felt might help me feel more safe and at home if I got homesick.

Having decided to at least research Santo Domingo as my first choice for Spanish schools, I also decided that I needed to talk to someone who had been through the process of deciding on a Spanish school before me.

I set up a meeting with Ed and Andrea Robinson while they were home in Nova Scotia after having just returned from South America and preparing to head off to explore Europe!

We met up at Starbucks in Dartmouth Crossing, sat outside on a beautiful day in May and they once again let me pick there brains for as much information as I could possibly handle.

Although we discussed many interesting things (which will be included in various other blogs), my main goal was to get some advice on choosing a Spanish school. Here were some of their suggestions and questions they advised that I ask the school:

  • Look into the testimonials from the school as well as recommendations on Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor
  • What is the average age of the students attending the school?
  • What type of Spanish do they teach?
  • Does the school offer cultural activities and weekend trips?
  • Who are the teachers? How are they qualified? What is their background?
  • Will there be nightly homework? If so, how much and what does it consist of?
  • Is it possible to have a private instructor, or are there only group classes?
Once again, after having chatted with Ed and Andrea I felt inspired, happy and clear about what I was about to embark on. I left with energy and motivation to go live my life!
I had already done a preliminary search for Spanish schools in Dominican Republic and specifically in Santo Domingo. I had found the following schools, all with their own benefits and downfalls. Most, within a few hundred dollars of each other, cost wise.

Instituto Intercultural del Caribe
Spanish Abroad, Inc.
CEIC Spanish School
Cactus Language School

When I found the Amerispan website, I got happily lost in it for a couple of hours. There was so much information! The website was incredibly professional, the English was excellent, they had blogs and live chat to ask questions of staff immediately … they had photos and specials and guarantees! I found myself reading and reading and reading!

There was information about the city of Santo Domingo and I already felt welcome by them without even having a conversation with anyone!

I looked through the other websites as well, but none of them excited me and gently held my hand like the Amerispan one did. And then, even though I was already excited about it I discovered two things:

1. Amerispan partners with Instituto Intercultural del Caribe in Santo Domingo, so this would combine the top listed google search school with the most intriguing website.

2. Amerispan has a great social media presence and offers discounts and programs to it’s students for following along on social media as well as options and incentives to become a blogger for them and spread the word about their programs.

I was sold!

Although first and foremost, this trip was about learning Spanish, I was also planning to explore opportunities in travel writing. What better opportunity to get started than to blog for the school and get a discount on my tuition for writing blogs that I would have been writing on my own blog anyway. Win, win, WIN!

So, having put Amerispan as my first choice for a Spanish school, I logged on the day after my meeting with Ed and Andrea to have a live chat with a lovely and incredibly helpful staff member named Alexa.

Alexa answered all of my questions and pointed me in the right direction for more information on several occasions.

She set my mind at ease that the programs, once I arrived would be somewhat flexible. I could start out in group classes, but if for any reason I felt that I would prefer private lessons, that could be arranged as well. I discussed with her my sincere yearning to take in as much of the culture as possible and asked if it was possible, if I had a private instructor, that we do our lessons on location. As in, walking around the city, attending events, sitting at coffee shops etc. She told me that this would certainly be an option by special request, but I would be responsible for transportation costs, entry fees etc for myself and my instructor. That certainly seems reasonable to me!

I also asked her about home work. She explained that just like in any other school, home work is a big part of learning, so there would be nightly assignments. Doing the assignments would improve your understanding and learning, but not doing the assignments will also slow down your entire class, so she stressed the importance of taking it all seriously. She explained that assignments could be based on reading a local newspaper and commenting on an article. Or maybe going to sit at a park or cafe and making observations. Or, watching a Spanish tv show and discussing it. That doesn’t sound so bad for homework does it? In fact, it sounds like a lot of fun to me!

I had such a great experience with my live online chat with Alexa that when I was done, I felt like my decision was made! I would apply for school with Amerispan.

I think another little space just opened up in my brain! The overwhelming, constricting and lost feeling that I’ve been having for months seems to be releasing just a little. What is this feeling? The beginnings of a happier and more balanced life? finding my passion? taking care of my own needs first and loving it? And let’s not forget the joy of making new friends! Thanks for all of your support Ed & Andrea!

One of my favourite quotes seems to fit just perfectly to tie this post up!

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
– Dr. Suess, Oh, the places you’ll go

The School of Life

Let me tell you a little bit about some of the behind the scenes things that happened in my journey to decide to study Spanish.

Enter, Andrea and Edward Robinson. They are a perfectly matched, incredibly mature and wonderfully inspirational couple. They are currently on leave / sabbatical from work and are doing a full year of traveling during 2012.

I first met them at The Adventure Travel Company as they were planning to join me on my Peru Through the Lens Photo Tour in February 2012. By that time, they would already be fully immersed in Latin American culture having been in Quito, Ecuador for four weeks studying Spanish and then visiting The Galapagos Islands before heading on to meet up with our group in Lima, Peru.

I regularly followed their blog from December 2011 until February 2012, when we reunited in Lima to begin our 12 day group adventure. Every day, admiring their choice to travel for the year and excited to get to know them better.

I met up with Ed and Andrea the day before Peru Through the Lens officially started as we had all arrived to Lima a day or more early. We headed out for lunch and had a chat where I picked their brains about the process of taking off and leaving everything behind for a year. It was Ed and Andrea who helped me believe that learning Spanish and traveling is an education … far different and far more valuable for many people than your traditional book learning in University. Traveling and language learning while being immersed in culture is the epitome of the school of life. It should not be looked down upon as a lesser education and, if you view it as education, it is worth investing in!

It was the first time ever that I had considered that it might be ok to take out a loan to travel. That if I didn’t have the money saved up, it wasn’t the end of the world. It was the first time that someone had said out loud what I had always been scared to form into words. It was the first time that someone had encouraged me to follow my wandering heart and get an education, on location, in the world … even if I had to take out a ‘student’ loan. Ok, not the real kind of government student loan, but a loan that is equally important because it is a loan to fund my continuing education.

I wouldn’t hesitate to take out a loan for business education … learning better photography skills or business skills, so, why should I not invest in myself and become a better person? Wow. That’s a deep thought for many of us! Have you ever considered investing in yourself? Actually taking out a loan to improve yourself? Scary isn’t it?

For most Canadians, travel is a luxury and a vacation. It is a break from work where you go to a resort, eat and drink as much as you can and be lazy on the beach for a week. Then you return to your regularly scheduled life, until next year.

For me, I really do view travel as an education and vacation travellers can’t really wrap their head around that. This is because I don’t travel like I’m on vacation! I travel like I’m learning, because I am! When I travel I seek out opportunities to learn about the lifestyle, culture, history and hardships of the people of that country or community. I take opportunities to get to know locals, talk to them, tell them about my life and ask them questions about theirs. I challenge myself to navigate airports and public transit in different countries without knowing the language. I go out of my comfort zone and get lost in the beauty of far away places. I learn about the food, the land and the incredible achievements of the famous people from those cultures. It is like a living, hands on, on-location history lesson with 3D images instead of flat ones from books.

And, you may ask, what use is all of this? I believe that by traveling, I have learned skills that can never be taught in school … skills that are mastered through trial and error … ways of thinking that you can only discuss vaguely until they are put into practice.

Travel has taught me to be less judgemental, to appreciate and be grateful for the small things in life, to see beauty in everything, to be less materialistic. Travel has encouraged me to be open minded and open my heart to the differences in cultures, race and religion … that no one is right or wrong, they just have different beliefs. And for me, it is learning about the reasons behind those beliefs that fills me with wonder and amazement.

From day ‘minus one’ in Lima, Peru, I had a great respect for Ed and Andrea as a couple and as people that I would look up to for their clarity in living life. I quickly became friends with both of them and enjoyed many conversations throughout the next 12 days on all sorts of topics about photography (my reason for being in Peru) and about the possibilities of traveling and learning.

For the next 12 days my focus was on the Peru Through the Lens Photo tour, but in the back of my mind I was already starting to think about my next adventures in the School of Life. Where would it take me next? Could I really wrap my mind around funding my travel through a loan?

I guess the answer is that the School of Life is commencing for me in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on July 16th, 2012. I guess I’ve wrapped my mind around it!

Bumper Car Thoughts

How to make a Decision – Part 4

Oh I can feel the energy! Loud music, the smell of cotton candy and popcorn, children laughing, adults acting like children and the hum of electric bumper cars …

I excitedly choose a little red car in the middle of the bumper car pack, wait for the horn and then I start off slowly with a childish giggle thinking I can sneak past my friend before she bumps me. I test the gas peddle and my car does a little jerky-hop forward.


Ok, don’t get too excited, they don’t really move that fast, but I’ve managed to slip past my friend without her making contact. Now is my time to spin around and make my move!

Then with a jerk, my head is tossed to the left as a stranger blindsides me from the right and I hear him chuckle with excitement for his clever hit.

As I refocus my vision, I remember to step on the gas before I become stuck in the middle and forever battered by a constant stream of bumper cars waiting to attack my faithful little red car from every angle. Are those thoughts (er .. I mean … um … cars) ever going to have room to move again, or are they forever stuck in this grid-lock, surrounded by strangers waiting to attack … and then chuckle nonchalantly  about it?

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness …. I’m going away to study Spanish! EEEEEEEEEEEEEK!!!!!!

Wait a second … where is it that I’m going? oh right, I don’t know yet!

When I initially started thinking about learning Spanish in 2009, I had wanted to return to Nicaragua. I spent very little time there, but I felt such a big connection to the places that I visited.

But wait, then I traveled to Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands in February 2012 … and I decided that I wanted to go back to the Galapagos (in August 2012) to study. My best friend was invited to a wedding in Ecuador and I’d be able to visit with her before heading over to the islands. Then, while I there I could do some volunteer work, take lots of photos and see more of the islands that I had a chance to in my first five day visit.

But wait again! The Galapagos Islands are so far away and crazy expensive to get to! Not to mention that it is expensive to live there. And, well, it is a very small area. Will I get bored there for an extended period of time?

Maybe I should study Spanish in Quito, Ecuador? I knew a couple who had just studied for four weeks there before joining in on my Peru Through the Lens Photo Tour. They had loved it and both studies and living in Ecuador are dirt cheap. Oh wait … I didn’t feel safe in Quito, it was high altitude and well, it really just wasn’t my favourite place. So, cheap or not, that’s not really where I want to be!

Hmmmmmm …. there are so many Spanish speaking countries and I really would love to see them all. How am I ever going to decide? I can’t research them all, that would take too long!

What about the Dominican Republic? I had just returned from a beautiful week in Punta Cana where I was photographing a destination wedding. I had a couple of great local experiences, but felt like I didn’t really see much of the country because I was mainly on the resort. Let’s think about this option.

When I really began to contemplate the option of returning to the Dominican Republic to study, it just seemed to fit. It was cheaper to get flights to the Dominican than all the way to the Galapagos Islands. It was relatively safe for tourists, beautiful, sunny, beaches, Spanish culture, dancing, good food …. sounds good so far!

I revved up that little red bumper car engine and was poised to stomp on the gas and force my way out of the grid lock, but then hesitation …

I dug a little deeper in my thoughts … Although I had made the decision to go study Spanish for myself, I couldn’t totally ignore the part of me that found it easier to justify this ‘vacation’ if it had some business benefits.

Learning Spanish is something that I wanted to do because I was interested, but it was an extra bonus that it would also help me when I’m doing Photo Tours in South America. Were there other benefits to be found from the possibility of studying in the Dominican Republic? Why, yes, yes there are! The reason that I was in the Dominican Republic to begin with was to photograph a destination wedding. At our resort alone there were 3-4 weddings per day, seven days a week. Multiply that by however many resorts there are in Punta Cana … well, that means there’s something crazy like 150+ weddings PER WEEK just in this one area. Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could capitalize on this. Maybe I could arrange to photograph some weddings while I am in Dominican Republic learning Spanish, if that’s where I decide to go.

hmmmm … or maybe not.

Do I really want to be working or is this trip just about figuring me out? Well, maybe I could compromise and shoot one or two weddings to cover the costs of my trip. That’s not too much of a sacrifice! Oh no, there’s a hitch in that too … if I want to go this summer, that is slow season for weddings in Dominican. Not to mention that it is the nicest time of year in Nova Scotia and my main market for destination weddings would be couples from Nova Scotia. Geeze, I sure am glad I’m thinking about all of this!

Maybe the answer is that I don’t photograph any weddings while I am there, but I do some research to see if I can work with some of the resorts. And, regardless of when I do destination weddings, at least the Dominican has a high market for it. If I were to go to the Galapagos Islands, the number of destination weddings would be much fewer.

Did I just make a decision? Nah, I couldn’t have. But wait … maybe I did? What about all of the other countries that I could study in? Belize, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras … and the list goes on … It’s a big world out there, how do I choose just one location?

Look at that green bumper car … the driver is a maniac! He’s relentless! He has no shame, no compassion and takes a good hit on anyone he can, even if they aren’t moving. That’s not very sportsman like is it? Wait, he’s aiming straight for me on my one open side, as I’m grid-locked in everywhere else. I’m not going to let him beat my while I’m down! I’ll show him … GAS!!!

After several days of debating with myself and giving myself justification from a business standpoint I said ‘Enough is enough! Just pick a place and go with it!’. So, I did just that. Based on my previous experience in Dominican, the cost of getting there, the distance and the opportunities to expand my business there, I decided to just go for it.

With the wind dancing in my hair, a childish grin on my face and lots of driving practice, I starred back that the guy in the blue bumper car, I braced myself, put the peddle to the metal and hit him so hard, straight on, that it took his breath away.

Wait a second … it took my breath away too … all of a sudden I’m free of grid-lock. I gasped for air and then realized that there is plenty of it there to enjoy, I just needed to break free, attack head on and keep moving forward.


Go! And tell someone you trust!

How to Make a Decision – Part 3

When faced with difficult, overwhelming decisions, the only way I know how to tackle them is one step at a time. It doesn’t matter if you have created the situation yourself or been forced in to it … if you want to move forward, you have to do it one step at a time.

So, I decided to start telling people of my plans to study Spanish. As we all know, saying it out loud keeps us accountable. I started with telling my closest friends and my sister. I guess I was testing it out to see what kind of reaction I would get. For the most part, I got excitement … oh yes, and concern … but mostly excitement. I listened carefully to all of their questions so that I would know what I had to ask myself and come up with answers for!

Next up I began telling a few business contacts … again, treading lightly, before putting all of my weight forward. I’m not sure what I expected people to say … maybe I thought people would tell me I was crazy or that it was a stupid idea. Maybe I was waiting for people to convince me that I shouldn’t go …. regardless of what I was scared of, I was met by an outpouring of encouragement, excitement and ‘you can do it’ responses.

I think the decision was really solidified in my own mind when I told my counsellor. Yes folks, I am admitting on the big ol’ internet that I see a counsellor. GASP! She helps me put my head on straight when it gets twisted around backwards and I can’t wiggle it back around on my own. She’s unbiased, helpful, caring and doesn’t judge! You’d be surprised at how many people you know who see counsellors and life coaches, but its still such a taboo thing to talk about.

I remember going into her office and actually being excited, instead of discouraged and overwhelmed. I told her that I had made a decision to go learn Spanish and she simply said ‘And how do you feel about it now that you’ve decided?’

My response was something along the lines of ‘I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I’ve been struggling with being unhappy and overwhelmed and now I feel like a have a place to move forward to.’

That realization was huge for me.

For the last couple of years that I have been seeing a counsellor, her main message to me is to practice mindfulness and to be kind to yourself. She has gently been nudging me toward taking care of myself more and making sure that I make decisions that are best for me, my health and my sanity. Encouraging me to find, and leap a balance and fulfilled life!

Wow, I think the message finally made it through my stubborn armour and it’s pointy arrow made a clean slice right into my heart. Right where I needed it most.

I’ll never forget when my counsellor asked me ‘So, what’s next?’

Then the tears came … Damn it! I thought I was excited. I’m excited aren’t I? I thought I was doing good not crying! What’s up with this?

And once again, I was back into overwhelmed mode. I had made the decision to learn Spanish. I was strong and confidant about wanting to do it, but geeze, what does come next?

The counsellor helped me decide what steps I needed to take to move forward and off I went to think about the where, when and how to make it all happen!

In 10 years, will this matter?

How to Make a Decision – Part 1

When making a decision, you have several options …

1. Don’t think, just do it (completely an impulse decision)
2. Follow your heart (do what you love, but not necessarily what is most practical)
3. Do what you think is expected of you.
4. Follow your head (do what you know is most practical, not necessarily what makes you happy)

Honestly, some people do the same thing every time they make a decision … others have a variety of decision making differences depending on the situation.

Me, well, I’m almost never a #1 or #2. I usually follow my head, except in love (this will be particularly funny to those who know me well!). I’ve just discovered recently that even more so than following my own head, I often do things because I think that is what other people expect me to do. (I’ll have an entire blog post on expectations coming soon!)

Since 2009 I have wanted to go away to learn Spanish. Originally I thought I would go for 1 or 2 weeks. As the years passed, my interest in learning Spanish has stayed strong, but the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘you can’t do thats’ over powered everything else. Over the years I researched Spanish schools in all kinds of different countries, tried to think about when the best time to go away would be … continued to travel for other reasons, but hadn’t taken any real steps to make a decision on learning Spanish.

In the fall of 2011 I decided to purchase a Spanish Learning program for my computer (Berlitz Spanish Premier – I got my copy at Costco in Halifax). I wanted to learn Spanish, in hopes of leading a group of photo enthusiasts on an adventure called Peru Through the Lens. I wanted to be able to communicate in Spanish a little on my own. Unfortunately, I really didn’t study enough to be able to put sentences together, but I did learn a lot of vocabulary. I was the Queen of the one-word sentence or question! I had the Spanish speaking level of a two year old. Yay me!

In December 2011, the trip to Peru was confirmed and I decided this meant that I also needed to travel to the Galapagos Islands. I mean, really, it was part of the neighbouring country of Ecuador and I might never get back there again, so I should do it now, right?

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

It took me a good two to three weeks to finally decide to take the leap and go for the trip to the Galapagos. I had been thinking about the possibility since the summer of 2011 when we started planning for the Peru Through the Lens photo tour, but I didn’t put anything in place until I knew for sure that the tour was taking place. I did a lot of research. I asked my travel agent (Rose, at The Adventure Travel Company) a million questions about packages and pricing. I debated over land vs boat accommodations. Land won out fairly quickly due to my previous well known adventures in sea sickness!

What I am getting at here is that I did not take the decision lightly. I thought about it long and hard, but knew that I had to make a decision somewhat quickly (after confirming the Peru trip was going forward) in order to book my flights and tie them in to the beginning of the Peru Through the Lens trip.

I often get stuck when I am trying to make a big decision and I have come to realize many good and bad things about myself.
1. I always do research and a lot of thinking before making decisions. I’ve always been this way!
2. I like to think I have equal parts of head and heart participation in most of my decisions.
3. I am very influenced (or have been in the past) by what close friends and family members ‘expect’ me to do and how they will react to decisions that I make.
4. Sometimes I get so flustered and stuck in my own head that it stresses me out and I can’t make a decision at all. It is at this point that some people give up, drop the idea and run away. For me, it is at this point that I have a little chat with myself …

I ask myself – “Shari. What are you doing? You obviously want to do this (trip to Galapagos) … what is stopping you? If you want to do it so badly, you shouldn’t be stressed about it!”

I answer myself – “I’m scared that I don’t have the money. I’m scared that my business clients will find someone new to do their photography. I’m scared that my parents won’t understand. I’m scared that I’m going to love it and not want to come back. I’m scared that if I don’t go, I’ll regret it. I’m scared that I’ll never have another chance to see The Galapagos Islands.” Geeze! I’m a big ol’ scardey cat!

I ask myself “In 10 years, will this matter? Will you be in debt from it? Will you regret having traveled, learned, experienced new cultures? Will you regret it if you don’t go? Will you learn anything from it? Can you do this 10 years from now instead?”

I answer myself “Don’t be ridiculous … it is a couple thousand dollars, not millions! I can pay that off. The debt won’t be around 10 years from now. Of course I won’t regret the experience. Travel = education of a whole different realm than what most people learn in life. Will I learn from it? How could I not? Sure, I could do this in 10 years, but if I wait until then I might be married with kids and then I won’t have the money or time to do a trip like this … then I’ll regret not having done it while I had the time!”

Decision made.

Just after Christmas, I contacted Rose at the Adventure Travel Company and put all of the details in place for my five day adventure to The Galapagos Islands. Off I would venture, on my own, with the Spanish of a two year old, Vamos! (Let’s Go!).

Google Translate I love you!

One of the biggest and best things I learned while I was away traveling was the existence of Google Translate! Every traveler should know about this if they are going to a country where they don’t speak the language! It works for about 30 different languages.

As always, there is a story of how I learned about Google Translate. I was at Hotel Crossman in the Galapagos Islands and had been having some difficulties communicating. Let me just clarify that the staff were all very nice and willing to help, however I spoke pretty much zero Spanish and their English was very minimal.

One afternoon I came back to the hotel not knowing what my next tour or excursion was or what time someone would be picking me up. The guy at the front desk told me (or what I understood) was that someone would be picking me up in 30 minutes (at 1:30pm).

I went upstairs, got ready and returned to wait in the lobby for my driver. A couple of minutes after I had been waiting, the guy from the front desk came over and motioned for me to come to the front desk with him. On his computer he had pulled up Google Translate and showed me a message that he had written in Spanish, but it was translated into English.

The message explained that my driver would be there to get me at 3pm, not in 30 minutes. Wow! Was I ever thankful not to sit in the lobby for an hour and a half waiting for my driver. I was super excited that the staff member had thought about this and cared enough to try and find a way to communicate with me.

Further than that, Google Translate became my new BFF and translation miracle! Several times I typed messages in English and then ran downstairs to the front desk to explain something or to ask a question. Because of Google Translate I was able to better understand when and where my ‘included’ meals were, how to tell the restaurant who to bill and when my next tours were. Google Translate made a huge difference for me. I wasn’t really stressing over the communication challenges, but I didn’t shy away from a solution!

Google Translate also helped me get my laundry done, understand the price and when it would be ready … oh yeah and someone also wished me Happy Valentine’s Day by typing it in Google Translate. Awwww.

Now that I’m back in Canada I’m still using the program on a regular basis to try and learn new things that my Spanish program hasn’t taught me. I have a few people that I am trying to communicate with minimally in Spanish just to get practice. I can actually have full conversations with them in Spanish if I want, but I’m finding that doesn’t teach me as much because it takes all of the thinking out of of the process. It is kind of like cheating on a test.

Regardless, I love that I have the option to communicate in a language I don’t know! The downfall of course is that you need internet in order for it to work. You can also use it on your phone and I’ve now found out there are some really cool apps for translating although I haven’t tried any of them out yet. I’ll post about them when I find one that I love.

Go forth and try Google Translate! Communicate with people in other countries with other languages and enjoy great conversations with new friends!