Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina


We love visiting friends and family as we are traveling around, so on this particular road trip, we made extra effort to stop in and say hi to people we knew along the way. Of course, we didn’t manage to see everyone we know, but we did plan out a few of our stops based off of who we wanted to visit. Our second two stops were no different. We stopped in Washington, DC to visit my cousin Erin and her family. We did not take any pictures while we were there though. Such a shame. But we did take a few pictures when we made our next stop in Asheville, North Carolina to visit Lacy & Jay Gonzalez.

Lacy and Jay live in western North Carolina, which is by far one of the most beautiful places we have visited in the United States. The rolling hills full of trees are gorgeous. And having two wonderful friends in the area adds to its beauty.

 While we were visiting we did all sorts of South Carolina things. We had some great southern barbeque, went on a mini-hike in the hills, took a walking tour of downtown Asheville (which if you haven’t visited before, plan a trip there, it’s great!), and hung out a ton with Lacy and Jay.
 

We also got to visit the Biltmore Estates, one of the (or maybe THE) biggest mansions in the US. It is gorgeous! I went a few years ago with Lacy & Jay, but Caitlin had never been, but luckily Chantelle (one of L&J’s friends) was able to give us free tickets to go. What an incredible estate! We spent a good part of a day there touring around. The house is gorgeous as are the grounds. So grateful we were able to spend the day there. We also went to a “wine tasting” while we were there, but only sampled the three types of grape juice they have. We ended up buying two bottles of their white grape juice, which was soo good!
The Biltmore Mansion

Here are just a couple of pictures of us exploring the grounds. You can't take pictures inside the mansion, but watch Richie Rich, this mansion is his house in the movie. 




Lacy and Jay were great hosts too. They introduced us to some great restaurants and sweet areas of Asheville. Both Caitlin and I would love to make a trip back there soon. If only it were a little bit closer to Chiapas. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Philadelphia

These next few days may be a bit crazy for blogging, but I really need to catch up. 

I got back from Argentina on July 26, and on August 1 we began a month long journey back west to visit our family and see some of the sites throughout the USA. Our first stop on our trip was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Neither of us had ever been to Philadelphia, and we actually didn't know much about it's history. We asked my cousin-in-law, Andre, who served his mission in Philly, what we should do while we were there. And we basically followed all his suggestions. 

One thing about our trip you should know is that it literally rained every single day we were in the car, in every single state. Seriously. So as we drove to Philadelphia, it was pouring down rain. I was pretty sure our time there was going to be miserable. But another thing about our trip was that every day we were out and doing things, the rain let up and we were able to explore in a semi-dry environment. Such the luck.

So we actually stayed in New Jersey, right across the river, and we rode the train in. We knew that we had to see the historic sites, like the Liberty Bell, Penn's Landing, and Independence Hall. But Andre also suggested two philly cheesesteak restaurants, and we decided to do a taste test. The two cheesesteak restaurants were Pat's King of Steaks (which claims to be the original) and Geno's Steaks. These two cheesesteak places are literally across the street from one another, so it was easy to hit them both up. We tried both of them, comparing their meat, bread, overall quality, and we came up with a sure victor.

And the winner is... Geno's Steaks!
  

The rest of the things we did were pretty historical, and we loved that Philadelphia keeps the history alive through outdoor museums (mainly about slavery and the presidents), and free tours of the historical buildings. We got to see how the Declaration of Independence was created (on a printing press) and we also were able to see Independence Hall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration (August 2). 

Us with the Liberty Bell. 
The Signer statue.
 
Independence Hall in the background on the left and the bridge to New Jersey on the right.

 
Inside Independence Hall, in the room where they signed the Declaration.

We could have actually spent quite a bit more time in Philadelphia. We didn't realize how accessable all the historical sites would be, nor did we plan enough time to see everything it had to offer. If we are in the area again, we will most definitely be stopping by.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Safe at Home


Well… we survived our first weekend in Mexico. Surprisingly, we did not get abducted by drug cartel nor have we had diarrhea nonstop since arriving here. Crazy thing is, those were the only two things people really warned us about before moving to Mexico. Most of those people had never traveled down here, so we took their advice with a grain of salt.

But we are here! We are absolutely loving San Cristobal! It is a beautiful little town/city that is surrounded by mountains and jungle. It is about 7,000 feet in altitude so it is not the super hot Mexico you would imagine, but stays rather cool and very tropical. We have been exploring through the town and we are really surrounded by so many indigenous groups and artisans. Today in church, the woman who said a prayer in Sunday School said it in a indigenous language, so we did not understand anything she said.

So… we have been spending our time with my boss, Anita, who has been showing us around the town and getting us oriented into our new work. It has been a whirlwind, but absolutely amazing! She has taken us to different markets, churches, and to meet with some of the people we are going to be working with. The landscape is absolutely gorgeous, and we get to walk everywhere. We are so much taller than all the people around us, especially the indigenous groups. We have met a few people that barely go up past Caitlin’s waist. She is really enjoying being a tall gringa. And her Spanish is improving really quickly. I can’t wait until we can just speak to each other in Spanish all the time.

Well really, I just wanted to let everyone know that we are alive and well. Here are some pictures.






Sunday, September 15, 2013

Argentina: Community Service and the Great Outdoors

This blog will be my only blog about my experience as a group leader with The Experiment in International Living, so it may end up being ridiculously long, and it also may miss a lot of details. But I really wanted to write a little about my experience so that I have it recorded. So here goes...

For nearly 5 weeks I had the opportunity to lead a group of high school students on an immersive, cross-cultural exchange in Argentina. I led with a co-leader (who was phenomenal) and we had 15 teenagers on the trip.

We met in the airport in Miami and started getting to know one another there. I couldn't fully comprehend what I was getting into with these kids, or how much I would come to love each and every one of them. You know when you start out doing something, college, a sports team, job, whatever it is, you can't fully comprehend the impact it will have on you until it is over? That is exactly what happened on this trip. I started out thinking that I knew what to expect, but I was dead wrong. The experimenters surprised me in every way and I was lucky to be a part of their journey. 

After a red eye flight to Buenos Aires, we hit the ground running with our guide, Martin. We checked into our hotel, which was in the center of the city and on the same street as La Casa Rosada (the Argentine equivalent to the White House). He, and the amazing office staff in Buenos Aires, shared with us some Argentine traditions, including empanadas, alfajores, and our very first cup of mate. I was surprised with how many of the experimenters liked mate, because when I tried it for the first time a few years ago, I was not a fan. But Argentina will change you, and I brought home a mate cup and two bags of yerba to drink in the states. 
Martin was a great tour guide. He took us to all the famous places around Buenos Aires, taught us about the culture, the political situation, the financial crisis that has burdened Argentina for the past years, and many more interesting things. He was seriously like a walking encyclopedia of Argentina knowledge. One of my favorite places we visited was La Recoleta, a cemetery in the city with humungous crypts. Everything was very European and beautiful in the city, but the cemetery was seriously the most striking in beauty. We were able to see the grave of Eva Peron, and many other famous Argentines that are buried there. 
Theo, Chris, Will, & Josie at La Recoleta Cemetery. 
We also took a boat tour around El Tigre, which was not all that beautiful during our time in Buenos Aires. One thing to remember is that even though we were in Argentina in June and July, it is winter there and very, very cold. It is also very dead, so there was not much to see along the river banks. The kids did make good use of there time on the boat singing and dancing. However, not everyone on the boat appreciated their talents, and all the other tourists and Argentines left the top level to the first level. 

The kids in our group were seriously amazing. They were so incredibly smart and funny. Many of them spoke Spanish extremely well, and those who did not at the beginning really learned a lot throughout the trip. I was impressed to see their growth from beginning to end. 

While I was down there, I also happened to run into Casey Housen, my friend from high school, on the streets of Buenos Aires. What a small world! She had gone to Argentina on vacation and happened to be staying at a hostel on the same street as our hotel. I stopped by one night during dinner to say hi and catch up for a little while. What are the odds?
As part of the program, we spent two weeks in Salta living with host families. I had the most incredible family while I was there. I had a sister, two brothers, and a mom that I stayed with. They seriously became my family while I was there. Agustina, Leandro, Pablo, and Maria (my mom). They will forever be a part of my extended family in Argentina. They took me all around Salta, helped me figure out how to use the bus, taught me how to cook Argentine food, and stayed up late with me chatting about life. I seriously love them so much. 


My mom and sister even came to Chicoana after we left Salta, and celebrated my birthday with me. They surprised me with a cake and gifts and the best company I could enjoy! What a blessing! 

While in Salta at our homestay, we got together everyday for an activity or classes of some sort. The name of our program was Community Service and the Great Outdoors. So during our time in Salta we spent time doing community service, and we also went hiking and white water rafting. I feel like this is where our group really became good friends. It was hard going to Buenos Aires for a few days and then being separated suddenly into our homestays. I know I had a really tough time, and some of the kids did as well. But it made us stronger as a group and it taught us as leaders how to trust the group members.
We went on a few cultural excursions as well, and visited museums to learn more about Argentine culture. 


We also went to a Peña while we were in Salta, which is basically like dinner and a show. Jen and I took a picture with one of the devils that were part of the show. I'm not sure exactly what they were a part of, but they let anyone who wanted go and take a picture with them. 

For our community service in Salta, we worked at a facility that helped people with disabilities. They did not receive any government funding and relied on the goodwill of others to help them upkeep the building. We spent a week cleaning and painting the grounds. We were even able to plant a garden in the backyard. This is a mural a few of the kids designed and painted. They also painted a second mural in the backyard. The people at the facility were so gracious for all that the kids did for them. It's amazing what 15 high school students can accomplish in a short time. I don't know if they really understood how much of an impact they had on the workers, but as they spoke with us they had tears in their eyes for all the hard work that had been done. Our outdoor guide Sergio (in orange) and our service leader Carlos (far right front) were crucial during our trip and helped us get everything accomplished. They were some of our favorites we met. 

I was super excited for our trip because of the theme of community service and the great outdoors. I especially LOVED white water rafting! Our group worked really well together, and I loved spending the time together. One of our group, Oluwa, didn't know how to swim, yet was exceptionally brave and even jumped into the water (with a life jacket) after we finished rafting. 




After leaving Salta we spent some time in Chicoana, a small pueblo where we did service and spent time with the locals. We stayed in a hostel right next to a restaurant (where we ate every single meal) and we did community service at an old tobacco plant that they are transforming into a museum. We met a lot of the local people and were very well known in the small town. The group were even pulled up on stage during a parade and gave candy to the local kids and danced with people in costumes. We also were able to watch a gaucho parade, which seemed to go on forever - but was actually a great way to soak up the culture of a small town.





The community service in Chicoana was a lot more labor intensive than the service we did in Salta, even though it was just as much painting. Sometimes I thought that the name of the program should've been Painting Buildings and the Great Outdoors. Seriously, we painted A LOT.
 

After our time in Chicoana, we went horseback riding for 5 days, and camped 1 night. I had a great experience where my horse flipped over on me, but other than that, we didn't have any real incidents on the horses. I had only ridden a horse once before this, and I didn't feel super confident riding all around the hills of Argentina, but by the end I was loving horseback riding. I think the majority of the group loved it as well. 


We were able to ride to places with amazing views. I also loved that while we were on our horses I could relax a little bit because all of the group was extremely responsible while riding. 

A few other cool things we were able to experience: 

Beautiful rock formations on our way from Chicoana to Cafayate. 



Sand dunes in Cafayate.


Las Ruinas de Quilmes.

Jen, Sergio and Me
Tango lessons.


So... clearly I got tired while writing all of this, but needless to say, I had an amazing experience. All of the kids (Mary Rose, Josie, Diego, Chris, Michael, Julia, Deja, Theo, Lauren, Chelsea, Jack, Oluwa, Ben, Viola, and Will) were amazing. I seriously have such a love for each and every one of them. I learned so much through their examples, and from their outlook on the trip. They helped me continue on through the difficult times and motivated me. I am excited to see where they all go to college and end up in 10 years, because the group was filled with future world leaders. Seriously, I can't say enough good things about this group, and I feel privileged to be their leader.