My Journey

Cartagena, Colombia

 

~ Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.


                                       


You're Going to Walk WHAT?


In the spring of 2002 I graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder receiving a degree in Business Management.  However, I wasn't convinced that I wanted to follow a career path within the confines of the business world.  I asked myself a question common among all recent college grads, "So what do I do now?"  Interestingly enough, my logical choice at the time was a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  After backpacking Western Europe for several months and working a seasonal job in Florida, I set out to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail on April 25th, 2003.

I walked up a mountain, and then back down - up/down, up/down, up/down.  Such was my life for nearly six months.  For those unfamiliar with the Appalachian Trail (AT), it's a 2,100 mile long footpath that runs along the eastern United States.  The feat required a lot of physical strength and mental toughness.  Truth be told, I'm not sure if I had either.  But what I did have on my side was youthful ignorance, which equally admitted people onto the Appalachian Trail.  For months on end, I hiked through rain, heat, wind, and snow.  I encountered a variety of wildlife, including a few different bear sightings.  I walked in and out of the heart of small town America.  I lost over 40 lbs. and grew a beard that made me look like I belonged in a ZZ Top cover band.  On October 8th, 2003 my hike culminated when I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine.  Now what?

Part of my intent for hiking the AT was the romanticized notion that I'd become enlightened along the way.  In hindsight, maybe I did.  But at the time I was more confused when I finished the hike than when I began.  I thought that as I walked along the trail I would eliminate my options to choose an appropriate direction in life.  Exactly the opposite happened.  The further I walked, the more options I began to realize I had at my feet.  Thus, after finishing the AT I chose to remain on the path less followed.  I chose a direction that catapulted me across the globe, residing in four different countries over an eight year period.  It was the best decision I've ever made in my life.


 








Pura Vida!

Habitat build site in San Ramon, Costa Rica
After walking the AT, two things were certain.
  1. I needed money because I was broke (actually I was in debt).
  2. I was determined to move abroad, learn another language, and possibly do some volunteer work.  
The following winter and summer I worked seasonal jobs in Florida and Alaska to earn some cash.  In the fall of 2004 I traveled to Costa Rica on a whim to find a new home.  After two months of traveling around and exploring different opportunities, I eventually settled in the capital of San Jose and found a position working with Habitat for Humanity International.  My official title, the first in my life, was Volunteer Coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean. I had my own cubicle along with a stack of business cards. The work environment was more foreign to me than the country. It's ironic, after graduating with a degree in Business Management I subconsciously avoided all jobs where I'd find myself working in a cubicle. In Costa Rica, I found myself in a cube and wasn't even getting paid for it. However, I guess you could say I was compensated in other ways.

Working hard in San Jose, Costa Rica
My time at Habitat was spent developing a new international program for long-term volunteers.  I created a volunteer manual, assessed office needs for volunteers, wrote up job descriptions, interviewed potential volunteers, and conducted orientations.  The greatest part of my job was getting to work with the other volunteers. Over the course of ten months I recruited eight volunteers to work on a variety of service projects in Latin America. Working alongside them, their charisma and energy was truly inspiring. Often, we'd plan excursions to participate in the construction of Habitat homes in the area. It was heartwarming to be able to see firsthand what the work you're doing ultimately culminates in. Even sitting in my cube back in San Jose, I was a small part of this process.  

Although my work with Habitat was both rewarding and gratifying, it didn't exactly pay the bills.  Once I started collecting overdraft fees from my bank I knew it was time to move on.  While traveling around Central America I had crossed paths with a number of English teachers.  The wheels started to spin.  Perhaps this could subsidize an adventurous life overseas?  In the end, I had decided on my next professional adventure - teaching English abroad.


The serene beaches of Corcovado National Park





Land of the Morning Calm


Having fun with the kids - Daegu, South Korea
In September of 2006, I crossed the Pacific.  Destination - South Korea.  Korea has a unique blend of traditional values and economic prosperity. The country honors tradition, while boasting a structural veneer that is technologically progressive. There are over 50 million people crammed onto the little peninsula. I was now one of them. 

I had never traveled to Korea before.  Also, I had never taught English.  In fact, I'd never really spent much time around children.  I was batting a solid 0-for-3 when I accepted a teaching position at the MoonKkang English academy in the city of Daegu.

I took to teaching like a duck to water...frozen water. I endured a baptism by fire, and made numerous mistakes when it came to discipline and classroom management.  But after a few months, the ice melted away and I could swim freely through the lesson plans. I finally had the kids marching to my beat.

With my homeroom class during the cherry blossom season in Gyeongju.
After a year teaching at the academy, I applied and was accepted for a position as a Visiting Professor for Daegu Catholic University. I moved to the historical tourist town of Gyeongju, where I lived for the next two years. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching at the university level and felt like I was able to spread my wings as an educator.  The other bonus, I was afforded an ample amount of vacation time to travel extensively around East Asia.

My time in South Korea was incredible. I met some amazing people and really enjoyed learning about Korean culture. After three years teaching in Korea, my wanderlust was starting to kick in. I wanted to continue teaching abroad, and while in Korea I saved up enough money that I could relocate to just about anywhere. But I sought adventure as opposed to monotony, the unknown as opposed to comfortable surroundings. I wanted something entirely different.

Several months after leaving Korea I found what I was looking for.  I discovered a volunteer teaching position which seemed like a good fit.  I was about to leave many of the conveniences of the modern world behind. I was on my way to Africa.


Street vendors selling snacks in Daegu




 

I'm a Villager!


Beautiful sunset from Eengedjo Senior Secondary School
I officially became a WorldTeach volunteer in 2010.  I applied for an was accepted for a teaching placement in northern Namibia.  More specifically, I was going to teach English and math at Eengedjo Senior Secondary School in the little village of Omungwelume.

Life in Omungwelume was nothing like I had ever experienced.  Running water and electricity were inconsistent.  There were no household luxuries like a television, microwave, or washing machine.  Clothes actually had to be washed by hand.  But what should you expect when you live in an area where there are more donkeys than there are cars.  Over time, I learned to live without some modern luxuries that many people often take for granted. 

Working in a rural area was mind opening and the year really challenged me professionally.  The school resources were were deficient, outdated, or in some cases nonexistent.  Quite often there weren't even enough chairs and desks to accommodate the number of students.  I learned to teach without classroom amenities like video equipment, textbooks, and sometimes even chalk. But what was truly inspiring were the kids. With so many educational and economic roadblocks standing in their way, they showed a willingness to learn that was unparalleled.

Lion at Etosha National Park
While in Namibia, I tried to take full advantage of this opportunity to explore much of the country. I visited Etosha National Park, one of the premiere game reserves in Southern Africa. I watched the sunrise from on top of some of the world highest sand dunes in Sossusvlei.  I got to hike parts of Fish River Canyon, the 2nd largest canyon in the world. Namibia is a hidden gem of beauty and splendor, and I feel fortunate that my path in life has taken me through a scenic route of Southern Africa.

My time working and living in Omungwelume was truly profound.  I've never been to a place where the stars shine so bright.  Though the eyes of village life, time would sometimes feel like it was at a standstill, as if the world had just stopped spinning.  Through it all, the learners at Eengedjo were at the very heart of my experience.  I'll never forget them.

After one year, my teaching commitment in Namibia was fulfilled. As much as I enjoyed the experience, I was ready to move on to something new. And even though I didn't know where I'd end up, I knew what I was meant to do next.

My grade 11 English class





Paradise Found


Me with little Antonio
For years I had been following volunteer opportunities at orphanages in Latin America with an organization called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH).  NPH is an organization that cares for orphaned and abandoned children. They operate nine homes in Latin America and the Caribbean which care for thousands of young children. The organization offers a myriad of volunteer opportunities, and one of them is teaching English. When I began teaching abroad, I knew that one day I'd at up at an NPH home.

In 2011, a position opened to teach English at the NPH school in the Dominican Republic.  And in June, I was on a plane heading to the DR.  My work experience at NPH was a whole new ballgame. Never in my life had I taught at-risk children. Many of the kids came from difficult backgrounds, and a number of them had learning disabilities. Discipline was also a real challenge, as kids frequently acted out or showed a lack of interest in their studies.  While working at the school, I felt that my responsibility was equal in being a role model, as much as an educator. For one year I taught English to grades 5 - 9 and also did math tutoring with some of the older students.  Progress was slow, but together, we made meaningful strides.

Me with little Arturo
Outside of school, I spent a great deal of time with the kids. We played sports, participated in weekend activities, traveled to the beach, and watched numerous movies. Throughout the year, NPH was my life. At times it was exhausting, but rewarding nonetheless. I was fortunate that I got to know all of the kids, roughly 230 of them, very well.  The NPH home in the DR is still relatively young, and will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2013.  With support from donors, NPH continues to grow each year as more children call it their home.  In the end, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos has become a permanent part of my life, my own home away from home, and I hope to visit my Dominican family as often as possible.

Me with Daniella, Estafanie, and Miranda





Facts of Life...Abroad


Number of Countries Lived In: 5 (United States, Costa Rica, South Korea, Namibia, Dominican Republic)

Number of Countries Visited:  41

Favorite Cities:  Cape Town, South Africa - Buenos Aires, Argentina - Bangkok, Thailand

Favorite Tourist Traps:  Iguzu Falls in Argentina - The Peak in Hong Kong, China - Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany

Favorite Lesser-known Locations:  Cadiz, Spain - El Bolson, Argentina - Xing Ping, China - Gilli Islands, Indonesia - Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

Favorite Travel Foods:  Ostrich Steak - Shabu shabu - Empanadas - Fresh Watermelon

Strangest Things Eaten:  Silkworm Larva - Dog Soup - Zebra Steak

Number of Times Pick-Pocketed:  3 (all in Costa Rica) :(

Number of Times My Digestive Track has been thrown Completely Out of Whack:  Every time I've traveled to Latin America.

Worst Transportation Experience:  Got food poisoning on an overnight bus in Thailand going from Chaing Mai to Bangkok.

Best Transportation Experience:  Took an RV trip down the Alaska Highway with a group of friends.  We drove from Anchorage all the way to San Francisco.  



4 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing about your experiences!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading! If you would like to email me at douenglish@gmail.com, I will send you a free copy of my latest book. :)

      Delete
  2. Dear Teacher, I really want to see your pictures at "Cataratas do Iguaçu" using your nice University t-shirt!
    All the best!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Erica! Are you in Spain yet? I hope everything is going well. TLC is not the same without you!

    ReplyDelete