Why I always keep a travel journal now!(my month in Ecuador)

My first long-term experience abroad was during a study away program in 2009.  I went to Ecuador with a small group of college students who were learning Spanish.  It is by far one of the best experiences abroad I’ve had. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to keep a journal of my experiences and now I’ve forgotten half the places we saw and visited! This is what I do remember:

We stayed in Quito, and I was not prepared for the change in air pressure.  You’re so high up that breathing becomes difficult.  I didn’t realize just how out of shape I was until I tried to walk up a flight of stairs! We visited many of the main cities in Ecuador including Guayaquil, Baños, and Otavalo. Sadly we didn’t get to see the Galapagos Islands, but it’s on my list for sure.  I think my favorite experiences were white water rafting in the river and going to the equator.


It’s hard to remember all the things we did since the itinerary was packed so full, but thank goodness I have lots of pictures!


We had a great view atop part of the Andes mountains looking down on the city below.



We visited the very wet city of Baños and played in the waterfalls.


We saw many museums, attractions, and sites, but I think my favorite was on the equator.


One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life (which I used to have a video of but seem to have lost) was watching water being drained in a basin.  One side of the hemisphere it rotated clockwise, and just a few feet over the line it flowed in the opposite direction.  But on the equator the water went straight down. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.


In one city we actually got to watch a volcano erupt from a distance.


We spent time working with a group of children in a local community.  This one enjoyed playing with my sunglasses.


I had a blast on the train ride, but sadly I ended up leaving behind a souvenir hat that I really loved.


One of my favorite experiences was going to the fruit market and sampling all the interesting and bizarre fruits.


I can’t believe it’s been almost 10 years since my first major overseas experience.  I would love to go back to Ecuador someday and see what’s changed. I wish I could remember the names of the cities and museums I visited.  From now on, I’ll carry a travel journal!


Immersion is the ONLY way to truly learn another language.

I’m speaking mostly from personal experience when I say that if you want to learn a foreign language, the only real way to do so is to go to a country that speaks that language and immerse yourself in it.  Of course, I’m sure there’s plenty of conflicting research with lengthy lists of teaching methodology and the newest software programs to make you fluent in no time.

Recently, I’ve been seeing more ads for language learning programs that guarantee fluency in just a few weeks. Please don’t fall for this nonsense.  Every time I see an ad stating that you’ll be fluent in just 8 weeks after using their language learning software, I can’t help but think of the equivalent marketing scams for weight loss: “take this special pill/drink/chemical and you’ll shed the pounds in 2 weeks.”

The fact is learning a foreign language is a long and arduous process. Probably the most difficult part, at least for myself, is how slow the progress feels. I’ll learn so much and still only be able to give basic directions to a location or order food in a restaurant.  I’m functionally fluent in Spanish (though shamefully rusty) and probably a high-beginner in Arabic.  And that was after spending 3 years in an Arab-speaking country!!!

I’ve been teaching English as a second language for nearly a decade now which helps tremendously in my own learning process.  I’ve tried almost every type of language learning method out there and these are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

Traditional Classrooms

Learning in a regular classroom is great for learning about the language, not so great for speaking and interacting on a fluent-level with locals, unless of course, the class you’re attending is in a country that speaks the target language.  I studied Spanish for nearly 12 years throughout high school and college and studied it relentlessly.  However, the month I spent in Ecuador, I made more strides than I ever made in the 12 years spent in a classroom in the states covering a textbook and eating nachos on special occasions.

Textbooks and Workbooks

I’ve often perused the shelves at bookstores for textbooks, workbooks, and dictionaries for what I deem the best for learning a language.  Having a book to follow along with will definitely help you in the language-learning process, but will it make you fluent? Sadly no.  In fact, in some ways I’ve found books to hinder my progress.  They’re almost always formal language which means I don’t sound like a native speaker when I talk, and nearly always organized into what should be useful scenarios: giving directions, ordering food at a restaurant, a trip to the post office.  But just how often do you have to request more cheese on your pizza in Arabic? Not often.

Language-Learning Software

The language-learning software such as Rosetta Stone seems to be one of the newest trends in language learning.  Rosetta Stone has been around for awhile now and boasts that it’s the “natural way” to learn a language.  I used Rosetta Stone for Arabic and while it was definitely useful, I don’t think it would ever make me fluent.  And anytime I repeated phrases, my Arabic-speaking friends would giggle and proclaim “you sound so formal!”


Bottom line, immersion is the way to go. If you can’t afford a planet ticket or a trip to another country, consider searching for a community of native-speakers who live close to you.  I’m currently trying to find my own conversation partner now that I’m home from the Middle East and no longer immersed in Arabic.

What has been your experience learning a foreign language?

Pros and Cons of Cruises

Mexico was my first experience abroad, but it wasn’t the first time I flew in an airplane since we had driven to the border.  My first time in an airplane was when I went on my honeymoon on a Carnival Cruise. The novelty of flying has definitely worn off.

Cruises are a great way to visit several different countries at once.  However, you only have a limited amount of time in each country, so it’s impossible not to cram.  You’re constantly rushed from one event to another making it difficult to relax.  You’re also at the mercy of the cruise’s itinerary, so if you like the freedom of making your own schedule, a cruise is not for you.

To really get the most out of the experience, I highly recommend doing the shore excursions. My husband (now ex) and I went on a cruise that made port in Cozumel, Mexico, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman. In Cozumel Mexico we chose to tour the ancient ruins.  It was an incredible experience.  In Jamaica, we climbed Dunn’s River Falls which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  In the Cayman Islands, we were supposed to go paragliding, but the weather did not permit it.  I’m so glad we did the excursions, but that’s another downside of cruising: expect to spend more money if you’re going to really enjoy the experience.

Another benefit I’d say is how easy and organized it is to go from country to country. However, you have to wait in long lines and it seems like much of the trip is spent either standing in a line to board the ship, or standing in a line to go to dinner, or standing in a line to board the dock.  It’s hard to escape the people around you, especially if you go during a busy season.  I recommend going during the off seasons.  We went on our cruise in January and I’m glad we did.

I wouldn’t recommend a cruise to anybody.  If you prefer to make your own schedule, get off the beaten path, take your time, and make your own arrangements then cruising is not for you.  If you like having your itinerary organized for you, meals, lodging, and other necessities arranged, and seeing multiple countries for one price, then maybe it’s time you booked your first cruise.


What are your Thoughts on Mission Trips?

In 2002, I went to another country for the first time.  I was in my teens and quite passionate about religion.  I joined my church on a mission trip to Reynosa, Mexico.  Sadly, I have few pictures of the trip, but my favorite one is of me interacting with a little Mexican boy. From that first trip, I knew I was going to be a traveler.  I was astounded by the differences in culture, the warmth of the people there, and the foreign sights, smells, and sounds.  My Spanish was limited at the time, but good enough for me to communicate with the locals.

It’s been almost 2 decades since that first trip, but it’s still fresh in my mind. I remember going to a very poverty-stricken area of the country and seeing families with four or five young children living in cinder block houses, cooking tortillas on a fire, shoeless and thin, but happier than any child I had ever seen. The kids ran up to us and offered us food and gifts which was ironic since we were there to provide the same. At the end of our week there, we invited them all in prayer to convert.  The area was predominantly Catholic, and we were Southern Baptists.  I remember being so excited when all the kids converted, but now, nearly 15 years later, I look back on that experience, not with regret, but concern.

Would we have brought food and clothes to these people without the expectation that they follow our religion instead of the one they were brought up with?  Is it not possible to help others without imposing one’s religious beliefs on them?  Now that I’ve traveled more, my perception about religion has changed dramatically.  I view religion now as a part of culture rather than a universal truth, and while I do admire the help given by missionaries such as food, clothes, and commodities, I can’t help but wonder if those missionaries are missing out on the best thing about travel: learning about another culture without trying to change it.

Gardening in the Middle East: Part 1

I love the expat life.  You meet a lot of interesting people and you get to go to a lot of interesting places, but there are things back home I miss.  I miss my independence.  I miss seasons.  And I especially miss gardening.  I’m from the Midwest and gardening was a big part of my life.  And I’ve wondered, why don’t more people try to garden while they’re overseas?  I’m sure there’s a reason and that I’m missing something important, so I’ve done a little research about gardening in the Middle East.  I haven’t seen any definite “no you can’t do it” messages.  I even found one woman who happened to be quite successful gardening in Kuwait.


And I thought, well if I’m going to be here awhile, I might as well give it a try.  And if it doesn’t work out, well at least I had a fun project to keep me busy after work. I’m faced with several challenges:

First, I know it’s a desert, but I figure with proper water and nutrients, the humid climate here could actually be an advantage.  So I bought soil and seeds and saved some old cardboard boxes to be used as garden beds. I’m actually trying to find clever ways to recycle and using old boxes seemed like a good way.


Another issue is the scorching sun which would burn any non-native plant to a crisp.  However, the space I’m provided just happens to be shaded.  I figure if the plants are out of direct sunlight, wouldn’t they be okay? And I got to thinking, would it be beneficial to put up large sheets of plastic, potentially turning my back patio into a green house?  I guess I’ll find out soon.

You won’t encounter the same pests you would in a more garden-friendly environment.  However, one major pest for my garden is considered a pet by my compound neighbors.  There are cats absolutely everywhere and I don’t want them using my garden beds as a litter box.  So I did my best to seal off the gaps in the railing, but now I’m going to have to put something on top of the railing because they could easily jump over.  With limited materials, I’m going to have to get creative.  Still working on cat-proofing the patio.

And that’s what I’ve got so far.  It would seem few people have attempted this, so I’m having trouble finding resources.  I have lots of questions.  For instance, my tap water is desalinated, so does that mean it’s okay for watering the plants?  And, how deep do these garden beds need to go?  Some boxes are deeper than others, but we’ll see.  Once I’ve fully cat-proofed the balcony, we’ll plant the seeds and get started.  Inshallah something will grow.


Teaching in Saudi: Red Flags to Look for When Applying

When I decided to come teach English in Saudi Arabia for a year I was anticipating a lot of culture shock.  Things are very different here:

  • It’s illegal for women to drive. (at least it was when I was there!!!)
  • I’m often stared at everywhere I go even when I’m wearing a hijab and abaaya.
  • All the stores close for 15 minutes 5 times a day for prayers and I always manage to go to the store at the wrong time.

The list goes on, but none of these things really bother me.  The heat isn’t as bad as I thought.  There’s a lot of dust and it took a few days for me to adjust to air conditioning, but all in all, I’ve really been enjoying myself in this country.

However, what I did not expect was the mismanagement and complete lack of interest in the well-being for the employees of the first company I worked for.  I wrote these issues down a few years ago and now I work for a much better company. Here are a few of my grievances and some red flags to watch out for to avoid the same trap I got into:


  • This is a new company, so naturally there are kinks to be worked out, but this company has dumped an enormous work load on the teachers as well as the students.  We teach ESL from 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon with one 15 minute break and a 40 minute lunch.  That may not seem like a lot of hours, but for anyone that’s had to teach a second language, especially to a group of 30 Saudi teenage girls, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
  • In addition to this workload, we’ve also been given a ton of busy work, such as filling out a lesson plan template for every single lesson we do every day.  Again, that may not sound like a big deal, but with no down time during the day between classes, we have to complete this in our spare time when we get home.
  • In the past, anytime I’ve taught there’s been time off between semesters.  This is not the case here as admin has informed us that there will be no time off between semesters and the only break we’ll have will be weekends and 2 weeks off for Eid which already happened.  The week between semesters will be spent planning the new semester.  So no vacation time until June.
  • Now I’m no stranger to hard work, and I can do what’s required of me.  However, we’re also expected to do all of this work with no virtually no resources, no working printer, and no technology in the classrooms, so I’ve been writing all of my assignments by hand.  Many of the teachers don’t have a white board to write on.  Most of us have gone out to buy our own supplies.  Now, I normally wouldn’t complain about this, but this is one of the richest countries in the world and the government pays for the education.  You’d think they could at least give us a board and markers.
  • I’ve been managing despite these challenges and the students have been very hard-working and understanding so far, but this school is so poorly managed, that every time I think I’m making progress, admin further adds to the frustrations.  At first it was taking on more students than we could handle.  We all had too many students and not enough chairs resulting in several students having to sit on the floor causing chaos in the classrooms.  And the AC has malfunctioned and apparently won’t be fixed anytime soon so it’s a frigid 19 degrees in most classes, so we’ve been having to bring our coats to class.  A little ironic considering we’re in the desert.
  • After the first week of work I saw at least 4 of my coworkers in tears from the stress.  Two have already quit because of the work load and many others have threatened to leave.  Several have already gotten sick. Fortunately the group of women I work with all seem to be dedicated and caring teachers who are genuinely interested in these girls and we do our best to support each other since administration clearly is not interested in our well-being.
  • Anytime a problem arises from the chaos and mismanagement of the institute, admin is quick to blame the staff.  We’ve already had four very demeaning staff meetings which basically consist of the administrator complaining about how we’re not doing our job properly and reminding us that we’re here to teach.   They see nothing wrong with keeping 30 teenage girls in a freezing cold classroom for 2 to 3 straight hours for English language instruction.  There used to be short 5 minute breaks every hour but now admin has decided we should stop doing that as well.  At first teachers were more willing to express their concerns about how things are being run, but we quickly learned that’s not a good idea.
  • Now maybe you think I’m just whining and I need to suck it up, but this is where my complaints become a bit more serious.  Within the first two weeks of work all the teachers began expressing their concerns about the workload and mismanagement of the school.  The administration’s response was to fire one of the teachers even though we’re already short-handed.  They told the teacher that she “wasn’t a good fit.”  The teacher who got fired thinks she was fired because she made one too many suggestions about how to do things differently in this school.  I suspect it was because she had visa issues.  So naturally, after she was fired, nobody else dared to complain or ask any questions after that.
  • And then there’s all the promises that were made that never happened.  We were promised we would be provided with cell phones.  That never happened.  We were also promised internet service.  Also never happened.  We all had to buy our own.  We were told we should have some time during the day to prepare for our classes, but since we teach for 7 straight hours with 2 breaks the only time we have to do anything is when we get home.  We were promised a class size of about 20 to 25 students but most exceeded 30 in the first 2 weeks.  It was implied that we would get some vacation time even though it doesn’t appear on our schedule, but now the weekends are the only time we have off for the next 9 months.  Now admin has been relatively careful not to violate the contract.  Most of these promises were made verbally and not in writing, so there’s really nothing we can do about that.  Lesson learned.
  • And now things have gotten even more serious.  I don’t want to alarm anybody, but one of my co-workers is kind of missing…Okay that sounds worse than it probably is.  We don’t know where she is and admin is being very vague about her whereabouts.  They told us that she is in the hospital and currently in isolation and that none of us can visit her because she was “running a fever.”  Many of us think she may have been detained by the local authorities due to a legal issue and that admin is lying for reasons of confidentiality. Other teachers have become concerned about what “running a fever” and being “isolated in the hospital” entails. The fact that we can’t trust admin to be completely honest with us about where she is and whether or not she’s truly ill or if we should be concerned for our own health is a little unsettling to say the least.
  • Now I wasn’t going to do this.  I wasn’t going to go online and blast the company I work for, but given the amount of stress I’m under and the fact that they have no problem firing people for no reason, I just wanted to clear the air in the event that I get canned because at this point, with the amount of stress I’m under, I’m not sure I would be terribly upset.  I’m no quitter.  I came here to do a job.  And I love these students and I love this country, but this is by far the worst, most poorly managed school I have ever worked for, and the thought of getting fired almost seems more like a relief than anything else.

So, I’m thinking to myself, is this typical?  Is this what it’s like to work overseas because all I can think is what the hell have I gotten myself into?

Well, now that I’ve left this school and I’m firmly established in another in the same city, I can tell you that my experience is not atypical, but I should have known a few things beforehand:

  1. Read the contract carefully.  It said we’d be teaching a lot of hours, but in the interview she said it would be a lot less.  Of course, when it comes to verbal promises vs written ones, it’s not hard to know which you’ll end up doing. Get everything in writing.
  2. Beware of new schools.  New schools often run into problems getting started and a lot of them are treated more like business than schools, so the aim is to log a lot of hours and look official, but the education isn’t necessarily valued.
  3. Search for reviews of the school before you apply.  I wish I had done this because there are a lot of former employees happy to let you know what their experience was like.

Bahrain: The Saudi Playground

Every Thursday afternoon the causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia is filled with gridlocked vehicles anxiously making their way to freedom.  They’ll wait for 2 to 4 hours, sometimes more depending on how busy the border is, but even just a day or two of freedom makes the trip worth it.

And it’s not just Westerners, unaccustomed to Sharia law that are eager to escape the Kingdom.  The causeway is full of Saudis too.  Bahrain is like a magical paradise.  It’s a beautiful island where the pressures of Saudi life can be forgotten for awhile.  The traffic is calmer.  The rules are looser. And there are plenty of bars and other diversions to please even the most Western of tourists.
Of course, it’s possible I’m overselling the small island nation, but when you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the most conservative country in the world, Bahrain becomes this special place full of fond memories. Here’s an overview of Bahrain in a nutshell.

Overview: Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands in the Persian Gulf.

Capital: Al-Manámah

Language(s) spoken: Arabic (official), English, Farsi, Urdu

Religion(s): Muslim 70.3%, Christian 14.5%, Hindu 9.8%, Buddhist 2.5%, Jewish 0.6%, folk religion

History: Bahrain originally belonged to the Dilmun civilization and was an important trading center of the Persian gulf.  It was one of the first areas to convert to Islam in 628 AD.  After Arab rule, Bahrain was occupied by the Portuguese for a time until being expelled in 1783.  Nasr Al-Madhkur, was defeated by the Bani Utbah tribe at the 1782 Battle of Zubarah. There was unrest during the 19th and 20th centuries over Britain’s influence on the area. This was followed by Bahrain’s independence on August 15th 1971.  Bahrain has seen its fair share of political uprisings and social unrest especially between Sunnis and Shias and during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Other facts:

  • The name Bahrain translates as “Two Seas” in Arabic.
  • Bahrain’s biggest event is the Bahrain Grand Prix F1 race, held every April at the Bahrain International Circuit.
  • 62% of the population is made up of expat workers.
  • It’s home to the United State’s Navy’s 5th fleet.
  • In 2002, a new constitution was introduced which gave women the right to vote.
According to http://www.infoplease.com/country/bahrain.html

My favorite thing(s) about Bahrain: 

Bahrain has found a good balance between being a traditional Islamic country while still catering to tourists and being tolerant of non-Muslims, something I’d like to see more of in the Middle East. The atmosphere is most definitely Arab, but non-Arabs can feel quite relaxed and comfortable.

My least favorite thing(s) about Bahrain:

The causeway of course.  It takes such a long time to get over and you have to plan it just right.  And everybody is so tense and anxious to get over that the drive in is absolutely horrifying and chaotic.  Of course, I can’t really count this as a part of Bahrain since it’s in between countries.  So the only other issue I’ve had is that it’s so expensive.  You can drop a lot of money in a weekend, but it’s just worth it.

What I found most surprising:

I never get harassed.  When I’m in Saudi, if I forget my hijab, I’ll undoubtedly get a comment or a look from somebody.  But in Bahrain, I’m free to walk around without an abaaya in my comfortable clothes and nobody gives me any problems.  I find it ironic that I can be covered from head to toe in one country and still receive some mild harassment and dress perfectly normal in another and have no issue.  Kind of puts a dent in Saudi’s whole theory on modesty and “protecting” women.

Must see and do: 

  • Check out King Fahd’s Causeway, the four-lane road, 25 km bridge connecting Saudi Arabia to Bahrain.
  • Visit the Grand Mosque, Al Fatih Mosque.  It’s absolutely stunning, especially at night.
  • See “The Tree of Life”, a 400-year-old tree that grows in the Sakhir desert.
  • Learn about the culture at Bahrain’s National Museum.
  • Go to JJ’s Irish Pub in the capital and buy a beer for one of the Navy boys. 😉

My advice to anyone traveling to Bahrain: 

Enjoy yourself, but respect the religion and social norms.  It’s a relatively free country, but still conservative and all it takes is one bad incident to ruin the fun for everyone else.  So have a good time, but don’t cause a scene. Happy traveling!!!