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Monday, September 26, 2016

A New Building and a New Beginning: Inauguration Ceremony of School Wing

As I tenderly caressed each of the beautiful beads from the necklace, emotions within my heart welled up and burst within like the nightly fireworks that light up the skies of Disneyland every single night. The atmosphere had been ripe with the sounds of laughter, chatter, music, dancing, speeches. There even an impromptu gift of hand made gift of hand crafted beads to the volunteers who had spent 6 days building the new wing of the school; I was caught off guard when one of the village women also placed a necklace on me. That necklace would serve forever after as a reminder of the villagers gratitude to not only the volunteers who built the new classroom but me as well who came to teach english to them.

Of all the excursions I've done whether it would be canopy ziplining; piranha fishing; searching for poison dart frogs etc. I would have to say that my favorite excursion was one that Tahuayo Lodge doesn't offer on a regular basis. And that was my excursion to the inaugaration ceremony of the new wing of the school that had been completed by Be The Change Volunteers.

In 2013 when I first arrived here there was only one building that housed the school. There was only one teacher for all the grades who would have to go to one side of the room and teach primary school and cross to the other side of the school to teach secondary. In 2014 for first time ever, Be The Change Volunteers began getting involved with the people of Chino village and built their very first classroom of what is now the secondary school. The same organization would return the very next year to build another classroom. And this year in 2016 they returned to build a third classroom. So as you can imagine what a surprise for me to return 3 yrs after my first trip and find that Chino had gone from one building with one teacher to having a seperate building for primary and secondary and now had a principal and seperate teachers for all the grade levels.

 I arrived at the village on Inauguration day with a boat filled with volunteers who were putting the finishing touches on the construction work that they had been working on for the last 5 days. Upon reaching the secondary school, all words in both english and spanish left me. Where one week ago there was nothing but a cement foundation, there were now walls and a roof and a fully fledged classroom that was almost ready to go. It is important to note that the foundation had actually be laid by an earlier group from the same organization who did the ground work so that this second group could come and finalize the construction work.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Mastering the Art of Turning Foreigners into Friends

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
Maya Angelou

 So I'm in the midst of a life change right now and I find myself in hostel in Los Angeles. The fun part about hostels is that one gets to meet people from different cultures, backgrounds, walks of life all here in the city for different reasons. One of my dorm mates is a taiwanese girl who just arrived from Taiwan a few days ago to study english. I ended up having a beautiful chat with her giving her advice on how to connect while in a foreign country as well as tips on learning a language.

It then occurred to me that the advice I gave her is applicable to ANYONE whether one is a study abroad student learning french in France, or a Brit on holiday on the beaches of Spain. There are countless opportunities all around us to make meaningful connections. Trying to make friends from people who grew up in another world so different from yours may seem like an obstacle but in reality it's an opportunity if we keep a few important pointers in mind. I'll share with you the pearls of wisdom I showered on this girl from Taiwan.

 Firstly I encouraged her not to get sucked into the trap of hanging around people who spoke the same language as her. In a foreign country it is natural to gravitate to those who come from our cultures. Nothing wrong with that but if all we do is spend time speaking our native tongues and doing the activities we do at home, we aren't making the best of our time. My advice to her was to be brave, and go out and have as many conversations and experiences in a foreign language as possible.

 Another thing that I advised her was that even if one cannot fluently speak a foreign language, if you learn a thing or two about the culture, political background, or food of the place and are able to talk about it in english, that opens opens up a multitude of conversations. The two subjects that get people going are the topics of food and politics. What helps while one is abroad is to go try a food that only locals would really be familiar about it and go talk to them about your experience. In other words, don't only go and eat sushi and talk to locals in Japan about it. Everyone knows about sushi. Try something that is common knowledge to the people who live there but not necessarily common to the outside world. When locals hear that you've tried something out of the norm, it gets them talking.

In addition to that advice I let her know that sometimes when one doesn't know how to start a conversation from someone of another culture, a helpful tip is to google unusual facts about that country or culture. That way the next time you see the person you can tell them about the things you found out about their culture. In my experience people deeply appreciate it when they see that you've taken the time and effort to find out more about the culture and background they are from and feel extremely proud of.

 Here in Los Angeles, I've made it a rule that right now I'm not doing any theme parks. Instead I'm going to all the hidden places that most tourist skip because they only go to Universal Studios, Disneyland, and the Hollywood Walk of fame. But during my time here I've already ate at a Hawaiian restaurant and tried Loco Moco, visited little Tokyo, gone to the arts District as well as the fashion district. And there are so many places on my radar that I could visit to expand my mind. I had no idea that there is a district called "little Ethiopia" full of restaurants and shops related to the Ethiopian culture. The words of wisdom I write to you are ones that I am taking myself.

 Politics is another great topic you can venture into while abroad. . Find out something that has been going on about the country that only the locals know about and talk about it with them. Engaging in those conversations will help you become a well rounded person. You'll find out things like why people from Taiwan don't like to be called "Chinese". Why don't the people of France really favor the city of Marseille? Why is there a street in Santiago Chile called "11 de septiembre"? And if you dare decided to engage in both the topics of politics and food at the same time, make sure that you have nothing on your schedule for the next few hrs because you'll be engaged in a conversation for a loooooooooooong time :)

 What made my talk with this Taiwanese girl even more interesting is all the advice that I was telling her, I was actually using on her. I would also ask her about Taiwan and bring up things only a Taiwanese person would know. It made her feel connected to me. Little did she know that while I was talking to her my mind was searching my memory bank for anything I could remember about Taiwan.

A funny moment happened in our conversation when I asked her about a famous restaurant in Taiwan. In Asia themed restaurants are very popular. And there is a restaurant in Taiwan where it is toilet themed. When you go into the restaurant the seats are shaped exactly like toilet bowls. When I brought that up her face beamed and her voice quickened. Even with her broken english she knew what I was talking about. We had a really good chuckle about this unusual restaurant that is famous in Taiwan. That is another thing to watch, when you've said something that people are deeply connected to, their body language will change. They will start to talk faster and become chatty. Their eyes light up as you touch on something that is familiar to them.

Often times people's greatest mistake when trying to connect is talking too much  about themselves to start. Instead, put yourself in the other persons shoes and think of what themes they might be connected to. And you'll find as you do this, endless flow of conversations start. And eventually you'll get to talk about yourself and people will want to know about your background, culture, and history. And before you know it, you'll have mastered the art of turning foreigners into friends......

The Last Bookstore

The Broad Museum

Graffiti in the Arts District


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Argentine Eyes

Some of you who have been with me on my journey when I first stepped into Argentine soil right from the beginning may remember that at one point I wrote an autobiography about my life. As well as an encounter with an Argentine woman who would eventually become my Argentine mother.  The autobiography was called "Argentine Eyes" and it was done through wattpad.

I know that many people publish hundreds of stories on wattpad daily but I've only written one and then I haven't done much on wattpad very much. But the other day I decided to log in and look at my work and got struck by lightening when I saw that it has 3.4 K reads!

At first I thought there must be a mistake or I was reading the numbers wrong. I wanted to pinch myself. At most I thought it would be a worth a few hundred reads by a select group of people who were interested in Argentina. My books popularity has gone above and beyond anything I could have fathomed.

Wanna share a beautiful story of how this book impacted someone's life.  Being non-fiction, all the places I describe in the book are real.  One place that I talk about was a school called the Vamos Spanish Academy. As a language learner, picking the right school makes all the difference between paying for an overpriced pretentious course and learning next to nothing or paying a fair price and having a fantastic experience as you accelerate your journey to fluency.

Someone read my book and about my time at the Vamos Spanish Academy and actually decided to go there for real. They messaged me telling me that they ended up the school and had a fantastic time. It's moments like these that are the true reward as a writer. Yes, seeing that ones book has been viewed thousands of times is lovely. But nothing beats knowing that something you wrote impacted someones life.

So I am reposting the book here again for your reading pleasure. Simply click on the image above and it will take you to my book on wattpad. It is quite timely as well because this is the week that Argentina celebrates the May revolution. A moment in history that resulted the birth of the beautiful city of Buenos Aires on May 25th. And if my memory serves me right I actually started writing "Argentine Eyes" on May 25, 2011, the day that they commemorate the revolution. Happy birthday Buenos Aires. TE AMO

Monday, April 18, 2016

Death by Hot Chocolate: Sweet Stories from Vancouver's Hot Chocolate Festival

"Do you have any suspended coffees left?" I asked the cashier.

"Unfortunately no, we are completely sold out." She replied

"OK, then I'll buy one then." I gushed.

Her face beamed with gratitude, thanked me for this gift I was giving buying the first suspended coffee of the day. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a suspended coffee is a coffee you can prepay in advance for a homeless person to be able to have a drink. There are several places in Vancouver that have this program, East Van Roasters was one of them.

This particular exchange took place when I was visiting EVR to sample their hot chocolate that was part of the hot chocolate festival going on in Vancouver. Looking back, I'm glad that I wasn't silly enough to go make some new yrs resolution about losing weight or eating healthy because that resolution would have been out the door the moment the hot chocolate festival started.

There may be many tasty places to visit in Vancouver but what makes East Van Roasters extra delicious is that every order comes with a taste of charity. Located in the Rainier hotel, all the women who work at EVR also live at the hotel. And all the income from the sales of food drink and merchandise go directly towards these women, enabling the women of downtown vancouver to be able to support themselves. And most of all for these women to be able to live a life of dignity.

The Hot Chocolate Festival took place from Jan 16-Feb 14. Like a bull unleashed from its pen, I galloped through every nook and cranny of the city satisfying my sweet tooth with sinfully delightful cups of hot chocolate. There were more than 59 flavors of hot chocolate available throughout the city. And 5% of all the proceeds from the whole event goes to support East Van Roasters.

Amorous Alpacas

Amorous Alpacas