Part III Trapped Abroad

The first few days of hosting my family were spent close to home–as within walking distance. My brothers’ arrivals were staggered, and each time a new part of the group arrived there was a day of acclimation and recovering from the day of travel.  We spent most of our time shuffling kids and juggling nap times and walking around “La Carolina”.  La Carolina is Quito’s “Central Park”, is 2.5 miles in circumference and is across the street from my apartment.  My parents and one brother (+ his family) rented an AirBnb for the time we had planned in Quito which was directly across the park from my apartment.  

Airbnb

We ate street food, explored the nearby markets, and my 4-year-old nephew played on all the playgrounds, and there are a lot of playgrounds.  Little did we know that this was going to be the only time we had for any sightseeing.  Sure, COVID was all over the news, but it still didn’t seem to be an immediate threat.  There were no cases reported in Quito, and flights were still coming and going.  I was in close contact with all of my providers who I had made arrangements with for my family and everyone was reconfirmed that all our plans were still on.  

On the night of March 14th, the last of my family arrived in Quito (after a series of stressful events that are not relevant to include here).  Within an hour of my final brother’s arrival in Quito, the government announced that they were closing the border and not allowing any foreigners to enter the country by land, sea, or air.  Ecuadorian citizens abroad were given 24 hours to return home before the border was closed to them as well.  We were concerned by that news, but still, our plans remained in place.  

Sunday, March 15th, was the one day that we actually spent touring.  And even then, we only spent half a day wandering Quito’s Colonial City Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were limited by babies, our 4-year-old, and increasing anxiety amongst the adults.  My brother who had just arrived 12 hours earlier received word that his (and his wife and daughter’s) flight home had been canceled.  We returned to the AirBnb in the afternoon to sort out that situation and regroup.  

Sadly, my brother, a doctor, decided that he and his family would be departing for home on the next available flight.  They were concerned that they would get stuck in Ecuador and my brother needed to get home within 10 days for his job at the hospital.  They were able to book passage on a flight that left the following night (Monday night).  Despite our disappointment that part of our family would be departing early and missing the planned trip, we had a wonderful afternoon and evening in my apartment.  We were all together, in Ecuador–that in and of itself was miraculous.  My partner, A, gave a salsa class; the babies rode around on my Roomba, I ordered an absurd amount of Venezuelan food to feed the masses, and all was well….for a few hours….  

As of Sunday afternoon, we were still planning on traveling to the cloud forest town of Mindo the following day; however, our itinerary began to deteriorate that night as I received a series of announcements.  The first few cases of COVID had been detected in Quito, and, at that point, the government took swift and decisive action.  On the night of the 15th (Sunday) it was announced that as of 5am on the 17th, the entire country was going to be locked down.  Essentially, we had 24 hours to prepare for an indefinite and complete quarantine lockdown, and everyone, all 13 members of my family, were depending on me, the “baby” of the family.  

Trapped Abroad Part 2

My task was simple–coordinate international travel for 13 people ages 1 to 69, and design an itinerary that is interesting, fun, and, most importantly, safe, for all.  Luckily for me, this is what I do for a living.  I decided on a variation of my favorite and most basic itinerary–

Yunguilla Cloud Forest

Day 1: Full Day Quito Tour

Day 2: Mindo–tubing, chocolate tour

Day 3: Mindo–butterfly sanctuary, waterfall hike

Day 4: Yunguilla Community–make cheese, waterfall hike

Day 5: Yunguilla Community–Pre Inca trail hike, cooking class, an evening of music and dancing 

Day 6: Yunguilla Community (milk cows, etc), Mitad del Mundo, Quito for a night of salsa dancing

Day 7: Take the Teleferiqo (gondola) up Rucu Pichincha Volcano (optional hike to summit), artisan market.  

If you have no idea what this itinerary means, click here to see more details!

Half of my family was planning on coming early and staying late for a total of a 2-week trip, so there was an extended version of this itinerary that included some other activities and destinations.  I wrote to all of my providers explaining that my family was coming to visit and pestered them confirming every detail, rooming list, detailed itinerary, and explained that this was a very special group.   

In addition to planning every second of our week together, I also designed a custom “Trip Notes” (hand-illustrated booklets with important trip information and writing prompts that we make for all of our groups) just for my family.  The illustrations included each member of my family, and I also made a special book for my 4-year-old nephew with pictures for him to color and words for him to trace, as he is learning how to write.  I bought handwoven baskets and filled them with Ecuadorian snacks, a water filter, the Trip Notes, and T-shirts that I spent weeks designing and had made for everyone in my family.  

My amazing Ecuador T-shirts

In the months leading up to the big trip, I also completely organized my house, bought a dining room table, a coffee table, and all new living room furniture–couldn’t have my family thinking that I still live like a college kid.  I deep cleaned everything, multiple times.  I even built and mounted nearly a dozen shelves on my walls and updated my flock of houseplants.  To top it all off, I had a painting commissioned to hang over my new sofa–a really awesome custom piece by Daniel Reinoso, a local artist here in Quito who I highly recommend.  

Everything was planned; everything was squeaky clean and organized; I was totally prepared (and also very tired and more than a little bit anxious).  Finally, finally, finally, the day arrived that the first batch of family members would travel to Ecuador.  

Now, there had been some chatter leading up to the trip regarding the unfolding COVID-19 situation.  In the final days before the trip was set to begin, I emotionally braced myself for news that at least part of my family was canceling due to COVID fears.  Departure day was March 11th, 2020–before the Pandemic was declared, and before the World turned upside down.  I was relieved when my parents and brother sent me pictures of them boarding the plane along with my nephew, niece, and sister in law.  It was happening–they really were on their way! 

LOCKED UP ABROAD PART 1

By Alexandra Osetek

When my Dad retired last fall after a remarkable 40-year career as an oral surgeon, I struggled to come up with a gift worthy of commemorating his lifetime of hard work and dedication.  I googled “retirement gifts for dad”, but everything I found fell short of what the occasion merited.  Then, when I thought about what my Dad would cherish most and would be the most meaningful to him, the answer became clear–time with his family.  After all, all those years of work went to support us, my 3 older brothers, my Mom, and me.  

Family Photo with custom Ecuadorian T-shirts

So I threw together a Whatsapp group for my brothers and sisters-in-law, and proposed that we give the gift of time in the form of a family “retirement trip”.  To my surprise, everyone thought that it was a good idea.  So everyone, my 3 brothers and their wives and children (we are a family of 13) committed to a week-long family trip.  I immediately suggested that we go to Poland.  My Dad’s family is Polish, he has always wanted to go, and I love Poland and would love to return and spend more time exploring.  I was quickly shot down with multiple responses of “Why don’t we just go to Ecuador?”.

Yes, Ecuador was a logical destination.  I live here; it is inexpensive and easy to travel to from the States; I am a professional tour operator here; plus I had been trying to get my brothers to visit me for the past 5 years with no success.  So, Ecuador it was.  My hesitation with the family retirement trip to Ecuador is that it put an enormous amount of pressure on me….or rather, I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself.  Some things you should know about me: 

  1. I am an obsessive, self-critical perfectionist to an unhealthy degree.
  2. I am the youngest child of 4 and the only girl–a tough combo that has resulted in a lifetime of trying to prove my value and win the praise, approval, and admiration of my male family members.  I’ll leave it at that and spare you the therapy session. 
  3. My career is operating group trips in Ecuador–it’s my job!  
Alex and her amazing ,perfect , birthday cake.

Those three points accumulate to mean: THIS TRIP MUST BE ABSOLUTELY PERFECT AND AMAZING AND MAGICAL AND NOT EVEN ONE LITTLE HICCUP CAN GO WRONG!  MUST. BE. PERFECT.   I cannot emphasize that enough.  Perfection.  It was completely on me to design and execute an amazing, flawless international family vacation for a group of 13 people ranging in age from 1 year old to 69 years old.  This was no small task, but if ever there were someone up for a challenge, it would be me.  Thus, the planning began….

The Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020

I know everyone is preoccupied (and rightly so) with the current COVID-19 pandemic, but I have had another global crisis on my mind these last few weeks–the apparent worldwide toilet paper shortage.  The toilet paper situation has intrigued me because, here in Ecuador, we have plenty of toilet paper. The shelves are completely stocked, and there is no evidence of the hoarding that has been reported in countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, and Western Europe in general.  So as I’ve talked to friends and family “back home” and heard their woes of having to scavenge for toilet paper, I was perplexed by why the so called “Developed World” was having such a shortage, while here in the Global South (e.g. “Developing World”), we are well stocked and wiping away!  

Colombia

After having this dichotomy nag at me for several weeks, I did a bit of googling this morning which resulted in a Eureka! moment. Here’s what I learned:  it’s all about the supply chain. The toilet paper industry is not homogenous–it is split into two distinct markets: commercial and consumer. The commercial market toilet paper is a completely different product than the consumer rolls that most Americans use in their households. 

Commercial toilet paper, typically sold in large rolls that are delivered on pallets, are usually made from lower quality, recycled paper. The way that it is produced and distributed is so different from consumer paper, that most toilet paper manufacturers only produce commercial OR consumer–not both.  

Consumer paper on the other hand, is usually made from virgin fiber, are thicker, softer, and come on conveniently small rolls, sold in packages of 8 or 12.  I’m talking about your typical Charmin or Quilted Northern that you would buy at your supermarket.  

So, why is the distinction between consumer and commercial so important in understanding the current shortage of toilet paper?  Well, currently, about 75% of the population in affected countries are staying at home under shelter in place or quarantine orders.  According to Georgia-Pacific, the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual in their homes while they are staying home from work/school.  Normally, people go to work or school or restaurants throughout most of the day and use commercial paper in those institutions. Now, however, everyone is at home boosting the demand of consumer paper.  And that, my friends, explains the shortage in the USA etc. There might be some hoarding going on as well, but a lot of the shortage goes back to supply and demand and the logistics of the industry.  

Now, the second part of my Eureka! moment brings us to the dichotomy of the shortages in more developed countries and the business-as-usual plethora here in Ecuador.  In Ecuador, as in most of the Global South, everyone has to bring their own toilet paper to use in most places outside of their home. Here, you don’t leave the house without a hearty wad of TP from your own consumer supply because restrooms in offices, restaurants, schools, parks, etc. do not supply free toilet paper.  We take it for granted in the States that if you walk into a public restroom or the bathroom in your office that it will be stocked with a roll of (usually) commercial toilet paper. Down here, that is a luxury we do not have. Therefore, the demand for consumer toilet paper has not drastically increased due to the entire population being in lockdown in their homes, because we always had to supply 24 hours/day’s worth of toilet paper for ourselves anyway–regardless of where we were doing our business.  Our supply and demand remains in equilibrium.  

This may seem insignificant to some people, but I find it fascinating how this global crisis is transforming our world and teaching us about the nuts and bolts of how our society and economy operates.  It is terrifying and devastating, but it is also so interesting to learn about things that we have taken for granted and never given thought to, e.g. toilet paper supply chains and demand disparities across cultures.  So much is changing in our world and it is happening so fast. Even the ripple effects feel like tsunamis; so I hope you are all hanging in there, that you are safe, healthy, and have plenty of toilet paper.  

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Empowering Women of Nepal

Rayna and I are really excited to be partnering with Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN), a non-profit company, based in Pokhara, Nepal; which aims to improve the lives of Nepali women and girls through adventure sports and tourism.  EWN was founded by three Nepali sisters who have been pioneers in the promotion of female trekking guides in the Himalayas. I trekked the Annapurna Circuit with an EWN trained guide, and it was an incredible experience. I am a testament that EWN truly does empower women–and not only Nepali, but women from around the world who trek with them.  Stay tuned for future posts to read more about my experience in Nepal! For now here is a little more about EWN’s Female Trekking Guide Training Program…

Twice a year during the trekking off-season, EWN offers an intensive four-week Female Trekking Guide Training Program. The average age of the participants is 20 and, for optimal results, the maximum group size is 40 trainees. The objective is to have participants from different regions of Nepal and especially disadvantaged women from rural areas (Karnali Region, Everest, and Langtang).

From 1999 to 2019 EWN trained over 2000 women from 52 districts of Nepal.

EWN’s 4 week intensive course includes:

  • Basic English Conversation
  • Trekking and Tourism
  • Culture and Religion
  • Geography
  • Map Reading
  • Leadership and Team Building
  • Cross Cultural Communication
  • Mountain Culture and People
  • Conservation and the Environment
  • Women’s Issues
  • Women’s Human Rights
  • Women’s Health

Trainees undergo an intensive four-week program on technical and conversational English, which also covers a broad range of topics including First Aid (HIV-AIDS, STD, women’s health issues), leadership, women’s rights, trekking information, environment, history, geography, and culture.

The training also emphasizes ecological awareness and conservation, including water sanitation and waste management. As participants develop into adventure tourism professionals, they communicate the ecologically sound practices they learn at EWN to their clients. For example they promote iodine purification methods, rather than relying on mineral water with its attendant plastic bottles which litter the Himalayas.

At the end of the initial training, EWN’s partner organization, 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, provides a five month paid apprenticeship program where the girls acquire field experience by working as trainee guides. From their apprenticeship they gain immediate economic benefits by earning wages equivalent to experienced male porters, and they develop the skills needed to emerge as independent entrepreneurs. Over 100 guides are now employed by 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking each trekking season.

After they finish the training cycle, the majority of alumni find work in the adventure tourism industry; some become micro-entrepreneurs, some continue with higher education, some continue with EWN refresher courses, some leave for work abroad and some return to their villages and spread the word about the program to their friends and neighbors.

We are honored and very excited to be partnering with EWN to offer a Women’s trekking trip in November 2020.  Click here for more information

GATA’s Indigenous Community Partners

GATA works with quite a few communities in Ecuador and Colombia.  We value our personal relationships with the people of these communities, and are passionate about giving our travelers the opportunities to create their own relationships across cultures.  This is a vital part of our mission, but also a delicate one. We are very conscious of our impact within communities and the effect of globalization on the indigenous people we visit. While we encourage cultural exchange, we by no means want to “whitewash” the communities we visit, and we certainly don’t ever want to exploit them.  We have designed our business to maximize the value of our trips for the local communities, and to encourage learning and respect for their cultures, languages, and traditions. We promote authentic interaction with communities, not just photo opportunities.  

All that being said, here’s a very quick look at just 3 of the indigenous communities that we work with.  

Sinchi Warmi:  Sinchi Warmi is a woman-lead community of Amazonian Kichwa people.  “Sinchi Warmi” means “Strong Women” in the Kichwa language, and in this amazing, close-knit community, women are not just respected, they are the bosses.  The men also play an important role in the community and are valued as well, but it is the women who lead the community. They are dedicated to sustainable development and sharing their traditional way of life with travelers who come to stay with them.  They have a cocoa farm where visitors can help make their own chocolate. Sinchi Warmi is a fascinating balance of managing volunteer tourism with their ancestral way of life in the Amazon Basin.  

Tsachila: The Tsachila of Santo Domingo, also known as “los Colorados”, are a vibrant and distinct indigenous group in Ecuador.  Santo Domingo is nestled in the tropics between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Coast, and is their ancestral homeland.  The men are easily recognizable, as they have a uniform hair style that is shaved on the sides and back and then slicked forward on top and painted bright red with achiote seeds.  The men wear black, blue, and white woven skirts and no shirts, while the women wear brightly colored striped skirts. They also paint their bodies with black horizontal lines. They speak Tsafiki, their native tongue, and their shamans are renowned for their healing power and knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies.  

Today, there are only about 2,000 Tsachilas who maintain their traditional way of life, the sum total of 8 communities.  GATA has a close relationship with one of these communities and work closely with them on their sustainable development projects.  Visiting the Tsachila is a truly unique and special experience, as this vibrant and endangered culture is so special and has an incredible history.  

Andean Kichwa:  There are many varieties of Kichwa culture and languages in Ecuador and across the broader region of northwest South America.  Kichwa is a Quechuan language that connects its many speakers under one umbrella, but the millions of Kichwa speakers actually form many distinct cultures and across geographic regions.  The language itself has more than a dozen different dialects, depending on region. The indigenous people I am referring to now are those that live in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. Even in this specific region, there are distinct communities and dialects, but also many commonalities.  

Kichwa people are the most populous of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, with over one million people still using their traditional language and dress.  Women wear long, wrapped woolen skirts–either navy blue or black, with white blouses, colorful woven belts, red or gold necklaces, and white closed toe sandals.  Men also where the closed toed sandals and grow their hair long and keep it in a single braid. The Andean Kichwa people traditionally live off of subsistence farming, planting corn and “chochos” on steep mountainsides.  GATA partners with several of these traditional farming communities to bring travelers to live and work alongside Kichwa. There is much to learn from their ancient culture, as well as how they have adapted to survive in the modern world.  Today, many Kichwa live in big cities and are very visible in daily modern Ecuadorian life. They have retained their traditional way of dress, culture, and language while adapting and living in a modern globalized world.  

21 Items to Pack on Every Trip

These students packed well!

I subscribe to various travel industry newsletters, which means that I get an average of 27 emails from Travel & Leisure (T&L) every day.  Mostly I just skim the headlines, but occasionally something will snag my interest and I’ll give it a read. This happened a couple weeks ago, with a headline that read: “21 Items to Pack on Every Single Trip”.  I was curious as to what the T&L found to be the 21 most important and versatile travel items–and, well, I wish you all could have seen my face when I read what made their list. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to troll T&L, but their list is ridiculous.  It did, however, get me thinking…what would make my list?  

Thus, “GATA’s 21 Items to Pack on Every Trip” was born.  While a few of T&L’s items did make our list, I think it’s safe to say that GATA and T&L are not catering to the same market.  Here’s our list, followed by a link to T&L’s list–see how we compare, and let us know what your most essential packing items are!  

  1. Rain coat

A good rain coat is like travel armor and an absolute necessity for any and all trips.  I personally do not take a step outside my house without my raincoat packed. It is worth investing in a good one, preferably gor-tex; and I recommend ordering a size up, regardless of the brand, to allow for ample layering underneath.  I also put a premium on pockets when it comes to raincoats. My number #1 pick for a raincoat is the Arcteryx Beta AR, but if you’re on a tighter budget, REI brand usually has some decent and affordable options.  

2. Floss

Yes, dental hygiene is important; no, that’s not why floss makes the list.  Floss is incredibly versatile and very small and packable. Read this to learn just a few of the many non-dental uses for floss! https://urbansurvivalsite.com/27-prepper-uses-for-floss/

3. Water filter

Regardless of where you are traveling, drinking water from unknown or untrusted sources is never a great idea.  It is also logistically challenging as well as environmentally and financially irresponsible to only drink bottled water.  Simple solution: take your own water filter everywhere you go. I recommend Sawyer water filters–I always have one that can screw onto any basic water bottle or faucet.  It’s lightweight, about the size of bratwurst, and filters 99.9999999999% of the bad stuff.  Whether you’re camping in the wilderness or exploring a foreign metropolis, you’re covered.  

4. Headlamp

No, your cell phone flashlight is not sufficient.  Headlamps provide hands free illumination for whatever you are doing–whether it’s spelunking, trying to start a fire in the rain (so frustrating), reading in a dark crowded dorm room, or trying to change a flat tire on your rental car in the middle of the night.  Take a headlamp. Always. My personal favorite headlamps are made by Petzl, followed by black diamond.

5. Bandana

Bandana or buff or similar light cloth scrap like accessory.  You can use it for sun, wind, or cold protection for you head, ears, and/or neck.  It can serve as a towel in a pinch, a rag for cleanup, a hankie, an eye mask, a dust/pollution mask, keep your hair out of your face, tourniquette; the uses are limitless.  I once used a bandana as a fishing net to catch fish in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Tie it on the outside of your bag–takes up no space.  

6. Essential pills

I always travel with a small plastic container about the size of a ping pong ball with a few of the following meds: 

Tums

Benedryl

Ibuprofein

Dramomine

Immodium

That should take care of 95% of your traveling ailments.

7. Hiking boots

Footwear is vital, and if your raincoat is your body’s armor, hiking boots are armor for your feet.  I put my hiking boots on and I am invincible–my feet are comfortable, protected, and can take on any terrain any place any time.  The key is to get quality boots that fit you well. Not all hiking boots are created equal, so choose carefully. Again, I always recommend gor-tex for waterproofing.  I am currently loving these Ahnu boots, because they are durable, have good ankle support, comfortable, waterproof but also lightweight.  I love my old school Vasques too, but they are much heavier and more rigid, so I reserve them for my more rugged mountain climbing excursions, whereas my Ahnu’s are my go everywhere boot.  

8. Extra socks

Wet socks are the worst–don’t ever wear wet socks.  Your feet will stink, you’ll ruin your boots, and you’ll get blisters and fungus and all sorts of gross stuff.  It’s worth it to always pack 2 pairs of socks more than what you think you will need. Just do it.  

9. Chacos

Cliche?   Maybe. Still, I live in my Chacos.  Plus, you really can’t get away with traveling anywhere with just one pair of shoes (hiking boots), so you really need a comfortable, breathable option that is still functional enough to get you around town in.  Chacos are the solution. You can wear them in the water, you can hike in them, you can wear them with a dress, or–my personal style go to–wear them with socks! Chacos + socks = Sockos–the ideal airplane/airport footwear choice.  They are durable but comfortable, and when you are freezing in your tent in the middle of the night but really have to pee, you don’t want to be trying to get hiking boots or even sneakers on….no, you just stumble into your Chacos and hit the bush–quick and easy like.  

10. Warm layer

No matter what, even if you are going somewhere tropical and warm, be prepared for cold.  This could mean a lightweight down jacket, or an insulated long sleeve layer or a fleece–but bring something cozy and warm.  First of all, warm clothes are like a comfort item–it’s always good to have something snuggly when you’re far from home. Second, even if you aren’t wearing it, you can use it as a pillow.  Third, even if you’re not expecting cold weather, you never know AND sometimes we get chilled even when it’s warm out. Example: sunburn–the night after you get roasted to a crisp in the sun, you will get chilled.  Also, sometimes we don’t get warm showers — nice to have something to warm you up after a frigid shower or dip in a glacial lake. Don’t argue, pack at least one warm item of clothing no matter where you’re going.  

11. Baby powder

Baby powder is another versatile and underrated product.  Shoes stink? Blisters? Chafing? Ran out of deodorant? Greasy hair? Sweaty nooks and crannies?  Baby powder has you covered. It is the catch all solution for when you are stinky, dirty, greasy, and/or sweaty but don’t have the resources at hand to actually clean yourself.  I once hiked the entire Annapurna Circuit in Nepal using only baby powder as deodorant. Truth.

12. Moleskin

Blisters are debilitating.  No matter how tough you are, blisters will disable you.  Best to avoid them by using proper footwear and good socks, but sometimes that’s just not enough and blisters happen.  Moleskin is the solution. It is a lifesaver–do not leave home without it.  

13. fishing hook

Is fishing fun?–most of the time.  Is that why a fishing hook is on this list?–no.  In an emergency survival situation, a fishing hook can be combined with that floss you will always bring with you to actually catch fish.  That’s cool and could potentially save your life in the wilderness….assuming you are near a body of water. But a fishing hook can also be combined with that floss to use as a needle and thread to mend clothes and gear.  Here’s how.

It’s another small, multi use tool that could come in handy or even save your life–pack it!  

14. Collapsible water bottle

Obviously for a water filter (mentioned above) to work, you need a water bottle.  While there are all sorts of trendy stainless steel water bottles out there, I highly HIGHLY recommend a collapsible water bottle.  I swear by Platypus.  Why collapsable?  Because when it’s empty it doesn’t take up any space…duh.  Or, if you only need a little water, you can fit it into a daypack or purse with small dimensions.  Rigid water bottles make no sense. I like the platypus bottles because they fit with my Sawyer water filter (and most other filters), they are durable, you can get a bite hose attachment (think camelback style),and they have a small opening which makes drinking easier and spillage less likely.  

15. Sunscreen

I hope I don’t need to explain why sunscreen is important.  I personally like to travel with sunscreen sticks–solid form, like giant tubes of chapstick.  I go with the solid so that a)I don’t have to worry about exceeding 3oz of liquid in my carry-on and b)I don’t have to worry about sunscreen explosions in my bag.  I will say that you should take care not to leave a solid sunscreen stick in direct sunlight, as it will melt.  

16. Dr. Bronners

A travel sized bottle (or bar) of Dr. Bronner’s Soap will go a long, long way.  It is environmentally friendly, all natural, no synthetics, no detergents, no foaming agents, organic, fair trade, etc etc etc; and you can use it for everything.  Wash your body, your hair, your dishes, your clothes, your gear, your floor, your dog, your boat, your car, your whatever…Dr. Bronner’s does it all, and a little bit goes a long way!  Check it out here.

17. Duct tape

As we should all know by now, duct tape is magical.  Fix things, create things, stick things together–you should never be without duct tape.  I recommend wrapping a little bit around a pen or marker so that you don’t have to haul around an entire roll of duct tape…just enough in case of emergencies.  

18. External battery

While we’d like to pretend like electronics and technology aren’t vital….they are, for most trips at least.  Don’t get caught with a dead phone or ebook or camera–bring a power bank. They are small and affordable, and can save you in a pinch.  

19. Daypack

A daypack is essential on all trips.  Whether you go for a small, lightweight backpack, a comfortable and functional purse, or a minimalist fanny pack; your essential items need a home–water, sunscreen, phone, camera, snack, raincoat, etc.  I personally like to pack bags within bags–so I have my backpacking pack with all my stuff in it…inside that I have a lightweight backpack with my daily items inside, including a small fanny pack with my most essentials–passport, phone, sunscreen, cash.  

20. E -Reader 

As the former director of a library (long story), I love books….real books, the kind with paper.  That said, ereaders have their place in this world–and that place is in my bag when I’m traveling.  It is not reasonable to haul a half dozen books around with me whenever I travel…one little Kindle with hundreds of books on it?–That makes sense.  I use the Kindle Paperwhite.  

21. Waterproof stuff sack

It always pays off to have a waterproof stuff sack of some sort and size on hand.  Even if you just have a small one, at least when it starts pouring rain you can through your phone, camera, passport, etc. in there and don’t have to worry about it getting wet.  If you have a larger one, you can keep you clothes, shoes, and/or sleeping gear dry. I know packing cubes are all the rage these days, but I would take a waterproof sack every time if given the option.  I pack all of my gear in waterproof sacks, so when it rains, I don’t have anything to worry about.  

So that’s our list–see how we compare to Travel and Leisure here. 

The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2020: Quito and Costa Rica

According to Travel and Leisure

Yes, the experts have spoken.  Both Costa Rica and Quito, Ecuador have made the list.  According to Travel and Leisure, Costa Rica is among the favorites.  “Several just-opened eco-retreats are offering more ways to unwind in Costa Rica.”  Check out why Travel and Leisure says that Costa Rica is one of the best vacation destinations in the world.

 But not only did Costa Rica make the list!  Our beloved Quito is also in the top 50. “Now, the long-awaited 2020 opening of Quito’s first-ever underground railway line, running 14 miles north-south, promises to truly transform Ecuador’s mountain city, putting once-inaccessible neighborhoods within reach and bringing locals downtown. The city’s skyline is changing, as the likes of Moishe Safdie and Jean Nouvel are enlisted for major new buildings in town. And after last year’s protests caused damage in the area, a community restoration effort has brought the Spanish Colonial Centro Historico back to its former glory,”  explains the article. Read here what Travel and Leisure’s, David Amsden has to say about Quito.

Be sure to check out our Ecuador destinations to plan your next trip.

Guatemala, Brought to you by GATA

I first traveled to Guatemala 14 years ago as a teenager with my parents on a trip to provide dental services to rural communities.  It was my first experience traveling in the developing world, and it was…rough. It was a no frills service trip fueled by beans, tortillas, and water we sucked out of plastic bags.  The imagery that has stuck with me from that trip is of dust, blood, and vomit–not the type of sensory experience most people would intentionally seek out. Seeing the life of travels I have pursued since that trip, it must have made a pretty big impression on me, but my memory of Guatemala has always been a bit cringeworthy.  Needless to say, my excitement over the opportunity to return to Guatemala this past November was flavored with a good dose of apprehension … bordering on reluctance.  

But return I did, and wow!  I was blown away. I spent 5 days visiting with a new community that GATA is partnering with in the village of Tzununá  on the shore of Lake Atitlán. It was spectacular. It was so different from my first experience in Guatemala and so far above any expectations that I had.  I’m excited to be able to share this special place with you and to offer it as a GATA destination! Here’s a little more about the “new” Guatemala…

First of all, it is breathtakingly beautiful.  I arrived at Lake Atitlán at night, taking a boat from Panajachel to the small village of Tzununá in the dark.  Upon arriving at the dock of Tzununá, I took a tuk tuk up the mountain to where I was staying, the Bambu Guesthouse.  It is always both disorienting and a little exciting arriving somewhere new at night, because you don’t really know what you’re going to wake up to.  Well, I woke up to a jaw dropping view of the sun dazzling on the blue waters of Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes, and framed by lush green flora, with a crisp, clear, cloudless blue sky overhead.  I have been a lot of beautiful places and seen a lot of things in this world, and there are not many landscapes that I classify in this upper echelon of “wow-worthiness” in which I would categorize the spectacle of Lake Atitlán as seen from Tzununá.  

My initial impression was only enhanced by the setting of the Bambu Guesthouse.  A beautifully crafted 3 story eco lodge built into the mountainside, the Bambu is a zero waste facility serving farm to table organic food that has balconies with hammocks in every room, an open air dining area with a million dollar view, and large open spaces for yoga or group activities.  Sparkling clean, and beautifully designed, the Guesthouse is a gem in and of itself.  

After breakfast, I walked farther up the mountain to meet Shad, founder of Atitlán Organics, and tour the permaculture farm he has run for the past 10 years.  Atitlán Organics is a super cool organization with really interesting initiatives in permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Shad’s team of local Guatemalans is an excellent educational resource, and we are very excited to offer this experiential education opportunities to our students.  I also met with the leaders of the Tzununá Youth Organization, a group of 17-27 year olds who have taken the initiative to organize themselves and improve their community. The enthusiasm and dedication of the group leaders was inspiring and just chatting with them and touring the area with them got me revved up and ready to get to work supporting their projects, which include creating gardens for families to address food scarcity; working on water treatment, waste removal, and basic sanitation; and renovating homes for the poorest members of the community.  I can’t wait to lend GATA forces to support their mission!  

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by my visit to Guatemala.  It was not at all how I remembered it, and I was blown away by its beauty, culture, and educational value.  The food was outstanding, the people were welcoming and kind–even though many of the locals only speak their native Mayan languages, never having learned Spanish.  That element alone gave the trip an extra “cool” factor. I felt very safe, with reliable transportation and clean accommodation. It was so different and so much better than what I (and I think most people) expected, and I am very excited that we are now offering it as a GATA destination.   There is so much potential for learning and growth, and I am eager and energized to be working with the Tzununá Youth Organization that is already doing so much to support and improve their own community.  

Guatemala, Brought to you by GATAStay tuned for more information about our Guatemala itineraries and opportunities!  

Cuba Debunked

Since President Trump took office in 2017, many North Americans have been under the impression that they are no longer able to visit Cuba.  This is not true. People from the United States can indeed safely and legally travel to Cuba. While American Cruise ships no longer make port in Cuba and trade is restricted, travel is not only possible it is fairly easy!  Here’s what you need to know: 

The most important part of planning a trip to Cuba is knowing that you will need a visa.  Luckily, the Cuban visa process is actually easier than most. There are a multitude of companies that you can pay to have a blank visa mailed to you, or some airlines offer the visa as part of the flight.  The visa costs $50. An expedited shipping service may cost up to $35 extra. When applying for the visa, if working with a third party company, simply state your reason for travel as “In support of the Cuban People”.  You will receive a blank quarter-page document in the mail–be aware: this blank slip of paper is your visa and you need it in order to enter Cuba. You fill in the document with your own information–Name, DOB, Passport Number, dates of travel.  Voilà, you have your visa! 

The second thing you will need in order to travel to Cuba is mandatory health insurance.  This is even easier than the visa because you don’t need to plan ahead at all–they sell it at the airport upon arrival!  You simply go to the booth in the airport upon arrival, tell them how long you will be in Cuba, and they sell you the standard government health insurance for about $3/day.  All set!  

Lastly, you need a flight (obviously).  Despite what you may have heard, there are flights from the United States to Cuba every day.  It’s not unheard of to get a flight from Florida to Havana for less than $200! Last week it was announced that US airlines will no longer be operating flights to several Cuban cities–but all flights are continuing as normal to Havana.  

So that’s all it takes–an easy to obtain visa for $50, health insurance that you can buy upon arrival, and a flight!  Next stop, Havana!

Why investing in our children’s travel abroad programs will prevent international crisis

Students just arriving to Quito, Ecuador

If you have been following the news in Latin America, you probably know about the protests we had in Ecuador a few weeks ago.  The unrest was sparked when Ecuador’s long standing fuel subsidy program was abruptly eliminated as part of a complex smorgasbord of austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of a controversial loan agreement.  In short, Ecuador took a loan from the IMF, but, in order to receive the IMF money, they had to cut subsidies, increase privatization and eliminate government jobs and benefits. And so, as fuel prices rose dramatically overnight, so too did the Ecuadorian people.  

I know that the image of a rowdy protest in which tear gas is deployed and riot gear is used may seem alarming to many in the “developed world”–I know my own parents tend to find it alarming.  But the truth is that for those of us living in the developing world, protests are sort of an accepted part of how government works–or a reaction to when it doesn’t work, and not an uncommon occurrence.  Most of the time these demonstrations do not impact day to day life and never make the news. The protests earlier this month, however, were disruptive and did make the news. That being said, even this dramatic display of civil displeasure lasted less than 2 weeks; and, upon resolution, Ecuador went back to being completely normal as if nothing had happened, literally, overnight.  

Some may see the news in Ecuador, and think, “yikes!  I’m not going to travel or send my kid to travel in Ecuador….it’s unstable!  There is unrest! Unruly, non-English speaking brown people shouting in the streets–abandon ship!” etc. etc.  And maybe as a business, GATA should not be highlighting this particular event–not bring attention to the less palatable aspects of our homes and destinations.  Instead, we want to make the case for why the honest fact that Latin America faces real challenges and is not simply a paradise vacation resort makes it even more important to support the work that GATA does and to visit our host communities.  Hear me out…

First of all, we are not asking you to send your children into a conflict zone.  Our first priority always, always, ALWAYS is safety. Regardless of our bottom line, GATA will not ever risk the safety of any of our travelers.  We do not budge when it comes to our standards of safety–but that is a different conversation. What we are talking about is traveling with us when there is not an active period of unrest or security threat.  

What we do at GATA is connect people.  We give people from different cultures and different ways of life the chance to create relationships with each other.  Our travelers have the unique opportunity to experience the life of an Ecuadorian farmer or indigenous community member or local child by suspending their own reality for a week or two and living the life of their Ecuadorian hosts alongside them.  GATA travelers are not tourists, we are active participants immersed and invested in a place and its people. We are not here to be served but to serve and to learn and to exchange whatever it is we have to offer, as equals.  There are many lessons that our travelers return home having learned, but perhaps most important of all is the humanization of what was once foreign–transforming the faces of national geographic photographs from exotic snapshots into portraits that mirror the friends we have made around the world, the families we have worked with, eaten with, and laughed with.  

What does this have to do with civil unrest?  Our children are the leaders of tomorrow (especially the kids who go on GATA trips who participate in our comprehensive global leadership program).  Imagine if we raise a generation of leaders who, the next time some far flung developing nation is experiencing conflict or tyranny or unrest, instead of saying “unruly brown people–abandon ship!”, they see the faces of their friends and equals in those news stories.  What if our future leaders understand the complex and fragile balance of life that allows a family to survive on small scale, sustainable agriculture in the mountains of Ecuador. Instead of thinking that protests were just a bunch of rowdy hooligans in some “backwards” nation, they might understand that the elimination of fuel subsidies can have a devastating impact on a family, a community, a country.  It can mean the difference between barely learning to read and getting a college education. It can mean the difference between life and death when giving birth. It can mean the difference between having a home and way of life, and being hungry and begging on the streets.  

We recently concluded two trips with an international school in Quito.  We took 6th and 8th graders to two different sustainable communities in Ecuador.  These students are the sons and daughters of both foreign diplomats and Ecuador’s most powerful and wealthy families.  They will most likely grow up to occupy some of the most influential positions in Ecuadorian government and society. By traveling with GATA, they will take the experience they have had in our small communities with them into those positions of power.  In 20 years, we are hopeful that we may have leaders who are able to see their countrymen on the other side of the negotiating table (or on the other side of the riot shields) as equals, and understand the impact that policies have on working families or indigenous groups or farmers.  

We are hopeful for this future because of the work we do with GATA in connecting people.  We have the same hope for travelers who come from the United States–that they will take their experience traveling with us in Ecuador or Colombia or Nepal and use it as a lens through which to see the world for the rest of their lives and as a catalyst to take action and do whatever they can to make the world a little better, a little safer, and a little kinder.  

And so, our argument is this: don’t abandon a place just because you see turbulence in the news–embrace it.  Isolation only breeds further misunderstanding, conflict, and inequality. Obviously, we always want you to be safe, and to not travel recklessly–but if there isn’t an active threat to personal safety, consider a trip with GATA as a small investment in building a better, more peaceful future for all of us. 

GATA’s new initiative: Empowering Women

Supporting and empowering women has been one of GATA’s driving forces since our inception.  While we have always considered the impact all of our trips have on both local women and our female travelers, we are very excited to launch a new project that has been years in the making–an all-female trekking trip in Nepal.  

GATA has partnered with Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN) to offer an incredible experience for women of all ages designed to empower not only our travelers, but also an entire network of local women in Nepal.  EWN does amazing work training women in Nepal to enter careers historically occupied only by men, not the least of which is mountain guiding. These brave women are working to break through societal gender norms and structural barriers in order to create a better life for themselves and their families and to change the sometimes oppressive culture in the communities where they live.  They are pioneers working fearlessly to forge new paths of opportunity for women in Nepal and becoming leaders in their own rights along the way.  

We were so inspired by EWN’s mission and work that we decided to create an all female trekking trip using EWN trained female trekking guides and porters.  GATA believes not only in the importance of fostering female leadership, but also in the value of women supporting women. On our new adventure, female Nepalese guides will be leading a group of intrepid women as we connect with and support each other along trek through the mighty Himalayas.  Not only is this a trekking adventure, but an excursion designed to equip women with the tools to be able to make and execute decisions in their personal and professional lives that will help them navigate in a society that systematically challenges women.  

Women of all ages and walks of life are welcome to join us for our inaugural Empowering Women’s Adventure on April 1st of 2020.  This 12 day adventure will take you from the bustling metropolis of Kathmandu teeming with history and culture, to the quiet, lake-side town of Pokhara,  and up into the tiny mountain villages and wild landscapes of the Himalayas. We will also offer a later date beginning on November 18th – November 30th for those who will not be available in April.  Whether traveling in a group or solo, this adventure is sure to change the way you see the world and yourself. For more information, visit the following link: https://gatabroad.com/nepal/

Offering women’s trips has been a dream of ours since the beginning and is at the very heart of our mission.  We are honored to be working with the amazing women of Nepal, and can’t wait to embark on this new adventure of connecting and empowering women.  We hope you will join us!