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.  


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! 


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….

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!

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: 






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.

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!

Back to School and the top 5 reasons why schools are including international travel programs

Yesterday I saw the first leaves of autumn shimmering a golden reddish hue in the afternoon light.  The smell of the dry, hot concrete and the feel of the cool breeze of September air gave me the familiar thrill of “back to school.”  Although I haven’t gone “back to school” for many years, the excitement of this time of year always takes over my senses. Students are buying new notebooks, colorful pens and markers, while teachers are busy with new curricula.

In the past few years, many schools have been working hard to include an international travel component for their students.  Not only universities, but high schools and middle schools understand the importance of a global travel program. Why are schools pushing parents to spend a bit extra for their children to travel internationally?  Here are the top 5 reasons according to research done by NAFSA, Association of International Educators. 

1. Improves GPA

Studies have shown that students who have studied abroad have a higher GPA than those who have stayed on campus.  This impact is even more pronounced with minority or at risk student population

2. Improves Language Learning

“ According to the Pew Research Center only 25 percent of American adults can speak a language other than English and only 7 percent of those adults learned that language in school rather than in their childhood homes. Compared to the 90% of European high school students who are learning English, U.S. students are woefully underprepared to meaningfully interact with colleagues and competitors from around the world. Studies have shown that students who study abroad made greater gains in language proficiency than students who studied the same language domestically.”

3.Fosters Intercultural Understanding and Provides a Global Context

“Studying abroad is a unique and transformational learning experience. Students who have studied abroad are better able to work with people from other countries, understand the complexity of global issues, and have greater intercultural learning. One study found that students returned from their study abroad experiences more tolerant and less fearful of other countries, but with a greater sense of positive feelings about their home—a phenomenon they called “enlightened nationalism.””

4. Increases University Acceptance Rates,  Employability, and Career Skills

Many universities value a global experience on applications and although it is hard for any study to definitively state that one experience leads to a better job or higher income, multiple surveys have shown that the skills gained while studying abroad are the same skills that employers value and that employers recognize the importance of cross-cultural understanding in an increasingly global economic environment.

5. In Universities, studying abroad improves completion, retention, and transfer rates

“Far from the fears that studying abroad will delay a student’s graduation, multiple large-scale studies have found that students who study abroad, especially underrepresented or “at-risk” students, are more likely to complete their degrees or certificate programs than students who did not study abroad. Community college students were more likely to transfer to a 4-year institution than students who did not study abroad. First and second year retention rates for those students who study abroad are also considerably higher.”

Only Love

Posted on January 24, 2019by thelinkschool

by Emily Oubre , The Link School

It feels fitting and timely that Colombia seems to perfectly embody MLK’s quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Over and over, I have seen examples of Colombians who – after years of hatred and darkness – have chosen to respond with light and love.

Rafa is the perfect example.

Rafa was one of those guys who chuckled when he greeted you. He said, “Hola, Emily” with a gleeful amusement that made me feel like just my presence brought him excitement. I wasn’t sure what it was about my “Buenos dias” or my “Hola, Rafa” that made him laugh every time—maybe my smile looked funny—but it sure made me happy to greet him.

In fact, Rafa chuckled just about every minute. His quickness to laugh made it seem like he had never had a care in the world. He was the one guide who did not speak any English, but he looked at everyone and smiled, anyway. He just seemed to be daring you to give him a reason to smile. Actually, he seemed to just know you would. I remember when we got stopped and searched by the police, he was just looking at each of us the whole time, smiling, almost laughing – wanting us to know it was okay and also waiting for us to make him laugh. He had a knack for making light of any situation.


He also was the best climber of them all. One night, I was sitting outside our hotel, recovering from a rough bus ride through the mountain roads, and Rafa came over and sat next to me with that playful sparkle in his eye and crooked smile. He didn’t say anything or expect anything from me. He was just happy to smile and sit next to me. I knew he had to have a story, as he was probably close to my age, which meant he lived through the violent years in Colombia, and I knew this was my chance.

I asked him how he found climbing. He chuckled, paused, and told me it was a good question. For the next 20 minutes, I sat in awe, as he told me how climbing had transformed his life.

He told me he used to work for the paramilitary, hiding and transporting drugs and weapons. He shared a few details of the risky work he did, all within blocks of where we were sitting. He knew he could be killed at any second, so his life did not seem to be of much value. In his free time, he just partied and numbed himself. He didn’t feel much worth.

Then, a friend took him climbing. As he was climbing, he was scared, realizing that only that rope was keeping him alive. This fear for his life seemed to open him up to the idea that he did, in fact, value his life. He was also part of a healthy community, where every person truly mattered – not for their ability to deceive or kill or conform to what was being asked, but for what they had to offer, just as they were. Gradually, he started associating less and less with the para-militarists and more and more with his climbing friends. The problem was that the para-militarists threatened to kill him if he left because he knew too much.

Still, the people in that group saw how much climbing meant to him and started encouraging him to go more and more. Eventually, they decided they trusted him, and he was able to leave the group with their blessing. As he started climbing more, he said, he started thinking more about what his grandparents had taught him about valuing the land, building houses, and building community.


Now, he has built and opened his own “refugio” – a little hostel for climbers—where he meets interesting people from all over the world. He has biked from Bogota to Quito, he built his own house where he grows coffee, and he dreams of visiting Yosemite. He smiles and laughs every minute of every day – genuine smiles and laughter – not induced by mind-altering drugs.

Climbing saved his life.

It has been weeks since I met Rafa, but my mind keeps going back to him. I don’t think this is an uncommon story, but it meant a lot to me that he was willing to share it with me after knowing me for just a couple of hours.

His willingness to be vulnerable and trust me with his story is something I will never forget. In fact, it had an impact the very next day, when we went climbing. Lately, I have felt extremely vulnerable with climbing, since I have one leg that is not really working. I have not been willing to climb much at all, knowing I would inconvenience others by taking a long time, I would not look very good, and I would be at risk of getting hurt more. But when we were climbing the next day, Rafa was belaying, and he looked over and offered to belay me. In the past, I would have contemplated the offer for 10 minutes before saying, “No thanks.” Before I knew it, though, when Rafa offered, I had said yes and was tying in to his rope. I realized that his willingness to be vulnerable with me the night before had made me so much more open with climbing that day. This is the power of vulnerability. If he could share that story, I could look like a fool at the crag. I struggled through the climb, with Rafa shouting carefree encouragement the whole time. When I got back down, I thanked him and told him he had a lot of patience. He laughed, like he always did, and said if he didn’t love it, he wouldn’t be there.

After everything he had experienced, having to belay a little longer really probably was no big deal.


I am so grateful for this lesson in vulnerability. I have spent most of my life trying (and of course failing miserably) to appear perfect. I have avoided vulnerability and been hesitant to show my real self or true, messy insides. Being willing to climb with Rafa was a very minor thing, but for me, it represented a big change. I have seen the power of vulnerability – the way it connects people, opens people up, puts them at ease, makes them okay with their own imperfections. Vulnerability makes our interactions less calculated. It builds community by showing trust. It allows us all to be seen and heard, just for who we are. It seems to me, now, that the rewards of vulnerability far outweigh the risks.

Rafa seemed so free, and he was so lovable and easy to be around. I realized that if he could be so open, I, too, could let go of being stifled by the image I’m trying to present and just be me. Next time I’m trying to hide my mistakes or my shortcomings, I will remember how grateful I was that Rafa shared his so openly and joyfully.

I will remember how he responded to darkness with light; how he responded to hatred with love; how he allowed himself to be softened and opened by hardship, rather than hardened and closed off.

Thank you, Rafa.

A Letter Home from Ecuador

Tsachila friends playing music

To mom from Catcher

Hi mother, it’s Catcher.  I knew you wanted me to call you and say I love you but what I have to say is I’m having the time of my life!

The Tsachila community is most definitely a culture shock.  The people here are really nice and they respect our own beliefs. They take really good care of us. The food is traditional but also non-traditional. A mix of both. We built houses (1 bathroom). It’s no done yet but we are making progress.

The leader of the Tsachila community (Alfonso) is super nice and caring. He told us many stories of his community and how it started. It was very inspirational. I have learned to embrace the fun and not watch my watch. The hard work will be over soon enough.

Madonna’s Medellin

Song Medellin by Madonna

Madonna’s recent song “Medellin” is not so far off from the truth with videos of horse riding.  Medellin, Colombia’s 2nd largest city after the capital of Bogota is in the department of Antioquia which is well known for the Paso Fino horse.  After living here for one year, I continually find myself surprised when we are driving to a near-by town and a very well dressed Colombian cowboy passes us by on a horse that looks as if it is dancing in place. 

These famous Colombian horses are the pride and joy of many ranch owners in Antioquia, Colombia.   According to Equisearch, an online magazine for people who love horses, these horses made their way to Latin America from Europe on Columbus’ ship.  Several breads evolved and mated in Latin America to become different breeds of horses that have incredible stamina, chrisma and elegance and a smooth gait.  These horses are today known as “Paso Fino”.  

When my Colombian boyfriend’s aunt told me about the recent Madonna song, I promptly watched the video and felt as if I were in the country-side of Antioquia.  The fact that she named the song, “Medellin”, a very bustling city in the valley of the great Andean mountains, perplexed me. The video did not show Medellin nor did the lyrics elude to the city.  However, the countryside of the horses did feel very Anitioquia-like.  

To Madonna I say, please come join us in Antioquia and experience the authentic life of these people.  She seems to be interested in Medellin, and for good reason.