Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Vally Logo

Paige Taylor

After much preparation and a very well thought out plan,  I interviewed on April 13 for the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant. On April 18, 2023 I got the greatest surprise that will last a lifetime. Josh, Josh, me, Janet, Steve (from left to right) walked into my classroom and told me I won the grant. The Eleanor Venture Travel Grant through the St. Vrain Valley Schools Education Foundation. This grant will forever have an impact on me, my current and future students.

I wanted each penny of the grant to help me experience as much as possible so I picked flights and places that were a little cheaper to help make the grant last. On June 1, 2023, I left for a twenty six day adventure of a lifetime to Central America. I had an overnight flight with a layover that started at 1am. Wow, I was tired but I hit the ground running the very first day.

The first stop on my journey was Antigua, Guatemala for three days. By the time I made the hour bus ride from the airport to Amparo’s home where I was staying in Antigua, the city was bustling with life. Amparo has extra rooms in her house that she rents to make a living. Each day she made me home cooked meals. She even made food the night before I left so that I could heat it up in the morning for our 4am departure. 

One of the topics we discuss in science and math throughout the year is the metric system. So it was cool to see everything in the metric system (thirty five degrees Celsius, car driving 60 kmph and so on). 

Even though it is pretty warm, women are dressed in thick material clothing, carrying children on their backs, and buckets full of the products on their heads that they sell at the marketplace. The roads have not been updated and are still cobblestone within the city. The buildings, not white, shiny, or new looking have this beauty that cannot be explained. They have some of the same restaurants that we do (McDonalds, Little Caesars, Taco Bell, and more). 

I had the honor of meeting Timoteo and his family. He is a coffee plantation farmer. He started with only a few trees and now has many acres. I was able to try the freshest coffee in the field. His young children help him with the chores and only go to school half days like the rest of the children in the area so they can help their families. His hard work and dedication has put him in upper class status for the area which in comparison to the USA would be lower class but he feels like he lives like a king. Their local laundromat is quite different as well.

I visited beautiful churches and a Convent of Capuchinas. The architecture is impressive, with stone walls, archways, and beautiful courtyards. Their rooms are smaller than most college dorm rooms. The bath tubs are made of stone, in the ground, and not quite as luxurious as what we expect in our homes. The lookout point at the gravesite can be seen from this location as well.

I saw kids, as young as two helping their parents late in the night selling products on the street. I shopped in the market places, run mostly by women. Talked to local merchants and traveled around the city from before sun up till way after the sun went down. Last, if you take a trip to Antigua, you have to go by the Santa Catalina Arch and take your picture too. 

Next up on the trip was Sushitoto, El Salvador. Crossing the border went pretty smoothly because we arrived so early. On the way to the hotel, I traveled past the most colorful and decorative cemeteries. 

After dropping off the luggage, I took to the streets. This town was different. There were less people in the streets and their market place had all sorts of lunch vendors. You could pick from the fresh fish, meats, veggies, rice, tortilla (very thick) and so on and a whole plate was very inexpensive. They gave you hard plates and you had to return to the correct vendor with the plate and pay. Beautiful, fresh, juicy, incredible mangos for twenty five cents. 

I felt so out of place being a white woman who towered over the local people. I made my way back to the hotel where I was able to relax and take in the view. That evening I was able to visit a local restaurant where they welcomed me into their kitchen to learn how to make pupusas. The health standards appear lower and I am not sure if they have a health department. I would have to say the pupusas I made turned out the best. I was able to enjoy the pupusas while looking over Lake Suchitlan, a manmade lake with sixty six islands, listening to the beautiful birds in the background.

The next day I headed to Cinquera where I met with a Gorilla Fighter and heard his account of what happened in his region. I hiked through the forests where they lived for years, being bombed daily, neighbors turning against each other if they didn’t like you, families being torn apart by being on different sides of the fight. He was really proud when they found a method to bring down planes that were bombing the area. Crazy to think that this was happening during my lifetime and I never knew the extent of it. They even figured out how to make a stove and vent the smoke farther away so their location wouldn’t be found. 

The next place on the journey was Playa El Cuco, El Salvador, the pelican/sea turtle reserve. The pelicans were injured and now call this place home. They rescue turtle eggs from poachers by offering them money for the eggs. While it was not turtle season, it was impressive to see their setup. The beach was beautiful and I was able to find living sand dollars and other fun sand creatures. There were less than a dozen people on the beach at any given time. We were able to enjoy the local cuisine on the beach while the sun went down. Absolutely stunning.

I take for granted that we have beds that I fit on in the USA. Still up with the birds headed off to explore the town early in the morning. The town was very quiet. When I stopped to talk to some of the shop owners they told me that the town relied on tourism and it took a major hit during COVID. Their government did not help them like they did us and they have been struggling ever since. Many shop owners had to close their doors permanently. The afternoon consisted of learning how to surf. Who knew falling flat on your face over and over again could be so fun. 

On the way to the Hondouras on the Pan American Highway there was a line of semis lined up at the border. We were told that they wait for days sometimes to get across the border and people just go around them on a 2 lane road to get closer to the border. When our ride let us out we had to take our luggage and cross on foot. All the border crossings were unique. Here we had to have specific change, in dollars. Once you get through on one side you get checked over and over again until you think you are free and then in the next vehicle and driving they stop you and they check your information again. At the border check was a river. Many of the locals wash their clothes in any body of water they can. They dry them on rocks or take them home to hang on a clothesline.

Leon, Nicaragua was my next stop on my adventure. The architecture, buildings, and churches were breathtaking. On the top of the church you could see all around the city, including the volcanoes in the distance. Views that most people will never see in their lifetime. The murals were painted by artists that told stories about the history and heroes of the city. Market places that were again busy with females who ran and shopped at them. There were live iguanas bound and tied ready waiting to become someone’s dinner. Turtle eggs that once in the market were no longer illegal to have. A hospital that was once the pride and joy of the city falling apart while treating patients. All people are welcome to free health care. If you desired better care then you had to go to private hospitals/doctors. 

Granada, Nicaragua was different from most places on the trip. You could tell the people that settled here had money. The homes were enormous. Here I sampled some of the most delicious chocolate and learned the process. There was a festival and young people were dancing for the townspeople. Granda being a port, many pirates came to the city long ago robbing the local people so they built a location where they could have a better watch over who was coming and going to better protect the city. A church in the area caught my eye being of more Gothic architecture. 

While in Granda I met this wonderful man who realized that from that region people have a tendency to write off people who have disabilities. He started a cafe to show people they can do anything everyone else can. In the cafe, you can come in and just point to what item you would like and how you would like it. During the pandemic it was very hard on them and they quickly learned to adapt and now they are also making hammocks. 

The Central American Volcanic Arc (belt) encompasses the entire area. Therefore, throughout all of the countries I visited there were beautiful volcanoes. Many of them are dormant. Even though there are other volcanoes close together that are dormant, Volcan Masaya is still active and a majestic place to see at night. We were able to get close enough to see the magma reach the surface and crack because of the difference in temperature. 

Ometepe Island was made of two volcanoes. The ferry ride over is the main way people go back and forth, being able to take their cars, produce, even farm animals. While there I was able to visit two different schools. After many conversations with staff, there is a world of differences. Most kids walk or if possible get a ride (a bicycle) to/from school. There are no janitors so the students have a list of chores they have to do daily. Parents have to cook lunch for a week. The food supplied to the school are huge bags of rice, beans, and other items that do not need to be refrigerated. The schools try to stay off the grid as much as possible, teaching the same ideas to the students. One example was of a planter made from a two liter bottle. There is no security but they cannot think of a single school shooting they have ever heard of. The bathrooms and playground, small and not much, are outside. When asked what the school could use the overwhelming response was soap, mop, and a broom. Just crazy the things we take for granted.

Now in the final country on the journey, Costa Rica. First stop La Fourtuna.  The rest of the trip they highly recommend that you do not drink the tap water but in Costa Rica you can drink all the tap water you want with very little risk of getting sick. This city was the first place where it really catered to tourists.  A little disappointing as I wanted more authentic experiences. A while back this town was the place of volcanic activity and it could be seen from most hotels. The country and people put lots of money into the city to bring tourists to watch the volcano. Now it is not active. The people were very friendly, the food was delicious, and the city was more up to date then the other places visited. 

Next stop was Monteverde. The city sits up really high on a mountain top. The walk to and from town was very steep but wonderful. The Cloud Forest almost reaches down and touches you. The hikes were something of a dream. After speaking with some locals, they gave us these sketchy directions in the backwoods to a tree that did not disappoint. However, at the time, I was wondering if I was willingly walking to my death. 

Now onto the thing of nightmares. The Monteverde Zipline was spectacular but at the end when they ask you if you have any neck issues not once or twice but numerous times, that should be your clue to take a minute and decide if you really want to do the next part. Google it if you dare, Tarzan in Monteverde. 

Heading into San Jose on a Sunday the capital city was very quiet. It came to life on Monday. The Museo Nacional De Costa Rica was located right on the path downtown where we learned more about the rich history of the country, visited the post office, the old theater, and church as well. Visited the mall, pretty close to our outlet mall.

The last stop on this amazing journey was Jaco. By making Jaco the base, I was able to explore the surroundings. The sushi there was so tasty, I think I rolled out of there. Speaking to the locals, I was told about a secret iguana hangout. Upon arrival, there were no iguanas but I was told if I bring bananas and I slap my leg and just give it a minute, I would see what would happen. Silly american, I wanted to play along. All of a sudden I was surrounded by iguanas, big, small, reddish, green, you name it. They were definitely not shy and my ankle quickly became their target when I was not throwing the food fast enough for them. The beach here as well was not crowded at all.

In all the different locations I visited, local guides were really proud and happy to tell me about their country. It sounded like the majority of the counties are trying to use the resources they have available to self sustain. Wind, solar, and hydro power. There are a few places that are over 50% sustainable through these resources. Although, many people I spoke with think the government should be doing more/better. I tried to only eat local food and my tummy was so pleased with the different foods/flavors. I am still making pupusas at home. Monetary conversions were different in every country. The flora and fauna were wonderful and things I have only read about in books. Border control was very different than I was used to each time. Although it was their rainy season, luck was on my side and I experienced very little rain. I think as a generalization Americans have an expectation of quickness. Things are not quick here, from walking around (I wanted to see everything), to food, to hostels. I had to take a deep breath and just learn to go with the flow a little more. Most people sleep in a little later and stay up a little later. They seem to not want to rush through life but slow down and enjoy it. Elderly people are taken care of by their children. The majority of the parents rely on their very young children to help them earn money, on the farm or whatever task is needed. 

I was able to practice my Spanish on a small scale and it helped me understand what ELL students go through. Seeing the power of one person, knowing that everyone has value, and creating a place for people to shine and allow others to see that as well. I learned so many things that I am going to pass to the math, art, food/consumer teacher, the science, history, and special education teachers. I am already constantly telling students about the differences and similarities I experienced and tying them into the classroom on a weekly basis.

This incredible trip to five Central American countries was something of a fairy tale. It was hard to come back. I feel like I belong there but I brought back so many things to the United States. The cultures, history, and versions of the past are so very different. Their values/character as people are different. The living conditions are hard for most but the people are so proud and happy of what they have. They value the small things that we take for granted. 

This has changed my life and who I am as a person and a teacher. I have to thank the Education Foundation for St Vrain for picking me and awarding me the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart for making me a better human through this experience. The unforgettable real world experiences and memories will forever impact my life, other staff members lives, and all the students I am able to teach.