There is perhaps no other more mystifying place on earth than Iceland. Known as “the Land of Fire and Ice”, Iceland is home to extreme geological contrasts being blessed with some of the largest glaciers in Europe and also some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Iceland’s extreme beauty has captured the world’s attention making this small Nordic country one of the hottest tourist destinations in the the world. Many travel companies have opened up shop to support the growing tourism industry especially in a sustainable, responsible way. Hidden Iceland is one small tour company that is breaking the way in sustainable travel.
I went to Iceland in the summer of 2008 filled with anticipation. I had heard so much about Iceland’s stunning natural beauty of rushing waterfalls, massive blue icebergs, and her expansive, mysterious landscape. I wanted to see for myself if this magical place was real and within the first day I fell in love with her mystical power and beauty. While there were tourists around most of the sights during my visit, it wasn’t as popular ten years ago as it is today. Over the past few years, tourism has exploded which of course has its pros and cons. Per the Icelandic Tourist Board, “The total foreign overnight visitors to Iceland was around 2.2 million in 2017, a 24.2% increase from 2016, when foreign visitors numbered around 1.8 million”. With Iceland’s small population of approximately 338,000 this surge in popularity has not come without its price and there have been lots of people wondering how to travel to Iceland sustainably and protect its unique culture and environment.
One way you can travel responsibly is by choosing a sustainable tour company that offers off the beaten path tours to lesser visited areas, employs local guides and also takes care of the environment and culture. Hidden Iceland is a boutique travel company that focuses on immersive experiences with passionate guides in remote settings such as glaciers, volcanoes, Northern Light spots and ice caves. Hidden Iceland is also a Certified Climate Neutral Partner offsetting their carbon emissions, and also maintains a strict sustainability policy of offering only small guided group tours. They are currently ranked number 3 in all of Iceland on TripAdvisor out of 386 tour outfitters (with all five star ratings!), and their unique approach to combining personalised service, expert knowledge and a love of all things Iceland is what makes them stand out as one of the best.
Sólheimajökull Blue Ice. South Coast. Photo credit: Norris Niman/Hidden Iceland
I had the opportunity to learn more about Hidden Iceland from Ryan Connolly, one of the co-founders and here is what he has to say about what makes their trips unique.
On the Caribbean coast of Central America to the south of Mexico and the east of Guatemala lies the tiny country of Belize. One of the smallest countries within Central America, with a mere population of around 382,000, Belize has an incredible amount to offer the intrepid traveler. Belize’s lush jungle, stunning barrier reef, plethora of ancient Mayan ruins, rich culture, and downright natural beauty make it a haven for adventure junkies, nature lovers and those wanting to experience island life on one of its many cayes (islands). Furthermore, Belize is Central America’s only English-speaking country making travel much easier for those who don’t speak Spanish or Creole.
After exploring much of Central America and particularly falling in love with the beauty Costa Rica, I personally wasn’t sure how Belize would compare. I had honestly never truly given Belize a thorough review, as I had only visited Belize City and one of her lovely cayes for a day trip when we were on a family cruise years ago. But that one visit to paradise was enough to whet my appetite for more and instill a desire to return for a full blown week long adventure. The only challenge was that I would be traveling alone.
After careful research, I found the perfect way for me to visit Belize without my usual traveling companions, my family. I joined a small-group tour with G Adventures, a Canadian-based company with a focus on responsible travel and tourism. I had learned about G Adventures years ago when I heard its inspiring founder Bruce Poon Tip present at a travel blogging conference in Toronto. I was instantly impressed with his vision and passion for sustainable travel through G Adventures’ for Good Programs around the world. I was thrilled to see G Adventure’s Belize Trip used local tour guides, drivers and locally-owned hotels for all the stays, and also included three G for Good Program visits where we could support the local community. I booked the trip in early December and anxiously awaited the departure just as winter in Minnesota was gathering steam.
Setting sail on a catamaran to Belize’s Barrier Reef
Snorkeling with sea turtles, nurse sharks and rays is a highlight of any trip to Belize. Photo Credit: Anda De Wata Tours, Belize
March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day celebrated around the world in honor of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It’s roots began back in 1909 by women in New York City and gained popularity in Russia after women gained suffrage in 1917. March 8th was officially adopted as International Women’s Day by the United Nations in 1975 and has been celebrated around the world ever since.
Over the decades much progress has been made in regards to women’s rights however there still remains a lot of work to be done in achieving gender parity and improving the lives of women. One area that can certainly help improve women’s lives is sustainable employment and as the travel industry booms around the world, there is a great opportunity for women to increase their livelihoods through sustainable tourism.
As a member of Impact Travel Alliance, the world’s largest community for impact-focused travelers and travel professionals, I am highlighting some of the amazing female-run travel businesses and tour operators supporting women’s programs around the world.
While I haven’t had the honor of traveling with all of these organizations, I was fortunate to have joined Lokal Travel on one of their early trips. In 2017, I went with Lokal Travel on a trip to the remote Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica where I met Xiñia, a former gold miner who has opened up her remote jungle cabin, “Descanso El Pizote” to rural tourism. Her story is one of heartbreak and hope as for years she had no choice but to continue the backbreaking work of gold-mining until she met the co-founders of Lokal Travel who changed her life. Today, her dream is to grow Descanso El Pizote into a full-time business sharing her beautiful rainforest property and her passion for the jungle with tourists. Then she can quit gold mining for good and it would be a win-win situation that promotes sustainable rural travel while conserving the environment.
Xiñia leads the way to her jungle cabin with her walking stick ready.
Xiñia’s story is similar to the hopes and dreams of many women around the world who are seeking to improve their lives through sustainable tourism. Not only does it improve these women’s lives, it also provides the traveler with a unique experience to do something different. For me personally, these kinds of trips have been the most rewarding travels of my life and I feel wonderful knowing that my travel dollars are making a difference on people’s lives.
In fact, I just returned from Belize with G Adventures and was thrilled to see that our trip included a visit to a Mayan women’s co-op to watch a live demonstration on making traditional pottery and corn tortillas. As part of G Adventure’s commitment to responsible travel and tourism, G Adventure trips always include a travel for good element to give back and support the local economy. In this case, it was to support the local Mayan women.
At the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in Belize watching a Mayan woman show us how to make corn tortillas.
Here are six amazing organizations that are working to help empower women through travel.
In 2014, I had the pleasure of meeting Jane Mosbacher Morris, Founder and CEO of TO THE MARKET at a social good conference. TO THE MARKET is an amazing, creative social enterprise that showcases handmade goods made exclusively by proud and passionate artisans who have overcome the perils of abuse, conflict, and disease. By assisting local partners around the world in bringing these goods “to the market,” the organization takes an active role in equipping the survivors they employ with economic independence, while raising awareness of the challenges that they face.
I have featured TO THE MARKET’s products on my “Gifts that Give Back” page on my blog and have stayed in touch with Jane over the years to see what new initiatives they are working on. I was thrilled to read and review Jane’s recently released book, “Buy The Change You Want To See: Use Your Purchasing Power to Make the World a Better Place“. Together with writer Wendy Paris, the new book discusses how every day people (both businesses and consumers) can use their purchasing power for good and make a difference in the world. Obviously this book is a huge hit with me given my love of gifts that give back and make a social impact with the power of your own wallet. In reading the book, I learned a lot that I didn’t know especially about the coffee and chocolate industries and the power of the ethical supply chain to create a better world for people, the planet and businesses.
Throughout the book there is insight into how Jane created TO THE MARKET as well as great tips on what is behind coffee certification labels, a list of coffee and chocolate terminology, ideas on recycled sustainable products, tips on how to check if clothing is made ethically, and best of all a list of small upcoming chocolate makers producing excellent chocolate and doing good. “Buy The Change you Want To See” offers a wealth of information and tools for those who want to join the bandwagon of being a socially conscious consumer. It is a book worthy of keeping in your bookshelf as a reference on how you can use your personal buying power for good.
Without giving away the incredible content in the book, I opted to do an interview with Jane to discuss in further depth how we as consumers can buy the change we want to see. Here is what she has to say.
Jane in Northern Kenya (photo credit Neil Ruskin for TO THE MARKET)
For the past 25 years, I’ve been a regular visitor to Tucson and have fallen in love with her laid back, Southwestern disposition and charm. Tucson has become like a second home to me and there is no place I’d rather be in Tucson than on a hike in the desert or mountains. One of my all time favorite hikes in Tucson is along the Ventana Canyon Trailhead up to Maiden Pools. Located adjacent to Loews Ventana Canyon resort in the Santa Catalina mountains and less than five minutes from my parents’ home, this 4.7 mile hike up the canyon is one of Tucson’s finest.
Known for its spectacular beauty and magnificent views, the hike to Maiden Pools is a moderate two and a half hour hike depending on speed and stops. If you really want a challenge, you can continue on to “The Window” or “Ventana” in Spanish which the canyon is named after. This 12.8 mile rugged hike is quite challenging and takes pretty much the entire day. The majority of hikers opt for the hike to Maiden Pools where you can stop for a lovely picnic lunch and even dip your toes in the water if you like.
The Ventana Canyon Trailhead is located just to the west of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. There is a parking lot right next to the trailhead for hikers. When you enter the resort, follow the signs which will lead you to the left side of the resort and the parking lot is just past the employee parking lot.
As you leave the parking lot and follow the trail you are inside the property of Ventana Canyon Resort. The walk brings you around some of Ventana’s rental condos and past the old Flying V Ranch who owns a chance of acres adjacent to the resort and trail.
After about twenty minutes, you reach a walk-through fence where you enter the National Forest boundary and begin the true trail. You can see the stunning steep cliffs of Ventana Canyon rise above you from below in the desert landscape where you are surrounded by cactus and majestic hovering saguaro.
The fence that is the boundary of the National Forest
Tucson, with her laid-back charm and sunny disposition, has long been a top destination for travelers craving a visit to the American Southwest. With an average of over 300 days of sunshine, four different mountain ranges to choose from, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses, resorts and spas, Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from a cold Minnesota winter or quite frankly winter anywhere.
I have been visiting Tucson for over 25 years and have always adored her vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains, and bewitching southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is the perfect year round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, Tucson’s rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage as well as her Wild West past can be discovered within Tucson’s architecture, food, arts and overall vibe. Perhaps I’m slightly biased given Tucson is like my second home but in my opinion Tucson is a fabulous place to visit.
Table of Contents
Tucson has a lot to offer given her size compared with her much larger neighbor Phoenix. At under a million people, Tucson is fairly manageable and you don’t have to drive too far to see great things. Although getting from one end of town to the other (such as driving from the Sonoran Desert Museum to Sabino Canyon) can be a bit tedious due to the lack of a freeway system, Tucson is a piece of cake in comparison to massive Phoenix. Furthermore, you are much closer to the mountains and hiking which is huge on my list. There are also some very nice museums to check out and enough luxurious resorts and good restaurants to keep you busy.
There is plenty to do for an entire week whether it involves relaxing at a spa or pool, hiking, biking, birdwatching, exploring culture and arts or taking a few scenic drives. Less than 90 minutes from Phoenix and a little over 3 1/2 hours to Sedona and five to the Grand Canyon, Tucson can easily be added on to an Arizona road trip. However, trust me there is plenty to do for an entire week especially if you time your visit right with the weather.
Best Time of Year to Visit
Tucson can be visited year round however it gets very hot in the summer so that is the one time of year to be avoided if possible. If you do visit in the summer, plan on rising early to do your outdoor pursuits and spending the hottest hours of the day either in the pool or checking out some of the indoor attractions. My favorite time of year to go to Tucson is late March or April in the Spring when all the desert flowers and cactus are in bloom, the water is rushing through the streams and canyons and the weather is delightful with highs usually in the 80s. Another wonderful time to visit is in mid-Fall. October is still warm yet not as hot as September. This is also a nice time to consider a visit to Sedona or the Grand Canyon as it is not nearly as crowded as other months. Winter months (December – February) are nice as well but you can occasionally get cooler weather and rain.
The end of the road
Top Five Things to Do
There is a ton to do in Tucson and it all depends of course on your interests. Here are my top five things to do that cannot be missed when visiting Tucson.
Take a Hike
Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.
One of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon. The best hikes to do: Walk any distance along the paved road through Sabino Canyon (7.6 roundtrip) , take Phoneline Trail (7.6 miles) or hike to Seven Falls (7.9 miles).
Hands down, one of the greatest hikes in Tucson is to the top of Mount Wrightson. Located about 40 miles south of the city in the lush Coronado National Forest of the Santa Rita Mountains, Mount Wrightson and lesser known neighbor Mount Ian comprise the backdrop of any picture taken in Tucson. At 9,456 feet, Mount Wrightson is Tucson’s tallest peak (Mount Ian is slightly smaller at 9,146 feet) and the views along the way and at the top are quite impressive. Where else in Tucson can you pass through four different ecological zones ranging from the last remains of the Sonoran desert to the Ponderosa pines and finally the majestic Douglas Firs. In a little over five hours, you can have it all and get a challenging hike too.
I first hiked Mount Wrightson over twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents in Tucson. It was in my early hiking years and at the time I found the hike pretty darn challenging. I remember when I reached the top, I realized that it was the highest mountain I’d ever climbed. I’d done a lot of hiking growing up in Minnesota and had even hiked in the Alps but I had never hiked over 9,000 feet before. I’d only skied at that elevation. Being on top of Mount Wrightson felt like being on top of the world. It was exhilarating and set in motion a strong desire to keep climbing.
Five years later, I made another attempt to summit Mount Wrightson but physically it was not meant to be. I was three months pregnant with my son and the morning sickness made the hike impossible. I only got to the first saddle at 7,100 feet. That was in November 2003 and it took another 15 years for me to finally get the opportunity to attempt the hike again.
At the top of Ventana Trailhead overlooking Tucson and a view of Mount Wrightson and Mount Ian far off in the horizon. January 2019.
Reaching Tucson’s highest peak is always an accomplishment and the hike itself is truly quite stunning, affording sensational views all the way into Mexico and beyond as well as getting a feel for Arizona’s incredible ecological diversity. Of course there are plenty of stunning hikes to do in the desert surrounding Tucson yet a climb to the top of Mount Wrightson is truly special and unique. If you are lucky you may also even see wildlife that only lives in higher elevations like the Whitetail and Mule Deer, Wild Turkey, Black Bear, Coati or even a fox. Plus what is not to love about a nice, demanding leg burning hike.
There are two trails to choose from to reach the top of Mount Wrightson (or Mount Ian if you prefer to climb that peak). For those who want to get there faster and have a more challenging hike, follow the Old Baldy Trail, a ten-mile hike through the forest with switchbacks weaving you up to the top. If you want an easier, less trafficked yet longer hike you can follow the 13.1 mile Super Trail (Also known as the Loop Trail). I prefer the Old Baldy Trail.
Both hikes begin right next to the parking lot at the Madera Canyon Trailhead located at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. The 11-mile drive into Madera Canyon is quite spectacular in itself as you leave behind the dusty desert landscape of cactus and mesquite trees and enter the lush Coronado National Forest composed of Evergreen Oaks, Arizona Sycamores, Fremont Cottonwoods and Alligator Junipers.
Along the way are tiny cabins and a few B&Bs where birders from around the world come to spend a night or two. With over 250 species of birds identified in the area, Madera Canyon is one of the most renowned birding destinations in the United States and it is evident by the number of birders walking around with their binoculars, sun hats and enormous cameras.
The start of both trailheads is at 5,450 feet and by this time you have already left behind the desert landscape that surrounds Tucson and have entered the Coronado National Forest lush with a wide variety of trees. The start of the Old Baldy trailhead is wide and a bit rocky until you reach the woods and the first of many switchbacks winding you up to the Josephine Saddle.
In September 2017, I had the honor of attending the White House Summit for Study Abroad and Global Citizenship, a two-day event co-hosted by Hostelling International USA (HI USA) and Partners of the Americas held in New York City at HI USA. The goal of the conference was to inspire a new generation to study abroad and experience the transformational power of travel. During the conference we learned about the abundance of funding options and scholarships available for students interested in studying abroad during college and beyond by various organizations. I had studied abroad myself in my early twenties and that experience profoundly changed my life. However, I understand how lucky I was to have that opportunity as not many people do.
The good news is that many organizations such as HI USA are working to help young Americans get out and explore the world. HI USA, a nonprofit, member organization founded on an enduring belief in the power of travel to foster a deeper understanding of people, places, and the world around has a wealth of programs and opportunities available to make it easier for young people to see the world. One amazing program currently being offered by HI USA, the nation’s leading hostel brand, is the Explore the World Scholarship which is now open to applications until March 2, 2019.
Explore the World Scholarships
HI USA created the Explore the World Travel Scholarships to help young adults aged 18-30 finance an international service or educational trip abroad. The total award given is $2,000 (split into two equal installments of $1,000) to go towards an international travel opportunity.
This is the fourth year of the program and in 2018, HI USA awarded 104 scholarships to young people across the U.S. so they could go learn Arabic in Jordan, volunteer in India and Vietnam, teach math in the Dominican Republic, or board a plane for the very first time to study abroad in Europe. Scholarship recipients have returned home from their travels with a profound sense of intercultural appreciation, and a renewed dedication to spreading the word about travel and tolerance at home.
In 2019, HI USA will be giving out 110 scholarships to would-be travelers around the country, aged 18-30, who need a little extra help along the way.
The basic program requirements and eligibility to apply for the Explore the World Scholarships include the following:
Must be 18-30, with financial need, and live or go to school in one of 14 metro areas (select counties in CA, DC/Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Portland, Austin, Houston and Richmond).
Should have an educational or service trip already in mind but cost is getting in the way.
In today’s interconnected world, understanding other cultures and making connections is critical to promoting world peace, stability and a happier planet for all. Traveling has a profound impact on both the traveler and the people they meet along the way. Traveling opens your mind and your heart to differences. It fuels your curiosity and passion for other cultures and places. It helps you understand the world and puts your own identity in perspective. But most of all, it builds connections and fuels your desire to become a global citizen and lifelong explorer.
Here is what a four past recipients of Explore the World Scholarships have to say about their own experiences.
The month of January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Per Polaris, a global leader in the fight to end modern-day slavery, human trafficking is “the business of stealing freedom for profit. In some cases, traffickers trick, defraud or physically force victims into providing commercial sex. In others, victims are lied to, assaulted, threatened or manipulated into working under inhumane, illegal or otherwise unacceptable conditions. It is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 24.9 million people around the world”.
As non-profit organizations, governments and business around the world work to spread awareness and fight this hidden epidemic, we as consumers can use our purchasing power to make a difference and change lives. Per Jane Mosbacher Morris (Founder and CEO of To the Market, a social enterprise that connects business and consumers to ethically made products around the world), the retail market is a massive force in the U.S. economy – a $2.6 trillion industry – meaning retail purchases can be powerful tools for social change. Consumers now have the power to make a huge difference on such social issues as fighting poverty, climate change, human trafficking, and sending girls around the world to school. This was the inspiration behind Jane founding To The Market: To economically empower vulnerable communities around the world by hiring them to make the kinds of products people buy every day, harnessing the purchasing power of people and businesses to address social issues. (1)
In honor of Human Trafficking Awareness month, I have compiled a list of my favorite for-profit and non-profit companies working hard to fight human trafficking. A purchase from any of these organizations goes to help victims of human trafficking to not only find an escape but find a future.
To The Market
TO THE MARKET | Survivor-made Goods (TTM) combines the powers of commerce and storytelling to empower the world’s most courageous survivor populations, in the belief that resilience is more powerful than suffering. TTM showcases handmade goods made exclusively by proud and passionate artisans who have overcome the perils of abuse, conflict, and disease. By assisting local partners around the world in bringing these goods “to the market,” we take an active role in equipping the survivor’s they employ with economic independence, while raising awareness of the challenges that they face. www.tothemarket.com
MOTA Makeup Bag Set – Navy Floral. $39 made from recycled Saris
To the Market: Sammana Tote With Leather Straps. $36.50. Recycled saris are re-imagined and hand-stitched in the kantha style by a woman impacted by human trafficking and the commercial sex trade. Every product is “signed” by the artisan, the hero of her own story.
Maroon Kimono: Our handcrafted goods are made by women and girls who have survived or evaded sex trafficking in northern India. These women are now living as artisans, creators and artists with sustainable careers, as well as education and medical care that’s supported by your purchase. Price $40
Purpose is the brand under International Sanctuary, which is a nonprofit whose mission is to empower people escaping trafficking to embrace their true identity and worth. Purpose Jewelry provides freedom from slavery for young women around the world. Each piece of jewelry is beautifully crafted by young women rescued from human trafficking and by purchasing with Purpose, you are providing freedom, dignity and hope for these amazing artisans.
To raise awareness and combat human trafficking, Purpose Jewelry is offering two limited-edition Human Trafficking Awareness Month bracelets. 100% of the proceeds go to support survivors their artisans at International Sanctuary.
Gently pushing off the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica lies the beautifully pristine Osa Peninsula, a magical paradise of untouched primitive rain forests, deserted beaches and rural communities relatively hidden to mainstream tourism. Known for its conservation efforts and robust ecotourism industry, the Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet with over 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity in less than one millionth of the Earth’s surface area.
With utterly jaw-dropping beauty, immense expanses of virgin rainforest and parts of lush green jungle that literally look like it is dropping into the celestial blue sea, the Osa Peninsula is my favorite part of Costa Rica. What I love best about the Osa Peninsula is it is still a bit of an undiscovered jewel. Despite a handful of small towns sprinkled throughout the peninsula, the majority of the Osa is uninhabited and undeveloped. Even the airports are simply plain old landing strips in the middle of a field or jungle. Its lack of development and its immense bounty of undisturbed nature and wildlife make it the ideal part of Costa Rica to experience pura vida, the pure life.
While many travelers chose to visit the more popular parts of Costa Rica such as the endless beaches of the Guanacaste, the precious yet touristy Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific Coast or the cloud forests or Arenal volcano of the Northern Zone, a visit to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula will be sure to be an experience not like any other.
Where else can you be rewarded with the opportunity to immerse yourself with the local life, culture and extraordinary nature in one of the most magical, biodiverse places on earth? The pure remoteness of the Osa Peninsula works to keep the hordes of tourists away which is an added bonus. If you want the pure, real deal then go to the Osa Peninsula. It is sadly the last frontier of Costa Rica and hopefully it will stay that way.
Some of the unique things you can do in the Osa Peninsula include bathing in jungle swimming holes and waterfalls, birdwatching in a private lagoon, spending a night in a locally run guesthouse that is only reachable by foot, eating home-cooked Tico cuisine, all while supporting the local community. A highlight of any visit to the Osa Peninsula includes a day or more at the Corcovado National Park where you can see scarlet macaws, monkeys, sloths, tapirs and for those lucky few, an endangered jaguar. You can also spend a day dolphin and whale watching or diving and snorkeling off Isla de Caño or go for a sunset horseback ride on the rarely visited Playa San Josecito. The options are endless and after few days in the Osa Peninsula you will be wishing you had more.
The Osa Peninsula is idea for nature lovers, adventure lovers, families and couples, and especially those who are interested in supporting sustainable tourism. However, be prepared. The Osa Peninsula is still like the Outback and getting there and around requires a test of patience and some white-knuckle driving. Many places are only reachable on foot, on ATV or by boat. For those who love adventure, this is the place for you!
In 2010, I went on a life-changing trip to Nepal with my father to hike the Annapurna trek in the Himalayas. Despite having traveled quite a bit, there was something truly magical and mind-blowing about Nepal. I had never experienced anything quite like it before. The chaotic mix of utter poverty and lack of infrastructure juxtaposed against the beauty of the Himalayas, the people and the culture truly touched my soul.
As we trekked through one beautiful remote village after another, I began to wonder how could it be that in this tiny, mountainous country where over 80% of its people live in remote villages like the ones we’d seen, that many people have little or no access to education. I learned that only half of Nepalese women over age 15 know how to read and write and many people are barely making ends meet to survive.
I’d always taken education for granted and it stunned me to realize that so many people in Nepal and around the world didn’t even have the choice to go to school. I also took safe drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, health care, a warm stable home and access to medical care and employment for granted as well. I had been living in a bubble, and from that point on was determined to change my life and figure out a way to give back, and thankfully I did.
As a stay-at-home mother of two young children, my trip to Nepal reawakened a strong desire to become a writer and do good. I returned home and immediately started my travel and social good blog, Thirdeyemom, and also began building my work as a humanitarian by raising money and telling the stories of the progress being made by amazing non-profit and social good enterprises around the world.
As we were leaving Nepal, Rajan Simkahada, the owner ofEarthbound Expeditions, our trekking company, gave me his card and mentioned some of the social work he was involved with in Nepal. On the back of the card was HANDS in Nepal, a small grassroots, non-profit organization based in California working to bring education to women and children in remote, rural areas of the Himalayas. As soon as I got home, I contacted them. I worked with the founder Danny’s mother, Jan Sprague, for almost a year helping raise money for HANDS in Nepal by selling beautiful, homemade Nepali goods that Jan purchased in Nepal and sent to me. It was a wonderful way to give back and in the end I knew that every sale helped improve the lives of both the women who made the blankets and scarves and the villagers supported by HANDS in Nepal.
Over the following eight years, I kept the promise I made to myself and have continued writing and doing good, raising awareness of such issues as women and girls empowerment, global health, poverty and education. I’ve featured many different non-profit organizations and social enterprises on the blog however I had lost touch with Nepal. A few weeks ago, I serendipitously reconnected with Jan Sprague, now the Director of HANDS in Nepal and it felt like fate. HANDS in Nepal is still working hard to promote education and reduce poverty in the remote Himalayan villages and has began many new projects. Since Nepal will forever be within my heart, I wanted to do an update on the incredible work being done by HANDS in Nepal. I know Nepal is calling me to come back for a visit and I hope too soon.
Interview with Jan Sprague, Director of HANDS in Nepal
HANDS in Nepal Director Jan Sprague inspecting the building of Learning Center #2 in the Astam Village area of Nepal
How did Hands in Nepal get started?
At the age of 20, my son Danny went on his own to Kathmandu after reading about an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home that needed volunteers. He lived with the lady who ran the orphanage for the first month and then moved in with a Tibetan family to study Tibetan Buddhism. He walked to the orphanage each day from his Tibetan house. While working at the orphanage, he met Rajan Simkahada, and they became good friends. Rajan told Danny the “real” Nepal was up in the villages, and he would never see or learn about Nepal if he didn’t go up to the villages. So he went up to the village where Rajan grew up and was blown away by the poverty, the lack of roads, old, ruined school building, and the poor condition of homes. Rajan told Danny how kids up in villages have to walk great distances to attend a school and he asked Danny if he would build a school in his village, Dharka.
Danny Chaffin started HANDS in Nepal after volunteering at an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Danny discovered many children in Nepal work on the streets or beg because of a lack of schools in the villages.
Most of Nepalese live in extremely remote, hard to reach areas. Rajan’s village Dharka is located in the Ganesh Himalayas, an area like many that most people have never heard of. Dharka is reached by first taking a bus from Kathmandu to Dhading Besi, then a bush taxi to where the road ends, then you hike about 5-6 hours up a mountain to the village. This is common for many villages in Nepal which demonstrates the immense challenge in development areas such as education, water and sanitation, health and more. Danny was blown away by his experience in Nepal, and it forever changed the trajectory of his life.
After returning to the US to start college at Naropa University, a private Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado, Danny did all he could to save up money and return to Nepal to help build the school. The two of us returned the following summer and began figuring out a plan for how we would build their first school in Rajan’s village, Dharka. It would have to be through the creation of a non-profit. We returned home to the US, filed papers for a 501(c)(3) for the start of a non-profit. Hands in Nepal was officially founded in 2007 and the school in Dharka was completed in 2008 and a second school called Shree Ganesh Primary School was opened in 2009.
Danny founded the first school in Dharka, Dhading Besi, in the Ganesh Himalayas, one of the more remote and poorest areas of Nepal.
Awhile back, I was walking around one of my favorite urban lakes in Minneapolis with a good friend and she told me about an amazing program in Guatemala being run by two local non-profits, the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry and the Community Cloud Forest Conservation. Through a unique partnership, they have been offering transformative intergenerational travel trips to a remote part of Guatemala where families, couples and solo travelers alike can work side by side the local community and do good. The trip brings travelers to the highlands of Guatemala for an intercultural and educational opportunity to work with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation on projects in education and agroecology.
As a strong supporter of sustainable travel, I was instantly intrigued and had the chance to meet with both Tricia Hall of the Community Cloud Forest Conservation and Mary Peterson of the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry to learn more about their work and the trips to Guatemala. Tricia, a family doctor, humanitarian and mother of three, has been leading the trips to Guatemala since 2013 and I asked her to share a bit more about her inspiring work.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what were your hobbies when you were a child?
I grew up in Minneapolis and have always loved the lakes and parks of this area. We spent time in Minneapolis, but we also traveled to distant places. My parents are both social workers and we grew up with a strong sense of social justice, both locally and abroad. From an early age, I loved to travel and learn about new and different cultures.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan for undergrad and then to Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine for medical school. I have always loved literature and so my undergraduate degree was in English, which I did alongside my pre-med science classes. I enjoyed the variety and have never regretted having both of these areas of study.
Why did you decide to become a doctor and what is your area of expertise?
I started to think about medicine in my high school anatomy class when we dissected a cat and I found it so interesting, particularly all of the muscles. Concurrently, I was starting to do service trips with my church. I knew that I wanted to work in some aspect of service and that muscles were cool, so there you have it! I decided on the specialty of Family Medicine because I loved the interactions with the whole family at the various stages of life.
How did you first get involved with the Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC)?
We first visited Community Cloud Forest Conservation in 2013 when our daughter was just 18 months and our sons were 7 and 10. I wanted to see what my cousin Tara (CCFC co-director with Rob Cahill) and her family had been doing in Guatemala and I was immediately hooked on the beautiful area, but more importantly I was compelled by the beautiful people and the mission of CCFC.
Tell me more about the CCFC. What is their mission and how are they making an impact with the people they work with in Guatemala.
CCFC’s mission is to alleviate poverty and protect forests in the Highlands of Guatemala. These two objectives, although not obvious synergistic goals to most residents of the United States, definitely go hand in hand. The Q’eqchi’ Maya people of this region of Guatemala live in and by the land. As the land is deforested, their lives are denuded as well. Through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership scholarships, and ecological improvements to agriculture, CCFC is fulfilling its mission from the ground up. As kids learn about conservation, as young women are empowered to stay in school and fulfill their dreams, and as people from remote, rural villages are partners in collaboration, the physical landscape of the cloud forest improves and the personal landscape of the communities thrives.
Kids from the US and kids from the a village school making friendship bracelets together. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Young women in a leadership training session at CCFC’s ecology center. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Beautiful faces, learning, growing. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Where in Guatemala do they work? What do most of the people in this community do for a living? What are some of the challenges they face?
CCFC is located in Alta Verapaz in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, a mountainous region which is largely indigenous and suffers from extreme poverty. The vast majority of the people in these communities are subsistence farmers, farming corn and beans on the steep sides of the mountains. Although corn is an important part of their diet and also the Mayan culture, when corn is grown as a monocrop, both the land and the nutrition of the people suffer. CCFC is working to increase agricultural diversity, often using ancient Mayan and native cloud forest heirloom crops to decrease deforestation and to dramatically improve nutrition.
What is your role with CCFC?
I feel very blessed to be able to work alongside the directors, staff and volunteers at CCFC and to bring a focus on community health. I have been working with Guatemalan nurses and nursing students over the past three years to assess the health needs and successes of the communities, identify areas for improvement, and develop initiatives to improve the health of the people in the communities.
CCFC in partnership with Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, offers a unique intergenerational trip each year to see the work in Guatemala. How was the partnership formed?
We have been supporters of Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry for many years and I served on the board until recently and so I knew about LPGM’s partnerships with organizations around the world, building relationships, breaking down barriers, and partnering in the essential areas of need. A collaboration between LPGM and CCFC seemed like a great fit for both organizations. We started with a pilot travel experience and have continued to grow the partnership; because of this partnership, dozens of individuals and congregations around the United States have been able to travel to and work alongside CCFC in Guatemala, expanding the worldviews and potential of people both in Guatemala and here in the US.
Making dinner is fun! Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Peeling cacao beans to be made into chocolate. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Cacao beans. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Picking cloud forest native naranjilla fruit to be made into tasty jam. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
Weeding and planting with friends. Photo credit: Tricia Hall
What is the mission of the trip? What does a week look like?
The mission of the trip is to:
Experience and learn from a different culture,
Work alongside CCFC on projects that are ongoing in education and agro-ecology
Shareour lives and God’s love with each other and with those we meet in Guatemala.
When we arrive in Guatemala City, we get an introduction to Guatemalan culture and then we head to the mountains! We spend 4 days partnering with a group of children from a local village school, learning and experiencing together, and at the end of the week, we accompany them to their village, often with trees or other native products to plant. Throughout the week, we are hiking, cave-exploring, making native cloud-forest products, learning about coffee-production, playing soccer, and packing in as much learning and fun as we can. At the end of the trip, we spend a day “adventuring,” either in a natural waterpark or on a volcano.
How does this experience change you?
This summer will be my 6thyear bringing a group to CCFC and I never tire of witnessing the beautiful connections that occur on these trips. To see a 7-year-old US girl from the city and a Q’eqchi’ Maya girl from a remote village walking together, smiling, communicating through hand gestures, and learning about themselves, each other and the world around them—it just doesn’t get any better than that!
Want to learn more about the upcoming summer trips?
June 19-29 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open
July 27 – August 6 2019 | Community Cloud Forest Conservation | Intergenerational Trip – Open
The usual trip size is around 10-18 people, filled with a mixture of families, couples and even solo travelers ranging from all ages. Cost is $1250 per person plus airfare. To learn more about the trips please click here.
Community Cloud Forest Conservation alleviates poverty and protects forests through education, reforestation, sustainable development, leadership training, and ecological improvements to agriculture. CCFC believes that holistic human / community development through education and capacity building is the key to conservation and development in Guatemala’s central highlands. Education, especially for young women, is key to building peace in this region.
Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry was created in 1995 out of a pressing need to connect people with opportunities around the world and build relationships. Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry shares resources and hope through: Partnerships (with local, national, and overseas organizations), Education (for women and children, transforming lives for a brighter future), Empowerment (empower peace, stability and sustainability through leadership development), and Transformational Travel (to India, Guatemala and the Central African Republic).