A Travellerspoint blog

Why your school should offer alternative break trips

Your school already offers study abroad and service learning- what can alternative breaks offer that these two programs can't? If you've been following the news, you know that shorter trips to more affordable destinations are the current trend, and more and more students are asking for opportunities to work in the community and make connections. Alternative break trips serve as an inspiration for all participants, challenging viewpoints, broadening perspectives and providing a chance to experience the world. The following are some reasons that participating students and professors have given Casa HOY to continue offering alternative breaks:

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Affordability. Everyone’s tight with money these days, and travel is a luxury most people have cut out of their budgets. Universities are closing down programs, teachers are struggling to fill the quota for their trips, and a semester in Europe isn’t a key to experience for your degree in philosophy or communications. If you travel nowadays, people ask you incredulously how you can afford it. That’s where alternative breaks come in. Many schools subsidize the cost of an alternative break trip, offering fundraising, scholarship and grant opportunities to some or all trip participants.

Out of classroom experience. Many university students have started using the term “break the bubble.” It’s easy to get caught up in the theory or lab experiments of your classes. But they say that experience is the best teacher. What better way to compliment your class on the civil rights movement than going to protest with farm workers who espouse the values of Martin Luther King Jr.? One of my most inspiring classes in college was Latinos in the US which had a 30 hour community service component. It’s one thing to read the books and do your research, but when you have to sit in an ESL classroom or translate at a free dental clinic or fill out paperwork at the Hispanic community center, everything comes together. Alternative break trips can be national or international; Casa HOY loves to travel.

Casa HOY organized and led.
School staff, students and professors have a million and one academic obligations, never mind their extracurricular involvement. Where can find they find the time to plan one more activity? All a staff member, professor or even student has to do is give Casa HOY a trip theme and a location and we’ll do the rest. From the housing to volunteer projects to cultural talks, Casa HOY plans every step of an alternative break. And on your trip there is a Casa HOY staff member 24/7. This gives professors and staff a chance to better connect with students instead of worrying about travel details like where the group is going to get its next meal or how to catch the next bus.

Globalized view of the world for students.
Many schools think that by adding the word “global” to a class they are doing enough to prepare their students for this new world. But the world is getting smaller way too fast for your “Global Studies 101” class to even cover the coast of a continent. An alternative break easily connects students to other cities, countries and nationalities on a local level. For example, on a recent Casa HOY trip to Immokalee, students met other students from around the country, farm workers from Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti and activists that would help them start their own movement on campus. Some favorite Casa HOY destinations are California, New York, Florida and Mexico, with trips to Cuba and Costa Rica in the works. Your “101” class is a great start- but why not preface it or finish it off with a week where your students can see just how globalized our world is?

Leadership opportunities for students. An alternative break trip is like adding another club. Students that lead alternative break groups are faced with recruiting other students, planning reflections, learning about group dynamics and ultimately leading their peers. It gives students a chance to learn about how things work at their university and to connect with staff and professors in other departments. On an alternative break a student must lead their peers through challenging situations where the group is out of its comfort zone. This is the kind of leader your school wants to produce.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 01.05.2013 07:48 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico volunteering international cultural volunteer voluntourism cuernavaca participatory intercambio alternative_travel participatory_travel english_teaching Comments (0)

Beat the Heat with Agua de Jamaica

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It is 95* every day in Cuernavaca. Bet you wish you’d come here for spring break instead of going to Florida, right? Unfortunately you can’t run around in your bathing suit or cut-offs here like you can in Florida, so you have to find a pool to jump in or a frozen/iced/icey beverage to lower your body temperature. Most people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to drink a nice cold beer during their work day, and too many iced espressos will have you shaking out of your office chair. So I’ve invented a little twist on a typical Mexican drink to help you cool off under the hot sun.

Agua de jamaica
(pronounced huh-MY-kuh), or Hibiscus water, is one of the many flavors of “water” that you’ll see lined up at a juice stand. It is commonly served as one of the drink options at a comida corrida (typical Mexican restaurant), and you feel cooler just seeing the waiter set a pitcher of it on your table. Agua de jamaica is proven to lower high blood pressure, and many people drink it in hot tea form for its vitamin C and minerals. For me, it’s the midday beverage, after my morning coffee and before my late afternoon beer (on the weekends, Mom).

There are several different ways to make the drink, and here’s Casa HOY’s spin on this tasty classic:

Ingredients
6 cups of water
2 cups of dried Hibiscus petals
White sugar to taste (I used ½ cup)
10-15 fresh mint leaves
Powdered ginger to taste (I used 1 TBS) (a Jamaican touch, not Mexican)
Cold water to fill up the rest of the pitcher

Boil 6 cups of water. Once water is boiling, add hibiscus petals and sugar. Turn off the heat, sprinkle in powdered ginger and cover pot. Allow the mixture to steep for 30-45 minutes. Once cooled, strain liquid through a colander into a pitcher. Add extra cold water to fill up the pitcher.

When you’re ready to serve the agua de jamaica, fill up your glass halfway with ice. Pour your drink, and garnish with 4-5 mint leaves. Find yourself a shady place outside and sip that heat away.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 06.04.2013 19:35 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

5 Things to Do at the Borda Garden

The Borda Garden is a popular place for Mexican and foreign tourists alike. Across from the Cathedral on Morelos Avenue, the garden is best visited on the weekend- Sundays, if you’re on a budget (it’s free then!). The Borda Garden was built in the 18th century by Manuel de la Borda y Verdugo, son of a wealthy businessman and miner from Taxco, don José de la Borda. It is a cultural center full of history and art, and a central point of celebration for holidays such as Day of the Dead and Holy Week. If you're visiting Cuernavaca, you can't miss it; if you live here, you should visit it more often. There's something for everyone, and here are Casa HOY's recommendations to keep yourself entertained at the Borda Garden:

Enchilarse[i] and [i]empalagarse. (Enjoy spicy and sweet to the max). You could spend the afternoon eating your way around the garden. Corn with chile in on the cob, tacos, ice cream, sandwiches, snacks, crepes. The food food vendors are at the bottom of the garden on the left around one of the lakes. And then you have the artisanal food vendors who aren’t making food on the spot but have packaged or pre-made goods, such as mezcal, chocolate, breads and desserts. The artisanal food vendors are spread throughout the garden, usually along the paths leading down to the lakes. Typically they allow you to try a sample; bring money because you won’t want to walk away empty-stomached. The best place to combine spicy and sweet is at the smoothie stand- get a mango smoothie topped with a strawberry and pineapple, doused in chile and chamoy. Que rico!

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Rent a lanchita, or a little rowboat. Splash around the second, right-hand lake at the bottom of the garden. Only about 2 ½ people can be packed into these rickety green boats, 2 adults and a child. Usually the boats are taken over by couples who sit knees to knees and talk about sweet nothings under the hot Cuernavaca sun. Occasionally there are ducks to race.

Enjoy a show or concert. Guayabos, or people from Cuernavaca, don’t seem to realize the amount of shows and events hosted by the Borda Garden. Every week there is a musician or a dance, and you can enjoy them from the stadium seating lining one lake, or from the steps around the other lake. For Holy Week the crowds enjoyed folkloric dancing and the Burning of Judas. One of my favorite concerts was a battle of the bands, where local Cuernavaca fusion group and battle winner Maria Cantu had everyone dancing in the stands.

Get lost. Seriously. Don’t pay attention to where you are or where you’ve been. Everything looks the same anyway. Follow the paths, go under the troll bridge (most foreigners have to stoop to go under), lounge by the trees and dip your fingers in one of the many fountains that line the walkways. The botanical garden is full of fruit trees and plants and flowers, and sometimes you have to step off the beaten path to explore the different varieties. Look for the giant amate tree that graces one of the walkways and gently filters the sunlight. The Borda Garden also includes the maze of rooms at the front of the property which usually house an art gallery that changes themes frequently.

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Make-out. Okay, you don’t have to. But if you go with a significant other, especially during the week when there is less of a crowd, that is what people do. The number one complaint about the garden by Casa HOY volunteers was that even if you're not single, the sight of all those lovey-dovey couples is enough to depress a lonely traveler’s heart. So be prepared. Lounging, cuddling, canoodling galore. If you’re alone, bring a book or your journal or something to distract yourself. During the week you can grab an empty spot on the stadium stairs and enjoy the quiet of it all.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 01.04.2013 11:13 Archived in Mexico Tagged tourism voluntourism borda_garden things_to_do_in_cuernavaca Comments (0)

What is an alternative break trip?

I was surprised at how many “adults” asked me this question on a recent alternative break trip. Only students and staff at schools that have these trips seem to know what they are; the outside world is clueless. And they have every right to be. With so many terms floating around to describe travel now – ecotourism, voluntourism, mission trips, shoestring travel – it’s hard to know what you or your friend or child are even signing up for.

The term alternative break trip, or AB trip as I will call it from now on, technically only pertains to students since most adults are not as lucky to have the same vacation time as those in academia. At school, time off may include summer break, fall break (which is usually in October), Thanksgiving break, Christmas or winter vacation, a January term (the whole month of January off to travel or take a certain class), and finally the infamous spring break. AB trips fall under the umbrella of voluntourism, a movement that combines volunteering and travel.

The beauty of an alternative break is that you can do ANYTHING and go ANYWHERE, as long as you’re giving of your time, talents and energy. It’s not a trip where your main highlight is getting served margaritas on a sandy beach (although that is a pretty awesome vacation too). On an AB trip you are immersed in a new community, maybe even a new culture and language, with the focus of fostering positive development in underprivileged communities and personal growth in yourself. AB trips are the perfect combination of volunteering and sight-seeing, meeting and connecting with local people and organizations, activists, artists, students and community workers.

Casa HOY polled several of our past participants on how AB trips have affected them personally. These are just a few of the many cool things that can happen to you on an AB trip:

Connect with a population you wouldn’t normally get to know. Whether they are children, migrants, women’s groups, activists, elderly, farm workers, indigenous people or artists, on AB trips you will meet people that you wouldn’t normally run into on your own. Casa HOY uses the Spanish word “convivir” to explain this interaction- you spend quality time with these people. On recent AB trips Casa HOY groups shared meals with a Guatemalan family in southwest Florida and listened to stories of border crossings from Hispanics in California.

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Travel cheaply. Most schools do fundraisers, offer scholarships or otherwise subsidize the cost of an AB trip for students. The average week-long AB trip in the US costs between $250-300 and includes meals, housing and local transportation. Trips outside the US usually cost between $350-400. If you do your research, you’ll know that that’s some of the cheapest travel you’ll ever do. Casa HOY uses local services, and many students report going home and trying out local restaurants, different types of transportation and going to farmers’ markets.

Get to know your fellow classmates. Usually every grade can go on AB trips, and schools try to include a few people from each year. This is a chance to get to know someone you normally never would have crossed paths with. You may meet a future roommate, someone in your major, someone that inspires you to change your major or someone that invites you to participate in a different club or group on campus. One Casa HOY participant said that after a week she felt like the whole group was as close as a family.

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Learn new skillz. Make a new meal, practice some words in a different language, learn how to beat box. AB trips usually have a theme, but there any many ways to explore a topic. In California students monitored sand crabs on the beach, in Mexico they taught basic English to local tour guides, in NYC they will volunteer in community gardens. Besides learning those sick skills, you will hone regular human ones, such as learning how to work with a group, how to talk in public, how to survive without your cell phone and GPS, how to interact with children, how to offer and be of service.

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Get experience outside the classroom. As author Paulo Coelho said, “People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” What better way to complement your class on indigenous people by going to Mexico and sitting in a classroom where they speak Nahuatl? Maybe you know you want to be a biology major, but sloshing around the wetlands can give you the connection between your lab class and what you want to do when you graduate. Or as a speech pathology major you can observe the difference between bilingual and monolingual classrooms. You’ll have a lot more to share in your class on human rights after you march with farm workers fighting for fair food.

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Become more flexible and spontaneous. You may think you already have those skills; or on the contrary, you may think them unnecessary. But as Americans, we are notoriously rigid control freaks. On AB trips you learn to give up the schedule to someone else, to accept invitations on the spot, to lend a hand without thinking twice and to go with the flow. You learn to value what happens during an hour instead of counting the minutes. It’s raining and you can’t go to the park? So what? We’ll go back to the house and learn how to make salsa. One of my favorite volunteer moments was when on a walk through a tiny town in Mexico, a volunteer poked his head in someone’s door. It turns out they were having a party, and a woman invited us in to have lunch and celebrate with them. You don’t get those kinds of experiences unless you’re spontaneous.

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Go off the grid. Turn off your cell phone, or better yet, don’t even bring your cell phone. Put away your I-Pod, take off the headphones. Call Mom and Dad to tell them that you made it, and then let go. Without those distractions, you’ll be inspired to initiate conversations with fellow participants, to listen to the sounds of the surrounding community, to sing or play a song or even just revel in the silence of it all. You will be more aware of the world around you.

Learn about yourself. Travel forces you to recognize your strengths, weaknesses, manias and little tics. You might not be able to change those things, but you will know how to manage them better. For example, I have learned that I’m very shy when it comes to meeting new people at a hostel or housing site. I challenge myself on every trip to just sit down and say hi to someone when I get to a new place. For other people it’s the shock of eating new foods. On an AB trip you are surrounded by people going through the same thing, so it easier to step out of your comfort zone or to talk through a new experience.

Be more environmentally aware. On AB trips you can expect to take short showers, maybe even cold showers. You might not have electricity on your trip. You might take public transportation and not have a microwave. You’ll see how other people live, and survive, and be inspired to cut back on your daily habits. Many Casa HOY volunteers report using less water and electricity when they get back to their homes. They are also inspired to eat locally, maybe even to eat organic, and to cut down on consumption in general.

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Find meaning in your time. As I said, margaritas poolside is indisputably a great way to unwind. However, a recent Casa HOY participant, Chris, said that participating in an AB trip is “much more enriching and whole” than other vacations. You’ll get back to school with a whole new group of friends, inspired, motivated and seeing the world through different eyes. AB trips combine volunteering and sightseeing, so you will still have time to relax and unwind.

One of the best compliments I got on my last AB trip was “thank you for pushing me/forcing me out of my comfort zone.” Yeah, maybe that sounds a tad bit aggressive on our part, but that’s our job as Casa HOY guides. We know what it’s like to travel to a new place with a different culture and language. We know what it’s like to be afraid, shy and nervous. And we know that once you get over it, an AB trip can be a positive, life-changing, life-inspiring experience.

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Posted by UnMejorHOY 29.03.2013 11:40 Archived in Mexico Tagged travel volunteering volunteer voluntourism casa_hoy alternative_travel cell_phones travel_in_cuernavaca alternate_travel volunteering_with_children voluneering_in_mexico active_volunteering Comments (0)

Treehouse Wisdom at Comunidad de los Niños

There’s something magical about sitting in a tree house exchanging secrets. It’s a safe place, a creative place, where you’re allowed to dream dreams and tell stories. There, you can escape from chores, avoid homework and be in charge of things. Being welcomed into that special world as a kid is a privilege, but being an adult and getting an invitation is a rare allowance.

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Although I frequently indulge my “child at heart” and behave childishly enough to drive some adults nuts, I don’t have that unforced, easy going ability of immediately connecting with children that others possess. Given that I speak fluent Spanish, sometimes I feel a duty to step in and be another “adult” hand or voice. Many times when I volunteer with children I end up trying to keep order, the peace or whatever else needs to be ruled.

I was never free of that self-imposed responsibility until I started volunteering at Comunidad de los Niños, one of Casa HOY’s more recent childcare projects for elementary aged boys from low-income single parent families. There are two things that make Comunidad a unique place to volunteer: number one, the staff is beyond fabulous. Although they have 10 kids at once vying for their attention, they always find time to say hi to volunteers, to sit down and help a child with homework, or to answer a question or give a hug. Volunteers that work at Comunidad know that mayhem will reign several times a day, but the staff will take care of it. Number two, they’re boys. I grew up with two sisters, so people might argue otherwise, but in my limited experience dealing with boys is so straight forward. There are still tears and fights and friendships broken and fixed. But drama is short-lived, contained and usually settled right there on the playground.

Or in the tree house.

Today I was given a special chance to hang out in that tree house world for most of the day. I played chess with a four-year-old who unabashedly took out my queen with his pawns that jumped all over the board. I challenged a six year old to a matching game that he had done so many times everyone thought he was cheating. Lost that game, too. I spent half an hour at the lunch table with two boys talking about who could eat the most. I held hands and walked an eight-year-old to class, learning the strategies to Gears of War and other video games that I will never, ever play. And at the end of the day, I went back and hung out in that tree house just a little longer, hearing ghost stories about the old woman that lives in the ravine next to the house.

Those that often volunteer with children will know that those tree house moments aren’t everyday occurrences. And if you’re a new volunteer, you might have to work to find the child in you, to remember seeing animals in the clouds and giving your siblings wet willies and playing with the same ball for hours on end. Casa HOY has several childcare projects, and they all offer fun and challenging experiences. What is so refreshing and stimulating about Comunidad de los Niños is how easy the friendship of a child is to come by. You might finally stop saying “kids these days” and actually join them in being one.

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Posted by UnMejorHOY 27.03.2013 10:08 Archived in Mexico Tagged children cuernavaca casa_hoy childcare working_with_children volunteering_with_children voluneering_in_mexico family_volunteering active_volunteering Comments (0)

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