Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Three Perfect Days in Santa Barbara

Three perfect days in Santa Barbara.

Seventy nine degree weather in December.  A calm and tranquil blue ocean, lapping gently against the sandy shoreline.  Gray whales spouting in the distance, as they migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska to warmer waters off the shores of Cabo and dolphins playing and leaping in the wake of sailboats and small fishing vessels, frolicking in the water for no apparent reason at all.  Seals splash in the waves just off shore, catching their meals and riding the surf as funny little sandpipers run along the beach, moving as one large group, dashing away as the surf rolls in and then following the retreating waves along the shiny, wet sand, bobbing along as they harvest the food particles washed up on shore.  The little birds move constantly, to and fro, heads bobbing up and down as they pick at the sand and yet I find the spectacle strangely calming and I breathe deeply, inhaling the delicious scents of the ocean air.  Three perfect days in Santa Barbara, and I could spend all of them right here, on the beach, inhaling the scents and feeling more and more alive by the moment.

Tom and I had never visited Santa Barbara, California and decided, on a whim, to go the week before Christmas.  It was spectacular, and has quickly rivaled Monterrey as my favorite California coastal town.  The sunsets on the beach were the reddest, most glorious sunsets I have ever seen, and the sunrise was equally impressive each morning.  But it wasn't just the beauty of the area that captivated us, it was also the people.  Santa Barbara felt friendly, and real.  The first evening we were there, strolling along State Street in the quaint downtown area, we noticed a line of old fashioned trolley cars decorated for Christmas and filled with merry families, all cuddled in blankets and sipping hot cocoa, ready for their ride.  We stopped in amusement to watch the spectacle as car after car was loaded with guests by young attendants dressed as elves.  We asked one of the "elves" about the event, and she shared that this was the Santa Barbara Parade of Lights - the trolley cars took their passengers on tours through the city, admiring lights on homes in the neighborhoods.  "We have been booked solid since October," she said.  "It's a big deal around here!".  We inquired if there might be any openings and as luck would have it, there were two no-shows on one of the trolleys, so we quickly paid our fee and hopped aboard.  What a treat!  Families were standing in their front yards, children dressed in their pajamas, and waving and shouting "Merry Christmas", as the trolley cars rolled past, blaring Christmas music all the while.  We shouted and waved back and the ride continued through the neighborhoods, each decorated more spectacularly than the other.  When the evening ended, I felt so light and happy.  It was such a fun time to be with local families, waving and calling Christmas greetings to strangers as they stood in their yards and open doorways, and everyone smiling and enjoying the season. 

Three days was perfect for us - three days of blissful walks on the beach, bicycling along the city paths, picnicking, resting, laughing, relaxing, sipping local wines and eating some of the best food I have ever had.  Visit Santa Barbara, my friends.  And before you do, call me.  I'll help you pick out your hotels, give you insight into my favorite restaurants and share the locations of some secret beaches.  And while you are there, make sure to sit and watch the sandpipers.  Their lively movements will calm your weary soul.




Sunday, June 23, 2013

So how was Vaughantown??? 

Time flies when we're having fun....and I can't believe I've neglected my blog for two months!  We had such an amazing time in Spain and then came home and got caught up in the world of reality and needless to say, I've had a hard time getting back to normal (whatever that is!).

Everyone I've talked to about my trip to Spain has asked about the Vaughantown experience and I wish I could capture it for you in words, but I can't.  Not entirely.  So much of what we experienced there was feelings - connections with others, Spaniards and Anglos, and the start of beautiful global friendships and for me personally, it was a life changing event.  My local newspaper asked me to contribute an article about my experiences, so here it is.  It's a bit lengthy, but I hope you enjoy and get a flavor for the time Tom and I spent in Spain.

“What does it mean to say, ‘you’re in the doghouse’,” Pilar asked as we walked along a beautiful mountain trail in Rascafria, Spain.  I thought about her question, frowning as I considered how to explain this American phrase to the lovely Spanish woman from Barcelona.  I was in Spain participating in a volunteer English language immersion program for Spanish adults with an organization called Vaughantown.  The program partners native English speaking adults, (referred to as Anglos), from around the globe, with Spaniards seeking to improve their English language skills.  The Anglo volunteers travel to Spain at their own expense, and spend six days in a remote location with the Spaniards, many of whom are there for professional development, speaking and engaging together all in English.  Many people have asked if I speak Spanish – the answer is no, not really.  But that’s the beauty of Vaughantown - the only rules of the week are, “No Spanish may be spoken”, and “have fun and learn in English”.   The goal of the program is to help the Spaniards improve their English, which in turn will benefit them in their personal and professional lives. 

My husband, Tom, and I learned of this program last summer and applied to participate. We were accepted to attend a session in May, 2013 and we began planning our Spanish adventure -- we would participate in Vaughantown for one week and tour Southern Spain the next week.  We flew to Madrid and met up with our group on a warm Sunday morning.  There were 17 Anglos, including us, and we hailed from England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and the US.  Some of the Anglos were repeat volunteers, having enjoyed their original experiences so much.  The 13 Spaniards were from all across Spain and the group included Lawyers, Engineers, Business Directors and University Professors, all attending to expand their careers  We traveled two hours by bus to a Sheraton hotel that was attached to a 700 year old functioning monastery.  The hotel grounds border a natural park, ringed by snow capped mountains and filled with winding nature trails that lead to ponds, rivers, meadows and the rural village of Rascafria, two miles away.  This beautiful but remote location would be our base for the week and we would spend each day immersed with one another; talking, eating, working, and experiencing life together, all in the English language.  We boarded the bus as strangers, but we ended the week as tight friends who will never forget one another or the time we spent in the beautiful Spanish mountains.

Our days were full, beginning with a wakeup call at 8:15 and ending with dinner at 9:00 pm.  We ate all of our meals together, and the tables in the large dining room were set for four – two Anglos and two Spaniards at each.  We were asked to “mix it up” during the week, sitting with new people at each meal.  Not only did this allow us to get to know one another better, it also allowed the Spaniards the opportunity to hear a variety of English accents and terms, helping them to become more proficient at speaking English.  During our first couple of meals together, the conversations were fairly formal as we became acquainted with one another and the Spaniards practiced their English, but as the week progressed we all became friends and soon meals were a noisy and busy affair, all of us eating, chatting and laughing amiably.  After breakfast we would receive our schedule for the day.  Anglos and Spaniards were partnered for 1:1 conversations and pairs rotated every hour.  Lunch and siesta was from 2:00-5:00, and more 1:1’s or organized activities occurred between 5:00-8:50, ending with dinner followed by free time.

The 1:1 times, when a Spaniard and Anglo were paired together, created a unique learning opportunity for the Spanish, with the goal of becoming comfortable speaking English in a casual and relaxed environment.  This was my favorite activity – getting to spend time truly getting to know my Spanish partner.  The first days we were new to each other and sometimes unsure of what to discuss but as we walked on the lovely forest paths or sat in the hotel courtyard sipping coffee, we would each become more relaxed and soon, we were comfortably discussing a wide variety of topics.  Evening activities were designed to stretch the English comfort levels of the Spanish and often included organized skits or plays.  We all learned to overcome shyness at performing in front of groups and we often ended the evening practically in tears, laughing hard at each other’s antics.   

As the week progressed I learned more and more about each Spaniard’s life -- their interests, families, jobs and the culture of their beautiful country.  My respect for the Spanish participants and my fellow Anglos grew immensely through our time together.  The hours were long and difficult, but the Spaniards were dedicated to learning and as I watched their confidence grow and English improve, I was glad to be a part of helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.   On the final day during the closing ceremonies, one Spaniard summed up the experience for all of us.  He stood before the group and, speaking genuinely from his heart, he addressed the Anglos.  “Thank you for doing this.  I don’t understand why you gave up your time or came so far to help us learn, but I am glad that you did and we love you for it." 

When Vaughantown was over, Tom and I spent another week touring southern Spain but we never stopped talking about the things that had happened in Rascafria and our new found friends.  It was one of the most unique and rewarding vacations we’ve ever taken and we are already planning for when we can return to Spain and volunteer with Vaughantown again.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How do you prepare for an experience with Vaughantown?

As I shared, I've been receiving newsletters with "what to expect" from the Vaughantown staff.  Each is unique, and focuses on different aspects of the experience.  I just received newsletter #4 this morning and found it interesting, and thought you might enjoy reading it, too.  I particularly noticed the part about playing Spanish Trivial Pursuit with the Spaniards in our class!  Oh-oh.  I have some serious studying to do - I can be a bit competitive myself, and I don't want to fall down flat with no answers!  Good thing the newsletter provides links to study Spanish history. 

A few weeks ago, quite by accident, I found a woman named Christine in the UK, who had participated in Vaughantown on four previous occasions.  We held a Skype conversation a few days ago and she shared some fun stories about her experiences in Rascafria.  But it was when she advised me to "begin preparing my skits for the evening entertainment hour", that I had a brief moment of doubt about my decision to go.  My skits??  I have no talent!  What was I supposed to do?   Tom looked at me like I had lost my mind when I shared this new information and for a moment, I was afraid he was going to say "no way! We're not going".  But then he shrugged, grinned and said, "Sure, why not?  This will be fun!"  I had to laugh.  What a sport!  And now, I need to get back to planning my skits....  any suggestions, anyone????

Vaughantown Newletter #4

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How did you learn about Vaughantown?

That's a question that I've been asked numerous times since announcing that Tom and I are heading to Spain in May and participating in a Vaughantown English class the first week we are there.  Well, here's how it happened.

I'm always interested in travel and last July, I attended a special interests class at my local college.  The class was about "Travel Careers", and creating your own future in travel.  Yes, I have a great job and a great career, but I'll admit, travel has always been my first love.  So, I signed up for the class, purchased a Subway sandwich for my lunch, and arrived in the classroom, eagerly waiting to learn how I could start a new career, or at the very least, supplement the one I have (like I don't have enough on my plate!!).

The class was actually quite informative but one thing that stood out to me was the instructor's introduction of "free travel in Spain".  Now, with the words "free" and "Spain" in the same sentence, how does one not pay attention?  The instructor explained the Vaughantown program and it intrigued me - visit Spain, spend a week with international Spanish business people and practice English with them all day long.  All expenses paid.  Hmmmm........ of course I was interested and as soon as I got home,  I convinced Tom to apply with me, and we were both accepted to the May 2013 class!

So, in three weeks, we depart for Madrid.  I'll keep you posted on how this goes!  We've received several "what to expect" letters and I'm really looking forward to this experience.  We are staying in a hotel that was, at one time, a monastery, in the mountain town of Rascafria.  To my understanding, the monastery is still there and monks live and work on the hotel grounds.  I am so intrigued and excited by this opportunity.  Clearly, I'm planning another chapter in Extraordinary Travels on an Ordinary Couple, book 2!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A visit to Spain

We leave for Madrid, Spain on May 8 - a month away!  Somehow, I managed to talk Tom into joining me on a trip that is half sight seeing, half volunteer work, but undoubtedly, all FUN!  We're going to volunteer with a group called Vaughantown the first week, staying in the mountain village of Rascafria, and teaching English to Spanish Business people!  I can't wait - I've heard so many good things about this program, and when Tom and I applied last August, we were accepted.  I will be sending updates to this blog and my Facebook page as we work - it's going to be fun, new friends shall be made, and most certainly, I'll gather the content for a new chapter in a second book of "Extraordinary Travels of an Ordinary Couple"!!! 

Has anyone been to Spain?  Have you ever participated in a program like Vaughantown?  Let me know if you have, I'm open to your ideas and thoughts!  In the meantime, I'm planning the itinerary, reading through the contents of my Spain travel guides, and scrambling to put it all together!  How time flies when we are having fun.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Soaring on Wings Like Eagles


But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. ~ Isaiah 40:31, NIV


I saw the first bald eagles of the season the day after Thanksgiving.  The pair was standing in a field, feasting on a prairie dog, oblivious to the noise of the cars flying past them on the nearby road.  I slowed as I rounded a corner in the road, the large birds catching my attention  and when I realized what they were, I quickly pulled off to the side and turned on my emergency flashers to caution the cars still racing past me.  I watched the regal birds as they devoured their prey, performing a slow and timeless ritual of feasting on the helpless rodent they had no doubt caught and killed just moments before I came upon them.   I noticed their rhythm - as one would lower its head to eat, the other would stand erect, surveying the surroundings for signs of trouble, taking turns accordingly as they devoured the meal.  Without warning, in tandem, they flapped their wings and raised to the sky, soaring up and away from the sight of their kill.  The meal was over, they were moving on and I watched them, feeling a slight twinge of envy as they raised effortlessly over the field, soaring higher and higher into the sky and circling away from sight.  


I stared around me for a moment, surprised that no other cars had even slowed, much less pulled over or stopped, to view this wonderful spectacle.  I suspect that the drivers were all moving so quickly, preoccupied with whatever was on their minds, they did not even notice the large birds in the field.  I pulled back into the traffic, and headed on towards home.  As I rounded the next bend, I saw the sign for a reservoir and bird sanctuary ahead and decided to pull in and take a walk - it was a nice day and the sight of the eagles had whet my appetite for viewing more birds of prey.  I found a parking spot, pulled my iPod out of my purse, plugged in the headset and turned on the music playlist, and began my walk along the path towards the lake.


I walked the half mile from the parking lot to the lake alone, then paused at the shore, watching the wood ducks and the Canadian geese as they swam effortlessly through the still waters of the reservoir, creating small ripples on the smooth lake as they moved.  After a few moments of watching and waiting, I decided to continue walking and turned to head back towards the path.  As I walked the music on my iPod changed, and the Brandon Heath song, "Wait and See", came on.  The song lyrics started soft and slow and I recognized the song, and thought briefly about changing it.  The music was a slower pace and I felt energized being outdoors - I wanted something with a faster beat to keep my feet moving quickly.  I was preparing to glance down and begin the process of changing the selection when something above me caught my eye, and I paused to look up into the blue sky.  There they were - the pair of bald eagles, soaring and circling above my head.

I stopped in wonder, peering straight above me and watching the beautiful pair dip and soar, gliding along with the wind currents and moving effortlessly several feet above my head.  "He's not finished with me yet," came the words in my iPod headset, as Brandon Heath continued to croon.  "Still wondering why I'm here, still wrestling with my fear, but OH, he's up to something..."   The words of the song and the soaring eagles above my head gave me a pause and I suddenly heard the message - "He's not finished with me yet... He's not finished with me yet."  New hope sprang into my heart - God has a plan, and it's not over yet.   The promise of Isaiah 40:31 came instantly into my mind - "But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."

As the lyrics of the song rang in my ears and the words of the Prophet Isaiah populated my mind, I watched the eagles soar effortlessly above the ground, dipping, gliding and moving with the currents of the wind, and I felt and knew that God was there.   The eagles were a sign of encouragement, reminding me to keep my hope in the Lord and soar on wings like eagles, as I allow him to finish the work that He has started in me.  I watched the birds as they continued their mesmerizing dance, then slowly, as the song wound down and came to an end in my headset, the birds flapped their mighty wings, banked to the west, and moved away from me.  I watched until they were out of sight.

How grateful I am that I noticed the pair of bald eagles in that field and that I took the time to stop and watch them, opening myself to the message the sight ultimately delivered to me. I wondered, how many times has God tapped on my shoulder with the intention of delivering a message, but I've been to busy to stop and listen?  Feeling a renewed sense of enthusiasm and a lighter step in my walk, I returned to the car and drove home as the lyrics of the song continued to play in my mind, reminding me that, "He's not finished with me yet." 

Photo by Tom McMillen

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Most Important Travel Tip

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world. ~ Francis Bacon

Our buddy Pete was a world-traveler in his youth and I learned my most important travel tip from watching him.  No matter where we visit with Pete he always takes time to speak to the restaurant staff by name.  He will discreetly read the person’s name tag and address them by name when they approach our table.  If no name tag is present he makes the effort to listen when the waitperson introduces themselves and refers to them by name throughout our time at their table. 


This small habit makes a significant difference, not only to those of us being served but to the person serving.  I can remember a specific situation where this habit impacted me more than at any other time.  Pete, his lovely wife Wendy, Tom and I had met in Las Vegas for a long weekend of fun.  We’re not gamblers but Pete was there for a conference and we hadn’t seen each other in a very long time so it made for a good opportunity to be together.  As we sat down in a small café inside one of the mega-hotels on the strip a young woman came to take our order.  She looked bored and uninterested in being there and as I thought about it later, I considered that she is likely treated as a non-entity by most of her customers, there to bring the food, clean up the dishes and perhaps carry a complaint to the cook.  I could understand why she seemed jaded as she approached our table. 


I observed Pete glance casually up at her name tag while she handed us the menus.  “Hello Amber”.  He said pleasantly.  Immediately her face changed, registering curiosity and interest.  He went on with a smile, looking up at her as he spoke.  “What do you recommend?  We’ve never been here before.”  Her surprise was clear and she seemed rattled, not sure how to answer his question.  It was glaringly obvious to me at that moment – Amber was seldom, if ever, addressed as a person in this role.  Clearly, she was unsure how to respond to Pete.  His questions were genuine and he was expectantly waiting for a recommendation. 


After a moment of flustered surprise, Amber gathered herself together and shared the highlights of the menu.   We placed our orders, thanked her and moved to our conversation as she turned towards the kitchen.  When she returned with our food I noticed that she lingered an extra minute, ensuring we were all satisfied with our choices.  I took advantage of the lingering moment and asked her a few questions about herself.  She opened up to all of us and soon was sharing fun ideas for things to see and do that did not depend on gambling and providing her personal recommendations for places to eat with the locals, avoiding the expensive and often mediocre restaurants along the strip.  Her face became animated as she shared and she came back frequently to ensure that we remained satisfied with our dinners. 


When the meal was over we gave her a nice tip and thanked her again.  I noticed that she watched us as we left, smiling as we departed the restaurant.  It was that simple gesture of reading her name tag and acknowledging her as a person that made all the difference.  Pete was no different after the encounter – that’s just what he does and who he is.  He sees people and responds to them as fellow human beings.  But for Amber, he had made an impact.  Her mood was lifted and she was smiling when we left.  I had to wonder how this change had been perceived by her other customers.  How long before the bored, jaded look would be back on Amber’s face, brought on by unseeing customers?  Such a simple step, reading a name tag or listening to someone’s name, but what a significant impact it can have on the person you meet. 


What did you see today?