Presenting: Danielle Weiss – Latin America Fan and Sustainable Travel Expert
I had a chance to meet Danielle through G Adventures, Canada’s largest adventure travel company. G Adventures sponsored our first Travel Story Contest a few years ago with the fabulous top prize of an expedition cruise on the mighty Amazon River and in working with them I have had a chance to meet a few staff members of this unusual and highly successful ecologically and socially conscious travel company.
Danielle is one of those individuals, who at a very young age, could already have written a book. After growing up in Toronto and attending university, Danielle spent several years living in Latin America and also worked as a tour leader for G.A.P Adventures where she got exposed to a variety of countries and regions in South America.
Along the way she fell in love with the people and cultures of Latin America and made some key experiences that have shaped her for a lifetime. Let’s listen to Danielle’s story and how her time in Latin America has truly changed her life.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from, what is your background?
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Toronto by my mother. For the first ten years of my life my mom and I travelled to Europe on a regular basis to visit our relatives and when I was a bit older, we began to take holidays to warmer climates in Mexico and the Caribbean. Despite the fact our trips south were mainly resort vacations, these trips opened my eyes at young age to a world that extended outside of southern Ontario suburbia. When I was 19 I travelled for the first time on my own to British Colombia. I met travellers from around the world as I hiked and backpacked and I am sure it was this trip in particular that instilled the travel bug in me.
Danielle, working in an indigenous village in the Ecuadorian Andes
2. What other places have you travelled to?
After my first solo travel experience in BC, I decided to travel to the Middle East when I was twenty. I walked into a Kibbutz office in Toronto and within one week of deciding and absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, I found myself on a plane to Israel. I spent a month volunteering on a kibbutz and then another month travelling through Israel and into Egypt. Despite a bumpy beginning, it ended up being an incredibly empowering experience knowing that I could travel as a single woman through the Middle East on my own.
After that the majority of my travelling has been within Latin America with a few visits to places in other parts of the world. My travels over the past few years have taken me to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Borneo, Spain and Antarctica.
3. During university you travelled to Guatemala and Costa Rica. What were these first trips to Latin America like.
The year after Israel I booked my next trip to Costa Rica with a friend from University. We spent a month backpacking around the country on local buses and staying in hostals. It was low season so we ran into very few travellers along the way. We spent most of the time in the northern province of Guanacaste where we befriended a group of locals. We ended up spending almost our entire vacation with a retired cattle rancher, a doctor, a hotel owner and a well-known Costa Rican singer…Frank Sinatra style. Unlike my other trips, where I spent the majority of my time with other travellers, this was the first time that I got to know the locals who introduced me to the real Costa Rica.
Less than a year later I found myself in Guatemala for two months where I enrolled in one-on-one Spanish Language classes. I spent hours talking with my Spanish teacher who told me about the tortured history of her country including stories of her friends and family that had disappeared. She made me realize how lucky I was to have grown up in Canada and I learned that you can never really know a place unless you take the time to meet the local people and listen to the stories of their reality.
4. A key experience for you was your trip to Ecuador in your third year of university during which you studied at a local university and did some volunteer work. This time changed your life. Please tell us about that trip.
After leaving Guatemala my Spanish had improved immensely and I was ready for the adventure of a lifetime. I was in my third year of University and I had been accepted to a study abroad program in Ecuador. Little did I know that one year in Ecuador would change me and my life forever. I spent the first semester living with a family in a small town located about half an hour from the capital city of Quito. Even today eight years later I am still in touch with them on a regular basis and know that we will be friends forever. I studied at the university and took courses on Latin American culture, history, politics, economy but what I remember the most were my experiences outside of the classroom. That was the year I learned to speak Spanish, I made life long friends, I travelled all over the country and met new and interesting people from all over the world. At times I felt helpless when I saw the reality of people living in poverty wishing that there was something I could do. But at the same time I found that the people who appeared to have the least were the ones that gave me the most. It was then that I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to working with poor communities in Latin America.
Entering a mosque in Malaysia
During my second semester I lived on a reserve with local and international volunteers in the coastal jungle. We spent four months doing community outreach to surrounding communities. It was the year of El Nino so we would walk for days along paths through the jungle at times with mud up to our thighs, through torrential downpours and wading through rivers to get to these remote communities. The people in these communities were always so welcoming. We planted fruit trees around the schools so the children would have fruit to eat, we taught environmental education, and started a women’s coop teaching them how to weave hats out of banana leaves to sell. Because the international volunteers would come and go, my closest friends were the Ecuadorians who worked there. During that entire year I knew that there was nowhere else in the world that I would rather be.
5. What was it like coming back to Toronto after this trip? What did you do when you got back in town.
Saying goodbye to my friends in Ecuador was heartbreaking. They asked me if I’d be coming back, but I said no because I still wanted to go to Asia and see more of Africa. I flew home for a week saw my mother and my friends, quickly realizing that it was impossible for me to describe a full year of life changing events and experiences into a five minute synopsis. I felt like a completely new person.
After a week of catching up with friends and family I was back on a plane out west for a season of tree planting which I have to admit is one of the hardest jobs out there. I loved being in the outdoors, I loved working hard, I loved camping and I loved the lifestyle, but my heart and mind were still in Ecuador so I found it very difficult to adjust to the new people and situation. I decided I needed a break and time to digest what I had just been through before throwing myself into a completely new world. I ended my contract early, and flew back home.
Unfortunately coming back to Toronto was like being forced to snap back into a reality that I didn’t want to be a part of. Of course I had missed my mother and my friends, but I was going through some serious reverse culture shock. At the time I knew nothing about reverse culture shock, but it wasn’t until months later that I read a chapter in a book about it. I was so relieved when I realized that what I was going though was normal and that everything would be okay. They say it takes about as long for you to adjust as the amount of time you have been away and it was true.
6. Why does Latin America hold such a fascination for you?
I have no idea why Latin America holds such a fascination for me. I am convinced that I have spent past lifetimes there because when I am there I feel more at home than I do anywhere else. I love the people, the culture, the mountains, the jungle, the coast, the food, the music and the language. Individuals, families and communities have welcomed me into their hearts and homes and when I am there I really feel as though I am living each day.
7. You decided that you needed to go back to Latin America, where did you go and why?
In my last month of university I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be happy unless I returned to Ecuador. After numerous computer searches I came across a short 150 word posting looking for an intern to help out with a research project in the Andes of Ecuador. I worked harder on that application than I did on my final thesis and within a week of handing in my thesis I was back on a plane to my beloved Ecuador.
Danielle in Ecuador with Maria, the first indigenous woman to summit Mt. Chimborazo