Presenting: Danielle Weiss – Latin America Fan and Sustainable Travel Expert
8. You have participated in volunteer projects in Ecuador. Please tell us about hose.
When I returned to Ecuador for the second time I spent the first two months living with the Ecuadorian family I had grown to love during my university experience and spent my days improving my Spanish by studying at a language school in Quito.
I then spent the next six months doing an internship in the Ecuadorian highlands. I worked alongside two Americans and an Ecuadorian living in a mountain refuge studying one of the last remaining high altitude forests. We spent weeks at a time camping out in the forest, doing transect lines and scientific studies. We travelled to mountain communities where we worked with the local school children and planted native trees around the school.
With a grant from Yale University we tried to buy the land but unfortunately the local landowner wouldn’t budge. So after months of trying to convince the landowner we finally gave up and instead we decided to purchase a piece of land in front of the mountain refuge and create a high altitude organic farm. We developed the Nucanchi Yuracuna Foundation and I became the Director of the organic farm. The other volunteers returned home and I was left to work alongside a group of Ecuadorian farmers. We plowed and tilled the land and planted habas and quinoa. I bought books in Quito and studied organic agriculture and we planted native trees around the border of the land. We had plans to build a greenhouse and use it as a model for farmers in Ecuador. Unfortunately the funding ran out and I found myself ready for a change and a new adventure.
9. There was a time when you had very little money. You literally survived on a dollar a day. What happened and how did you handle the experience?
My next move took me to Riobamba, a town located just half an hour from the farm. I became an English teacher at an English language institute in town. I taught there for five months before returning home for one month at Christmas.
After spending a month at home I returned to Ecuador. Within a few hours of returning I was robbed and I lost everything! I didn’t even have three dollars for the bus ride back to Riobamba. I was only teaching one hour a day at the language school earning 15,000 sucres which at the time was the equivalent of one dollar per day. I had enough money for one meal a day and spent most of my time hungry. I knew that I could have called home for help but I wanted to see if I could survive on my own.
Luckily I lived with a wonderful Ecuadorian family who didn’t mind waiting for my rent money. I posted signs up all over town in restaurants and internet cafes advertising my service as an English tutor. Little by little I had students lined up and taught classes in their homes. In hindsight I know it was a good experience for me because I truly understood what it was like to live on almost nothing, I realized could overcome all obstacles, I learned to count my blessings and it definitely made me appreciate all the wonderful people in my life.
10. While you were in Latin America, you connected with the adventure travel business. How did that come about?
The day before I returned to Canada for Christmas, I was having breakfast at one of my favourite restaurants in Quito when I saw a poster advertising for a job to work for G.A.P Adventures, the Great Adventure People. The poster said, “Do you love Latin America? Do you love to Travel? Are you a Great Adventure Person?” I knew right away that it was the perfect job for me. While in Toronto I dropped off my resume at G.A.P’s head office before returning to Ecuador.
Leading a GAP group in northern Peru
After a month I received an email from G.A.P asking that I go to Quito for an interview with the Quito manager. Shortly after I received a call in Riobamba that I had the job. I had four days to quit my teaching and tutoring jobs, sell my car, breakup with my boyfriend and move out of my apartment. The next thing I knew I was on a 36-day training trip with G.A.P Adventures travelling through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Initially the best thing about the job was that I was given a $15 day budget for food after eating for less than a dollar a day, I was over the moon.
11. You spent about a year on the road as an adventure tour leader. What places did you see? What activities did you do? What was it like to be on the road so much?
I spent just over a year leading tours for G.A.P Adventures which was an incredible experience. After having spent several years in Ecuador I remember the day I first crossed the boarder into Peru. I was travelling with an experienced G.A.P tour leader and her group of travellers. I think I was more excited that day than anyone else in the group. I had never really thought about exploring more of South America. I had travelled all over Ecuador, to the Amazon, all along the coast, into the mountains, to the touristy areas, and to places that had never before been visited by foreigners. I knew Ecuador better than most Ecuadorians but I felt that I still had so much to explore and discover within Ecuador itself, which is why venturing out to another country had not really crossed my mind.
I was excited to finally see more of South America and I felt as though I was starting a new chapter in my life. Just like Ecuador, I also fell in love with Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Each country is unique and special in its own way.
As a tour leader I wanted to show each person in my groups what made Latin America so special for me and I wanted them to come away from their trip sharing a love for Latin America. I always made sure to include places that most tourists didn’t have the opportunity to visit. Sometimes I would take them to local restaurants in the non-touristy part of town so that they could try the local Peruvian delicacy, Guinea pig. Other times I would take them to visit my local family in Riobamba and we would spend the night learning how to play Ecuadorian drinking games with cards, and once I got my group to help make hot chocolate and bake bread which was delivered to children outside of Cuzco at Christmas. Other activities that made the job great were hiking the Inca Trail, white water rafting in the Amazon, mountain biking down winding mountain roads and visiting community-based ecotourism projects.
Like any job, there are pluses and minuses. I loved being a tour leader and was happy to deal with any and every obstacle that I encountered, like transportation strikes, mudslides, political unrest, poor group dynamics, sick travellers etc. Every day was an adventure and I really felt as though I was living each day to the fullest. But the truth is that for me, living out of a backpack, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants took its toll. G.A.P has some tour leaders that have lead for over five years and to this day I am in complete awe of them. After finishing my contract I felt that I was ready to take a break. I looked forward to staying in one spot for awhile, to sleep in the same bed for more than a night at a time, to cooking my own meals and to spending time with friends.
Kayaking in Patagonia, Chile
12. What learning experiences have you gained from your travels?
Travelling has opened my eyes, my heart and my mind to new cultures, people from all over the world and to the natural beauty of each country that I have visited. Despite having gone to university for five years, I feel that my biggest education has come from life and from travelling. For me it has always been about the people I have met along the way. It’s amazing to me how you can know someone for a month, a week, a day or an hour and you can feel like you’ve known that person your entire life. I’ve learned that we can learn something from everyone. When I travel I feel alive and I feel open to the world and to every experience that comes my way.
I have also leaned to appreciate how fortunate we are here in Canada. What made me realize how lucky we are were certain incidents such as watching helplessly as a man sliced off his finger with a machete, watching a woman writhe in pain in a village that was an eight hour walk from the nearest health clinic and having a four week old baby die in my arms. These and other experiences really made me appreciate how lucky we are to have access to free healthcare, safe drinking water, education, jobs etc. They are basic rights and I want to spend the rest of my life working to help people gain access to these things.
Travelling has also taught me that I am at my happiest when I live each day to the fullest and to appreciate everything and everyone in my life. I believe that we are all on a spiritual journey and that everything that happens to us, especially that bad things are because there is something we need to learn from them. The biggest learning experience is life and the best thing we can do is to live it.
13. After about 36 months in Latin America you somehow ended up back in Toronto. How did that happen and what does it feel like?
After finishing my tour leading contract with G.A.P, I spent the next six months back in Quito volunteering for an non-governmental organization, called Accion Ecologica. They were fighting the construction of a new oil pipline that was cutting through several natural reserves and indigenous territory. After six months of volunteering with them I realized that it was about time I figured out what I was going to do with my life next. After much though I finally accepted a position in the head office.
The first three months were very difficult as I felt that I had just left a lifetime of memories and friends behind me but this time I knew what to expect as I had already reintegrated once before. It wasn’t easy, but it has now been four years since I returned to Canada which is about the same time I was away and I am very happy to be where I am. I still get itchy feet every once in a while, but Toronto is a great city, I love my job and the people I work with.
14. You have become an expert in Sustainable Tourism. What does that mean and what do you do?
I currently work for G.A.P Adventures as the Sustainable Tourism Coordinator. I have seen the positive and negative effects of tourism and I believe that everyone who travels must be conscious of the affects they may be having on the environment, people and the cultures in which they are travelling.
Visiting Perito Moreno glacier, Argentina
It is my job to ensure that we operate responsibly at all levels of the company. In the head office we have implemented eco-friendly initiatives. On the ground we travel in small groups (max 12 on the majority of our tours) we stay in small-scale hotels, travel using local transportation and incorporate community-based ectourism where possible. It is also my responsibility to develop and manage G.A.P’s non-profit organization, the Planeterra Foundation. Through this foundation we support local community projects and international charities that work in the areas we operate.
15. What are you 3 favourite / most interesting / most significant travel memories of all time?
It is really difficult for me to narrow down three of my favourite/most interesting travel memories of all time. I’ve had so many eye opening, life changing, entertaining and interesting experiences that I really wouldn’t even know where to start. In Latin America, I have felt at times that I have lived an entire lifetime in just a few days. So when you multiply that by several years, I’ve got enough memories and stories to fill a book. For that reason I have decided to start writing down my stories and am hoping to get them published one day.
16. What are you plans in the next while, travel and otherwise?
My plans for now are to continue working for G.A.P Adventures in Toronto and to continue developing the Planeterra Foundation. Eventually I would love to live in Latin America and work directly with the communities we support. As for traveling, there are still many places I’d like to explore in Latin America. Other places I would like to travel to include India, Nepal, Tibet, Laos, Cambodia and West Africa.
Thank you, Danielle, for sharing your inspiring story and I hope you’ll keep us up-to-date on all the exciting things that lie ahead for you.