My top 3 travel experiences since joining TGS

It’s been almost ten years since I began working at TGS, and those ten years have probably been the most important of my life: I met and married my wife, witnessed the birth of my daughter (but also lost my mother and sister), bought my first home, began grad school, and hit many other milestones as my thirties rolled on. Throughout that time, I’ve also been lucky to work with some incredible people here at TGS and see myself grow professionally. I began as a research coordinator, moved up to the role of IT analyst, and now find myself as the school’s marketing director — a role I count my blessings for daily, as it isn’t every company where you get to market a product or service with extraordinary differentiation and a message people can truly get behind (case in point, one of my jobs out of college was a marketing coordinator at a sign production facility — hardly as notable as what we have going on here).

Our engagement in 2013

Like our students and staff, I’ve had the good fortune to travel during my time at TGS, seeing parts of the world that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. Before Bernadette was born, I’d routinely tack on an additional week or so when I would find myself abroad, something that is a little more difficult to do now, but I still try to negotiate whenever possible (luckily my birthday falls around the time of graduation, so I’ve been able to convert that into a lovely present on more than one occasion).


So for my first post for The Chameleon, here are my three favorite travel experiences I’ve had since joining THINK Global School. These aren’t in any particular order as I’m not sure I’d deem any single one my favorite (although Saint-Jean-de-Luz in France is somewhere I can’t wait to get back to — preferably with wife and daughter in tow next time!).


Japan


I’ll start with the no brainer — the ultimate pallet cleanser for our students after the whirlwind that is India (a country I admittedly don’t think I’d do very well in). While growing up my father was enamored with Asian culture (if I recall correctly I’m actually named after Bruce Lee). This meant taking in gobs of Chinese movies during my younger years — I idolized Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, and Stephen Chow; watched my fair share of anime in high school; and played Japanese role playing games on the Super Nintendo, Sega Saturn, and Playstation. Like it does for many, Japan’s uniqueness just holds an incredible allure for me.


Living in America for most of my life, which isn’t exactly known for its customs and traditions (not that monster trucks, oversized flags, and industrial grade fireworks aren’t cool), I find every second I spend in Japan to be worth savoring and cherished. Before joining TGS I’d been one time before in I think 2003 — my dad worked for Fujitsu so I had the chance to spend five days in Tokyo with him. It was great and a nice introduction to the country.


My second time in Japan was more memorable, as I was there for THINK Global School’s first graduation. The graduation itself was a spectacle, complete with a fireworks show that rivaled the best high-powered New Year’s displays put on by my rural neighbors here in Texas. The fourteen graduates themselves looked incredible decked out in traditional kimonos and hakamas, and the evening was just a perfect end to their TGS career. Hiroshima itself was not what I expected at all — mostly due to its size and cosmopolitan nature. It truly is a fantastic city. I think my highlight from my time in Hiroshima was visiting Miyajima Island with Mike and other coworkers — my daughter Bernadette would definitely have laughed just as hard as I did at the deer poop ice cream I treated myself to.

Deer poop ice cream

After wrapping up in Hiroshima, I trekked off to Kobe. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t given the limited time I had in Japan, but he ropeway to the Nunobiki Herb Garden was a lovely little experience and being a big fan of cats, I stopped by a cat cafe to spend a little time with some furry friends. My presence seemed to confuse the young girl working there, but confusion is better than alarm and she allowed me to pet away to my heart’s content for an hour while sipping on green tea.

After Kobe I traveled to Kyoto for two days, which besides the graduation was easily the highlight of my trip. I had very few interactions here (I think the only socializing I did might have been over beers for an hour in an Irish pub and with an older man who volunteered to show me around the Fukushima Inari Shrine alongside his daughter, who he let me know multiple times was single and available for marriage, much to her chagrin (my own wedding ring be damned). Japan, probably more than anywhere I’ve ever been, really lends itself to just being wandered around and taking in. You don’t need conversation if you don’t want it — why fill your ears with chatter when your heart is overflowing with contentment?


I really enjoyed hiking around the Sagano bamboo forest and visiting Nara, home to many deer (and more importantly more deer poop ice cream) and an incredible shrine, the Todaiji Temple, which features a massive Buddha and is just an incredible compound. Closest thing we have here in Dallas is Big Tex, the 55’ statue who greets visitors to the State Fair of Texas, which I admit is pretty awesome as well.


I also took the Sagano Romantic Train on my own because I have zero shame and it was a lovely little experience that I have the picture to prove. The Sanjūsangen-dō with its 1,000 Buddhas was also a really cool visual experience, especially after seeing one giant one. I’d be interested to see if they are the same size as the Buddha at Todaiji when combined — maybe that can be a mastery project for me or some willing student one day!


I closed my time in Japan out in Tokyo, which after Kyoto just seemed like any large city you find in the world. Turns out I do have shame, as I couldn’t bring myself to visit one of the maid cafes that can be found in Harajuku, so I learned that I can in fact be embarrassed. I think my highlight here in Tokyo would be visiting the Robot Restaurant with Lily and her husband Brian, which was definitely the closest I’ve ever felt to being on drugs without actually being on them — a huge accomplishment on owner and founder Namie Osawa’s part.

The Robot Restaurant

I also took in a Yomiuri Giants game at the Tokyo Dome, which was a ton of fun. Very different than an average American ball game, where people aren’t really participating in sing a longs or anything like that. Turns out the Japanese really do pick up their own trash during the seventh inning stretch! I love it. I also dorked out and went and saw a Dragon Gate pro wrestling event at Korakuen Hall, possibly the most famous pro-wrestling venue in the world. Not gonna lie…it was awesome and I popped hard. I also barely fit in my seat..definitely not built for gaijin.


Long story short, I love Japan, and I can’t wait to go back.


Some other random thoughts from my time in Japan:


  • Eating here as a vegetarian was way harder than I anticipated. I ended up eating fish sauce way more than I figured I would. Luckily the Happy Cow app exists and helped me find Buddhist and other veg friendly places

  • I definitely noticed that the Japanese have grown in size since my last visit about 12 years prior. They seemed taller and wider somehow, which was unfortunate, as I enjoyed towering over people my first time visiting even though I’m 5’11

  • The Japan Rail pass is the best thing ever. Japan is your oyster with this lovely thing

  • Scrambled eggs in Japan are awful, just like they are in England. America has the best scrambled eggs and it isn’t up for debate.


New Zealand


Shortly after Japan, I had the opportunity to travel halfway across the world again to another place I very much wanted to visit — New Zealand. This trip holds a special place in my heart as it was my first time meeting a lot of the TGS family for the first time, including Jamie, Chelle, Tashi, Chung Man, Rowena, and Sam Nelson. The TGS portion of the trip was all based in and around Auckland and was for professional development. Auckland itself was nice enough, but what I really valued about New Zealand was the chance to spend every waking moment outdoors. I got my first taste of this when Tashi and I explored Waiheke Island following a staff-wide activity of archery and laser skeet shooting.


Towards the end of the professional development, Adam and Rowena took myself, Mike, and Jeff mountain biking. Dallas is incredibly flat, so this was definitely an experience given the steep mountains and winding trails. I only went over the handlebars twice and walked away with no injuries, which can only be considered a win. Following the mountain biking we visited a beach surrounded by incredible cliffs, which, once again, made me wonder why I’m spending my life living in a city three hours from the closest ocean.

After wrapping up my TGS activities, I rented a car and headed out on my own. My first stop was Lake Taupo which essentially became my base for the trip. I can’t remember exactly what I was driving — it was something like a Ford Fiesta, but once you get outside of Auckland there is essentially no traffic, which is amazing. I was flying down country roads at 100 km/h, noticed only by the thousands of sheep grazing along my makeshift Formula One track. Driving in New Zealand is ridiculously fun and I miss it.


Other highlights from my time here include a visit to Hobbiton, which I’ll admit I figured would be super cheesy. But it wasn’t! It was charming and just a ton of fun, and I’m not even that big of a fan of the movies. In the afternoon of that day, I traveled to the North Island’s tallest waterfall, Wairere Falls, for a hike. This was just an incredible way to spend the day and once again, I had Braid’s No Coast filling my ears as I made my way up the jagged rocks to the top. Alongside mountain biking outside of Auckland, this might have been my favorite activity.

Hobbiton

Following the hike I was super excited to visit a hot springs just outside of Wairere Falls. I decided on a place called Opal Hot Springs, and eagerly went in, ready to soak up some sulfur in the thermal pools. So yeah.. the water was like a tepid seventy degrees and the other visitors were what would best be described as sketchy, so I cut the visit short (I found a much better natural park just outside of Taupo, so it all worked out).


My time in New Zealand also included a visit to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves (which I’m lucky I made it to — I underestimated how many gas stations there are on those lonely Kiwi country roads — thank god the vapors in the tank got me to one) and several other scenic hikes. Like Japan, I hope to bring my daughter and wife here one day.


Other random thoughts on New Zealand:


* Holy cow, New Zealand is expensive. It was like $17 for a veggie burger meal at a fast food place in Auckland.

* I wish I’d known how much gas costs here before driving all over. I’m used to paying like $25 to fill up my tank in Texas. Jaw dropped when I got rang up $66 to fill up that tiny tank.

* Kiwis are super friendly

* Why do I live in Texas again?


Costa Rica


So I’ve had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica twice since joining TGS. The first was for my honeymoon alongside my lovely wife in 2012, and the second was in 2018 to join CM1 for a week. As luck would have it, I tore my ACL about three weeks before embarking on our honeymoon, so I wasn’t sure how that would play out, but it ended up not being a massive issue due to a large kneebrace I wore the whole time.


For our honeymoon, Lisette and I stayed in the northern and eastern parts of the country. We started off in the Alajuela region, where we stayed at a rural farm, enjoying very fresh queso (made that day) and a visit to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. It’s worth noting that due to Lisette forgetting that she’d put her passport in the copy machine we ended up being late to the airport and missing our original flight. Due to that, we arrived a day late, and because of that, and due to the time of year, we weren’t able to get a GPS unit from the car rental place (we were there at New Year’s which is apparently a very busy time in Costa Rica).


We quickly learned about the kindness of Costa Ricans as when we would stop and ask directions, instead of just telling us where to go, they’d get in their cars and drive us there, sometimes ten minutes out of their way. This was a recurring theme — just the nicest people I’ve ever met. Truly mad love for the kindness of Costa Ricans. I guess not having war weighing on your mind at all times couple with incredible environments leads to that. I eventually did figure out that I could use my tablet to get us around by having it latch on to public wifis as we drove around. If it wasn’t for that, I doubt we would have ever made it to our second destination, Cocles in Puerto Viejo.


Driving there with sketchy wifi wasn’t the only thing we had to deal with. By the time we figured out where to go from San Jose, darkness had set in. Our reservation was an expensive one though and I was determined to get us there that night, even if that meant driving through the cloud forest. Let me tell you: I think this is the closest I’ve ever come to dying. We couldn’t see ANYTHING due to the fog and were driving on a winding road surrounded by cliffs. Lisette spent the hour praying while I chugged Coke Zero, seemingly emboldened by the challenge of the drive. After an hour had passed, we came up behind a bus, which was a relief as it guided the way. Around one AM we made it to our cottage and crashed, happy to be alive.


The rest of the honeymoon was filled with great meals, relaxing time at the beach, and a terrified and very hesitant Lisette agreeing to go zip-lining. She claims to this day that she didn’t enjoy a second of it. She’s probably right, but I’m very happy we got to share that experience together. We closed the trip out with a beach hike where we came across some adorable squirrel monkeys who were happy to have their photo taken and some super tiny armadillos, which I’m assuming had never been seen before and we had therefore discovered — my contribution to the science world.


My second time in Costa Rica was this past February when I visited CM1 in Nosara, Costa Rica. It was great to be back, but two things definitely stood out as different: 1) even thought it was still the winter, it was way hotter in Nosara than our previous visit. 2) the beach in Nosara was much more beautiful than the ones Lisette and I visited in Puerto Viejo.


I think that week I spent in Costa Rica was probably my most worthwhile at TGS, or at the very least very high up there. It was a chance to sit down face to face with many of the students and hear from them personally about their TGS experience. It was also the first time I’d been onsite since the launch of the Changemaker Curriculum, so I got to see how that works as well. I’m always impressed by how welcoming our students are to “outsiders,” even if they claim it’s because they appreciate having new people to talk to.


My week here reiterated that TGS really is like a family and showed me that the switch to the Changemaker Curriculum was as advertised: the learning methods are nothing short of amazing and the social emotional learning aspect really does have the students’ best interest at heart. The whole week felt so laid back and holistic, not really like a school at all. I think that’s the best compliment I could possibly give.


Random thoughts on Costa Rica:


* It’s sad to see people move here and wall themselves off — was especially noticeable in Nosara and the resentment it causes among locals is deserved

* Man, Nosara is one pretty beach. I felt so at peace here just sitting and staring out at the water. So one more time — why do I live so far away from the ocean?

* Nosara advertises miles of hiking but it was a mess and a lot of it was alongside roads. Wish I’d spent the little time I had for outdoor activities just beach kicking

* I could definitely see myself living in Costa Rica


Other Musings


Since this post is already fairly long (was planning on writing five, but if you’ve made it his far I salute you!), I’m just going to condense and share some other random thoughts from my travels over the years.

  • I'll take remote areas over crowded cities any day of the week

  • Really enjoyed getting to visit Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Oxford with TGS in 2015. All three cities were unique and had their own charm.

  • Just always love being back in the UK (was born in Leicester)

  • The number of police officers outside of a Manchester United game was crazy compared to sporting events here in the States where police presence is minimal.

  • Didn’t really care for Paris, but I absolutely loved the south of France and want to go back as soon as possible

  • Looking forward to going back to Spain this year (Barcelona and surrounding areas). Was really impressed

  • Dubai is one of the few places I’ve been I wasn’t really a fan of, minus the visit to the outskirts

Me and a camel
  • Went to a world famous vegetarian restaurant in Paris one night that was totally meh and then had one of the best vegan meals of my life the following night at a hole in the wall in Amsterdam

  • The crispy crepes in the south of France are way better than the pancake crap they pass off as crepes here in the States

  • San Sebastian is a beautiful city and not what I was expecting

  • Tashi can always be trusted for a meal rec

  • I thought Basque culture would be a bigger factor than it was there and in Bilbao

  • Florence might have been touristy, but I really enjoyed it. Rome as well

  • Italian food really is that good, especially cacao y pepe

  • I’m a total sucker for drink vending machines in Japan

  • I don’t eat enough desserts while traveling. It's like I forget I should.

  • Eating at Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok with Rachel was definitely one of the more unusual restaurants I’ve been to

Cabbages and Condoms
  • The Maeklong Railway Market and Floating market were really fun experiences as well

  • The amount of bikes on the road in Amsterdam gave me anxiety as I was constantly like a deer in the headlights

  • Really like to go to Finland not in November (HundrED needs to move to June)

  • I really like the FInns

  • Cuenca is a beautiful city and I’d like to return to Ecuador

  • I really need to spend more time in South America in general

  • I didn’t enjoy Athens as much as I expected, but look forward to more time in the islands

  • Vancouver >>>> Toronto

The 2017 graduation was a beautiful one

That’s all for now!

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