Fascinating Planet

In the listening/speaking class I taught last year at the University of Minnesota, our textbook included a unit entitled “Fascinating Planet.”  That chapter featured national parks and protected areas around the world, including Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil.  I had never heard of this place, but it sounded pretty cool: acres and acres of dazzling white sand dunes, which become dotted with blue and green and turquoise lagoons during the rainy season.


A few months later, when I accepted an English Language Specialist position to work in northeastern Brazil for 5 months, I realized that I would be living about 7 hours from that national park.  A goal was born: visit Lençóis Maranhenses.


And I did!  After presenting at a conference in a nearby town, some friends and I drove to the national park, where we enjoyed hiking up and down the dunes and cooling off in several of the lagoons.

It really is a fascinating planet.

I’m about to move to Teresina, Brazil to spend 5 months training English teachers there through the State Department’s English Language Specialist program.  I like to set goals each time I move to a new country, so here’s the Brazilian version:

1.  Take forró dance lessons.  Forró is both a style of music and type of dance, especially popular in the Northeast of Brazil (where I’ll be) since it’s from that region.  I’ve looked up some videos and it reminds me a little of cumbia, which I can dance a bit.  I’m really excited to try it!  Here’s an example of some basic moves, and here’s one of more advanced dancers.

2.  Visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.  I first learned about this park in the listening and speaking class I taught this past year, as our textbook included a page about this natural area.  It’s 580 square miles of white sand dunes, which develop lagoons during the rainy season.  It looks spectacular, and is in the state next to where I’ll be living. Sounds like a weekend trip in the making!
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3.  See Iguaczu Falls.  They’re giant waterfalls on the border between Brazil and Argentina.  Eric’s going to need to renew his tourist visa sometime in August, so that seems like a good reason to cross the border into Argentina and back, enjoying some waterfall views at the same time.

4.  Visit The Pantanal.  This is a large tropical wetland in southwestern Brazil, and a great place to see wildlife since it’s a much more open landscape than rain forests.  Sign me up!

5.  Enjoy some beach time.  My city, Teresina, is not on the coast.  Sadly, it’s about 5 hours from the coast, but go to the coast I will.  How can you go to Brazil and not visit one of their famously awesome beaches?

6.  See Carol.  One of my friends from grad school is Brazilian, and now lives in Brasilia, so I hope we can meet up.  I haven’t seen her for 7 or 8 years!

7.  Try cashew fruit.  Cashew trees are native to Northeastern Brazil, and produce a fruit in addition to nuts.  Who knew?  I guess it makes a tasty juice, so I’m looking forward to trying it.

I’ve been in Japan a week so far for a faculty development project through the U of M.  This past Sunday was my first completely free day out on my own.  Given that I can’t really read anything in this country, and I can only say “hello,” “thank you,” and about 8 random food words in Japanese, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself.  But I had an awesome day!

First, through the kindness of strangers at the bus station, I got myself to Monkey Mountain, a park just outside of Beppu that is loaded with hundreds of free-ranging Japanese macaques.

Then I got myself back into town, and with the help of a tourist information center employee and a friendly bus driver, took ANOTHER bus to the Kannawa neighborhood of town to visit one of Beppu’s “hells.”  (Beppu has a LOT of geothermal activity just under its surface, so steam basically rises out of any available crack in the earth.  Consequently, there are thermal hot springs and geysers and steam kitchens all over the city, including some touristy themed hot springs.)  I chose to visit the “Demon Monk Hell” because the bubbling mud pools are supposed to look like little bald monk heads.  And yeah, they kind of do.


Honestly, I felt a little silly for spending $4 to visit what was basically some nicely-landscaped hot mud pits, but then I saw something that absolutely made my day: a black and gold lizard with a METALLIC TEAL AND BLUE TAIL!!!  Whaaaat?!?!


I was DELIGHTED to discover that such a creature exists in the world.  It’s black and GOLD!  With a METALLIC BLUE TAIL!!  Isn’t this amazing?  We live in a world where spectacular lizards like this dart around nicely-landscaped hot mud pits – incredible!

I strolled around and successfully found a new bamboo workshop that isn’t even in most of the tourist maps yet. I also got myself on a bus going back to downtown Beppu (granted, it took a long scenic route, but it still got me where I meant to go).  Then I walked to the mall for a late lunch and decided on a sushi place.  I walked in, indicated I’d like to eat, and got sat at a bar with an electronic menu.  That was it from the wait staff – I was on my own to figure out how to get some food.  I scrolled through pictures on the tablet (because I couldn’t read a single word) and hoped I was ordering stuff.  A few minutes later, someone brought me a tall glass of wine.  Success!


And then, the most wondrous thing happened: the food I ordered started to arrive in front of me… on a little electronic train!  SQUEEEEE!

Baby monkeys, bubbling mud pools, fantastical lizards, and sushi trains – what a great day!!!


On Roots and Wings

You may have noticed a significant drop in my posting frequency in the past year.  You may have also noticed that I’ve been living and working in Minnesota this past year.  Correlated events?  Yes.

I could use the excuse that relocating and adjusting to a new job has kept me busy.  But really, I’ve been doing that about once a year for the past several years, and still went on adventures and posted about them.  The difference now is that my life in Minnesota is much less exotic.  I walk around lakes instead of up volcanoes.  I shop at Target instead of markets full of exotic produce.  I pay for car insurance and utilities instead of snorkeling trips and hot air balloon tours.  None of this stuff seems particularly adventurous or post-worthy.

Sometimes life here is comforting.  But sometimes, it’s crushingly mundane.  Sometimes I look forward to really settling into a long-lasting community.  But sometimes, I feel trapped.  Sometimes I’m relieved I don’t have another move coming up in my immediate future.  But sometimes, I ache to know new places.

In a word, I’m torn.



My desire to put down roots and feel more connected has been growing in recent years.  Family health issues, my current employment, and the housing market all aligned in such a way that it made sense for me to buy a condo, which I did this summer.  So in many ways, I can now call Minneapolis home, more than any other place I’ve lived as an adult.

I also went to Guatemala this summer.  I feel like I blossom – realmente florezco –   in Latin America.  The more open, flirty and fun side of me comes out to play.  That version of Estephy gets lost in the daily grind of “real life” in the U.S.

So I decided something when I was in Guatemala.  Well, maybe not so much a decision as a quiet sense of knowing: I’m going to move abroad again.  I have to.  It’s in my spirit.  I don’t know where, and I don’t know when.  But I know it’s going to happen again… sometime.   I can feel it.

While I’ve been busy putting down roots, I’ve also ensured that those roots still have room to stretch.  My job at the U permits a year of leave.  My condo association allows for rentals.  And THAT, my friends, gives my wanderlust hope.



I try to go to at least one new country each year.  For 2014, that was Guatemala, mainly because they offer super cheap Spanish classes and it’s pretty inexpensive to travel around.  So, I spent a couple weeks of my summer vacation down there – studying español and living with a host family for one week, and bopping around seeing the sites for another.  Here are my favorite photos from my trip:

Selling squash blossoms at a market in Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Selling squash blossoms at a market in Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Watching a volcano erupt from the Santiaguito lookout

Watching a volcano erupt from the Santiaguito lookout


Weaving in San Antonio Palopo

Watching a storm come in over Lake Atitlan

Watching a storm come in over Lake Atitlan


Swimming in Semuc Champey’s turquoise lagoons

Mayan ruins at Tikal

Mayan ruins at Tikal

Frozen Tundra

In November my family and I went to see the Packers play the Vikings at Lambeau Field.

IMG_20131124_103717871_HDRIt was fun.  And cold (something like 6 below with the windchill).  I spent most of the third quarter in the bathroom trying to warm up my feet.  I finally convinced myself I could make it through one more quarter outside.  And then the game went into overtime.



Chillin with my cousin and Aaron. Literally chillin.

And then the game ended in a tie.  A tie.  What is this, SOCCER?!?!

But all complaining aside, it was a great experience to see a Packer game live in the frozen tundra.   And I didn’t even lose any toes to frostbite.


English Camp in Venezuela

So way back in August I moved to Saint Paul, MN.  And then promptly left the country for two weeks to work at an English Camp in Venezuela.  I had such a wonderful time a year ago when the State Department invited me to work there that I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity to go back.  I got to hang out with the AMAZING board members who run the professional organization for English teachers there (many of whom I knew were awesome from my prior visit), 60 fun university students who are planning to become English teachers, and about 30 high school kiddos studying English through a State Department scholarship program.  We played English games and did scavenger hunts and made s’mores and sang songs and had a blast.

The highlight for me was the night of the talent show.  Some of the English teachers really pushed for me to perform in the show by dancing salsa.  At first I resisted, saying that salsa isn’t anything new for Venezuelans, and who would want to sit and watch someone else dance salsa anyway?  The teachers insisted that the students would love to see me do it, and would be shocked to see a gringa dance as well as I do.

Well, if you put it THAT way…

So we figured out which teacher knew the most turns.  Fernando and I practiced a little bit and chose a song.

The night of the show, the MC announced that I was going to perform a very very VERY traditional American dance.  When the first few notes of a well-known salsa song started to play, the hundred or so Venezuelans ERUPTED in cheers.  It was fun.

I was glad I did it.  The next night at dinner, one of the high school students came up to me and said “You broke my stereotype of Americans when I saw you dancing salsa.”  And that, my friends, is what soft diplomacy is all about.  So grateful for this career.