Sparking Intellectual Curiosity in Cuba

I recently returned from a Cuban Expedition with 32 8th graders from The Philadelphia School. Cuba! Whenever I speak the word, eyes light up and questions start coming. We are so fascinated by Cuba, an intriguing mystery of a country so close to our shores. The questions are often political in nature, understandably, but rarely do you hear conversations about the stunning waterfalls and gorgeous endemic birds. But that is where the spark truly begins, especially with young students.

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Walking through the stone streets of historical towns, admiring vivid colors and architectural styles spanning centuries of influence is worth the experience, without a doubt. But if you are 14-years-old, how much intellectual adrenaline do you have pumping at that moment? Are you really intrigued? On the other hand, jump into a crystal clear pool of fresh mountain spring water and make your way behind the small waterfall, grasping at fern-covered limestone as your heart races with excitement. Now the spark has been ignited. Now you are curious – how were the guerrillas living in these mountains for so long? What forces could have driven them to do something so extreme? Did they, perhaps, bathe in these gorgeous pools and eat from these trees? How do the modern-day Cuban communities live out here without access to transportation? Stores? Food? Things people need to survive? If you are looking for a path to the heart of intellectual adrenaline, let nature be your guide.

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The kids have to climb into a starfruit tree in order be interested in learning the word, “carambola.” They have to toss the fruit down to their friends and encourage them to give it a taste, rather than just find it on their plate. They have to be given the space to come up with ideas, such as, “let’s try and make this into a juice… smashing it with our own hands!” These are the experiences that endure.

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You can walk through every museum in Cuba, yet it will likely be forgotten by the time they share the stories with their parents. I work with Chill Expeditions because we aren’t interested in the checklist of activities and attractions. Our end game is education; the real stuff.

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— Gretchen Ferrell, Chill Expedition Planning Guide 
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A 17 year old finds his “Mountain”: What is Yours?

What is it that gives our travelers pause? Sometimes it is an indigenous person you get to know who lives so differently and simply, yet has the same universal needs. Other times it is a scientist who is consumingly curious about why spectacularly camouflaged or armored caterpillars do what they do, and has such fun learning each day. Or it might be, after a week on a Chill Expeditions Educational Travel trip, experiencing the wonders of the rainforest and coming across a view of a massively planted, fertilized and chemically ‘protected’ single species (industrially grown bananas for as far as the eye can see – miles and miles, occupying virtually every inch) where once, not long ago, it was that same incredibly spectacular and diverse rainforest loaded with thousands of species…and wondering, “why?


I was about to write this column when I received an email from one of my guides in the field. It included a journal entry from one of the boys – JD, a member of our Chill Expeditions’ Ecuador Expedition. The trip is comprised of 12 days, five in the Andes at considerable altitude and seven in a rather different world – the Galapagos Islands, at sea level, 600 miles out in the Pacific. Each place can change a person – especially when the experience is well framed. What this 17-year-old wrote after the climb far surpasses what I might have captured about the outcome from executing my passion – creating experiences which give pause to travelers, young and old, about why they do what they do – or might yet do – and how they might now see life at home or anywhere a bit differently.

JD writes:

Day Four, Ecuadoran Andes, Climbing Pasachoa

Chill Expeditions Ecuadoran guide Axel tells us, “If someone comes back from the summit the same person something went wrong. Everyone should be changed by the mountain.”

We began the ascent up Pasachoa. I soon found a stick with the perfect hiking length and an elegant shape which calmed my growing nerves about the climb. As I gazed across the “campos” on our initial trail, Maria Clara (Head Guide and Director, Chill Expeditions Ecuador) noted that all of the land and animals around us were owned and cultivated by local farmers. I realized that although the towering mountains and rolling hills of the Paramo habitat we were moving through humbled and outshined the “grandness” of humanity, everything in nature moves in a circle and relies on different aspects to maintain life.


As we neared the top of Pasachoa, the familiar sounds of friendly conversation stopped and I was overtaken by a strange silence. The only audible noise at this leg of the journey was the breathing – both the deep breaths of my own lungs and the ominous wind that acted as the breath of Pasachoa itself.

Clouds descended on all sides as we began climbing over the rocks. To my left and right the billowy white fog forced fear upon me and I fell to my hands and knees, crawling across the now slippery rocks. The trail of rocks that led to the summit was maybe five feet wide with cliffs that dropped 1,000 feet on each side.

By the time I finished my crawl and reached the summit, the clouds cleared to reveal the city of Quito far below and the sprawling plains all around. I thought about what earlier had seemed like the massive height of other mountains now below which paled in comparison to Pasachoa – and it took my breath away.


On that summit, Maria Clara quoted her husband Ricky, “If you fall off this cliff, pray for death because if you survive you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

On the top, as we buzzed around in amazement, taking pictures and enjoying the view, someone asked “What time is it?” The truth is that it doesn’t matter what time it is or was on the summit. It seemed there that concepts such as time are as insignificant as the minor hills below that we walked up mere hours ago. As I looked around at the faces of our group I noticed that no signs of fear or doubt remained. All that was left was pure energy and excitement.

As we descended, I noted how the clouds were gone, along with my fear. I walked across the slick rock trail, no longer needing to crawl. In the middle of those rocks I stopped and gazed below from my 14,000 feet above sea level view and felt as though I could conquer anything.

The group was revitalized on the descent and exuded nothing but that energy. As we left the uppermost rocky section, we even ran and jumped down the still steep slopes that had scared us so on the way up.

We laughed the entire way. Gavin used his sneakers to slide down the mud and mimic skiing, grabbing onto “paga,” which is the tall grass of the Paramo. Trey unleashed his inner child and rolled down the grass.

For the final leg of our descent, a few of the boys even ran about a mile which is an extreme cardio challenge at that altitude! When we reached base and got into José’s jeep, the only thing on everyone’s face was a smile.


Thank you, JD! A beautiful perspective from a young man who resides outside Philadelphia.

Perhaps I will use the phrase finding one’s ‘mountain’ after what JD penned. As an educator I could not hope for a more thoughtful outcome. Then again, the group has not yet experienced the Galapagos, where many more ‘mountains’ loom, and travelers again are likely to be given pause.

As important as is the experience itself, equally important is a provocative frame, intentionally suggested and experientially fleshed out by a thoughtful guide. I love finding the likes of the very rare, talented educators and guides such as Maria Clara and Axel, who can always find ways to lead travelers to their ‘mountain’ or give them their ‘pause’ – of whatever form! Pushing travelers outside of their comfort zone in places very different from home is what makes experiential education and eco-immersive travel so powerful – it is why I do what I do! 

– Crawford Hill

Experiential Learning Expeditions: A College Prep Perspective

The following is a guest blog by Eric Karlan, the co-founder of Ivy Experience, a college prep company serving the Greater Philadelphia region. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with an individualized Bachelors degree in Journalism, History, and Culture. Eric has been widely published as a freelance writer in newspapers and magazines across the country. Eric can be reached via email at or via

It goes without saying that high school students must ‘do something’ beyond attending classes, completing homework, and taking exams. The academic transcript may be the most important piece of any college application, but admissions officers are seeking multidimensional students – young people who engage in their learning and the world beyond the classroom in meaningful ways.

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But what exactly does that mean?


All too often I have seen parents and students approach ‘building a resume’ from the wrong perspective. They seek to fill the page (and sometimes two or three) with a smorgasbord of clubs, community service, sports, employment, summer programs, awards, and accolades. They possess the false belief that quantity will outshine quality.


When admissions officers make their decisions, they are not seeking well-rounded students – they are constructing a well-rounded class of undergraduates. That is why doing a little bit of everything is only slightly more favorable to doing nothing. How can admissions officers distinguish these students who ‘have it all and do it all’ from a sea of applicants with near identical credentials?


More importantly, how can admissions officers truly understand an applicant if they cannot figure out who exactly the student is?


Whenever I speak with families about the college prep process, I ask them this question: “What is an admissions officer?” Most of the time I receive blank stares and puzzled looks. The answer, of course, is more simple than people expect.


“An admissions officer is a person.”


This idea, the human element, is amazingly lost in the present college prep process. Admissions officers are people. People accept (and deny) other people. People want to understand other people – they want to understand motivations and passions, hopes and dreams.


If an admissions officer cannot make sense of an applicant from their resume, essays, and recommendations, then it is impossible for an admissions officer to envision what that student can add to the university.

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All of this is not to say that high school students should be specialists. But there are ways for students to embrace their passions in multifaceted meaningful ways.


Take the musician, that teenager who spends endless hours in a garage with his or her friends, jamming out and writing music. To most parents, unless their child is going to go platinum, this seems to be a pointless investment of time – an activity unworthy of a college resume.


But imagine the possibilities! The student forms his or her own band – that shows initiative and passion. That same student assumes the role of band leader (leadership and organization) and writes the songs (literary and musical talent). Then that band starts playing gigs at charity events around town – there is community service. After recording some tracks, the band even starts selling CDs (business acumen), maybe even to raise money for charity (more community service). And in the band leader’s spare time, they make some extra money teaching an instrument to students in the neighborhood (work ethic). 


There are countless opportunities for high school students to embrace and express their passions in personal and meaningful ways. If a student thinks they are interested in environmental advocacy, there are more solutions than the Environmental Club that meets once a week after school. If a student wants to travel, there are abroad programs that aim to educate and engage (like Chill Expeditions), as opposed to simply serving as tours for teens.


Admissions officers are insightful. They know when a student is not authentic, and they know when a student is fudging a resume just to appear more accomplished.

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Students do not need to be maestros or all-stars or revolutionary thinkers to be attractive to colleges – even the country’s most elite institutions. And high school does not need to be an endless list of unfulfilling commitments that burden a student to the point of constant stress and unhappiness.


Whenever I sit down with a student who is working on their college essays, I ask them, “What do I need to know about you?” After all, that is what admissions officers are wondering. I always hope that my students are excited and invigorated by this question, that they can reflect on their high school experience and be proud of what makes them who they are.


Every student has a story. They simply need to embrace it.

Family Expeditions Mentality

Creating a family vacation that is a success for all members is no easy task. Planning a family trip may take hours and hours of preparation. A key factor in achieving success is the mental attitude applied to all phases of a trip: preparation, travel to and from destinations, and the execution of the trip. At Chill Expeditions we pride ourselves in embodying the idea of Expedition Mentality. The core of this mentality is that even on the most meticulously planned itinerary, anything can happen. Let’s face the facts. If you are on a family trip with children, chances are the unexpected will happen. Chill Expeditions provides you with the support to create the family vacation you desire and the experience to cultivate Family Expedition Mentality.
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Family Expedition Mentality takes in to account that obstacles are inevitable, yet they are viewed as opportunities. Chill Expeditions has many years experience traveling to international destinations with student groups and families. Our team is comprised of former teachers, as well as parents of children of all ages. We not only plan trips for families we take our own families on all sorts of vacations, from road trips that last for weeks, to day trips and international destinations. We have done it all! These experiences provide us with the insight to help our guides be prepared for both the expected and unexpected needs of your family while you travel to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Spain or Belize. For example, imagine that you are traveling in Costa Rica, where getting from point A to point B is not quite as simple as it is in the States. The kids are tired of being in the van. Since the guide senses this, he pulls over and disappears into the jungle, only to return with a tree frog perched on his hand. The next 30-minute break becomes an amazing exploration of this creature and the ecosystem that it is part of, which includes your family at that very moment!

The Chill Expedition’s team intentionally creates customized eco-immersion travel itineraries that suit the make up of your family, whether it be multi-generational with ages 5-90 or parents traveling with their teen-aged children. The key to successful travel as a family is to embrace a Family Expedition Mentality: be flexible as obstacles arise, prepare for those more challenging times, and most of all, laugh together as you adventure together!
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Chill Expeditions has created amazing eco-immersion family vacations to Costa Rica, Spain, Belize, Ecuador and the Galapagos for over 100 families. We provide you with the platform to create an experience that is beyond an ordinary vacation in an environment that allows the creative process to be fun and stress free. Chill Expeditions has the experience to create a trip that promotes Family Expedition Mentality at it’s best!


Here are few tips from the Chill Expeditions experts (the moms in the company☺):

1. Involve your kids in the planning process, show them maps and read about the geography, history, culture and food of your destination ahead of time to help get them excited!
2. Allow kids to pack a small bag of favorite things to bring along and that they are responsible for during the trip.
3. Pack small bags of surprises for down times during travel (mid-flight, during long car rides, long lines at airport, etc.)
4. Keep items like crayons, paper, books and games handy for quick go to distractions when younger children get frustrated with sitting still.
5. Plan ahead…know that it will take on average 20-40 minutes more to transition with children, leave early for each departure time.
6. Take lots of pictures and video. These are the memories that make it all worth it!

Coming full circle, the creation of a Chill Yoga Experience

Many of us have had opportunities in our lives to experience what it feels like to come full circle. It gives Sunset, Guanacasteus the feeling that all is as it should be, that there is direction in what may seem like a haphazard path in life. I am very fortunate to have this experience working at Chill Expeditions.


I grew up in a small town west of Philadelphia – attended Boston University on a basketball scholarship to study sustainability and economic development in Latin America – moved to D.C. where I learned as much as I could about sustainability from the World Bank and tended bar at the Ritz Carlton – moved to San Diego, became a personal trainer and yoga teacher and learned to surf – backpacked through Costa Rica  – moved back to PA, where I was a strength coach at Villanova, taught social studies and traveled to Costa Rica with students at The Episcopal Academy, married my best friend from San Diego, became a mother of three, and started working for Chill Expeditions.


Sounds kind of haphazard doesn’t it?…


Now, here I sit living a life that feels as if it were completely meant to be, as if I had planned it all from the beginning. I teach in an amazing yoga community and work with outstanding colleagues at a company that encompasses many of my passions: education, travel, nature, people, yoga and sustainability. My vision to create a unique yoga experience has become a reality through my work at Chill Expeditions


A Chill Yoga experience is more than a yoga retreat; you will have opportunities to connect on a deeper level with the natural environment and the people that make Costa Rica such an amazing country. On a Chill Expedition65720_10151421303452320_757843955_n Yoga Experience you step off carefully manicured paths, follow hidden passions and discover new ones. Your yoga practice will be interwoven with experiences that open you to a deeper understanding of the world you live in.


Our hope is that on a Chill Expedition Yoga Experience you will feel that all is as it should be. 


– Andrea Sarko





The Nightly Circle

A tired group of teenagers made their way to the open, thatch roof hut in the jungle. The day was filled with stimulating adventures, with an early start hiking through the rainforest in search of Costa Rica’s finest wildlife, and ending with a cultural exchange at the local school. The only thing on the groups mind was a good night’s rest. A circle forms, naturally, as the group slips into the routine of the nightly gathering.

Nightly circles are imperative to our Chill Expeditions student educational travel experiences. Reflection at night allows students to dive further into the into the emotions, sights, smells, tastes, and adrenaline of each day, forcing students to hone in on the experiences that they can resonate with, both during the expedition and beyond.

As students express their thoughts openly, the group unites and grows together, solidifying the strong connection that is made during the course of the expedition. At the end of the reflection, the bandana is passed, showing honor to the student that exemplified the greatest expedition mentality.

The circle broke and the students, feeling a bit rejuvenated, traveled back to their rooms with arms linked, laughter lingering, and a sense of calm before laying their heads to rest.

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Expedition Mentality Highlight

It was the last full day of the expedition as the group made their way back to San Jose. The students were overwhelmed with the incredible experiences they had behind them and the emotions to come as they geared up to leave Costa Rica. The bus ride was unusually quite for this group as they silently reflected on their favorite moments. Small bursts of laughter interrupted the silence as one student began to reminisce on a funny moment at the hot springs just several nights back. As conversation began to pick up, the group heard a distant pop as the bus moved off the road. There was some discussion between the driver and guide that some of the students could understand and quickly translated to their peers that a tire had popped.216588_1005944876729_9368_n

The group stepped off of the bus into the still heat. The driver scrambled to the wounded tire as whispers of complaints began among the students.  The driver returned to announce that the group had to move the luggage out of the bus and off the roof to release weight and retrieve the new tire. Gasps and sighs from the students drowned out the highway immediately. The guides, teachers, and driver took action, while the students stood by complaining about the heat, the amount to time this was going to take, and their sudden starvation. As the complaints continued, one student slipped away from the group. He peaked his head through the bus window and yelled to another student to grab the bag he had in his hands. From there, he gathered the other students around and told them they were going to play a game. Each student stood in an assembly line as they passed every bag off the bus.  Working together, the students began to tell stories from the trip, gradually forgetting about the tire and the heat. Hive-fives were exchanged as the ‘ringleader’ stepped of the bus. Later that night he was awarded the final bandana for showing leadership and motivating the group.
Expedition mentality is a key component to a Chill Expedition. Regardless of our detailed planning, situations like this are to be expected in experiential travel. Expedition mentality shows the ability to adapt, to motivate, to change a group mentality, and to always have fun. The bandana is rewarded each night to the student that exemplified expedition mentality throughout the day. At the end of the expedition the bandana is cut into pieces for every group member with the idea that this mentality, flexibility, and positive attitude will stick with them upon their return home.376892_10151957458910254_1133366330_n

The Chaperone Perspective: Preparing Your Students for Eco-Immersion

In a recent conversation with a fellow teacher, he told me a story about the best laid plans for a field trip with his students that became a complete bust due to lack of preparation. This wasn’t your typical “I forgot to reserve the bus” type of oversight. An experienced educator, he had planned every detail of the experience with his educational goal in mind, he had reserved transportation, arranged all necessary approvals, and even secured an expert to greet the students and blow their minds with the appropriate “wow” factor. So what did he forget?

As it turns out, the experience required travel to a part of the city so unlike their own stomping grounds that the students could not get beyond what they saw outside the bus windows to focus on the educational opportunity the teacher had so meticulously planned. The students were shocked, dismayed, amazed, confused, questioning, and generally blown away – not by the educational experience planned by the teacher- but by the exposure to such a different way of life. This was the center of discussion on the bus, back at school, and beyond. “Looking back,” the teacher commented, “I just didn’t think to prepare them for that. But you have to think about the whole experience and help them to process that type of thing ahead of time so they can make room for the experience you want them to focus on.” As an educator myself, this got me thinking about what it takes to prepare students for the kind of student educational travel that we offer at Chill Expeditions. I have come up with three ways to adequately prepare the group… but would love readers to share others as well!

In my experience, a thoughtful teacher prepares students for international eco-immersion in three important ways: Helping them process the unexpected things they may encounter, setting them up for buy in, and setting the stage for the social dynamic.
Eco-Immersion in Ecuador
“How do I help them process the unexpected?” you may ask. One brilliant teacher does so by taking the first 20 minutes of the van ride, after arrival, and asking the students to be silent, be observant, look out the windows, and take mental note of each thing they see that is different than at home. At the end of the designated time, the teacher asks what they saw, how it impacted them, and how they interpret those things based on their own cultural references. The ensuing discussion serves not only as an educational exercise, but it also clears the way for the focus to move on to other things as the student educational travel expedition continues.

The second essential type of preparation for students is what we call “setting them up for buy in.” The excitement level we see from students is vastly different when they have prior information to share and to apply to this new experience. Think of this as giving them “hooks” on which to hang their information. Assigning different topics to individuals ahead of time makes each student an expert in certain things the group will experience. When the student who researched volcanoes hears the local expert discussing the crater, as the group gapes at the gorgeous blue expanse, she cannot help but share her prior knowledge with her friends and formulate questions that are a step or two beyond basic. Studying the geology, the language, the culture, or the water system (for example) of the destination ahead of time gives the students an investment once they encounter these things in real time.
Volcanoes of Costa Rica
Finally, doing some simple digging into students’ interests and likes goes a long way towards setting up the group for a positive dynamic. Find out some of their favorite songs and put together a playlist of them for the bus rides. Find out about their favorite book or movie characters and why. Make it into a game a few nights into the experience for the group to match students with their favorite character. Ask each student to bring a travel game for the group and teach it – one per night – until the group gravitates to the same one night after night, having enjoyed it so much. These are memorable parts of the eco-immersion experience you are building, and you will be surprised at the impact it has on each student’s learning – not only about the world that surround them, but also about what they have to offer the world.
Congregation Kol Ami

Family Traveler Interview

Bob Wegbreit, practically a neighbor to our Ardmore, PA office, took his wife, son, and daughter on a Costa Rican Adventure for some family adventure travel in December. We were fascinated with his story because he had been to Costa Rica a few times before, but like many of our clients, chose to enlist our services to take his travel experience to the next level – allowing him to fully engage in his eco-immersion experience. Here’s what he had to say about his expedition…

How many times had you been to CR before traveling with us?
“This was my 4th trip. I traveled there when I was 22, along with a friend. I took my girlfriend back there when I was 30. And we returned with our kids when they were 3 and 1.  That was15 years ago, and I had not been back until and this last trip with Costa Rican Adventures.”
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How did you experience Costa Rica differently while traveling with us?
“Each time, I put more trust in the hands of planning ahead. I only pre-planned two things last time: two hotels and a rental car. We rented a house on Pacific side. The house was lovely, but it was a 25 -30 minute walk on a not-so-comfortable road to get to town. Navigating throughout was a constant challenge – driving is a challenge. So that tension never let us relax while exploring. So that’s the part I wanted to take out for me, especially this time around. You have to over-plan with a lot more time involved. Because we used CRA, you knew how long it took to get from one place to another, if something was closed you’d figure it out. When we ran into an issue, our guide worked around it immediately…. so I didn’t have to worry about anything, and could just enjoy the nature and surroundings and activities that I was there to do. Not only did my family have a good time, but I had a good time! Afterward, I sat down and figured out the added cost of having a guide and expert planners. I figure the premium I may have paid was probably the cost of an insurance deductible for renting a car! Maybe a thousand less, but without CRA, I could never have enjoyed it as much did.”
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Was there an unexpected highlight of your experience/itinerary?
Don Juan’s eco-farm – I could have searched travel books and online, and it would never have come up. Yet, that was one of the top 2 or 3 things we did. To see our 15 and 18 year-olds smiling while milking a cow, which they had never done before… it was tremendous. So many smiles there. We learned so much from seeing a farm, on which a wide range of ages lives and works. Example: They make sugar cane juice and sugar cane hooch – it drove home the point of many age groups living together on a farm. It reminded us how much fun an educational experience can be. Also, the rafting trip was one of the best organized trips I have been on. The guides were awesome. They made us feel comfortable right from the start. They were professional and made us a great meal at the end of the day.
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Do you plan to travel with us again?
Absolutely. Maybe next year – but our daughter is a senior in high school, so timing may be tricky. We have a diversity of interests in my family. My wife loves nature, our son wants to be coddled at a resort, and both our daughter and I love nature. We got a taste of all of that with you. It was a great combination of everyone’s interests and likes.

Thanks, Bob, for sharing your thoughts on your family adventure travel experience! We certainly hope to see you and your family on a Chill Expedition again soon.

Expedition Mentality at its Best!

Scenario:   You’ve been traveling all day to arrive in Costa Rica, and now you have a four-hour bus ride to reach your final destination in the cloud forest.  Along the way, your vehicle breaks down on the side of the road, leaving your entire group stranded for several hours.

How do you react? As a teacher, trip leader or traveling companion, this type of situation gives you the unique opportunity to inspire people to be their best.  You have the chance to take advantage of an impromptu adventure, and see how it can best be turned around into a memorable experience. How?  Expedition Mentality.

Non-Expedition Mentality Response:  Grumpy and impatient travelers reach for their iPods to distract them while waiting for the vehicle to be fixed.  They mutter complaints to each other, only re-enforcing their focus on ‘the problem’.

Expedition Mentality Response:  The group gathers in a comfortable space outside of the bus, ready to enjoy the time spent together.  They explore their new surroundings, finding interesting plants or insects, and take advantage of their guide’s incredible knowledge of this area and its natural history.  Someone suggests a game which helps pass the time and generates an abundance of laughter.  Someone else then entertains the group with songs she has been learning on the guitar.  Eventually, the problem is resolved and, as a byproduct, the group has created an incredible bond that will help carry them through the abundance of adventures ahead!

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Expedition Mentality carries over into so many experiences while traveling; be it strange insects in your room that intrigue you, a new activity that allows you to realize how brave you can be, embracing being muddy and wet for sake of adventure, working hard to help complete a service project that will benefit others for years to come, or trying new foods that provide deeper connection and insight into the culture.

By its nature, experiential travel will always allow for unplanned events and uncomfortable situations, but how you choose view those experiences will determine the depth of your growth and adventure.  What you put into it is directly related to what you get out of it!

Yes, this happened to a group I was guiding, and they chose Expedition Mentality!  By the end of our 14-day adventure, this was one of the tightest groups I have ever worked with.  Through their choice of attitude, they experienced profound growth and created lifelong friendships!

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 – Gretchen