Wednesday, September 3, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Be yourself like Ida was herself

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL-related article on my blog at the start of every month, and the carnival is always published on the 5th by that month's host. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating.

This month's host is Jamie Phillips of The Accidental Nomad, which is where you can read all of this month's entries.

Prompt: Who was the best travel companion or person you met along the road and why?

I have met some great people through my travels and hostel stays over the years, but the one who jumped into my mind first was Ida.

I spent two weeks of my winter break in 2011-12 living with Ida and many others who came and went while working in exchange for food and accommodation (through HelpX) in Válor, Spain.

New Year's Day hike in Válor, Spain

I don't know Ida well and I have no idea where she is today, but her impression has clearly stuck with me.

Pictureless description of Ida

Although I have pictures of Ida, she was wary of me even taking one back when we were together, as she didn't want them to be put online anywhere. So I'll take a stab at creating an image in your mind solely with words instead.

Ida, in her early 20s, had hair as short as a buzz from the front, covering the first quarter of her skull in a dyed deep, dark brown with a hint of red. But the rest of her hair was long and blonde, often piled on top of her head in a heap.

Ida had a tiny nose ring on her septum, and both ear lobes had been stretched out around black ear gauge loops. Both arms were inked; the upper left arm had a black and grey design covering nearly all of the skin, while her right arm's tattoo began in the lower arm with a flowery vine curling around the arm, and gorgeous birds flying across the upper arm.

Her face was round and cute, and it's that face with her kind smile and eyes that I remember clearly (I'd actually completely forgotten about the tattoos, nose ring, and ear gauges until I looked at a photo to write this post).

Ida was from Denmark, and was pleasant to be around. She had a calm aura about her, and though she wasn't overly outgoing, Ida often said things that were a little too bold for me to say, but thoughts I'd had myself. I found her honesty refreshing, and perhaps both her slight accent and the way she phrased things in English - in ways that native speakers would not - added to her interesting character.

Skinny dipping in the afternoon

Although my time with her was in December and January, this was southern Spain, so the temperatures could reach the upper 60s and 70s in the afternoon. One day after working, the four of us HelpXers who remained that day made our way to the pool.

Before I knew it, Ida had stripped off all of her clothes and dived in, then not long after, hopped out and wrapped up in a towel to warm up.

The other two volunteers had been working at this location for several months, so they must have witnessed Ida do this many times. But this was many years before I was ever introduced and accustomed to the Korean jjimjilbang (spa), so at this point I had never had friends just get naked in front of me before.

To me, Ida was strong and brave to not care what others thought, while I was shy and cautious in comparison. She was different from the norm - I mean, who was hesitant to even have their picture taken with a friend on a personal digital camera?


Ida was learning Spanish, and had a rather advanced level already when I met her. Sometimes she would chat with the Spanish construction workers that our hosts paid to do various tasks for their projects. One day she and I talked together in Spanish, and we both enjoyed ourselves.

During my stay she lent me a short book in Spanish (originally written in English) about a seagull, Juan Salvador Gaviota by Richard Bach. It taught important life lessons through the story of this gull, and reading it at that particular moment in my life felt significant. The book has a strong association with Ida in my mind, since she's the one who had read it and lent it to me.

Crafty and creative

On our help exchange we were up early, but that meant we finished working at one every afternoon, and then had lunch. Thus every afternoon and evening were ours to fill. We were out in the mountains and it felt amazing to be disconnected. We filled the time by going for hikes, reading, walking into town, giving ourselves temporary tattoos from gum wrappers - you know.

Christmas Day hike with the other HelpX volunteers

Sometimes our hosts would cut the solar-powered electricity from the house where we stayed if someone had used too much during the day, so we'd play cards by candle light when that happened.

Playing cards by candlelight

One night after dinner, I found Ida dipping sheets of paper into a bowl of red wine, and then laying them out to dry. There were wine-soaked pages in various stages scattered all over the kitchen. She was going to make a book with the pages once they dried.

How creative, I thought. Who else would think to do this on a Wednesday evening? Both Ida and another volunteer sparked my creative juices that winter, which led to the making of my kindle case after vacation.

Free education

The other fact I remember about Ida is that at some point she mentioned the classes she had taken at her university in Denmark - which were completely free. I lusted for some time about the idea of a free university after she told me, daydreaming about moving to Denmark and taking whatever classes I wanted. Reality struck when it came out that most of these classes were not instructed in English. Well, shoot...

After returning back to Madrid after my HelpX gig, I sent Ida a piece of snail mail to the address where we had been. I'm not sure if she ever received it, for she might have taken off for a new destination before it arrived. And that was the last "interaction" I had with Ida, if you can even call it that.

A lasting impression

I can't say exactly why Ida made such an impression on me in the few days that I was with her, but she did. Her qualities that I noticed and admired could have very well just been cultural differences, but this didn't stop me from idealizing her during the time that's passed since we met. I think Ida represents a free spirit to me, a strong and creative person who's not afraid to go against the grain.

There are so many people in my life with certain qualities I strive to acquire. Smile more like the librarian at my elementary school in Korea, say hello to everyone and ask how they are - like one of the professors I used to work with in Madison always did, have focus and discipline to work on habits and hobbies like Brent, etc. And in the foggy background of my mind, Ida has remained on this list:

Be yourself like Ida was herself, and don't fear going left when everyone else goes right.
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