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The G Adventures Trip That "Took Me," Not the Trip I Took

Nicole Thibault

John Steinbeck once said, “People don't take trips... trips take people.” Well, my G Adventures trip to Belize definitely took me, and not the other way around.

In the Fall of 2017, I applied for a year-long position as one of G Adventures’ Ambassadors of Change. I had read a book by the founder of G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, called “Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business,” and I loved so many ideas that he detailed in his book - finding his own personal path and purpose, and outlining his journey to create a company that can change the lives of the people in the communities into which G Adventure client’s travel. I was really excited at the prospect of working with the company that Bruce Poon Tip created.

Hundreds of travel agents from across the country applied for one of the seven Ambassadors of Change positions that are available each year. The application and interview process was quite rigorous, and in truth, a little quirky. (One of the Core Values of G Adventures is “Embrace the Bizarre,” and the interview process had a little of that core value as well!) I waited on pins and needles as the finalists were announced, and I was so honored to be named one of the 2018 Ambassadors of Change.

The seven Ambassadors of Change were charged with several tasks. The first was to travel to an assigned destination to experience first-hand a “G Adventures for Good” project within a local community, and see how travel can truly change people’s lives. Ambassadors for Change then share their experience with others in their community, advocate for G Adventures with agency partners, and collaborate with the Planeterra Foundation to support G Adventures for Good projects.

The G Adventures for Good projects are funded by the Planeterra Foundation, the non-profit sister-organization of G Adventures. The Planeterra Foundation has contributed millions of dollars towards projects in areas of social enterprise, healthcare, conservation, and emergency response since 2003.

In May of 2018, I embarked on my assigned G Adventures trip - the 9-day “Explore Belize” itinerary that would take me to Burrell Boom, San Ignacio, Hopkins, and end our journey in Caye Caulker. This trip, part of the National Geographic “Journeys” line, has not one, but two Planeterra Foundation-funded social enterprise programs - the San Antonio Pottery Co-op in San Ignacio and the Bike with a Purpose student-lead bicycle tours on Caye Caulker. I was absolutely thrilled to be experiencing the Bike with a Purpose project; I am a travel agent that works almost exclusively in Family Travel, and love to help all kinds of families take amazing vacations, so getting to see how the Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures helps children of Caye Caulker with their education and work-preparedness was going to be a dream come true.

First, our G Adventures group visited the San Antonio Pottery Co-op, located in a small village near San Ignacio.

Visiting the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative

Visiting the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative

In this community, where resources are scarce, education is not free, and schooling for girls beyond primary levels is not prioritized. Mothers often rely on other forms of income to help support their children’s education. So the Planeterra Foundation provided a grant to the San Antonio Pottery Co-op; with these funds, the San Antonio Women’s Group built several buildings with which to host travelers. Now, the women offer guests to the Cooperative a delicious homemade lunch, a tortilla-making lesson, and a Mayan pottery-making demonstration - all to support their families and help pay for their children’s education.

After a delicious lunch of chicken, red beans and rice, salad, and an amazing watermelon punch, we were treated to tortilla-making lesson.

First, the ladies taught us how to hand-grind the corn on a special pestle that is usually handed down from generation to generation.

Hand-grinding the corn for the tortilla-making lesson

Hand-grinding the corn for the tortilla-making lesson

Once the corn was ground, we each got our own sample of the dough to flatten and shape, and then we cooked the tortilla on an open-fire griddle.

Cooking our tortillas

Cooking our tortillas

Once we finishing cooking our tortillas (and tasting them!), we were also treated to a pottery demonstration. Our demonstrator spoke about the harvesting of the clay, using the pottery wheel, and using ancient Mayan techniques to decorate the pottery.

The pottery-making demonstration

The pottery-making demonstration

I even tried my hand at making a clay pot, although it turned out a little lopsided!

My not-so-successful attempt at making a clay pot

My not-so-successful attempt at making a clay pot

After the demonstrations, we had time to visit the Cooperative’s Gift Shop, so we could purchase handicrafts to bring home with us - beautiful pottery and embroidered items.

Both the tortilla-making and the pottery-making demonstrations were great hands-on experiences for our whole group, and we loved connecting with the people of San Antonio.

Later on our Explore Belize trip, we made our way to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of Belize. This small island has a very relaxed feeling, and the island motto is “Go Slow.” There are no cars on the island, and most people get around by foot, golf carts, or bicycles.

Because Caye Caulker is so small and far from the mainland of Belize, historically many students have chosen to quit school and find work after their primary-school years. In recent years, the local economy of the island has focused more on tourism and hospitality. In an effort to keep more of the children on the island enrolled in school longer, the Ocean Academy school opened in 2008, so the children wouldn’t have to commute to the mainland for high school. The Ocean Academy is the first secondary school on the island of Caye Caulker, and their programs provide hands-on and practical tourism programs, in addition to the traditional classes.

The Planeterra Foundation donated the funds needed for a set of bicycles, so that the Ocean Academy could develop a student-led bicycle tour of the island. Many of the G Adventures’ Belize travelers enjoy the Bike with a Purpose tour, and the proceeds fund educational programs for the students at Ocean Academy.

We arrived on Caye Caulker late in the afternoon, and made our way to the meeting point to start our Bike with a Purpose tour. At the school shop, we met Lillian, our tour leader; Lillian was a senior at the Ocean Academy, in her final weeks of school before final exams.

Lillian, our guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

Lillian, our guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

As we prepared for our tour, we were able to choose from a selection of beautiful purple bicycles, donated by the Planeterra Foundation.

The Bike with a Purpose bicycles

The Bike with a Purpose bicycles

Our group consisted of 4 G Adventures travelers, and Lillian began lead us as we wove our way around the island. We talked along the way, asking questions about island life and what it was like for her growing up on Caye Caulker. She pointed out many points of interest, like the Seahorse Farm and the island’s Human Society.

Lillian, our tour guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

Lillian, our tour guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

We made our way to Lillian’s school, the Ocean Academy. It was after-school hours, and the students had all gone home for the day, but I made arrangements with the co-founder of the school, Joni Miller, to meet with me for a tour of the school and to learn about some of the programs offered at her school.

Lillian and I visit the Ocean Academy school on Caye Caulker

Lillian and I visit the Ocean Academy school on Caye Caulker

Lillian showed us several of the classrooms, the student-made murals that covered the walls, and the award cases that lined the hallways. She also proudly showed our tour group a scrap book of her school’s accomplishments and photos from events and awards the students received.

Lillian showing us the school’s scrapbook

Lillian showing us the school’s scrapbook

Before traveling to Belize, I contacted Joni Miller to see if the Ocean Academy needed any supplies or donations. She suggested I bring several portable first-aid kits to donate to the Bike with a Purpose program, so that if anyone ever had a spill on one of the bikes and hurt themselves, they would be prepared with first-aid supplies. She also requested some plastic cups, so that the tour guides could offer water to the guests. I happily packed them in my suitcase before my trip, and presented them to Joni and Lillian during my visit.

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While on our tour, we asked Lillian about her studies and her plans for the future. She told us about how she planned to study hospitality and tourism at college, and that she was already accepted to a university in Mexico.

I could see how the hands-on tourism programs from the Ocean Academy, as well as the Bike with a Purpose project, had prepared her for such a career. When the tour was over, we parted ways and wished her all the best on her future endeavors.

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Now, months after my Belize trip, I think back - not to how many tourist attractions I crossed off an itinerary - but I think back to the people that I met. The smiles of the women at the San Antonio Women’s Co-op, and the incredibly authentic food they served at lunch. I think back to Lillian’s laugh, and the hope she had in her eyes as she spoke about studying at college. I smile now as I write this, thinking of Lillian in her first semester at college, fulfilling her dreams.

I truly believe that my trip to Belize took me, and was not just the trip I took.

Becoming a G Adventures Ambassador of Change has been such an honor and privilege. Being able to experience two G for Good programs that G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation have established changed my whole perspective on the possibilities about how people travel and the good it can do in the world. For those Travel Agents interested in learning more about the G Adventures Ambassadors of Change program, be sure to bookmark this link and check back in the Spring of 2019, when the search for the 2019 Ambassadors of Change begins.







Why I do what I do, or How I became an Autism Travel Specialist

Nicole Thibault

People are often surprised when they ask what I do.  “You’re a Certified Autism Travel Professional? How did you get into that?”

The simple answer is easy to explain: I’m a Travel Agent. I have a son with Autism. I started a travel agency that helps other families with Autism travel easier and with less stress.

But the actual story about how I became a travel agent that specializes in Autism Travel is a longer tale - one that starts on what I now lovingly-refer to as “D-Day” or Diagnosis Day.

Diagnosis Day kicked off a flurry of events - meeting new therapists and teachers, a rotation of home-therapy sessions for 20-hours per week, Doctor appointments, and more.

To be truthful, it was extremely overwhelming. I often felt like I was struggling to just keep my head above water. Friends and family could see how I was having a hard time coming to terms with our new reality and felt like I was losing myself in the process. People would tell me things like “You have to take care of yourself to take care of your boys,” or “Be sure to take some ‘Me Time’ for yourself.”

But how to do that when the only thing I wanted to do was to spend every waking moment getting my son the help he needed to connect with our family, to speak with us, and to learn how to play with his brothers?

I thought my “Me Time” could start small. I was always an avid reader, but had no time for novels anymore. So perhaps a magazine article or two while my son napped or was in a therapy session; I could manage a magazine article, at least. But I wasn’t drawn to fashion magazines or celebrity news - I loved travel magazines.

I soon found out that you could request travel brochures from far-away destinations online. I began requesting brochures from Caribbean destinations, from South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. I asked beautiful resorts to send me their colorful, photo-filled brochures to my house, and these became my solace. My calm place when I had a few minutes of “Me Time.”

My husband and I were always avid travelers and thought that we would have children and just take them with us everywhere. Hop on a plane with a few kids in tow and explore the world. It saddened me when we realized that this dream may not be possible with an Autism diagnosis; our son struggled with new places, new sights and sounds, and new people. How could he deal with travel?

So I went to these destinations in my mind. For my few minutes of “Me Time,” I could transport myself into the beautiful photos of gorgeous resorts, intense sunsets, sandy beaches, and glorious sunshine. It became my relaxation and stress-reliever.

Over time, with maturity and years of therapy, my son learned to cope with new situations. We slowly began to travel, taking small trips at first. Then an airplane ride, and then a full-blown family vacation. We learned how to research accommodations at each resort, theme park, excursion and activity - to make sure that we had everything we needed to be successful and have a fun family vacation.

While we might not have visited most of the exotic destinations from my brochures as a family, we are starting to branch out. We cruised to Mexico last year. We tried an excursion to Rio Secreto to explore the underground cave systems. And we’re planning a trip to Turks and Caicos later this year. All trips we thought would not be possible 10 years ago.

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And now I share my passion for travel, my experience and knowledge with other families with Autism.  Becoming a Certified Autism Travel Professional has become a natural progression for me, and I love connecting with other Autism Moms and Dads who need guidance about how to navigate their family vacations.