Brains in your head, feet in your shoes

How to make a Decision – Part 5

After my big self-debate over where to study Spanish, I had ruled out The Galapagos Islands because of it’s lack of business opportunity for me, it’s expense and it’s size. So, having decided on the Dominican Republic, I wanted to make sure that I chose a location that would give me a positive experience combing an active, vibrant community, business opportunities and be cost effective.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really do a whole lot of research on each of the cities / communities in the Dominican. I really just wanted to make a decision, go with it and get the remainder of my plans in order. I was pretty confidant that the most important component was going away to learn Spanish. I knew that no matter where I chose it would be a part of my School of Life education.

My main options for learning Spanish in the Dominican Republic were:

Punta Cana
Santo Domingo

I quickly ruled out the first three because I felt that they were too small. Right or wrong, who knows, but I felt I wanted to move forward and ixnay the options if they didn’t immediately fit my qualifications.

That left Santo Domingo, the capital of the Domincan Republic with nearly three million people, known for it’s history, architecture and vibrant dancing scene. It is a city that spans societal differences from poor and uneducated through to highly educated and incredibly successful. It raves of it’s strong Dominican culture, but has a splash of America that I felt might help me feel more safe and at home if I got homesick.

Having decided to at least research Santo Domingo as my first choice for Spanish schools, I also decided that I needed to talk to someone who had been through the process of deciding on a Spanish school before me.

I set up a meeting with Ed and Andrea Robinson while they were home in Nova Scotia after having just returned from South America and preparing to head off to explore Europe!

We met up at Starbucks in Dartmouth Crossing, sat outside on a beautiful day in May and they once again let me pick there brains for as much information as I could possibly handle.

Although we discussed many interesting things (which will be included in various other blogs), my main goal was to get some advice on choosing a Spanish school. Here were some of their suggestions and questions they advised that I ask the school:

  • Look into the testimonials from the school as well as recommendations on Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor
  • What is the average age of the students attending the school?
  • What type of Spanish do they teach?
  • Does the school offer cultural activities and weekend trips?
  • Who are the teachers? How are they qualified? What is their background?
  • Will there be nightly homework? If so, how much and what does it consist of?
  • Is it possible to have a private instructor, or are there only group classes?
Once again, after having chatted with Ed and Andrea I felt inspired, happy and clear about what I was about to embark on. I left with energy and motivation to go live my life!
I had already done a preliminary search for Spanish schools in Dominican Republic and specifically in Santo Domingo. I had found the following schools, all with their own benefits and downfalls. Most, within a few hundred dollars of each other, cost wise.

Instituto Intercultural del Caribe
Spanish Abroad, Inc.
CEIC Spanish School
Cactus Language School

When I found the Amerispan website, I got happily lost in it for a couple of hours. There was so much information! The website was incredibly professional, the English was excellent, they had blogs and live chat to ask questions of staff immediately … they had photos and specials and guarantees! I found myself reading and reading and reading!

There was information about the city of Santo Domingo and I already felt welcome by them without even having a conversation with anyone!

I looked through the other websites as well, but none of them excited me and gently held my hand like the Amerispan one did. And then, even though I was already excited about it I discovered two things:

1. Amerispan partners with Instituto Intercultural del Caribe in Santo Domingo, so this would combine the top listed google search school with the most intriguing website.

2. Amerispan has a great social media presence and offers discounts and programs to it’s students for following along on social media as well as options and incentives to become a blogger for them and spread the word about their programs.

I was sold!

Although first and foremost, this trip was about learning Spanish, I was also planning to explore opportunities in travel writing. What better opportunity to get started than to blog for the school and get a discount on my tuition for writing blogs that I would have been writing on my own blog anyway. Win, win, WIN!

So, having put Amerispan as my first choice for a Spanish school, I logged on the day after my meeting with Ed and Andrea to have a live chat with a lovely and incredibly helpful staff member named Alexa.

Alexa answered all of my questions and pointed me in the right direction for more information on several occasions.

She set my mind at ease that the programs, once I arrived would be somewhat flexible. I could start out in group classes, but if for any reason I felt that I would prefer private lessons, that could be arranged as well. I discussed with her my sincere yearning to take in as much of the culture as possible and asked if it was possible, if I had a private instructor, that we do our lessons on location. As in, walking around the city, attending events, sitting at coffee shops etc. She told me that this would certainly be an option by special request, but I would be responsible for transportation costs, entry fees etc for myself and my instructor. That certainly seems reasonable to me!

I also asked her about home work. She explained that just like in any other school, home work is a big part of learning, so there would be nightly assignments. Doing the assignments would improve your understanding and learning, but not doing the assignments will also slow down your entire class, so she stressed the importance of taking it all seriously. She explained that assignments could be based on reading a local newspaper and commenting on an article. Or maybe going to sit at a park or cafe and making observations. Or, watching a Spanish tv show and discussing it. That doesn’t sound so bad for homework does it? In fact, it sounds like a lot of fun to me!

I had such a great experience with my live online chat with Alexa that when I was done, I felt like my decision was made! I would apply for school with Amerispan.

I think another little space just opened up in my brain! The overwhelming, constricting and lost feeling that I’ve been having for months seems to be releasing just a little. What is this feeling? The beginnings of a happier and more balanced life? finding my passion? taking care of my own needs first and loving it? And let’s not forget the joy of making new friends! Thanks for all of your support Ed & Andrea!

One of my favourite quotes seems to fit just perfectly to tie this post up!

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
– Dr. Suess, Oh, the places you’ll go

Bumper Car Thoughts

How to make a Decision – Part 4

Oh I can feel the energy! Loud music, the smell of cotton candy and popcorn, children laughing, adults acting like children and the hum of electric bumper cars …

I excitedly choose a little red car in the middle of the bumper car pack, wait for the horn and then I start off slowly with a childish giggle thinking I can sneak past my friend before she bumps me. I test the gas peddle and my car does a little jerky-hop forward.


Ok, don’t get too excited, they don’t really move that fast, but I’ve managed to slip past my friend without her making contact. Now is my time to spin around and make my move!

Then with a jerk, my head is tossed to the left as a stranger blindsides me from the right and I hear him chuckle with excitement for his clever hit.

As I refocus my vision, I remember to step on the gas before I become stuck in the middle and forever battered by a constant stream of bumper cars waiting to attack my faithful little red car from every angle. Are those thoughts (er .. I mean … um … cars) ever going to have room to move again, or are they forever stuck in this grid-lock, surrounded by strangers waiting to attack … and then chuckle nonchalantly  about it?

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness …. I’m going away to study Spanish! EEEEEEEEEEEEEK!!!!!!

Wait a second … where is it that I’m going? oh right, I don’t know yet!

When I initially started thinking about learning Spanish in 2009, I had wanted to return to Nicaragua. I spent very little time there, but I felt such a big connection to the places that I visited.

But wait, then I traveled to Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands in February 2012 … and I decided that I wanted to go back to the Galapagos (in August 2012) to study. My best friend was invited to a wedding in Ecuador and I’d be able to visit with her before heading over to the islands. Then, while I there I could do some volunteer work, take lots of photos and see more of the islands that I had a chance to in my first five day visit.

But wait again! The Galapagos Islands are so far away and crazy expensive to get to! Not to mention that it is expensive to live there. And, well, it is a very small area. Will I get bored there for an extended period of time?

Maybe I should study Spanish in Quito, Ecuador? I knew a couple who had just studied for four weeks there before joining in on my Peru Through the Lens Photo Tour. They had loved it and both studies and living in Ecuador are dirt cheap. Oh wait … I didn’t feel safe in Quito, it was high altitude and well, it really just wasn’t my favourite place. So, cheap or not, that’s not really where I want to be!

Hmmmmmm …. there are so many Spanish speaking countries and I really would love to see them all. How am I ever going to decide? I can’t research them all, that would take too long!

What about the Dominican Republic? I had just returned from a beautiful week in Punta Cana where I was photographing a destination wedding. I had a couple of great local experiences, but felt like I didn’t really see much of the country because I was mainly on the resort. Let’s think about this option.

When I really began to contemplate the option of returning to the Dominican Republic to study, it just seemed to fit. It was cheaper to get flights to the Dominican than all the way to the Galapagos Islands. It was relatively safe for tourists, beautiful, sunny, beaches, Spanish culture, dancing, good food …. sounds good so far!

I revved up that little red bumper car engine and was poised to stomp on the gas and force my way out of the grid lock, but then hesitation …

I dug a little deeper in my thoughts … Although I had made the decision to go study Spanish for myself, I couldn’t totally ignore the part of me that found it easier to justify this ‘vacation’ if it had some business benefits.

Learning Spanish is something that I wanted to do because I was interested, but it was an extra bonus that it would also help me when I’m doing Photo Tours in South America. Were there other benefits to be found from the possibility of studying in the Dominican Republic? Why, yes, yes there are! The reason that I was in the Dominican Republic to begin with was to photograph a destination wedding. At our resort alone there were 3-4 weddings per day, seven days a week. Multiply that by however many resorts there are in Punta Cana … well, that means there’s something crazy like 150+ weddings PER WEEK just in this one area. Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could capitalize on this. Maybe I could arrange to photograph some weddings while I am in Dominican Republic learning Spanish, if that’s where I decide to go.

hmmmm … or maybe not.

Do I really want to be working or is this trip just about figuring me out? Well, maybe I could compromise and shoot one or two weddings to cover the costs of my trip. That’s not too much of a sacrifice! Oh no, there’s a hitch in that too … if I want to go this summer, that is slow season for weddings in Dominican. Not to mention that it is the nicest time of year in Nova Scotia and my main market for destination weddings would be couples from Nova Scotia. Geeze, I sure am glad I’m thinking about all of this!

Maybe the answer is that I don’t photograph any weddings while I am there, but I do some research to see if I can work with some of the resorts. And, regardless of when I do destination weddings, at least the Dominican has a high market for it. If I were to go to the Galapagos Islands, the number of destination weddings would be much fewer.

Did I just make a decision? Nah, I couldn’t have. But wait … maybe I did? What about all of the other countries that I could study in? Belize, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras … and the list goes on … It’s a big world out there, how do I choose just one location?

Look at that green bumper car … the driver is a maniac! He’s relentless! He has no shame, no compassion and takes a good hit on anyone he can, even if they aren’t moving. That’s not very sportsman like is it? Wait, he’s aiming straight for me on my one open side, as I’m grid-locked in everywhere else. I’m not going to let him beat my while I’m down! I’ll show him … GAS!!!

After several days of debating with myself and giving myself justification from a business standpoint I said ‘Enough is enough! Just pick a place and go with it!’. So, I did just that. Based on my previous experience in Dominican, the cost of getting there, the distance and the opportunities to expand my business there, I decided to just go for it.

With the wind dancing in my hair, a childish grin on my face and lots of driving practice, I starred back that the guy in the blue bumper car, I braced myself, put the peddle to the metal and hit him so hard, straight on, that it took his breath away.

Wait a second … it took my breath away too … all of a sudden I’m free of grid-lock. I gasped for air and then realized that there is plenty of it there to enjoy, I just needed to break free, attack head on and keep moving forward.


Go! And tell someone you trust!

How to Make a Decision – Part 3

When faced with difficult, overwhelming decisions, the only way I know how to tackle them is one step at a time. It doesn’t matter if you have created the situation yourself or been forced in to it … if you want to move forward, you have to do it one step at a time.

So, I decided to start telling people of my plans to study Spanish. As we all know, saying it out loud keeps us accountable. I started with telling my closest friends and my sister. I guess I was testing it out to see what kind of reaction I would get. For the most part, I got excitement … oh yes, and concern … but mostly excitement. I listened carefully to all of their questions so that I would know what I had to ask myself and come up with answers for!

Next up I began telling a few business contacts … again, treading lightly, before putting all of my weight forward. I’m not sure what I expected people to say … maybe I thought people would tell me I was crazy or that it was a stupid idea. Maybe I was waiting for people to convince me that I shouldn’t go …. regardless of what I was scared of, I was met by an outpouring of encouragement, excitement and ‘you can do it’ responses.

I think the decision was really solidified in my own mind when I told my counsellor. Yes folks, I am admitting on the big ol’ internet that I see a counsellor. GASP! She helps me put my head on straight when it gets twisted around backwards and I can’t wiggle it back around on my own. She’s unbiased, helpful, caring and doesn’t judge! You’d be surprised at how many people you know who see counsellors and life coaches, but its still such a taboo thing to talk about.

I remember going into her office and actually being excited, instead of discouraged and overwhelmed. I told her that I had made a decision to go learn Spanish and she simply said ‘And how do you feel about it now that you’ve decided?’

My response was something along the lines of ‘I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I’ve been struggling with being unhappy and overwhelmed and now I feel like a have a place to move forward to.’

That realization was huge for me.

For the last couple of years that I have been seeing a counsellor, her main message to me is to practice mindfulness and to be kind to yourself. She has gently been nudging me toward taking care of myself more and making sure that I make decisions that are best for me, my health and my sanity. Encouraging me to find, and leap a balance and fulfilled life!

Wow, I think the message finally made it through my stubborn armour and it’s pointy arrow made a clean slice right into my heart. Right where I needed it most.

I’ll never forget when my counsellor asked me ‘So, what’s next?’

Then the tears came … Damn it! I thought I was excited. I’m excited aren’t I? I thought I was doing good not crying! What’s up with this?

And once again, I was back into overwhelmed mode. I had made the decision to learn Spanish. I was strong and confidant about wanting to do it, but geeze, what does come next?

The counsellor helped me decide what steps I needed to take to move forward and off I went to think about the where, when and how to make it all happen!

Angel vs Devil

How to Make a Decision – Part 2

By the end of March 2012 I was fully distracted by my want / need to do more travel and to learn Spanish.  I had begun talking about traveling to the Galapagos Islands to volunteer and study Spanish. I had started researching organizations and schools. Just putting the feelers out, but I was still completely put in my place by my negative self-talk about it not being the right thing to do. How could I leave my business? Where would I get the money?

I started dropping hints to my mom by phone that I was interested in going away to study Spanish, but having not made any commitments, I didn’t have time frame or details, so just dropping hints! I just didn’t want to spring the whole idea of going away for an extended period of time on my parents out of the blue.

By mid-April I was packing up and heading off on my next little adventure to the Dominican Republic to photograph a destination wedding in Punta Cana. I expected the trip to be wonderful from a wedding stand point, but relatively boring from an adventure stand point. I was booked at a lovely resort, The Majestic Colonial and wouldn’t be spending much time off resort as I would be busy working. I had also promised myself to take some down time and relax by the pool or on the beach rather than packing my time full of activities. The trip turned out a little more adventurous than expected. You can check out my blog posts here for details on the fire and reminders about seeing things through other people’s eyes.

After yet another adventure in the beginning of 2012, I was addicted to travel. You could almost call me an adrenaline junkie wanna-be! ha ha ha I’m simply addicted to the adventure, but not specifically to anything that makes my heart race. In fact, I’m happy to have my heart just beat at a regular pace and keep me alive for my mild adventures!

So, after realizing that I wasn’t living the life that I wanted and becoming addicted to travel, just what would my next adventure be?

In trying to make this decision, I looked at my current life, my business and what I love. I struggled for weeks, talking to friends and colleagues about the option of going away to learn Spanish. In the end, I think what really made my decision final was that I felt the stars had aligned for the 2012 year. For the first time since starting my business in 2003, I did not have any weddings booked for the summer of 2012. For the first time, I would not be working most of my weekends throughout the summer. For the first time in nine years, this also meant I didn’t have a guaranteed $20 000 income from the summer / fall. Yikes!

I struggled a lot with this (specifically the lack of financial security)! First I started panicking and trying to drum up wedding business for this summer. As I was posting on social media, looking for couples for this summer, my heart wasn’t really in it. I felt like I was defeated because I wasn’t booked a year in advance like I had been in the past. Part of me felt like I had failed or that I wasn’t in demand any more. Then I realized that I was working against myself and fighting my own expectations. For the past year and a half I had been focused on building my corporate photography business (a purposeful decision) and had purposely stopped marketing for wedding business. It took me a couple of weeks to really get my head around it, but my business had gone exactly where I had led it. I can even remember talking to my sister and saying ‘Ok. I think I’m ok with this. I think this is just the time that I am supposed to move forward and stop marketing for weddings.’ This is what I had been working on for the past year and it just took me some time to realize I was ok with what I had set out to do.  I hadn’t failed at all, in fact, I had been successful! I was now in a position where my corporate photography was the mainstay of my business and I was no longer reliant on weddings. So, why would I try to go backwards and drum up the wedding business that I had been working to minimize? Well, because weddings were my safety zone. My guaranteed income. hmmmmm …. could I survive without them? I didn’t know and I still don’t know for sure, but I decided to look at this from another angle! Seemingly all of a sudden, I have an entire summer with no pre-bookings. Scary from a financial stand point, fantastic from a personal stand point! What could I possibly do with this new found summer freedom that I had actually intentionally created for myself by making a conscious decision to focus on corporate clients instead of weddings? Funny how when you set a goal and achieve it that sometimes you forget your purpose along the way!

So, here I am, with no concrete plans for the summer, no weddings to photograph, a desire to travel, time to do so but no money, at a place in my life where I’m confused and trying to decide how to move my business forward and even contemplating if I want to continue running my own business.

So, what did I do? I made a decision to stop worrying about everything because it is a waste of perfectly good brain power and I made the decision that I would step out of my business this summer to go do something for ME. What a concept! Taking care of myself and doing something for no one else, just me. I made the decision to study Spanish (period). I hadn’t made any choices on where or how long or how I was going to make it happen, but I had been dreaming of learning Spanish and doing a home stay since 2009. Once I made the decision I felt alive. Suddenly my self-talk changed from ‘you can’t do this’ to ‘what’s the next step?’. It changed from ‘I’m tired and I’m overwhelmed’ to ‘I can’t wait. Let’s get started. How am I going to make this the best summer ever?’

Negativity still creeps in though. It is like the devil vs angel sitting on my shoulder …

Devil: YIKES! Maybe this is going to be too difficult … are you sure you want to do this?

I was already overwhelmed with business and feeling tired and stuck in my life … how could I possibly take on this huge life decision right now?

Angel:  You are not living the life you want to live, so what are you going to do about it? You are going to take a risk, start an adventure, live new experiences and find your passion!

For me, the angel won the debate.

So, how do I make a decision? I use equal parts head and heart, or at least I try … and I take things one step at a time.

In this case, the heart part is going to learn Spanish as it is something I’ve been wanting to do for three or more years. The head part is making sure that it is a valuable experience, both personally and business wise for me.

How to make a decision? I think the answer is to have faith. Know that once you take that leap that you will do everything you need to do in order to make it a success. Believe in yourself.

In 10 years, will this matter?

How to Make a Decision – Part 1

When making a decision, you have several options …

1. Don’t think, just do it (completely an impulse decision)
2. Follow your heart (do what you love, but not necessarily what is most practical)
3. Do what you think is expected of you.
4. Follow your head (do what you know is most practical, not necessarily what makes you happy)

Honestly, some people do the same thing every time they make a decision … others have a variety of decision making differences depending on the situation.

Me, well, I’m almost never a #1 or #2. I usually follow my head, except in love (this will be particularly funny to those who know me well!). I’ve just discovered recently that even more so than following my own head, I often do things because I think that is what other people expect me to do. (I’ll have an entire blog post on expectations coming soon!)

Since 2009 I have wanted to go away to learn Spanish. Originally I thought I would go for 1 or 2 weeks. As the years passed, my interest in learning Spanish has stayed strong, but the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘you can’t do thats’ over powered everything else. Over the years I researched Spanish schools in all kinds of different countries, tried to think about when the best time to go away would be … continued to travel for other reasons, but hadn’t taken any real steps to make a decision on learning Spanish.

In the fall of 2011 I decided to purchase a Spanish Learning program for my computer (Berlitz Spanish Premier – I got my copy at Costco in Halifax). I wanted to learn Spanish, in hopes of leading a group of photo enthusiasts on an adventure called Peru Through the Lens. I wanted to be able to communicate in Spanish a little on my own. Unfortunately, I really didn’t study enough to be able to put sentences together, but I did learn a lot of vocabulary. I was the Queen of the one-word sentence or question! I had the Spanish speaking level of a two year old. Yay me!

In December 2011, the trip to Peru was confirmed and I decided this meant that I also needed to travel to the Galapagos Islands. I mean, really, it was part of the neighbouring country of Ecuador and I might never get back there again, so I should do it now, right?

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

It took me a good two to three weeks to finally decide to take the leap and go for the trip to the Galapagos. I had been thinking about the possibility since the summer of 2011 when we started planning for the Peru Through the Lens photo tour, but I didn’t put anything in place until I knew for sure that the tour was taking place. I did a lot of research. I asked my travel agent (Rose, at The Adventure Travel Company) a million questions about packages and pricing. I debated over land vs boat accommodations. Land won out fairly quickly due to my previous well known adventures in sea sickness!

What I am getting at here is that I did not take the decision lightly. I thought about it long and hard, but knew that I had to make a decision somewhat quickly (after confirming the Peru trip was going forward) in order to book my flights and tie them in to the beginning of the Peru Through the Lens trip.

I often get stuck when I am trying to make a big decision and I have come to realize many good and bad things about myself.
1. I always do research and a lot of thinking before making decisions. I’ve always been this way!
2. I like to think I have equal parts of head and heart participation in most of my decisions.
3. I am very influenced (or have been in the past) by what close friends and family members ‘expect’ me to do and how they will react to decisions that I make.
4. Sometimes I get so flustered and stuck in my own head that it stresses me out and I can’t make a decision at all. It is at this point that some people give up, drop the idea and run away. For me, it is at this point that I have a little chat with myself …

I ask myself – “Shari. What are you doing? You obviously want to do this (trip to Galapagos) … what is stopping you? If you want to do it so badly, you shouldn’t be stressed about it!”

I answer myself – “I’m scared that I don’t have the money. I’m scared that my business clients will find someone new to do their photography. I’m scared that my parents won’t understand. I’m scared that I’m going to love it and not want to come back. I’m scared that if I don’t go, I’ll regret it. I’m scared that I’ll never have another chance to see The Galapagos Islands.” Geeze! I’m a big ol’ scardey cat!

I ask myself “In 10 years, will this matter? Will you be in debt from it? Will you regret having traveled, learned, experienced new cultures? Will you regret it if you don’t go? Will you learn anything from it? Can you do this 10 years from now instead?”

I answer myself “Don’t be ridiculous … it is a couple thousand dollars, not millions! I can pay that off. The debt won’t be around 10 years from now. Of course I won’t regret the experience. Travel = education of a whole different realm than what most people learn in life. Will I learn from it? How could I not? Sure, I could do this in 10 years, but if I wait until then I might be married with kids and then I won’t have the money or time to do a trip like this … then I’ll regret not having done it while I had the time!”

Decision made.

Just after Christmas, I contacted Rose at the Adventure Travel Company and put all of the details in place for my five day adventure to The Galapagos Islands. Off I would venture, on my own, with the Spanish of a two year old, Vamos! (Let’s Go!).