Tuesday 23 Jul, 2013

Experiential Learning with EF Tour Director Victor Abarca

When most people hear the acronym TD, they often think touchdown. I can completely understand why. After all, sports play a major role in today’s society. Would you guess that there are at least another 161 definitions for this same acronym? According to the website acronymfinder.com, that’s exactly the case. When I hear the letters TD, however, my mind leads me to an entirely different meaning not even listed on the website above; Tour Director.

I’ve never played organized football. I’ve never scored an official touchdown. But I have traveled as a Group Leader with EF Educational Tours. And I have scored some remarkable TD’s throughout my 13 years of leading student travel. While leading my very first tour back in 2001, I had the pleasure of working with the highly popular and respected Tour Director, Sonia Formoso. She provided me and my students with an incredible experience in Spain, one that would essentially build my enthusiasm for and confidence in leading group travel for the years to come.

Costa Rica Tour Director Victor Abarca

On my next trip in 2003, I vividly recall our Tour Director, Sonia Waldo Licea, greeting us at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico. It didn’t take long for Sonia to win me and my students over with her warm personality and glowing passion for her beautiful country. As a result, I returned to Mexico an additional four times with students, and Sonia served as our TD on each occasion. We had a wonderful working relationship together and we remain in touch to this day. She maintained a great reputation among my students, which ultimately led to several siblings of travelers to tour with us on later trips. It was almost as if she was our own personal ambassador to Mexico.

In 2011, after five successful trips to Mexico, I had grown too comfortable with planning different variations of the same trip. I knew that it was time for a change, but was hesitant to do so. Then suddenly, the violence in Mexico resulted in a travel warning and forced me to look elsewhere. Being a Spanish teacher, I reached out to other colleagues that also traveled with their students to Spanish speaking countries. I bombarded them with questions to learn more about destinations, the activities pertaining to each tour, and of course, the best Tour Directors.

It didn’t take long before I decided that my next tour would be Costa Rica: A Touch of the Tropics. I had heard plenty about the beauty of the country, the highly active eco-tours that allow travelers to experience its rich biodiversity, and a peaceful and appreciative way of life, summarized in Costa Rica’s unofficial and incredibly popular motto, Pura Vida.

I worked diligently to plan the perfect trip for my students. This included putting in a request for a highly regarded Tour Director, Victor Abarca, who was strongly recommended to me by another Group Leader in our area. I had been spoiled with great TD’s on all of my previous tours, and ironically, they were both named Sonia. I couldn’t help but wonder what this interesting, although uncomfortable, change would bring.

I’ll never forget meeting Victor for the first time at the airport in San José. We were tired after a long day of travel, and were eager to get a couple hours of rest before starting the tour bright and early the next morning. Victor introduced himself, welcomed us to Costa Rica, and then announced that it was his birthday. My students and I instantly began to sing happy birthday, and at that exact moment, all my worries were extinguished. I knew we had a special Tour Director, and that we were going to have an amazing trip. After all, who reports to work in the final hours of his or her birthday to warmly greet a group of students and chaperones at the airport with this much energy, sincere passion, and charisma? Victor Abarca does. And as a way of expressing gratitude on behalf of thousands of students, chaperones, and Group Leaders that have had the pleasure of meeting and traveling with Victor Abarca, I’d like to share with our readers exactly what makes this TD exceptionally unique and extraordinarily special.

Victor has a warm and colorful personality that makes him the ultimate Tour Director. He is a kind, funny, and energetic person. His positive outlook and charisma draw people of all ages to him. He lives in the moment and appreciates each new day, as well as the people he shares it with. He is the life of the party and loves to entertain. His passion for life is contagious and he inspires others to rethink priorities and live differently. He loves his country and his culture, and takes great pride in sharing them with travelers from all around the world. For EF Tour Directors, being a TD is a great privilege and responsibility, not a tiresome job – an idea that Victor fully embraces and embodies. He sets a great example for others, and is an outstanding role model; I’m proud to be able to introduce him to so many of my students.

Victor Abarca leading a dance on tour

Additionally, Victor is a knowledgeable TD that looks for teachable moments at every turn.  He speaks about Costa Rican Spanish and culture. He uses Costa Rica’s beautiful countryside as a classroom to teach students about earth science, environmental science, biology, geology, ecology, chemistry and even agriculture. He introduces students to art, dance, and music, and initiates discussions about current events and economics. He engages students with a hands-on and highly interactive teaching style. Without any formal teacher training, Victor has perfected the craft of experiential learning, through challenging students to think and inspiring them to want to learn more.

Victor’s ability to be flexible and resourceful is also part of what makes him such an outstanding Tour Director.  He lives in the moment and is constantly looking for opportunities to ensure that every traveler has the experience of a lifetime. While visiting the town of Fortuna on Good Friday, we made a slight change to the day’s itinerary so we could attend and participate in the town’s religious procession. On another occasion, he learned that a traveler was especially interested in some of the science applications while hiking through the forests. He then made arrangements for this student to meet and spend time with a well-known scientist that was visiting the area.  He offers additional excursions, which are not found in the itinerary, such as a crocodile tour and a guided nighttime nature hike in Monteverde. Victor seems to know people everywhere we go, and often uses these connections to provide extra, special activities for the group – a bonfire on the beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, dancing lessons taught by locals, a soccer game organized against local youth, and going even as far as ordering birthday cakes for those celebrating birthdays on tour. One night, while eating dinner in a small restaurant, he asked the owner if we could use a room off from the main dining area to set up a private dance party just for the travelers in our group. He brought his own stereo and music, along with incredible energy, and played disc jockey while dancing with students for hours. It was a safe and fun alternative to attending a nightclub that taught students a lot about creating their own fun in any environment. When traveling with Victor Abarca, you get much more than what’s listed in the official itinerary.

In my opinion, Victor Abarca’s greatest gift as a TD is his ability to make connections and build relationships with each and every traveler. It’s hard to understand how he can make every single individual in a group of 40 feel both special and important, but I’ve watched him do it. Twice.  He takes few breaks (I’ve never even seen him even take a nap on a long bus ride) and spends every free moment striking up personal conversations, learning names, and getting to know travelers. He tells jokes, shares his own personal stories about his life, and performs magic tricks. He engages students by singing popular songs with them during long bus trips, and his goofy sayings, like “Scooby Dooby” and the incorrect but hilarious “No pain, no game,” become instant favorites among travelers.  He will give early morning cooking lessons to students wanting to learn how to make Gallo Pinto, arm wrestle students while waiting for lunch, engage in meaningful conversations during dinner, and wrap up the evening teaching some popular Costa Rican dance steps. He picks up unique fruits, vegetables, and other snacks at almost every stop and shares them with as many as he can. He comes up with fun nicknames for travelers, happily poses for countless pictures, and shares a sincere hug with every traveler upon arriving at the airport for departure. He reminds his groups that they have a lifelong friend in Costa Rica. He means it, and students believe him. After all, he proves it by spending time with each traveler in order to create a special memory.

Scott Hemker and his student travel group with Victor Abarca

A close friend of mine has traveled as a chaperone on four of my tours with EF. He has recently had the opportunity to travel, albeit alone, and work abroad in several different foreign countries. Some of his experiences included following and recording video of the 2012 Summer Olympics torch relay across the United Kingdom, attending countless Olympic sporting contests while in London, and watching the opening and closing ceremonies of the games through the viewfinder in his camera. He is currently working in Russia to prepare for his work involving the 2014 Winter Olympics. We’ve shared many discussions via Skype, FaceTime, and long distance international phone calls about these experiences. Repeatedly, he has reminded me that, “It matters less where you travel to and more who you travel with. What’s the point of visiting all of these amazing and beautiful places and having nobody to share the journey with?”

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit so many incredible places while traveling with EF Tours. I’ve been even luckier to share the experience with hundreds of special students and adults alike. Much like a chef uses unique and different foods to prepare the perfect, mouth-watering dish, or a painter mixes diverse colors to create inspiring artwork, Tour Directors like Victor Abarca bring people and places together to provide meaningful, memorable and life-changing experiences for travelers.

Group Leaders labor to no end to recruit students, fundraise, and plan the perfect tour. Tour Consultants work tirelessly to assist us in doing so.  In the end, it’s all left in the hands of outstanding Tour Directors to work their magic and make it all come together. Rarely do they disappoint.

Scott is a high school Spanish teacher and basketball coach. He began traveling with EF Tours in 2001 and has led 8 student tours to various Spanish-speaking countries. Scott strongly believes that student travel builds self-confidence and inspires students to develop and work towards long-term goals.