Woman of the Week: Leana

I met Leana through work – she was a longtime colleague of my boss, Dr. Ochoa, and a close friend who now works with us on our HOPE projects in the juvenile correctional facilities. I quickly found out that she has had a lifelong passion of traveling and although she is now officially retired, continues to have adventures that rival the youngest adventurers I know. I’ve loved getting to know her and learn from her as her wisdom about travel runs deep. She serves as a daily inspiration for me that travel can be something you do your whole life alongside a career that you love and develop!

1. Tell us about yourself.

Leana working on papers as a young teacher

I’m an educator! I’ve been in education for almost 50 years. I started travelling when I’d been teaching in my home town for about seven years. I was very, very happy, but I knew there was more out there than just my daily routine. And on a teacher’s salary, almost 50 years ago, you couldn’t go very far. I can honestly say, what got me thinking about using my teaching as a vehicle to see the world was that I met a woman who was home on her repat (repat is short for repatriation, which is basically vacation for teachers). She was a teacher and she taught for the DOD schools in Germany and I didn’t know that it was even possible to do that – to go overseas to teach. I listened to her tell her stories and that peaked my interest even more because I knew I wanted to travel, but I knew I couldn’t afford to do it. I realized I can use my teaching to actually see the world that I’m so curious about.

Since she was doing DOD, (this is before technology like computers and such) so I wrote away for info about the DOD schools. I got this big packet that I filled out, and as with the government I didn’t hear from them immediately. But during the interim I was working at a school in California and I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge, and the Instructors Magazine was on the table in front of me. And in the right-hand corner of the magazine, there was an ad for an international service that places teachers in non-military schools overseas.

Without asking anyone, I called and asked them to send me information, and from there it just started to snowball. An international school services had someone to come out and interview me. and she had a big map of the world, and said “Where would you least likely take a teaching assignment?” Well this is in the 70’s so a war was going on in the Middle East, so I said “Well, I don’t want to go to the me east so anywhere but that.” And she said “I suggest that you keep an open mind about placements” and I don’t know if that really clicked with me then, but I remember her saying that.

The way it works, because it’s before computers, emails, whatever. They circulated my file to headmasters of schools all over the world because they placed teachers in over 200 schools. And I’d have an envelope in my mailbox that would describe an opening for a position somewhere – Lima, Peru, Brazil – it would give me a description, grade levels, and a bit about the population. They’d also give the estimated salary, housing, and whether you were paid in local salary or dollars. I would have to check off whether I was interested and mail it back.

I think I probably said yes to almost all of them. I did say no to the one in Peru because I didn’t want to fly over the Andes – I think I had just watched the movie “Alive” and thought “No, I don’t want to do that!” I had interviews and a few offers but I didn’t jump at them. One that did catch my attention, was for one in Iran. At that time, the L.A. art museum had a big exhibit in Iran and the culture and I went to visit and I thought “oh this is really cool, I could go to these other places any time but I can’t go to Iran.” It was a nice salary compared to what I was making, too.

I accepted, but about 2 days later I had a phone call from the Saudi Arabia representative saying he wanted to interview me, and that they would fly me to Houston at their expense and put me up in a hotel for 2 nights. This was really intriguing because none of the other places offered anything like that. I went to the meeting and talked to him about it – I knew nothing about ARAMCO – Arabian American Oil Company – the Arabian oil company – and when I heard about the school, the oil company, the benefits that come with it – and realized you can only go with a work visa so the only way I could ever go was to work there – it sounded exciting. As I laugh now, it sounded exotic.

I hadn’t signed the contract with the job in Iran and I did accept the position on Saudi. It was 18 months, but I could renew it if I wanted. So, I asked for a leave of absence from my teaching job in Santa Monica and I gave my teaching materials and supplies to the teacher next door to me because I was going to come back! And I gave up my apartment in Beverly Hills, I sold my 1969 Camero which was very important to me, put my furniture in storage, and in July, I said goodbye to the family. And I have to say I was so fortunate that my parents were so supportive, even though I was 29, their support made it much easier to go.

Leanna with two young girls in Nepal

2. Why do you travel?

I’ve always been curious, and I’ve never been satisfied with just the norm. My venturous streak just comes from my curiosity. For the last 40 some odd years it’s been my life. I was fortunate enough to meet a man while I was in Saudi Arabia who loved to travel as much as I did, so we’ve spent our 36 years together travelling the world. It’s always before we end some big trip that we have another trip planned that we want to do. It’s our passion, our love. It’s something we enjoy doing together, and we just love the adventure.

3. How do you balance travel and work?

I give credit to being a teacher – using my teaching as a vehicle for my first international adventure and it’s just continued.

When I taught in Saudi Arabia, I lived in Dhahran and taught second grade at the Dhahran Primary school. We had probably about 6 to 10 students at a time– the whole time I was there I never had more than 13-14 students in my class, and I had a full-time aid. We were on a full-year calendar with 5 weeks in between so when we were sitting in the teachers’ lounge, we’d talk about where we were going next. We were making what we called “petro dollars” so we would get 30-40 to us and charter a plane and fly to Istanbul, or fly to London for the week. Six months in, we went to Egypt and had the opportunity to climb inside the pyramids, see the Sphinx, and travel down the Nile.

Leana getting ready to trek in the Himalayas with two guides and her husband

Our family did a photo safari in Kenya which was one of our favorite family trips, again using my teaching as a vehicle. I got an Eli Lilly Creative Teacher fellowship back in 1999 – Lilly gives these out to teachers every year. The year I got it they gave maybe 40 of them for renewal – to be used in the summer to renew yourself. Because they know teachers need personal renewal. So, it doesn’t have to tie into your teaching but you have to be a teacher to get it. My proposal was, being an African American woman growing up in the 50s, born in the late 40s, I knew my American side but didn’t understand my African side. As a child, watching Disney movies, Africa – I couldn’t see any connection. It was jungle, people running around with very few clothes on, I didn’t connect with that at all. I wanted to go and see if I really felt that connection, so I wanted to go to Kenya not knowing my ancestors came from there or not and see if I felt a connection.

So, we flew to Nairobi and stayed at the Norfolk hotel, which is where Hemingway did their writing. My husband and daughter went along, and I remember that first morning with major jetlag, I woke up about 4 or 5 o’clock and went downstairs, and we stood right on the street looking at all the hustle and bustle of the morning because it was a weekday. I remember I had done a lot of international travel in Asia and Europe, but I’m standing there and all of a sudden, tears came to my eyes. My husband asked what was wrong, and I said “In all the travelling we’ve done, I’ve never been in a place where I look around and see people that look like me. That look like my relatives, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, my cousins. I felt so grounded, so at home, so comfortable. It was almost like feeling like I was coming home.

That trip was so important and so special – just being out in the middle of the Masai Mara with the migration of the wildebeest… We thought it would be like the zoo, but we had to go look for the animals. We went the summer after the bombing in the American embassy in Nairobi, and people would say to us “Are you sure you want to go,” and I’m so glad we did it. We had a driver and a guide, just the three of us, and we were out in the bush looking for animals, and we stayed in tent encampments and in the middle of the night you could hear animals at night!

I did my Sabbatical in the Cook Islands too and still, in my travels I always try to make a connection with the schools. I spent 7 weeks doing demonstrations teaching in the local schools and conducting professional development workshops for the Cook Island teachers. I carried 200 pounds of books and teaching supplies for the schools. Whenever I travel, I always carry books with me. Doing a read aloud with a class or group of children gives me great pleasure. Teaching is my passion!

Leanna with young men from a Nepalese school house

4. What is the best lesson you’ve learned from your trips?

With air travel, we laugh and say we have to go into our “Zen” mode when we get ready to do international travel. You have to be flexible, and just prepare for whatever. It doesn’t always go smoothly and there are surprises along the way but it’s a part of the adventure! And the surprises sometime end up being great – a whole adventure that you hadn’t even expected, and that’s what’s fun about it. You have to have an open mind. You can’t get frustrated over a flight being delayed or you sit on the tarmac for a while – you just kind of go with it.

5. Tell us about one of your favorite travel experiences.

I think my very first trip, six weeks after I was in Saudi I was in Egypt, and we got into Cairo in the evening, and we got on a bus and went immediately to the Sphinx and got out, and I think this was the first time it really hit me that what I was experiencing – this new experience, this new sense of adventure that I was walking into- was so unbelievable. I looked up at the Sphinx and thought “I’m really in Egypt looking up at the sphinx, it’s not Disney land. I’m really here!” I still remember that feeling – I’m in Egypt and there’s the Sphinx, and this is it! That was the very start of it and now I’m always like “Wow, I’m really hiking the Himalayas, this is really the Great Wall!”

So, you know, I have a lot of favorites: climbing up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, taking a falooka ride down the Nile, all the places we’ve been and things we’ve seen and what we’ve done, but I think it’s really that first revelation. I always carry a small world map with us and I think that really puts it all in focus. You sit there and you’re in Sri Lanka or you’re in the Seychelles or you’re In Kenya, and you think “Here’s where the United States and Indiana is, I’m all the way over here!!” Discovering I could travel the world was one of the most exciting revelations for me. The first time seeing that you can have those experiences, that I’m really doing this…is awesome! My favorite phrase is “Have passport, will travel!”

6. If you could share one travel tip, what would it be?

Take a jar of peanut butter! Because you never know – it’s good protein. You can usually find bread, or just stick your finger in it and eat it!

Thanks for reading! Want more travel tips from Leana and women like her?

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