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We Should All Be Local Tourists: A Year of Discovery with Our Exchange Student

In a rash yet ultimately rewarding decision, my family and I opened our home for the year to an exchange student from Spain. Nerea, a basketball-loving high school senior, arrived in Vancouver, Washington to spend 11 months experiencing life in the US.  Upon arrival, we asked her, “What do you want to do while you’re here?” 

She replied, “Everything.” No small feat, but we’ve been determined to give it our best shot. Before we could even begin considering what adventures to take her on, we had to cover the basics – school enrollment, where we keep the clean towels, and her first introduction to peanut butter and jelly. (She was rightfully impressed.) The first few weeks were mostly spent navigating culture shock. American football has so many rules! You eat dinner that early?! But perhaps our greatest hurdle – where to take her? 

When I moved to the Portland, Oregon, area 15 years ago, I couldn’t get enough. I was mesmerized. But lately, my outings have become stale and predictable. When was the last time I visited the Japanese Gardens, hiked in the Gorge, or tried a restaurant outside of the few I have on rotation? It’s been years! 

With only a rare exception, I’ve saved travel and exploration for places reached by plane and neglected everything close by. I don’t think I’m alone. It’s so easy to take it all for granted or brush off our surroundings as “just for tourists,” but is this true? Or are we the ones missing out? 

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Exploring Home Through New Eyes: Our Adventure with a Spanish Exchange Student

Armed with a mission and an itinerary, we’re committed to not only show Nerea the area, but also to get out of a rut and regain our own appreciation. We started her off with some Portland classics and spent one of her first weekends wandering through the Saturday Market. It’s smaller than I remember, but it’s worth it for the people watching and the creative energy.  I walked away with a new pair of earrings, a tarot reading, and a reminder of why I used to love it.  

Next up, we took her to Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore, and set her loose. Powell’s might be one of the only exceptions to my calcified routine; an afternoon wandering the aisles here will never, ever be just for tourists. 

Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Yacolt

And while Nerea loved the bookstore, she was more impressed with Voodoo Donuts, which has an instant polarizing effect on locals. A quirky Portland institution or an overrated tourist trap? Maybe a little of both? We waited 30 minutes for her to try a cereal-topped donut that she deemed the best donut she’d ever tasted.

This instigated a city-wide trek to find the best donuts over the course of the year, as Portland takes its donut reputation quite seriously. We’ve since visited Blue Star, Pips, and Doe Donuts for some vegan flair. The jury is still out, but I think we may have convinced her we can do better than VooDoo. Ice cream is another story. Despite the local ice cream shops we’ve visited and my undying love for Salt and Straw, she insists that a Dairy Queen blizzard might be America’s finest culinary creation. 

Beyond the Guidebook

Donuts and desserts aside, we spent the fall admiring our impressive display of autumn colors while driving through the Gorge, and I am now convinced this needs to be an annual tradition. As we drove over Bridge of the Gods, Nerea gasped out loud at the exquisite views of the Columbia River. How could she not? We spent an afternoon at Skamania Lodge with our feet propped up around the fire, taking in the view with hot chocolate, perhaps a highlight of her year thus far. Mine too. 

We made a quick stop to check out the iconic Multnomah Falls, and while it’s pretty, it’s so crowded and not nearly as striking as some of the other Gorge spots I remember. We’re making a mental note to take her to Beacon Rock and Eagle Creek Trail when the weather gets warmer. 

Living in a large city, she’s enamored with the trees that she rarely gets to see back home, and so we are making local trails a priority. She loved exploring Moulton Falls and quick hikes around Round Lake in Camas, but it was an afternoon on the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Yacolt that proved an instant hit. I’d heard about this scenic ride for years but never managed to prioritize the trek.

Cultural Exchange and Culinary Adventures

Rummaging through old guidebooks, we opted to take a ghost tour of Portland, something I’d initially deemed far too touristy, but it ended up being a blast, and we learned so much! I’m realizing I want to know more about the history of where I live. Having Nerea here has encouraged me to do my research – it is embarrassing to take her to Fort Vancouver and have zero insider knowledge about the historical significance. This year’s been educational for us both. 

It’s not just tours and big ticket items though – we’ve been wandering more and noticing the local murals, hitting new restaurants and food carts in her quest for the perfect burger. You have so many different kinds! 

We’ve taken picnics in Cathedral Park to admire the St. Johns Bridge, and we have big plans for the next six months: visiting the Lan Su Chinese Gardens for Lunar New Year, exploring Pittock mansion, and heading to Moda Center for her first NBA experience. Not to mention the day trips – she has yet to experience bundling up on the Oregon coast, a stark contrast to her summers on the Mediterranean. 

St. John’s Bridge

Becoming a Tourist in Your Own City

In wanting to show Nerea as much as possible, there’s been a shift in my own appreciation. Living in a place for over a decade can take away some of the awe and the urgency. We have all the time in the world, don’t we? Not exactly. Exploration doesn’t always require a passport or a visitor to remind you why you loved your hometown in the first place. We can save money on airline tickets and all be local tourists. 

Emily Corak

A former teacher turned writer and photographer, Emily Corak lives in the Pacific Northwest and writes about motherhood, mental health, and travel. She recently graduated with her MFA in creative writing, and she spends far too much money on books and tea. Her greatest claim to fame is gracing the cover of Pygmy Goat World Magazine with a fresh perm in 1996, and she’s been trying to live up to that moment ever since. 


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