Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

From college days in Spain and family vacations in Portugal to stints in Venezuela and trips to Morocco, Paula Cordeiro’s curriculum vitae reads like an adventure novel. It’s hard to believe that in between these adventures, she’s found the time to act as dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego, become a published author, and create an organization that promotes literacy among students in local communities.

When Paula is not advising graduate students or jet-setting between international speaking engagements (when we met, she was still getting over jet lag from her latest trip to Hong Kong and was getting ready to leave for South Africa), she works to improve local schools, many of which employ her students. As president of the San Diego Council on Literacy, she launched a yearly conference for hundreds of school counselors and has set up programs to provide teachers to local charter schools. Her biggest accomplishment, though, may be the Educational Leadership Development Academy, which partners with other colleges to provide training to school administrators.

Over plates of grilled octopus and garlic potatoes in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood, Paula spoke to me about her adventures in international travel, volunteer work, writing, and education.

What was the best decision you made in your life?

To finally get married.

What is your most memorable travel moment?

A friend and I were in Marrakech and didn’t have a hotel reservation. There was a big event in town and all the hotels were booked and we were trying to get a room. The desk manager asked us to wait a few hours to see if someone cancelled. We were becoming quite desperate when a local Moroccan couple, newlyweds, started talking to us. We told them about our predicament and they not only opened up their home to us, but served us one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life! We continue to exchange letters today—fifteen years later.

What was the worst travel experience you’ve had?

I was in Venezuela and drove over the border into Colombia to go shopping in a small border town. When the border guard stamped my passport I didn’t notice that the stamp had no ink. When I tried to reenter Venezuela later that day, they wouldn’t let me exit Colombia because I didn’t have the border stamp. Because my friend and I had gone shopping, we didn’t have any money left and couldn’t bribe the guard. (He was not interested in taking the five pairs of leather shoes I had just bought!) My friend had to leave me there and I was transported to the local customs office because I had “entered the country illegally.” I had to sit on a bench in large empty room while my friend drove on to Maracaibo (a five-hour drive) and contacted the American consulate. So, about twelve hours later, the consular agent showed up and was able to get me out of custody.

What have you learned about yourself through traveling?

I’ve learned that I love exploring the differences among cultures—and that once you truly know another culture, the differences are really superficial.

If you could choose your ultimate travel companion, living or dead, real or imaginary, who would it be?

I want an intrepid travel companion-they are very hard to find. I want someone who 1) doesn’t plan every step; 2) knows about the country and culture in advance; 3) tries to speak the language; 4) is willing to stay at any type of hotel (as long as it is clean!); and, 5) doesn’t make judgmental comments about the country and people.

What moment in your life did you feel the most alive?

I had one of the most special experiences of my life when I visited the Alhambra in Spain. I felt that I could have lived in Moorish Spain: the beauty and the smells were heavenly.

If money and time were no object, where on earth would you go?

I recently went on safari in South Africa and I had no idea how awesome it would be. It was beyond my dreams, so I want to do it again. Next time I’d love to go on safari to Botswana and Namibia.

Who is your hero?

Nelson Mandela, hands down.

Name a place you know a lot about and where you’d be a great resource for our Divas.

Spain (especially the Canary Islands) and Morocco (I used to fly over on the weekends and I’ve visited all the major cities several times). Also, I wouldn’t call myself an expert (very few people are on this one), but I could write about Mozambique. It will be a destination again…one day.

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Paula A. Cordeiro is Dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego. She began her career teaching English as a second language and then spent ten years overseas working in American and International Schools in Spain and Venezuela. She tries to travel outside the U.S. at least twice a year. In 2005, she went to South Africa and Mozambique, and has a trip planned to Costa Rica this fall. On weekends, she can often be found in Baja California, sipping margaritas with family and friends. She is currently brushing up on her Portuguese in preparation for a trip to Brazil next summer.

For more information about Paula and her amazing endeavors, visit:

Educational Leadership Development Academy

San Diego Council on Literacy

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