Mementoes from his around-the-world, one-year sabbatical are everywhere in Nathan Ugoretz’s classroom at Port Washington High School.
There are ink drawings from Nepal, wall hangings from Bolivia and wood carvings from Ecuador.
Ugoretz — who taught world studies when he went on his journey five years ago and now teaches advanced placement U.S. history, youth service learning and globalization — shares his love for travel and adventure with his students, encouraging them to experience the world as participants rather than American tourists.
“I want to go to places where other people aren’t going, to experience things that other people aren’t seeing,” Ugoretz said. “I want to be transformed by it. I want to grow from it.”
Ugoretz said he’s wanted to travel since he was 10 and read letters from his sister, who was studying in India for a year.
“But I worked every summer to pay for my education and kept putting it off until I had a real job and money,” he said.
Ugoretz, who has taught at Port High for 11 years, decided to reward himself after a grueling two years pursuing his master’s degree in history at Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee while teaching full time and coaching wrestling at the high school and middle school.
He applied for a one-year sabbatical, then spent a year saving money for the journey.
He moved to a studio apartment in Milwaukee in what his friends called “the heart of not so nice,” but it was cheap rent.
Ugoretz saved $20,000 that year, figuring that would last if he averaged $33 a day in expenses, not including transportation. He bought a half-way-around-the-world airline ticket that designated only a few destinations he had to make, bought rail passes along the way, jumped onto overloaded buses and walked a lot.
Ugoretz had been to Venezuela and Guatemala, where he took Spanish classes, and read lots of travel magazines, so he felt confident embarking on his adventure.
“Those were organized trips and it’s a lot different when you’re on your own,” Ugoretz said. “I thought I knew a lot more than I did, but it got me on the plane.
“I landed in Budapest and thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’”
Overcoming his initial trepidation, he explored the city, then went to Krakow, Poland, and his education began.
Ugoretz did most of the things he planned to do — climbing to the top of the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, white-water rafting for 10 days on the turbulent Karnali River in Nepal, bungee jumping from the fourth tallest peak in the world in Nepal (he jumped from the tallest bungee spot in South Africa two years ago) and mountain biking on the most dangerous road in Bolivia.
“I like speed,” he said. “I also did a lot of trekking.”
He was changed forever, he said, by his tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. He saw remnants of the Berlin Wall in Germany, then enjoyed Oktoberfest there with a high-school soccer teammate and his family.
Ugoretz also did some decidedly nontourist and dangerous things. He went on a prison tour organized by an inmate who wanted $20 and cigarettes for his efforts. Ugoretz is opposed to smoking so he brought fresh fruit instead. His passport now has a Donald Duck stamp that got him out of the prison.
He also took a mine tour that included holding a stick of dynamite with the fuse burning. When the fuse got too short, the guide ran down a cliff, placed the dynamite next to a boulder and got back before the rock blew up.
Wherever Ugoretz went, he explored the history of the area.
While the historical aspects and thrills were what he was seeking, Ugoretz said, the people he met — especially those who helped when he was lost or out of money — impressed him the most.
“People took me under their wings and went out of their way to get me where I had to go, actually walking me there if they thought I would get confused,” he said.
In Nepal, he received a Hindu blessing from his mountain guide’s family, who put red rice on his forehead during the ceremony. They also prepared a meal for him.
When Ugoretz was in Guatemala, he met an Irishman who said to call if he was in that part of the world, so he did. He spent a couple of days in Dublin and Belfast learning about his friend’s experiences trying to reduce conflicts during Ireland’s fight for independence.
On Thanksgiving Day, when he was feeling lonely, he spotted two men from Iceland he had met while rafting in Nepal. They had dinner together.
“To them, it was just dinner. To me, it was Thanksgiving,” Ugoretz said.
While traveling through South America, Ugoretz took Spanish lessons for the first week in each country. In Argentina, he volunteered to tutor a 13-year-old student who wanted to be a doctor but had failed his English exam twice. The boy had one last chance to pass it to continue his education.
After two weeks of studying together, the boy passed the exam.
“It’s not often you make that kind of difference in a person’s life,” Ugoretz said. “That changed his life. That boy was so hungry for his education.”
Ugoretz now spends summer vacations traveling, always going to a different place to learn its history and find adventure.