European Council Ireland 2017: Where are we?

Catch-up blogging is the worst kind of blogging!  This program already has me moving at a brisk trot, and if I don’t write things up as I go along it all disintegrates into a blur of green hills, coastal plains, dorm rooms, buses, and potatoes. I think when I left off I promised to say something about our visit to Kilkenny. Great town for a day trip as you can start at one end of the Medieval Mile and sightsee, eat, and shop your way to the other. The two ends are St. Canice’s Cathedral and Kilkenny Castle; pick your flavor!

St. Canice’s–the “tomb” of an anchoress

 

The much-quartered coat of arms on this tomb makes me wish I were a lot better at heraldry!

Artsy focus pulling in action

Street view in Kilkenny

Street view in Kilkenny

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle garden

European Council Ireland Study Abroad 2017: First Week

Apparently Sunday is Blogging Day for me on this program! We are through our first full week: classes Monday, a field trip to Woodstock Manor and Kilkenny on Tuesday, classes again Wednesday, then an extended excursion to the Ring of Kerry from Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon. It’s been a very busy but really great week! Admittedly, we have had the usual growing pains: someone’s Internet password didn’t work for a couple of days. One of the exterior doors to the dorm didn’t close and had to be fixed. A couple of students’ rooms didn’t have hot water. Someone got a cold. Oh wait–that last one was me. I was completely felled on Wednesday and didn’t even go over to the program office. Got through the Ring of Kerry on paracetamol (what the rest of the world calls acetaminophen i.e. Tylenol), stubbornness, and a little good luck. We are still having extraordinary weather: warmer than typical and almost no rain. Of course, on Friday when we went around the Ring it was grey and gloomy! Our bus driver Tony said that Murphy’s Law plays a major role in Ireland–no surprise that “Murphy” is an Irish name. The students were actually happy to have some “traditionally Irish” weather even though it seemed like a grim joke on our tour itinerary. Even I have to admit that visiting the Bog Village seemed much more real in a cold drizzle than it would have in warm sunshine! And my cold is on its way out, for which I thank my colleagues for their infinite generosity in picking up some of my workload over the past few days. So! On with the highlights.

The first week was focused on introducing students to Irish culture, history, and geography via a lot of short presentations and visits to various sites. On Monday, our fantastic guide/visit coordinator/all-around Ireland genius Jonathan gave an excellent lecture on Magdalen asylums inside one such former facility (it now belongs to Waterford Institute of Technology). You can see the chapel & Jonathan in action in this photo from my Instagram. The students were utterly engrossed and asked as many good questions as we had time for. In a way it was strange to start off with a focus on such a dark topic in Irish culture, but if anything, Americans often have a romanticized and Disneyfied view of the Irish and it was good to complicate that. Throughout the week I was struck again and again by the contrast between Ireland’s beauty and its brutality. Maybe you can’t have one without the other?

Tuesday we set out to visit Woodstock Manor, a now-ruined 18th-century manor house near Inistioge in Co. Kilkenny. The house was burned in 1922 during the Irish Civil War and the gardens became neglected. The grounds are now slowly being restored by the Kilkenny County Council and we got a tour from the head gardener.

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Our expert guide John

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The remains of Woodstock Manor

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The remains of Woodstock Manor

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Close-up of a Monkey Puzzle; they look like trees made of Hens & Chicks!

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The…Laurel Walk? Or Poplar Walk?

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Courtney sketches the scene

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The “conservatory”

The garden is full of exotic plants from all over the world including the Americas; it was common in Victorian times for landscape enthusiasts both to design elaborate gardens and to pay “plant hunters” to travel in search of specimens. Hence Woodstock’s unusually large collection of monkey puzzle trees, whose original specimens were brought back from Chile.

From Woodstock we went on to Kilkenny city. The centerpiece of Kilkenny is the “Medieval Mile” that runs from Kilkenny Castle at one end to St. Canice’s Cathedral at the other. It was a great chance to tour both buildings (I only toured the cathedral–I love cathedrals), climb the round tower at St. Canice’s, and, importantly, get some lunch! More on Kilkenny in my next post because WordPress is, once again, not being helpful at all!

 

European Council Ireland Study Abroad 2017: We’re here!

It’s 8:30 on Sunday; I’ve been in Waterford for just under a week; the students arrived on Friday; I am finally getting a chance to update my blog. The week was busy with preparations for the students’ arrival: the closer the day gets, the more specific the questions become until we have detailed itineraries for the first few days of the program, with times and places for every departure, arrival, meal, and meeting. Thursday night I was going to bed as the students and faculty were checking in for the flight, so I stalked them on GroupMe until everyone arrived at the airport. I got a little bit of sleep before meeting up with my colleague Jonathan and our intrepid bus driver Tony to head to the airport. Everyone was very tired when they arrived, of course, but we got them through passport control and back to Waterford Institute of Technology where we are based–plus or minus a nap on the bus. Luckily for the students they did not have to stay awake for too terribly long the first day. They had lunch, an orientation session, a tour of the campus, a visit to Tesco (grocery store), and then dinner, and that was the end of the official day. How many of them went to bed right after dinner? The world may never know. We were all impressed at how well the students did despite their fatigue and the overall disorientation of being in a new place.

The GroupMe has been bubbling with small but interesting questions that they have mostly answered for each other: “How do you turn on the air conditioning?” (I quote from the WIT welcome guide: “You are in Ireland now; you don’t need air con.) “Where are we meeting for lunch?” Some hours later:  “Where are we meeting for dinner?” “How do you turn on the heat?” Yesterday morning: “Does anyone have a belt I can borrow?” And since arrival: “Can someone let me back into my room?” The knack of keeping hold of a key card takes a little time to develop.

For the first full day of the program–yesterday–we started with an early breakfast (“Where are we meeting for breakfast?”) and a series of tours in Waterford: the Bishop’s Palace, Waterford Crystal, and a walking tour by a fantastic local guide named Jack Burtchaell. I took half the student group into the Waterford Crystal Visitors’ Centre for their first tour (highlight: Waterford considered me a “tour leader” and gave me a voucher for a free coffee & pastry). Last year on my training visit I did not go to Waterford Crystal so this was my first time there. It was impressive to learn about the level of expertise and craftsmanship that the glassblowers and cutters have to have. Becoming a cutter requires an eight-year training process; a cutter learning to cut a new design gets to see the pattern drawn onto the glass base only twice before he’s expected to know and cut it from memory. A cutter completing the first stage of the apprenticeship has to cut a “training bowl” that showcases all the different kinds of cuts. He (or she; Waterford has one woman apprentice right now) gets 3 blank bowls–two for practice and the final one that’s submitted for evaluation and then returned to him as a commemoration if he passes. Here’s what the training bowl looks like:

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Scariest final exam ever!

Most Waterford crystal is now produced in eastern Europe. The closing of the huge factory near the WIT campus was a major loss to the local economy. Our bus driver Tony is a former blower and people have told me that practically every family in Waterford has former employees in it. The visitors’ center does still produce some crystal, though, and seeing the production process was incredible:

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Shaping a glass blank after it was blown

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Preliminary shaping of the hot glass before blowing

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Cooled glass blanks have the rough edges from the blowing process filed off.

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A cutter at work on a gorgeous vase design

From the Waterford Crystal tour we went to Jack Burtchaell’s walking tour, which was so much fun. Jack is so knowledgeable and so funny; it was a great introduction for the students to Irish history but also to the Irish sense of humor.

 
Posting this as it’s now lunchtime Monday. WordPress has been giving me fits! More to come . . . hopefully.

26 May 2017: Knights Impact goes to RePapel; departure from Amber Cove

Today was not an easy day. My group did the recycled paper activity at RePapel this morning: we were the last Fathom group to do so, because Fathom is disbanding (as is widely known) and RePapel is closing. When I was here in January, one of the NGO liaisons expressed worry about RePapel as being the project that would be most difficult to continue in Fathom’s absence. But I kept hoping something would come through to save it. It’s genuinely hard to think about: we will go home and go on with our regular middle-class lives but for the women who had come to rely on RePapel for employment and income, the future is bound to be uncertain. I have to admit that I always took the full-throated cheer and warm welcome of the RePapel ladies with a grain of salt. Was it genuine or were they putting on a show for us tourists? I still wonder a little but today it dawned on me that they got to come to work every day and feel special and valuable as well as useful and productive. There aren’t many jobs for women in Puerto Plata other than in the tourism industry, which requires more education than these women probably have, as well as access to transportation and child care. So RePapel was filling a gap on several levels. They really tried to put on a brave face for us, and it almost worked. At the end of our morning there—we made paper, smoothed dried sheets, rolled beads out of recycled magazines, and made jewelry out of our beads—Juanita, the most loud and cheerful of the group, led everyone in singing and dancing to “La Bamba” as they always do, and then the ladies sang another song that I recognized but couldn’t identify. All of a sudden I noticed that Altagracia, the quiet but smiling woman I remembered from last time, was crying, and then I was crying too. Most of us cried before we left. I hugged Altagracia and even though I know she didn’t understand me, I said “Don’t cry! You’re making me cry!” And now we are on the ship and the ladies are…who knows?

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Jasmine put a smile on for paper-making even though she does not like mornings.

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Jamia lifting out a fresh sheet of paper

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Stevanie and Garrett smoothing the sheets

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Juanita (white outfit & headband) leads the singing and dancing

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Garrett is getting into the groove

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One last song

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Me & Altagracia!

We did have an experience this afternoon that put a little balm on the pain of departure. Early in the week, the Fathom executives on board had mentioned that they wanted to meet with the university groups on board (Tuskeegee U. has 14 students here in addition to our 24). The idea disappeared after that initial mention and I assumed it wouldn’t happen after all. But in today’s Soundings appeared an invitation to an open meeting for all university students and educators. The meeting was led by Katie Dow—I think her title is “Fathom experience manager”—and a recent college grad turned impact guide, Paige. Middle Georgia State University showed up in force and I have rarely been prouder. The students got emotional as they talked about their experiences and how valuable this program has been to them. It was so validating of our work in offering the program but equally, it spoke well of their sincerity and open-heartedness in approaching the activities. I am excited for my last meeting with them tomorrow when I will ask them to talk about what they learned; I’m expecting some excellent reflections. I also met my counterpart from Tuskeegee and it is a little funny how similar we are professionally: both Associate Professors of English who have been Directors of International Programs for 2 years as one-person offices. She is eager to collaborate with MGA, which is awesome. So it’s not clear right now what will happen to the “Fathom experience” but it’s clear that Carnival Plc is not planning to abandon it. I’m still hopeful that it will evolve into something that can continue to be as transformative to future groups of students as this week has been to our current group.

So now we are sailing; everyone made it back on the ship on time and did not have their names called in the Roll Call of Shame before departure. The program is winding down. Tomorrow we have Fathom cohort meetings in the morning and meetings with our MGA cohorts in the afternoon. By voice vote my cohort decided they’d rather have a midafternoon meeting and then be at liberty till we disembark Sunday morning. A few people’s thoughts are turning toward home but I think most of us are determined to live in this moment a while longer.

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I was there!

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Still my favorite ship

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Casting off the lines

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Adios, Amber Cove

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Sailing away

25 May 2017: Knights Impact does Concrete Floors & Caribbean Culture

As promised, today was a big day! My cohort had wanted to do the “Concrete Floors in Community Homes” activity as a group but it filled up quickly. By chance, I was the only one who got a spot in it. So at 8:00 this morning I was back in my grubby clothes from Reforestation and rolling out on the bus toward a tiny neighborhood called San Marcos. To reach San Marcos we had to get off the bus on the side of the highway, more or less, and cross a swaying wooden footbridge to reach a dirt road lined with at most a dozen houses. We were working in 3 houses: two that had just one room each needing a floor, and a third that was getting concrete put in throughout the house. I ended up working in the third house. The facilitators introduced us to the owners of the houses, who were incredibly nice but a bit shy. One facilitator mentioned that San Marcos had never had such large groups of visitors before. I am sure they did not know what to make of us. But the owner of the house I worked in warmed up enough to want to show me a picture of his family on the wall, as well as the pigs he was raising in the back yard. I asked the facilitator how people in San Marcos provide for themselves and she said they might work in town but they also raise their own livestock, fruits, and vegetables. We saw cows, chickens, ducks, and a donkey during our morning there as well as the pigs.

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We got organized into a bucket brigade pretty quickly while a few volunteers mixed and shoveled the concrete in the middle of the dirt road (N. B.: This arrangement requires work to halt briefly when cows are coming through). Full buckets went in, empty buckets went out, and the few professional construction workers on the site spread and leveled the concrete as well as adding a layer of colored pigment over the smoothed concrete. This gentleman will have a great-looking yellow floor—in fact, probably already has it, by now, because another group was coming through in the afternoon to complete the work that we did not have time to finish. It was hard work passing the buckets and I’m sure I’ll be sore tomorrow, but it is really rewarding to think that in just one day we hugely improved someone’s quality of life. Imagine how hard it would be to clean up after a flood—flooding happens here, and San Marcos is right up against a river—if you had dirt floors in your house. For that matter, how much harder is it to keep a clean house from day to day if floors are dirt? All the owners were very pleased as well as a little disbelieving. One woman said she didn’t believe she was really getting a concrete floor until the supplies started showing up. She said that politicians sometimes come to their neighborhood and make promises, and then nothing ever happens. That touched me as much as anything because I pride myself on living up to what I say I’m going to do. I’d like to meet the politician who could make an empty promise to a soft-spoken woman and her baby daughter living in a cinderblock house with a dirt floor—but that politician probably doesn’t want to meet me.

One downside to doing concrete floors is that one gets incredibly dirty. 50% sweat, 50% concrete smudges, and I even got some yellow coloring powder on the strap of my bag. Luckily I had time to shower, change, and eat lunch before reporting back to Amber Cove to leave for the Caribbean Culture tour. True confession about Caribbean Culture: when I did it in January I enjoyed it, but felt like the tour guide’s talk was not as in-depth as I’d have liked. Nevertheless, I recommended it to my students as the cultural activity for our group because it offered the most cultural/historical content in a fairly short timeframe. I ended up glad I stuck with it because we had an excellent tour guide today (shout out to Mr. Oscar Rodriguez!): funny, knowledgeable, open to questions, obviously enjoyed his work. We went to the San Felipe Fortress first but cut that a bit short because it was incredibly windy (the fort is right on the coast). I kept having to hold my dress down because I’m not ready for Puerto Plata to know me quite that well yet. Second stop was the town square and San Felipe cathedral, which I love. It came back to me in a flash that the last time I was here, the Christmas decorations were still up. We drank coconut water, bought souvenirs, and got to see a cigar-making demonstration (fun cigar fact: some of the best cigar wrapper leaves come from Connecticut). Then the last stop was at the gorgeous botanical garden owned by Rafy Vasquez, a Dominican-born, Canadian-educated artist whose family has owned his property for three generations. It was great to see everything again and hear about it from Oscar, who was agreeably critical of (1) Catholicism as a state religion, (2) people’s misunderstandings about voodoo, (3) Christopher Columbus, (4) corrupt bureaucracy, (5) Dominican drivers.

(N. B.: My experience suggests that sensible people in general should be critical of Dominican drivers.)

On the way back to the port we drove along Ocean View Avenue, known locally as the Malecon. Oscar called an audible and let us stop for pictures of the statue of Neptune that stands on a rock out in the water. That was cool enough, but the sunset was incredible and the beach is gorgeous. I almost didn’t get out and now I’m really glad I did.

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Puerto Plata central square–Plaza Independencia

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San Felipe Cathedral

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Fresh coconut water

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Last time I saw this gazebo it had Christmas lights on it.

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Look closely. Ice cream shop takes Bitcoin?

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Cigar-rolling demonstration

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Fort San Felipe

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Students at the fort

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Outside the fort (inside the bus)

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DR’s flag is the only one in the world with a Bible on it.

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Sunset at the beach

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Orchids in Mr. Vasquez’s garden

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Orchids in Mr. Vasquez’s garden

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Students on the beach

 

Now it is after 10 p.m. and I am waiting on my laundry to dry while watching a Top Gear episode before bed. Tomorrow is our last activity; we sail around noon. Our time here goes so fast. I shed a few tears when we sailed away last time and I’m sure I’ll do the same tomorrow.

24 May 2017: Knights Impact does Reforestation

Busy first half of the day today. My group did a reforestation activity that departed from Amber Cove at 8:00 a.m., so I bounced out of bed at 6:00 to get ready, eat breakfast, and check up on a couple of things before getting on the bus. Impressively, everyone made it on the bus with time to spare even though several of us went to something called the “Bravissimo experience” last night and had quite a late evening. Those who did not have the Bravissimo experience attended the welcome party in Amber Cove instead. Well worth the price of admission ($0) to see an incredibly cute and talented kids’ drumline trained by a professional percussionist whose goal is to give kids in under-resourced neighborhoods access to music education and even the prospect of making money from music. The show also featured Dominican dancers and costumed carnival performers. I took some videos during the show but my camera’s memory card malfunctioned and I had to reformat it. Fortunately I got a couple of still images off before that happened; here they are!

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These kids were great!

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I’m a little scared of this guy, tbh.

So we all arrived in top form (or similar) for reforestation this morning. We drove about 30-45 minutes to reach the site, including a restroom stop in someone’s home. Where I come from it is not usual to have strangers parading through your house to use the loo, but in Puerto Plata, especially in the more remote neighborhood we were passing through, it’s easy to see why it’s necessary. No McDonald’s in sight; very few gas stations; and porta potties on site would be logistically if not financially prohibitive. To be honest, although I felt awkward being there, I was pleased to get a look into what seems to have been a working-class rural home. The house had a corrugated roof, concrete floors, and curtains instead of doors dividing the rooms. In the large back yard were ducks and chickens and two outdoor wood-burning stoves for cooking (although there was also a small range inside the house, as well as a television and a wi-fi router). The bathrooms were tiled and obviously there was running water–but you can’t put toilet paper down the toilets here and a couple of people had done so. I hope we did not back up this nice lady’s toilet. Her in-laws lived in another house at the back of the property. The houses are a little dark and bare, but airy. We had to pass through the owner’s (one of the facilitators told us that people own their homes/properties) bedroom to get to the bathroom and I noticed that there was almost no furniture and no closets. These neighborhoods are hard to characterize; they seem permanent, but unfinished. Nothing is rickety but also nothing is shiny or new. And it seems normal to, for instance, sell snacks and sodas off your front porch, or operate a café from a tiny building with a counter out the front and nothing else. I can’t quite imagine living there. I think I’d make a lot of silly mistakes because things are different from what I’m used to. On the other hand, there are no obnoxious neighborhood associations telling you you can’t have a clothesline—we saw clothes drying outside every house.

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The reforestation was challenging physical work, but fun: we were up in the hills with a nice breeze to break up the heat, and everyone chatted and had a good time as we worked. It was toughest for the workers who were using pickaxes to dig the holes for us to put the seedlings into. We could plant faster than they could dig because the soil was clay (very much like Georgia soil, but black instead of red) with lots of grass and thus hard to break up. Nevertheless, we persisted, taking a break halfway through for juice and granola bars. An official from the environment ministry was there to thank us for our work and explain why it was important, which was gratifying. The area we were in had lots of eucalyptus trees, which use a lot of resources without being good for much (no koalas here to eat them), so the idea is to plant mahogany and thus make better use of the land, decrease erosion (the area has lots of streams that feed a river), and improve the air quality. Though I have to say I thought the air was wonderful already!

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We got back to Amber Cove tired and hungry but happy and I repaired to my cabin for a nap after eating some lunch. Dinner with my lovely cohort tonight and then a big day tomorrow: concrete floors in the morning, Caribbean Culture tour in the afternoon. Time is flying but the longer we are here the more the students seem to understand what we’re up to and get into the enjoyment as well as the personal growth of the experience.

22¬-23 May 2017: Knights Impact At Sea & Arrival in the Dominican Republic

Yesterday on the ship flew by—or maybe sailed by? I started the day both yesterday and today meeting with my group of 9 students, who heroically got up on time for our 8:30 meeting both days. We followed that by meeting with our designated Fathom cohorts—a great experience for the students because they got to meet other people on the ship. There are people on board from all over and the students were particularly amazed by the variety of ages, nationalities, and professions. One student reported excitedly that she’d met a couple who were both doctors—a nephrologist and a pulmonologist. One of the highlights for me of leading these programs with students is that I never know what they’re going to find interesting or noteworthy. They started learning before we ever left home that the world—and even just the ship—is much more diverse than they realized.

In the afternoons we attended a training session on “creating retellable stories” (yesterday) and one on visual storytelling (today). Both had in common an emphasis on emotional impact. We learned a few simple guidelines that will make it easier to tell better stories and take better pictures. I always think it’s worth going to an hour-long session if I walk away with just one or two things I can remember and apply. Both of these sessions fit the bill; plus I got a free copy of the storytelling trainer’s book. Yay, swag!

Last night’s dinner in the Pacific Restaurant was more animated than Sunday’s as everyone is getting to know each other a little better and shaking off the fatigue of the trip to Miami. We had one student who got badly seasick Sunday night but was feeling better by noon yesterday. Everyone was happy to see her bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at dinner, although she did say she’d decided that cruise travel was not for her. In fact, most agreed they were ready to get off the ship and get into the next phase of the program. Incidentally, that student’s roommate is a hero for looking out for her when she was ill. Another upside to these programs is seeing the relationships that form among the students and how they look out for each other. They are so generous and compassionate and it’s great to see.

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(Fancy food from Pacific!)

Those who were tired of the ship last night only had a few more hours to wait as we arrived at Amber Cove around 11:00 this morning and they started letting people off at noon. Amber Cove is just as I left it; I even recognize a couple of the wait staff in Coco Caña (the poolside restaurant/bar). Only the weather is a little different: today it’s a little overcast and hazy, which I did not expect. But neither am I complaining. A bit of cloud cover keeps the heat down, even if there is still plenty of heat to go around. I have the afternoon “off” (i.e. I am catching up on email and blogging) and might even catch a little pool time while the sun is not absolutely blazing.

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Duke loves the ocean!

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Sunset at sea

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Amber Cove

Knights Impact exploratory trip day 7: Final hours aboard Adonia, 7 January 2017

It’s 7:45 p.m. EST or 8:45 ship time as our clocks don’t go back till 2:00 a.m. We disembark in about 14 hours; my suitcase is already out in the hall for pickup. Apparently they are strict about not allowing people to carry off their own luggage. I have left out my clothes and minimal toiletries for in the morning. The toiletries and my pajamas may be riding home in my laptop bag. Duly noted for next time. Meanwhile, we are sailing under/next to a thunderstorm. The clouds look very low over the ocean and it seems windy, yet the water is calmer than it was yesterday (at least so far). Lightning over the water is pretty incredible!

This morning I finally got to go to a yoga class (worth the wait) and we all attended our final cohort meetings. Seeing the statistics from our sailing as well as the overall numbers of people this program has helped since its inception in April 2016 was exciting. Each individual’s contribution might seem small but it all adds up. For example, by the end of May 2017 (after our students’ sailing), the people enrolled in Community English will have received a total of 160 hours of tutoring from native English speakers. That’s a huge supplement to the instruction they’re already getting from Entrena (the organization that coordinates Community English) since interaction with native speakers is so important for language development. It’s just gratifying to see the ways in which our small efforts fit into this larger movement to help people improve their lives.

In the afternoon my colleague and I spent about 3 hours working on an application, several supporting documents (program guide, cost breakdown, faculty/staff information), and an initial round of promotional emails for what is now officially going to launch as Knights Impact as soon as we get back to campus (Monday) and get a website put together. It’s going to be a fast and furious 6 weeks of recruiting as our deadline is February 20. That’s not much time but we have a great collaboration going among all the MGA people who came on this trip and will be working together to get students committed.

For now I am going to enjoy listening to the ocean a little longer before I go to bed. We have to be out of our cabins at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow so the morning will be a little hectic. Stay tuned!


Coda: the ocean turned rough around 3 a.m. so we all had an interesting night’s sleep with our clothes hangers rattling around! We were off the ship at 9:30 and en route to Macon by 11:00, taking turns driving and catching naps. Now it’s Monday morning and I’m back at work in 28-degree weather. Going from 28 degrees Celsius to 28 degrees Fahrenheit is a bit of a shock!

How about some pictures from around the ship to wrap things up?

View from my balcony while at sea

View from my balcony while at sea

My cabin (mostly tidy)

My cabin (mostly tidy)

My bathroom (less tidy; sorry!)

My bathroom (less tidy; sorry!)

The Conservatory buffet restaurant

The Conservatory buffet restaurant

Ping-pong on the Lido Deck

Ping-pong on the Lido Deck

Lido Deck in full swing

Lido Deck in full swing

My favorite place on the ship, the Crow's Nest, which happens to be on 10 Forward (for all you Trekkies out there)

My favorite place on the ship, the Crow’s Nest, which happens to be on 10 Forward (for all you Trekkies out there)

Reception desk

Reception desk

Shops (and Christmas decor still up)

Shops (and Christmas decor still up)

The Pacific restaurant where we ate dinner every night

The Pacific restaurant where we ate dinner every night

Knights Impact exploratory trip day 5: Cultural excursion—5 January 2017

I spent the morning today in Amber Cove working on the program documentation and inflicting my Spanish on innocent Dominicans who deserve better. One drawback of this type of travel is that it isn’t an immersive language experience unless you go out of your way to make it more immersive. But I figured out that if I told the Dominican employees at Amber Cove (and elsewhere) that I was practicing my Spanish, they would help me by speaking Spanish to me, slowing down, and also seeing when I didn’t understand and going back to English. As always, people are grateful when we make even a small effort to speak their language. Today I learned how to say “I am learning” (Estoy aprendida) and I learned what rum that isn’t white is called: dorado (golden). I figured café (brown) couldn’t possibly be right! I also learned the word for “ice cubes” but I have forgotten it. Luckily I rarely use ice cubes, so no great loss. Most of all I am proud of myself for successfully asking “Do you have an espresso machine?” which is an important inquiry to be able to make. Tienes una maquina de espresso? (Note to self: learn how to type the upside-down question mark before a sentence and learn what it is called.)

My afternoon today was the “Caribbean Culture” excursion, a visit to a few important sites in Puerto Plata with a guide who taught us some basic cultural and historical information along the way. We began in the town square, which features some Victorian architecture, a cathedral, and statues of two heroes from Dominican history, Juan Pablo Duarte and General Gregorio Luperon. Facing the square is the bright-yellow Neoclassical-style town hall featuring the arms of the city. On the coat of arms appear an F and a Y for Ferdinand and Isabella, a reference to this island’s history as a Spanish colony.

The gazebo in the town square

The gazebo in the town square

The city hall

The city hall

The square from across the street

The square from across the street

The cathedral, San Felipe, is of course vastly different from the elaborate stone edifices seen in Europe but it fits the architecture of the square and the reality of the climate. Our guide mentioned that the cathedral was restored and improved most recently in 2010, including the addition of air conditioning for Sundays when everyone comes to Mass. Today, a Thursday, the A/C was off and the windows and doors were wide open. I did not get to follow my usual practice of lighting a candle at the Sacred Heart shrine (I am not Catholic but I have cultivated a habit of doing this when I visit cathedrals) because this cathedral did not have candles available in exchange for donations. BYOC: Bring Your Own Candle. I will know for next time and proceed accordingly.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

Sacred Heart altar

Sacred Heart altar

Leaving the square we crossed the street to a vendor’s cart; he had fresh coconuts, a machete, and straws and we all got to have fresh coconut water. That was a minor revelation to me: I have had packaged coconut water a few times and don’t care for it because it always tastes, well, packaged. This coconut water had a very mild taste that combined sweetness and a sort of vegetable freshness. I enjoyed it and am convinced that it helped keep me from getting dehydrated during the tour.

Intimidatingly large!

Intimidatingly large!

Cutting open fresh coconuts

Cutting open fresh coconuts

Next step: souvenirs! We visited a large souvenir shop that was about 1/3 jewelry made from amber and larimar. The DR produces a lot of amber and they are very proud of their amber production. We learned that real amber will float in saltwater whereas fake amber will sink. Good to know, right? Larimar is a blue stone that is apparently found only in the DR. I had never heard of it but had noticed it even in the gift shops here on the ship. It is pale blue to deep aqua blue veined with white and the story goes that the person who discovered it named it for his daughter’s name plus “mar” for the sea. To me it really does look like some of the colors I saw in the water as the ship was sailing along.

With souvenirs in hand we went on to Fort San Felipe. The fort is on the coast and was built in the 16th century to protect the entrance to the city and its sugar refineries. It was also used in the 19th century as a jail and Juan Pablo Duarte was imprisoned there at one time. I was struck by how broadly similar the construction was to that of William the Conqueror’s castle in Normandy and Cahir Castle in Ireland, though those structures are not really close chronologically. Maybe there are only so many ways to build a fort if you’re a European? One room inside the fort held a series of placards announcing “firsts” in the Americas that belong to the Dominican Republic: first cities to be awarded a coat of arms, first book written in Castilian, first university. One could argue that those firsts are problematic as they all belong to the country’s Spanish colonial background, but it’s clear that the country is proud of them.

Fort San Felipe

Fort San Felipe

Atop the fort looking toward the ocean

Atop the fort looking toward the ocean

Atop the fort looking back toward the hills

Atop the fort looking back toward the hills

The final stop was a fascinating place called Mares that houses a restaurant, art gallery, gift shop, and a small botanical garden growing beautiful orchids. After a few days’ exposure to more disadvantaged areas it was interesting to see that there is more economic diversity in Puerto Plata than I realized—the area around Mares is more residential and established, with paved streets and larger houses. And after a warm day and a fair amount of walking and looking, it was nice to spend some time in this unexpected oasis. We had fresh fruit and chips with fresh salsa between photographing the orchids and chatting with the artist whose work was on display. It was a pleasant way to end the day.

Inside the botanical garden

Inside the botanical garden

Our route back to Amber Cove took us along a 7-kilometer stretch of beach and past a statue of Neptune that stands on a small island offshore. It also took us through a gas station and past a tire shop because our bus had a tire that was leaking air. Not to worry, though: we got back with no problem in time to have dinner and talk about our adventures. Tomorrow the ship sails at noon and I can’t believe this adventure is nearly over.

One final note: today I tore one of my contact lenses as I was cleaning them! In thirty years wearing lenses this is only the second time I’ve torn a lens. Because I never tear lenses and I was only going to be gone a week, I did not bring an extra pair. To my chagrin I am stuck wearing my battered 8-year-old glasses for the rest of the trip. Be prepared, dear readers! Bring the extra lenses!

Don't let this happen to you!

Don’t let this happen to you!

Knights Impact exploratory trip day 3: Dominican Republic arrival and first impact activities—3 January 2017

This morning I woke up around 7:30 thinking I had lots of time, but the ship’s clocks had moved forward an hour overnight. I knew this change was happening but missed it because the time on my phone didn’t change till we got closer to the Dominican Republic and my phone connected to their cell network. So, note to self: adjust alarm accordingly before bed on day 2.

I did get ready and breakfasted in time for my second cohort meeting at 10:15, where we learned some basic history of the Dominican Republic, some cultural tips, and some general information about the area where we’d be traveling. The closest city is called Puerto Plata; the port is called Amber Cove and it belongs to the Carnival corporation on a long-term lease. The DR has a long history of conquest, revolution, and dictatorships and has only been holding free and fair elections for about 40 years if I remember correctly. As we were taking in these facts we were well in sight of land and sailing toward the port. It’s easy to see why so many people fought over this land for so long: the landscape is incredibly beautiful and lush. This is my first time in a tropical destination and I was completely blown away by the sight of it. By the time the cohort meeting was over, we were in port and allowed to disembark, so I ate lunch quickly and got right off the ship to take a walk around Amber Cove before my afternoon impact activity. Amber Cove is purely commercial and touristy, of course, since it was built to cater to cruise customers, but the shops are varied (local crafts, souvenirs, fine jewelry, a pharmacy, etc.) and the pool area is really pleasant with plenty of lounge chairs and umbrellas. It’s also possible to rent private cabanas of various sizes as well as pool floats, zipline rides, paddleboards, and other good stuff. I spoke to a few of the shop employees and had a café worker explain to me in Spanish how to operate a particular coffee-making contraption that works like an upside-down Moka pot. I am proud to say I followed most of the explanation! I also learned to play a sort of 3-dimensional tic-tac-toe game—might go back and get one of those for my dad.

Adonia in port at Amber Cove

Adonia in port at Amber Cove

The pool area at Amber Cove

The pool area at Amber Cove

Soon it was time to board buses for our impact activities. My activity today was Community English: tutoring English learners one-on-one in their homes. About 20 of us went with our facilitator Danna to a neighborhood called Monte Rico and then split into smaller groups to go to particular houses depending on how many people would be there. Five of us went to one house and taught a group of about 7 kids ranging in age from 9 to 15. I wasn’t expecting kids in Community English since there is also an activity called “Student English” but learning a language is easier the earlier you start, so the youngest ones will have the greatest advantage. My student, Zoith, was a very smart girl of 9 who already knew the lesson material almost perfectly. We worked mostly on pronunciation and a few difficult words; she took notes and had me write down some words she didn’t know. I learned that she likes chicken, cake, and pizza, she drinks chocolate for breakfast, and her favorite color is the same as mine: red. At first I was not sure she liked me but after the lesson, when we were getting ready to leave, she went out of her way to come back to me and point out her father after he stopped to talk to her on his way home (in a big Toyota Tundra!). I think maybe we got along okay after all.

Zoith and me at the end of our English lesson

Zoith and me at the end of our English lesson

To be honest, this experience will take me some time to process. The environment in Monte Rico is like nothing I’ve ever seen: narrow, rocky dirt roads, stray animals roaming, motoconchos (motorcycle taxis) and lottery ticket counters and tiny barbershops and vegetable stands everywhere. It’s tempting to see nothing but poverty and disorder and be patronizing about it, but these people obviously care about each other, stick together, and are willing to welcome strangers into their homes week after week in hopes of improving their future. With some English they have a better chance of being able to work in the tourism industry, which is the DR’s largest. I’ve heard that there are particularly few jobs in Puerto Plata for women, and I noticed that everyone who came to our lesson today was female. So hopefully we helped create a little better future for girls in particular.

Along the way I discovered that my A2 Spanish level is a pretty good match for the A2 level of the Community English course and for prompting a 9-year-old. I’m definitely going to encourage our students to brush up their Spanish, because a little goes a really long way. Zoith had a hard time differentiating the pronunciations of soup and soap (probably in part because “soup” in Spanish is sopa) so I was really glad I could remember the Spanish word for “soap” and tell her soap is jabon and we don’t want to eat jabon.

We returned early since Monte Rico is not as far away as some of the Community English sites, so I had a little time to sit by the pool, relax, and think about all I saw today. It seems like the time we spent in Monte Rico went by in a blink; I wish I could go back and meet some other people. I did not take any pictures around the neighborhood because it seemed a little disrespectful—there were a lot of people around and I am very obviously a tourist. I’ll try my best to remember it all, summed up in this moment: A rooster walked in front of the house and I exclaimed “I saw a chicken!” Zoith, of course, looked completely unimpressed. Perspective is everything.

My student Zoith

My student Zoith