Knights Impact exploratory trip day 4: Full day in the DR—4 January 2017

This morning I woke up because it got dark rather than because it was getting light: another, bigger cruise ship—Holland America’s Eurodam—docked next to us around 7:30 a.m. They were only here for the day and were gone en route to their next port of call by the time we returned from impact activities this afternoon. It seems like the Adonia’s function as a floating hotel in one place is comparatively rare. Must admit that I love sailing, but the ship in port just seems like a building. As the saying goes, safe in port is not what ships are for!

My colleagues had activities scheduled in both the morning and afternoon today but I had the morning free to work on the documentation for the Knights Impact program, answer a few emails, and inflict my Spanish on unsuspecting Amber Cove employees. At Café El Cibao I managed two entire, mostly correct exchanges with staff members and ended up with exactly what I wanted: a cappuccino and the wi-fi code. Unfortunately, El Cibao doesn’t allow people to connect laptops to their wi-fi, but Coco Cana (restaurant/bar next to the pool) does. At Coco Cana my Spanish was less successful: I could not learn from the waiter what the Spanish for “sparkling water” is, and I fear the problem is that I could not ask the question correctly. But I did get connected to their wi-fi in turn, so, yes, it was from a poolside bar that I posted the last three blog entries and will probably post this one tomorrow.

Today’s impact activity was an afternoon at a paper-recycling business called RePapel. RePapel is a small business that employs about a dozen women making two main products: handmade paper out of used paper from offices and classrooms, and jewelry made of paper beads rolled from magazine pages. The work not only provides income for the employees but also enables them to work close to home so that they can take care of their kids. Many women here are single mothers; the women at RePapel were previously working at a recycling business in a town over an hour away but now they can get their kids off to school in the morning, take a break at noon to fix them lunch, etc. Plus they are just really cool ladies: welcoming, friendly, enthusiastic to the point of rowdiness.

The activity was well organized so that we got to try out nearly everything RePapel does. I was particularly interested in the recycled paper since I teach about paper-making in History of Print. To begin the recycling process we hand-tore the used paper into small pieces, separating pieces with ink on them from pieces that are solid white. (Someone asked why they don’t use scissors: it’s because tearing the paper follows its existing grain and makes the pulp hold up better.) The pieces are washed in a regular top-loading washing machine for 15 minutes and then processed in a blender to create the pulp—these steps were the only ones we didn’t do. We then cast individual sheets of paper, roughly 8½ by 11, on a mould from tubs of pulp, turned them out on drying sheets, and laid them in a rack to dry.

Adding water to the washing machine to wash the paper scraps

Adding water to the washing machine to wash the paper scraps

Running the blender to make the pulp

Running the blender to make the pulp

Casting a sheet of green paper

Casting a sheet of green paper

The lovely Altagracia smiles while holding a paper mould

The lovely Altagracia smiles while holding a paper mould

I could probably have done just the paper-casting part for the whole visit but we had other tasks. The dried paper is bumpy from the wire mesh of the mould and has to be smoothed. In an industrial paper factory, metal rollers polish the paper smooth, but at RePapel we smoothed paper one sheet at a time by rubbing them with (get this) the bottoms of empty Avon roll-on deodorant bottles. I found out later that 2 of the RePapel employees are also Avon reps and they ask their customers to return the empty bottles when they finish them. Smoothing paper this way takes elbow grease but it works surprisingly well!

The whole time we were working on the steps of the recycling process, the RePapel employees were singing, chanting, laughing, teasing each other, and encouraging us. They were very sweet and patient as we made some pretty terrible-looking sheets of paper. One woman, Yolanda, led us all in a dance break while everybody sang “La Bamba.” There were hand motions involved: “Yo no soy marinero” [make waves with your hands], “Soy capitan” [shade your eyes with your hand as if peering out to sea]. It was fun for us and I hope it was fun for the employees too. Paper-making on this non-industrial scale is pretty hard and repetitious work so you might as well try to enjoy it.

After a break for snacks we traded places with the other half of our group to work on jewelry-making: winding wedge-shaped strips of magazine paper around a dowel to create beads and then, later, stringing the beads to make necklaces and bracelets. I must confess that I was terrible at making beads. In half an hour I might have made three good ones. I did, however, manage to pose an intelligible question in Spanish and understand most of the answer. The beads are very striking when well created (i.e., not by me). Magazine pages are colorful and winding the strips makes interesting patterns. I didn’t fare a lot better at making a necklace. Obviously I can string beads, but can I do it in a way anyone would want to look at, much less purchase? Answers on a postcard. Nevertheless, both activities were a lot of fun and we had good conversations while working on them. I met the Fathom employee who coordinates with the NGOs here in the Dominican Republic; he’s a Peace Corps returnee whose academic background is in economics, so he is well placed to work with organizations like RePapel who can benefit from microfinance, sponsorships, and the support of people like Fathom travelers. I also met one of the Adonia’s nurses—she was rotating off the ship and had never had a chance to try the activities, so she was doing them on her way out.

Once again the activity time seemed to go much too fast—if I have a quibble with this program it is that the whole thing is too short! Before leaving we had an opportunity to buy some of RePapel’s products; I bought a pair of paper-bead earrings that I am wearing even now, as well as a little set of recycled paper note cards stamped with designs of birds and flowers native to the DR. The cards are almost too pretty to use, I’m afraid! I should say here that I felt no pressure to buy anything. Both RePapel and Chocal (the chocolate cooperative that hosts another impact activity) sells the products that they make to the impact travelers but it’s not an awkward hard-sell situation, which frankly is nice. Then back on the bus toward Amber Cove we learned that as a group we made 205 sheets of paper today. Pretty good for a bunch of beginners! Will someone buy the necklace I made? The world may never know.

The narrow street that houses RePapel

The narrow street that houses RePapel

The exterior of RePapel

The exterior of RePapel

Tonight’s dinner was the scene of a lively discussion about the details of making this program available to students, because we’ll start recruiting as soon as we get back to our campuses on January 9 (just 5 days from now!). We are almost ready and really excited. I suspect the return trip to Miami will consist of nonstop meetings and conversations to get everything finalized. Bring it on!

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