Monday, May 31, 2010

10.2 Hike Camel's Hump in all four seasons (Spring)

I've been back from the Dominican Republic for a couple of days now, and feel like I'm still processing an experience that turned out to have a much deeper impact than I expected. One of the student participants, Ashley, (who in the space of less than a week, won the hearts of an entire village that openly sobbed at her leaving) described it this way, "I spent the best ten days of my life with some of the best ten people that I know. We loved each other and became a family amongst a beautiful community surrounded by an unreal landscape." Although the focus in community-based experiential learning like our trip is (and I think should be) on the relationship between the guest and host participants, it's also true that in the best of such trips, lasting and meaningful bonds are created among the participants in the guest group. For me this was one of those "best of" trips, and our entire group bonded in a way that felt rare and very special.

I will definitely revisit the whole experience in at least one more post, but on a lighter note, I am excited to report that today I got to do Season Two (Spring) of New Thing #10 (Hike Camel's Hump in all four seasons). I must confess, I was starting to get a little worried. The original plan had been to organize a hike with some of the Saint Mike's 2010 graduates during senior week, but the mountain wasn't open yet. Then I went to the DR, and early tomorrow (today now, actually) I head out to New Hampshire for a conference and then once I'm back I'll be in town for a long weekend and then it's off to the Pacific Northwest for a week. And by the time I get back it will be mid-June and I'll be frantically putting things together for the Jordan/Lebanon/Uganda trip. But I should have known not to worry, because as usual, a great SMC student and friend came through for me.

That person was Will, who had been terribly missed spring semester because he was on a School for International Training (SIT) study abroad semester in Uganda and Rwanda. He just got back and last night he and Connor, the SMC student who will be going to Jordan with Siham and I in June, dropped by to say hi and catch up. Happily, my friend and former student Jamila is staying at my place right now, and another SMC alumnae, Jess, was up for the weekend as well. So, as we all sat around doing one of my favorite things (talking about past and future travel plans), I mentioned that I really wanted to do a hike and Will was all over it. So, this afternoon we went, and I got the bonus of hearing yet more about his spring semester.

Our conversation ranged from novel and quirky stories (Will definitely gets the prize for most adventuresome eater, and told me about sampling, among other delicacies, rat, deep-fried crickets, and ground-up white ant balls)to profound insights (pretty inevitable given the very serious topic of his SIT program was post-conflict transformation in Rwanda and Uganda). Will conducted his independent study project in Gulu, the northern part of Uganda made famous by the Lord's Resistance Army's abduction of child soldiers there. Although I peppered Will with questions about the LRA and child soldiers as well as the refugee camps he visited in the area, the most profound thing he taught me during the afternoon was about none of these things. Rather than focus on any of these questions, Will, who is both a political science major and a musician, had chosen to do his independent study on the music traditions of the Acholi, the predominant ethnic group of the area. He told me that the people there welcomed him with open arms; after years of submitting to the questions of researchers about the crises they had endured, they were excited that someone had come to learn about the cultural richness they had to offer, rather than to continue the one-note narrative of tragedy and chaos that we westerners tend to associate with African life. As someone who is guilty of that blindered focus, that was a great reminder to me that there is much, much more to see and explore and learn.

So, our spring hike on Camel's Hump was a great learning experience, and equally importantly, just plain fun. I couldn't resist throwing in a few pictures from my winter hike for contrast. They're taken from exactly the same spots -- the sign at the trail head and the summit respectively -- but just look at the difference a few months can make!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

27. Visit the Dominican Republic, Part I: Work Hard, Play Harder

Vibrant. That's my one-word impression of the Dominican Republic. Everything about it -- the colors, the language, the energy of the people, the gorgeous tropical vegetation, the mountains and the ocean, the baseball playing in the middle of the day in the middle of the street, and (especially)the dancing and the music -- feel so very animated and engaged. I think it's impossible to go and not feel a little more energetic, a little more willing to take a risk and a lot more alive. At least that's the way it felt for the 11 of us -- our leaders, Erin and Tom, graduating seniors Carolyn, David, Eireann, Joy-Anne, and Korinne, returning students Ashley, Kate and Mark, and me.

Incredibly, this was Tom's 15th trip to the Ocoa region, and Erin had also led a previous service learning trip last year. But for the rest of us, this was our first time in the Dominican Republic. Our main task this year was to help the community lay the foundation and start the construction of a new home in the wonderful mountain village of Los Palmaritos. We began and ended the trip in the city of San Jose de Ocoa (or just Ocoa), where both ADESJO, the NGO that coordinated our work project, and the Catholic mission of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph (RHSJ), where we stayed while we were in the city, are based.

In Ocoa we stayed in the lovely new guest quarters of the school complex of the RHSJ, which we referred to as the Ocoa Hilton after our seriously no-frills village accommodations. And we visited lots of places including: the hospital; some of Tom's many friends (the man's a local celebrity, and you can't walk down the street with him without running into someone with a new story about all the things he's done there); and the ADESJO office (whose staff will surely impose an emergency closing if I ever visit again, rather than submit themselves to another afternoon-long Q&A session with me posing questions on everything from the contested national elections that happened two days before we arrived to the status of Haitian workers on the coffee fincas).

Though we saw and visited many things in Ocoa, the heart of the trip was our stay in the small village of Los Palmaritos, which we travelled to on a twisty mountain road in the back of a truck. There, our headquarters was a small house crammed with twelve bunk beds (for the 11 of us, plus Santa, who skillfully transformed potatoes, yucca, plantains, the world's freshest mangoes and pineapple, and local chicken into piles of delicious food that we ate outdoors every day). There was no indoor plumbing, but the enormous spiders mostly got out of our way when we used the outhouse, and there was a hose that ran in the morning that we could use to conduct cold "showers" wearing our bathing suits outside, while the villagers who stationed themselves with us at all times looked on with amusement. While the spiders usually gave us some space, the rats did not, and nights turned into a running battle of humans versus ratones, with the rats scoring early on with some daring maneuvers that had everyone screaming their heads off, particularly when after some direct bed assaults in one of the girls' rooms, one made a showing inside of Joy's sleeping bag. Two nights later, though, Tom and I regained the upper hand with consecutive backhand swats that sent them flying into the night when they tried sharing our bunks with us. The saga of the rats, who remained immune to our efforts to first scare them (note to future groups: if using a cat, don't go with a kitten smaller than the rats themselves) and then poison them was the subject of much commentary at the work site, since our neighbors could easily gauge who was winning by the level of melodrama emanating from our house every night.

We were working with the villagers to build a house next door to one that was rotting so that the family could move. There was a skilled contractor and mason in charge of the project, and a number of other experienced volunteer builders who showed us how to do the work. First we helped dig the foundation by hand with pickaxes and shovels, and then lay some rebar support for the concrete that we carried up the hill from a truck, mixed by hand and poured into the foundation. Then the masons laid brick while the rest of us filled the spaces with mortar, and finally on the last day, the wooden studs for the upper walls went up. Some of it was pretty hard work, but since there was never enough equipment, we mostly worked in shifts, so we were fine.

Though the villagers worked hard, they knew how to enjoy themselves, and we learned that from them as well. While the work was going on at the site, there was usually also a baseball game going on in the street below (and Korinne turned more than a few male heads with her superior batting skills), and the three hour lunch and siesta break every day was an institution we quickly learned to love.

But the real highlight, for the people of Los Palmaritos as well as us, was at night after dinner when people of all ages headed to the small store/bar in the center of town and the music started. The drinks of choice were rum and El Presidente beer, bought in large bottles and shared all around in plastic cups, but it was really about the dancing in which everyone, regardless of age or skill level, was expected to participate.

During our stay our group talked a lot about how pictures couldn't begin to do our trip justice, but since that's what we have, here are a few. There's one group shot taken in the city park in Ocoa at the very beginning of the trip, and the other, also taken in Ocoa but at the end of the trip, was a toast at the home of Jesus, one of the many members of Tom's fan club. Each of us made our own connections in the DR,and for me my most special bond is with Yorkis. Here's one photo where he's mortaring blocks with Ashley and me (thanks, Carolyn, for sharing this and your other photos so quickly with the rest of us), and in the other he's teaching me to merengue. And finally, there's one more with Erin and Ashley dancing, as everyone did, with the children of the village.

I think I speak for everyone in saying that our time in Los Palmaritos was all that anyone can hope for in a travel experience. We all left a piece of our hearts there, in some form or other, and took a bit of Los Palmeritos with us as well.

52 Ways to Say I Love You

In Spanish (What else? But for this one I actually got to hear or say them all).

Hello Hola
Good by Adios
May I have two beers please? Dame dos cervezas, por favor. (Though in Los Palmeritos you usually don't get dos cervezas, you get a big bottle of El Presidente and share.)
I love you. Te quiero.

Coming Attractions

The trip to the DR pretty much kicked off the summer's travel. This week I have a conference in New Hampshire, then next week I'm headed to Tacoma to do a road trip to Idaho with my sister, brother in law, and niece, Katrinka, Brian and Tigist, and with luck will pull off another new thing, glass-blowing before we head out of town. Before I go west, though, I'm hoping to round up some people to do the Spring Camel's Hump hike today or tomorrow (Memorial Day), so if anyone's game, give me a shout SOON. I'll write a more complete list of summer new thing plans in a later post.

Friday, May 14, 2010

26. Learn to Change a Car Tire

Now that graduation is over, I thought time would slow down, but instead it feels like it's accelerating. I think that's because on Tuesday at 6 am I embark on what is going to be a marathon summer of travel, with trips to the Dominican Republic, Seattle, Jordan, Lebanon, Uganda, the UK, Denmark and maybe Sweden in the works. And between the trips I have a two day conference in New Hampshire, and I really want to spend as much time as possible outside rock climbing and hiking and in the skating rink working on my first "moves in the field" test. So I think it's going to be a pretty busy summer.

Before the trip to the DR serves as my mental kick-off point for the summer, I wanted to extract one last lesson from Nigel before he takes his leave of Vermont for good. He did such a great job on my bike tire lesson, I asked him to repeat it for the car. My good friend and former student Jamila, who's been away the last three years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, is staying at my place for the month of May. Turns out Oxford can teach a person a lot, but tire changing is not among the strengths of the scholars there, so Jamila wanted in on the lesson as well. So Nigel generously agreed to curtail his graduation-night revelries to the point that he'd be able to make it over to my place the following morning by 9:30 to teach his former professor and fellow SMC alum some very important basic mechanical skills.

He began with the all-important tour under the hood. I learned that my Subaru has a horizontally-opposed engine (as opposed to vertical, the way most engines are placed), and now I can at least point to most of the major components and name them. From there we moved to a mini-lecture on the jump-starting a car. Here's the summary: attach the positive (red) cable to the positive terminal on the dead battery, then to the one on the live one. Then clamp the negative cable to the live battery and the other end to a metal point on the body of the dead car (NOT to the dead battery). Then start the live car, wait 30 seconds and try to start the one with the dead battery. Then take everything off in reverse order. Got it?

From there we moved to the main event of changing the tire. I learned many things, such as that getting my hub caps off (and putting them back on) is harder than I expected, and so is loosening the lug nuts. On the plus side, the car jack is a bit easier than expected, and now I know just where to place it under the car. Oh, and I will now begin carrying a rag and a blanket (very good for kneeling in gravel if necessary as it was today) in my trunk. Nigel did a lot of demonstrating, but made sure that Jamila and I had to actually do everything he showed us. If I had to, I'm pretty sure I could do it on my own now, though I'm still not going to cancel my triple A membership.

Of course, I just had to include a few pictures. I love the one of Jamila and Nigel because they look they're having a fabulous time, and by extension, that tire-changing is a enthralling activity. Of course, since they're both voracious readers of current events and all things political, they were having quite the lively discussion, so it really was very fun. Then there's the one of me bent over kneeling. I felt that I must include it for two reasons. One is that I think I bear an uncanny resemblance to a turtle in the shot, and wondered if others agree. Second, it allows me to prominently display my awesome new hoodie from Health GAP, the AIDS treatment access activist group of which I've been a proud member for almost ten years now. If you're thinking to yourself, "Wow, she really does look like a turtle. But that is definitely an awesome sweatshirt. I must get one as well", shoot me an email and I'll hook you up with your very own connection to an uber-cool hoodie and an even cooler organization.

52 Ways to Say I Love You... Latin from my British friend Matthew, who came up with the 52 language thing and took some time off from his favorite past-time of making fun of academics to dredge up some memories of Latin classes.

Hello Salve
May I have two beers, please? Da mihi duas vasa fermentorum sodes?
I love you. Te amo.
Good by Vale

Coming Attractions

Here's the summer travel line-up:
May 18-28 Saint Michael's College MOVE Service Trip to the Dominican Republic(new country).
June 1-3 Conference in New Hampshire
June 8-15 Visit to Tacoma to see Tigist, Katrinka and Brian, do a road trip to Twin Falls, Idaho, and try glass blowing.
June 19-July 4 Go to Jordan and Lebanon with Siham and Connor for research, fall class preparation and to see why everyone says that Petra is a must-see destination (two new countries).
July 4-10 Fly from Amman, Jordan to Kampala, Uganda to speak at and participate in a 5-day international workshop on AIDS, religion and social movements (new country).
July 25-August 11 (approximately). Present a co-authored paper and attend a 4 day conference with my friend and colleague Jerry at Cambridge University. Prior to the conference, go hiking in Scotland (not a new country but a new experience) and after, visit Denmark (new country). So, if all goes as planned, I will be able to add 5 new countries to my life list (Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Jordan, Uganda and Denmark) between the end of spring semester and the beginning of fall semester!

On the hiking roster, my friend and colleague Kristin and I are planning a hike (probably overnight) up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, there are two hikes (spring as soon as I get back from the DR, and summer, which will start at night and end at dawn to catch the sunset, moon and sunrise) up Camel's Hump, and Lucas and I are going to do at least one of the "46" in the Adirondacks. Anyone up for any of these, let me know, so we can pick days that work for everyone!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Serendipity 5. Say Good by and Thanks (for all the New Things)

For me, the first half of May is always bittersweet. Winter is finally over and everything is in bloom (though someone forgot to give Mother Nature the memo this year. Snow on May 9 is not amusing; it's simply wrong). Classes end, and academics everywhere breath a sigh of relief. But the bitter part is saying good by to students that have come to be friends over the past four years as they go off to hopefully put to practice what they've learned.

Tonight a few of our great political science graduates and one-year out alumni joined a few of their faculty for a drink or two and a bite to eat. I insisted in the spirit of New Things that we had to drink at a bar I'd never been to, so we tried What Ales You, and when it wasn't open, wound up at the Three Needs. When we were seated at the table I realized that every single one of the students sitting there had been involved in at least one thing on my list. And so, I wanted to write a short post to say good by and thank you, for being great people inside the class and equally great teachers and fellow learners outside of it. Arranged around the table in the group picture are: me; my colleague Mike; Sarah (who went rock climbing at Petra with our SMC student group); Ryan (who also did rock climbing as well as the winter snow shoe up Camel's Hump); my colleague Bill; Nigel (who taught me to change a bike tire and cross country ski skate, as well as joining our rock climbing group); Madison (who did the midnight tour of the Washington monument and provided my Luganda language post); Drisk (who graduated last year, and gave me my downhill skiing lesson); and Dan (who graduated last year, and who went to New York City with me so I could skate at Rockefeller Center and learned how to make mozarella cheese with me).

Although I'm sad for the good-bys, I have faith that there are many more New Things in store for the people sitting at the table, individually and collectively. Nigel, for instance, is on the hook to teach me one more thing (basic emergency car stuff) before he leaves town. I know I'll be in touch with Dan and Drisk because they'll still be here for at least the summer and there is some biking and hiking on the list to be done. And Ryan is headed to my alma mater, Brandeis, for the political science PhD program in the fall. But whether we do more things together or not, it was a great thing to look around the table and see some of the people that I've talked to about ideas in the classroom and learned new things with (and from) outside of it. I'm grateful for both sets of experiences, and as they set off for new adventures, wanted to express my gratitude to them all, and to the other graduating seniors and alumni who have taught me so much, especially in this year of new things. Thank you.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Two Very Different New Things 24. Go Bird Watching and 25. An Afternoon at the (Car) Races

My experience of New Things so far has taught me the folly of making definitive predictions. But I'm still willing to go out on a limb here and say that this weekend I had what I am sure will be the two most dissonant back-to-back New Things of the year. One involved getting up very early to commune with nature; the other sitting on my butt watching more race cars than I ever imagined would convene in Vermont use fuel, spew fumes, make noise, and occasionally crash into the rails or each other at an impressive pace. Two totally different experiences, both quintessentially Vermont. On Saturday morning at 7:30 am my friends Kimberly, Valerie and I met at the Woodside trail to spend a couple hours listening and watching for birds, and Sunday afternoon my friend Paul and I went to the Thunder Road Racetrack in Barre, Vermont for the opening car races of the season.

The birdwatching had been in the works for a while. Way back when I put the list together I had written to my friend Kimberly to see if she'd help me with this one if I put it on my list and she had graciously agreed. Recently she wrote and pointed out that bird watching is easier before the trees are fully decked out in their leaves, and though last week's two days of snow helped me in my holding-off efforts, foliage in Vermont is a pretty inevitable thing, so we decided this weekend we'd better get out there.

It was an awesome morning, and one of the things that struck me most is that it made me feel like being a kid again, I guess because it reminded me of all the walks on nature trails I had done in school and Girl Scouts. This year has turned me into a listaholic, and so I feel the need to share some lists I made. Flowers we saw: Mayflowers, Jack-in-the-pulpit, violets (white, purple and yellow), trout lilies, marsh marigolds, and the hands-down favorites, trillium. We also saw red and eastern gray squirrels (several times having showdowns with the birds); a muskrat; and an animal that Kimberly decided might have been a mink or a fisher or maybe just a plain old woodchuck.

And finally, there were the stars of the show, the birds. Some were fairly mundane, and you could see them (and maybe try to get them to leave) in your own backyard, but a few were a bit more exotic, or at least had super-cool names. Here's what we saw (in alphabetical order, so as not to be species-ist or anything): American crows, black-capped chickadees, Canadian geese (at work hatching their goslings),downy woodpeckers, gnat catchers, goldfinches, kingfishers, mallard ducks, red-shouldered hawks (on their nest and mad at us for getting too close), red-winged blackbirds, robins, warbling vireos (the obvious winner of the best name award), and white-breasted nuthatches. Twelve different kinds, which I thought was not a bad haul to be back in time to still be able to beat the breakfast crowd at Penny Cluse downtown. Along the way, Kimberly taught Valerie and I lots of bits of bird wisdom. My two favorites that I must share with you are these: only nuthatches can go down trees hanging upside-down. Others, like woodpeckers, must fly to the base of the tree and climb upward. Also, in the duck world the Hatfields and the McCoys have been replaced by the divers and the dabblers. To the uninitiated a duck is pretty much a duck, but those in the know will tell you that a diver (like a loon) can completely immerse underwater and go for a swim, emerging somewhere far away whereas the hapless dabblers (like mallards) just put their head and front halves of their bodies underwater, leaving their butts poking up in the air to look a bit ridiculous. So now you know.

Unlike the bird watching excursion, which was some time in the making, Thunder Road was a bit more spontaneous. It began with a phone message on Thursday from my colleague and friend Paul, which began as most of his communication to me these days does, with a sentence like, "If you're not shaving your head today as one of your 52, I have a new idea for you." This time it was to find out the mysterious attraction of car racing by attending opening day of the races at Thunder Road. With a track that bills itself as "the nation's site of excitement" how could you possibly go wrong? So of course, I had to do it. It helped that Leah, Siham and Jamila, who were all up visiting at my place for the weekend, agreed that it was imperative that I add it to the list.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was the sheer popularity of the experience. The place was crowded. Things were supposed to start at 1pm and we got there a few minutes before that, yet the grandstand was already full. There are hills on both sides of the stands, so we sat on the grass, along with many other people. I was also not expecting there to be so many kids, but car racing is definitely a family affair for lots of people.

Trying all kinds of new things this year has driven home the point to me that every hobby has its own sub-culture and, as my friend Valerie put it in a recent conversation, it's own "reservoir of knowledge." The races were run in 15 lap heats, but the rules were a bit mysterious to me, as were the many people in the stands with headphones on who turned out to be communicating directly with specific drivers to let them know who was behind them and other important information. Should you be planning to rebuild a regular vehicle into your own race car, Chevy Impalas, Ford Fusions and Toyota Camry's are popular choices-- don't know why that surprised me, but it did.

At the end of the day, I must confess that I probably won't cry if I never hit the race track again, though I'd be up for another bird watching excursion any time. Clearly, car racing has a far larger and more avid following here in Vermont than I ever knew, but I still found myself wondering things like how much gas was being burned and carbon dioxide was being emitted, as much as who was going to be the champion of the heat. I can sort of see how the risk of accidents might appeal to adrenalin junkies as drivers and as spectators, but I'm not so sure that's a good thing. I'm still glad I went, though. I got to see a corner of the world (and particularly Vermont) I never would have otherwise, and feel like at least I have a frame of reference when people talk about this strange and mysterious realm. And it's definitely got the wheels turning, wondering about other corners and sub-cultures of my state that are hidden in plain sight because I've always looked right past them.

52 Ways to Say I Love You Bahasa Indonesian (the main Indonesian language) from Kaytee, and who actually got it from her friend Sam, who is learning it. Many thanks to you both!

selamat (pagi) good (morning) or
hulo hello (Sam suggests that people just say Hulo)

sampai besok see you tomorrow (there is no "goodbye")

Aku mau dua bir.
I want two beers.

Aku cinta kamu
I love you

Coming Attractions

Finals week begins tomorrow (May 3), and the next week and a half are going to be full of grading, ceremonies, celebrations and good-bys. And then, it will be summer (though luckily it will still technically be spring, since I still have to do my spring Camel's Hump hike.) Basically, the challenge of the summer is going to be fitting in lots of fabulous new things around the great new places that I'll be travelling to this summer. Here's what things look like right now:

In the next week and a half: car maintenance -- Nigel is still willing to do a car maintenance tutorial before he leaves Vermont forever for the other winter wonderland of Minnesota. I know there are some other students interested in learning this one, so shoot me an email so I can let you know the rescheduled time and date. Camel's Hump spring hike -- I really hope to do that with graduating seniors, but the mountain may or may or not cooperate. If you want in, let me know so I can let you know if and when it's happening.

May 18-28 Saint Michael's College MOVE Service Trip to the Dominican Republic(new country).
June 8-15 Visit to Tacoma to see Tigist, Katrinka and Brian, do a road trip to Twin Falls, Idaho, and try glass blowing.
June 19-July 4 Go to Jordan and Lebanon with Siham and Connor for research, fall class preparation and to see why everyone says that Petra is a must-see destination (two new countries).
July 4-10 Fly from Amman, Jordan to Kampala, Uganda to speak at and participate in a 5-day international workshop on AIDS, religion and social movements (new country).
July 25-August 11 (approximately). Present a co-authored paper and attend a 4 day conference with my friend and colleague Jerry at Cambridge University. Prior to the conference, go hiking in Scotland (not a new country but a new experience) and after, visit Denmark (new country). So, if all goes as planned, I will be able to add 5 new countries to my life list (Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Jordan, Uganda and Denmark) between the end of spring semester and the beginning of fall semester!

In between travel plans, there are some other new things that need to get dates attached. They include: hiking Mt. Washington with my friend and colleague Kristin, go sea kayaking on the coast of Maine with friend and former student Kate, actually rock climbing OUTDOORS with friend and fellow list-maker Leah and Nicole, who introduced me to rock climbing in Nepal, but is moving back to Vermont with Jai this summer, doing the 24 hour trip without sleeping to New York City with Siham, Leah and whoever else wants to, doing the summer moonlight hike up Camel's Hump with Dan (who suggested it) and whoever else is up for it, and doing a major (for me) bike ride with Dan and other friends who are far more comfortable on bikes than me. Oh, and learning to make croissants from Dean at the Back Door Bakery, and beer brewing from Dan and Derek or John, and star gazing from John, with Valerie and anyone else who's curious. And for my two new hobbies, ice skating and rock climbing (Serendipity post is forthcoming) I'm always looking for people to come to the rink or Petra Climbing Wall with me, and SMC friends watch for the faculty night at Petra climb I want to organize soon. I know I'm forgetting some, so write if you want in on any of these, or have a reminder of others that are on tap for the summer, so I can get them on the calendar. Here's to a summer full of new things and new places.