Wednesday, June 29, 2011

One Challenge is Back on Track: Hell Brook Trail is One Helluva Hike!

If anyone ever asks me what's the hardest trail I've ever hiked, I've got the answer: Hell Brook.  It's not the longest, or the most famous, but it puts you through your paces.  My handy Guide to Vermont's Day Hikes (an excellent little book by Jared Gange) says that it is "perhaps the most continuously steep and rough trail in Vermont", and it's the most direct way to the Mount Mansfield summit.  It starts out hard, and then about halfway up, gets really hard, with mostly-rock face that requires you to use your hands and feet all the way.  Then you get to a point called Lake of the Clouds where you can see the "Chin" (which is the summit).  That ought to be encouraging but it's not, because it looks so daunting.

Oh, the optimism at the trail head.  No idea what lies in store for me.

Working up a sweat, but still don't know about the rock wall coming up...
The first night I ever met Chris he told me that he hikes Hell Brook Trail all the time as fast as he can, and he promised to take me on a hike there.  Yesterday, he made good on his promise, though, I'm grateful to say he did not hold me to doing it a fraction as fast he does.  That's good, because given the fact that his record to the top is 41 minutes 15 seconds (I think), and it took me an hour and 45 minutes to do the same thing, I probably would have burst a blood vessel if I'd tried to speed it up much more.
Not even winded, Chris hanging out at the summit.

Despite the fact that it's quite the challenge, it's actually a lot of fun (in a twisted kind of way).  Although it doesn't require ropes or anything like that, anyone who's done some rock climbing will really enjoy the second half, where, as in rock climbing, it's all about finding hand and foot holds and strategizing the way up some pretty steep rock faces. In deference to the ridiculous knee injury I incurred on Saint Patrick's Day, we decided to go down via the Long Trail, rather than directly back through Hell Brook, and then Chris, who was of course, hardly winded by the leisurely pace (for him) of the whole excursion, ran back to the car that was parked about a mile down the road at the Hell Brook Trail head.
Feeling celebratory (and chilly) up top.

On the way back, we were passing the Ben and Jerry's factory in Waterbury, and Chris announced he'd never been.  Muddy legs and all, we did the factory tour and devoured some free samples. Hell Brook Trail + Ben and Jerry's = Pure Vermont Summer.  Unlike Chris, I'm not likely to make the trail a weekly part of my exercise, but I'd certainly be up for doing it again before the summer's over.  Anyone who wants to give it a shot, let me know!
In case anyone was worried, here is visual proof that Ben and Jerry are hard at work creating NEW flavors that will be hitting scoop shops soon.

A hike up a really hard trail, some of the best ice cream in the world, and an obligatory tourist shot to wind it all up. Gotta love Vermont!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Thing 9 : A Summer Weekend in Montreal

Last year, in the flurry of thinking up New Things, my friend and colleague Paul came up with some great ideas, one of which was to take a day trip to Montreal to try two things I'd never done: visit a professional sports tournament (the Rogers Cup) and eat that classic Canadian Junk food, poutine. We had a great day last year, and I should have known that Paul would figure out a way to do it one better this summer. This year he rented a terrific apartment for the month of June in Montreal and invited friends to come see him, which Chris and I were happy to do.

Should you find yourself visiting a friend in Montreal for a summer weekend, here are some tips on how to make the most of it.

Go to Mount Royal Park and climb up to the top to take a look at the city.  That's what we did on the first day we were there and it was beautiful.  The park was designed in 1876 by Frederik Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City's Central Park and Tacoma's Wright Park (that's my favorite park in the world, only partly because it's where my awesome niece Tigist and I play when I go visit her).

Chris and I taking a look at Montreal from the top of Mount Royal.
Rent a bike. Montreal's bike system is spectacular.  This is true for two reasons.  First, they have an incredibly user-friendly (except for figuring out the weird system of using your credit card twice on the same account to get two bikes) rental system.  You use a credit card to get a bike out, and that gives you unlimited biking privileges for 24 hours.  You can drop off the bike anywhere there are stands (e.g. next to pretty much all metro stops and tourist sites) and get another just by inserting your credit card again on the same account you already opened for the day.  The second part of what makes the whole thing so great is separate two-line biking roads through much of the city.  You're rolling along right next to a major road with no fear that a car is going to come along from nowhere and run you down.  Awesome!
These are the bikes that are available all over the city.  They're pretty heavy-duty and even have lights for nighttime use.

Paul, of course, rode his own.  Here's he's locking it up so we could head down to the waterfront where Cirque de Soleil was setting up for a new show.

Go during the Fringe Festival and feel like an artsy person. One thing Montreal has in common with Burlington is that in the summer it's inhabitants and visitors feel a moral obligation to get outside.  After a long hard winter, everyone has earned the right to enjoy all the long days and sunshine they can cram in, so there's lots of festivals and city activities.  We were there during the Fringe Festival, which is a month-long set of theatre and performance art.  Friday night we went to How to Become Jayee, a somewhat confusing play that's about three people doing a play about J. Edgar Hoover.  Saturday night we caught a rising comedienne, Robby Hoffman, who also just happens to be the relative (niece, I think) of my colleague Robert Letovsky. One (small, of course) downside of living in the town of Burlington is sometimes remembering that it's just not a city. But if you need an urban feel, it's lovely to know that Montreal and all its festivals are just couple hours away.

Eat. A lot. We took this goal pretty seriously.  One of the best things about Paul's neighborhood-for-a-month is the bakeries -- tons of them.  There were three Montreal bagel shops within easy walking range, all of them open 24 hours a day, which I think is an uncommonly good idea.  We ate out at all kinds of yummy restaurants (though alas, no poutine on this trip), and my favorite was Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), a restaurant that not only served us a fabulous dinner (I had a really great vegetable stew and Chris and Paul both had mussels), but takes its name seriously.  Volunteers act as servers, and the money they and the restaurant make are donated to a number of charities listed on the menu.
This was my favorite bagel shop because the people inside were so nice.  When they heard that we were from out of town and wanted to take a picture they invited us behind the counter to pose in front of the wood-fired oven.

Be prepared for any kind of weather.  Another thing that Montreal has in common with Burlington is that the weather can change on a dime.  In three days we had hot sun, cold rains and everything in-between.  The worst of the rain came on Sunday afternoon, making the visit to the Fine Arts Museum to see the temporary exhibit of terra cotta warriors from China just the thing (except for the fact that much of the rest of Montreal had the same idea).  Paul's place is terrific, and loafing around reading weekend papers was a pretty good option when it was inclement as well.  But when the sun was shining (and even when it was drizzling), we were out on the bikes and on foot, exploring neighborhoods and seeing the sights.
Our gracious host, Paul, relaxing with the weekend paper while we waited out the rain.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Friends of the Earth Middle East: Giving New Meaning to the Purpose of Challenge 6

The more I travel the more I realize two things.  First, the world is full of opportunities, but most of the time we miss them because we're so preoocupied with other things, and second, people who think they can't make a difference when it comes to intractable problems need to travel a little more to find the people out there who are making that difference. Our experience with Friends of the Earth Middle East has been an amazing proof of both these points.

First, a brief recap is in order. Kate, Alexsis and I constitute Team Palestinian Territories and we've been travelling in Jordan and the West Bank learning about how people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are doing in the quest of reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  One of my major challenges for the year (Challenge 6, in fact), is to write a book on the MDGs with a group of about 25 Saint Michael's College students and alumni.  We have teams working on all eight chapters (for the eight goals) and we also have teams focusing on four cases studies.  (The other three are Ecuador, Bangladesh and Rwanda, andI'm hoping they'll guest-blog at some point on their experiences as well.)
One of the things we learned early on in our exploration is that water is the key to many aspects of development.  In case you've ever wondered, here's how much water there is in a cubic meter.
We've met with a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Amman and the West Bank, and are grateful to them all, both for their excellent work, and for making time to meet with our little group and patiently answer our questions, many of which probably seem self-evident or elementary to them. But we owe a particular note of gratitude to Friends of the Earth.  The organization has not only inspired us all on a personal level, its staff has gone out of its way to facilitate both our understanding and our travel experience in ways that can only be classified as phenomenal.

The story actually began in Washington, DC over a year ago, when Kate was studying there and attending a panel on water issues at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  One of the speakers was Gidon Bromberg, the director of the Tel Aviv office of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), and his talk left a deep impression on Kate. This spring when we were brainstorming ideas of groups to contact regarding our trip, on Kate's suggestion we contacted the Amman office of FoEME, and it was, in fact the first meeting we conducted on the trip.  At the office several staff members as well as the Jordan Director, Munqeth Mehyar, made time to walk us through the in's and out's of both water policy and the challenges of doing regional work in this part of the world. They introduced to a number of different projects that FoEME are working on, including the Good Water Neighbor Project, which pairs neighboring communities in Jordan, the Palestinian West Bank and Israel to work on shared issues of concern regarding water and sanitation.  And they told us a particularly inspirational story about two local communities, one Palestinian (Wadi Fukin) and one Israeli (Tsur Haddassah), that went beyond even the original goals of shared water work to jointly successfully oppose the section of Seperation Wall that was scheduled to be built between their two communities.

Much of the success of the collaboration of Wadi Fukin and Tsur Hadassah is due to the tireless work of community activists for peace in both villages.  Here is Kate with FoEME Field Organizer Fida, and local Wadi Fukin activist Abu Mazen.

When they learned that we were travelling to the West Bank, they put us in touch with the Bethlehem office of FoEME, and from there things just kept accelerating.  The Palestinian office is the home base of any number of fabulous staff and interns, but most deserving of acclaim from our point of view is our new friend, Samiramis (Shamo), the energetic officer of government and public relations.  Introduced to use by Chelsea, an American intern from UC - Santa Cruz who befriended us our first night in town, Shamo not only facilitated our visits to the Auja EcoCenter, Wadi Fukin (the Palestinian village from the story above) AND the Tel Aviv office, where our work in a sense came full circle, when Kate was able to personally meet Gidon, who spoke in Washington, DC and our group was able to see all three coutry directors working together.  Along the way, Shamo also moved us out of our hotel and into her own home, where she served as an amazing personal host for the rest of our time in the West Bank.
Shamo not only opened up huge opportunities for us in our search for information about the MDGs, she also opened her own home to us.  Here she is answering Kate's questions at the Church of the Nativity, which is down the street from her home...

and here I am in her kitchen learning to prepare fresh grape leaves for stuffing from her mother.

A simple blog post can't really do justice to the work that Friends of the Earth Middle East is doing, but it's worth it just to scratch the surface.  The organization is unique in its 3-part horizontal structure that creates equal partnerships across the Jordan, Palestinian, and Israeli offices.  Pretty much everything they undertake is an incredibly heavy lift, from trying to rehabilitate the Jordan River (water source for all three areas) that has virtually dried up, to creating brand-new models for everything from eco-tourism (which we got to see first hand at the Auja EcoCenter in the West Bank) to water neighbor pairings.
Fadi and Mohammed show Alexsis and Kate the map they use to explain water issues to children who visit the EcoCenter.

The main building of the Auja EcoCenter.  Like the rest of the facility, it was constructed with an attempt to reuse materials and with a gray water system plumbing system.

The work can take a heavy toll on the personal lives of the staff of all three offices, who are sometimes viewed as disloyal to their respective countries for working across deep political, ideological and cultural boundaries. But what comes through loud and clear in all three offices is the strong commitment of those who staff them, and the successes they have already had in a place where they odds are usually stacked against them.
Alexsis and Kate, together with all three of the country directors, Gidon (Israel), Munqeth (Jordan) and Nader (Palestine)

Research is often all about trying to understand problems and then searching for solutions.  Friends of the Earth Middle East is helping all of us, and especially the people most affected, understand some critical problems, and facilitating solutions from those communities.  Their work gives meaning to both research and development, and we are grateful for their guidance, friendship and example.