Saturday, August 7, 2010


What a crazy, great thirty hours my trip to Jacmel was.

Hands on typically has a half day every other Saturday so volunteers can rest up and potentially travel to see other parts of Haiti. Last Saturday myself and a group of seven other volunteers set out for a seat of the pants trip to Jacmel, some 50km from Leogane. It was a good group including the guys from my bunk bed row that I consider my best guy friends here -- In fact it was a bit of a guys' trip as the only girl was with one of the guys and they did their own thing for the most part.

About 3:30 pm we left the Hands On base and walked to the tap-tap station and after a quick search of "Jacmel? Jacmel?" we found a tap-tap that said they were going that way and we all piled on. It all seemed like a smooth start. We were on a tap-tap and headed up into the mountains.

The road up there is narrow and twisting and hugs to the top of cliffs and large drops and ridges where you can look down hundreds of feet on both sides. Combine that with the crazy way Haitians drive and you have one nerve-racking ride.

So as it was all working fine, something had to happen. At some random point our tap-tap just stopped. The driver said he wasn't going any further. "Jacmel," we said. "This is the road to Jacmel," says the driver. Lots of confusion and some arguing, but in the end, this was the halfway point and he was turning around to head back to Leogane. We paid him the price for this far (it wasn't just us blancs that were taken by surprise at this, but another Haitian in the tap-tap as well) and stood in the road hitching.

Nobody stopped for about half an hour, until at last a big bus (literaly a bus) of a tap-tap stopped for us. Only problem was that there was no room inside, just on the top, a good ten feet above the roadway. Being young, adventurous and a bit dumb, we climbed on up for what would be one of the most white knuckled rides of my life.

Holding on for dear life, we tore down the widing road. Probably one of the riskiest things I've ever done, it's amazing how fast you can get used to, and even eventually enjoy, something like that. The view from the top of a bus overlooking the mountains, valleys and slopes is pretty great -- unfortunately I was a little too nervous to take many pictures, preferring to hang on most of the time.

After a forty-five minute trip we ended up in Jacmel, safe and sound. After a little misdirection from an English speaking Haitian claiming to know where we wanted to go and promptly taking us in the wrong direction, we found a hotel with just enough beds left for our group.

Then, since it was basically just a guys' weekend, we grabbed a couple beers and sat on the porch overlooking the busy street below and chatted until the sun was starting to go down. Then, feeling hunger set in, we went out for a look about town and it's options for food.

Jacmel hadn't suffered as badly as Leogane in the Earthquake, but you can still see many signs of destruction that it left. The buildings are the main square had been hit hard with the big central hotel and the county administration buildings being declared unsafe and shut up. The square itself had become a IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp, which happened to be hosting a basketball tournament that night that we just missed - a good sign of the community living on after a disaster.

Eventually we settled on some BBQ chicken from a place just around the corner from the hotel and we went back there to eat and enjoy a couple more beers... and some rum.

After a while, we got up our steam again and went out looking for one of the other hotels to try and find some new people. Then, failing in that, we went to the night club across the street from our hotel. Who knows what the Haitians there thought when a group of white guys took over the dance floor just before close. We shut the place down with our great white guy styles.

Back for sleep and up the next morning fairly early to get the included breakfast. Being a little hung over I wasn't all too happy to see that breakfast was... a bowl of soup? Chicken noodle soup. That didn't sound all too appetizing, but I tell you now, it was a good bowl of soup and it hit the spot. Was good to have coffee as well. I felt ready to take on our activity of the day: The search for the Bassins-Bleu waterfalls.

First we traversed the town and a Sunday market jammed full of people. Next we forded three rivers (One big arm and two little arms of the same river really). Then it was a 5k hike up a steep mountain in the growing afternoon heat of Haiti. We arrived exhausted, sweaty, and hungry --- but no lunch available!!! We failed to pack a picnic. Lucky for us we were able to grab a couple of coconuts in the village right by the falls.

After a short repose in the village we went up to the falls with the mandatory guide we had hired in town.The waterfalls were amazing. Well, the biggest one was amazing. To reach it, you had to dive into a clear, cool pool of water bordered by 60 feet cliffs on both sides, swim around a corner... and then, there it was. 75 feet cascading down rocks. We climbed up about halfway to a ledge to jump off into the water. We floated about. We explored the caves of funky stalagmites and colors behind and around the waterfall. It was a great afternoon and well worth the hike and the hunger.

We weren't really looking forward to the hike down, but luckily a passing NGO truck stopped and picked us up after only a couple kilometers. It belonged to a Norwegian woman working in camp management in the area. She had AC in the car and I was able to enjoy it for a good 5k. And we didn't even have to ford the river again, the car took car of us. What great serendipity.

We went straight to the station. The ride home was pretty uneventful and we arrived in Leogane around 7pm and immediately decided to get food.

A good night and day. All done on a wing and it all worked out, as things do with a little patience and a bit of luck.

Give Me Shelter

So first up, check out this little video of life as a Hands On volunteer in Haiti:

It gives you a little feel for what the typical day around here is like.

Hard to believe I only have a week left in Haiti. My time here has been flying by. I am enjoying the work and people so much I would extend and stay on, but for the fact that I have responsibilities back in the states and can't very well just abandon a great scholarship like the one AU has offered me.

Oh well.

As for Haiti at the moment: I've been working recently on building some shelters in the area. Working with a couple of other NGOs, Samaritan's Purse and SASH, we're constructing long-term transitional shelters.

Here's how it works: Samaritan's Purse has been hiring local Haitians to pre-fab the walls, truces, planks, and all that is needed for construction of the shelters and importing that which cannot be produced locally (roof sheeting, nails, plastic tarping for the walls). Then SASH, which is in the business of managing camps in the Dufort area just a little west of Leogane on the national highway, plays the middle man in getting them to those who need them. Hands On has been providing some volunteers to act as the muscle to help put them up.

It's a fairly easy procedure. First the pre-fab walls are put up and nailed together. Then the structure is squared by measuring the diagonals and getting them at the correct length. Next, the roof beams are added as are the roofing planks - it was a little nerve-wracking for me to sit ten feet up on a single two by four, but it's amazing what you can get used to. At the same time, there are three shelves added to one wall of the shelter. Then the metal roofing is put on and the walls are covered by stretching tarp around the whole structure. That, the tarp, is by far the hardest part. Pulling it tight and holding it while it gets nailed in. It makes for some mighty sore hands.

The finished shelter also includes a gutter that directs water into rain water collection barrels and hurricane straps to keep the whole thing from blowing off in a big storm. Not a bad way to restart. And they are customizable: the tarp can be taken off and wooden walls put up (though this is expensive), they can cut out windows, add doors. We've seen a couple that have been moved into and are now real homes. It's very gratifying to build something after weeks of just hauling out rubble.

The shelters are great for keeping people dry, but they can be a little hot during the day with the tarp and all. Better than nothing and I like that they are upgradable. A starter home in a way.

And that's the latest from Haiti. Next post I'll talk about my trip to Jacmel and the amazing waterfall and pool where we spent a great afternoon. Until that time.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Disaster Risk Reduction and Sandy Beaches

All work and no play makes international relief volunteers dull boys and girls, so Hands On gives their volunteers every Sunday off to recover from the week and enjoy some of what Haiti has to offer. For most people this means beaches! Of course there are the waterfalls and cute coastal towns as well, but I’ll have to get to those a little later.

But before I can talk about the play, let me talk a little more about some of the work I’ve been doing here.

The first Saturday I was in Haiti I volunteered to work for HODR’s Disaster Risk Reduction education campaign. In my opinion this is one of the best and most effective things HODR is involved with. The program is to get together a group of Haitian teachers and teach them about the facts of earthquakes and how to respond to one. Basically we’re trying to get across the idea that earthquakes are a natural and inevitable occurrence and that the best response to them is to not run around screaming.

Coming from the Northwest, an earthquake prone region of the US, I had been trained from early childhood to drop and hold, find a stable doorway, or stand in an open outdoor area during an earthquake. I was also taught what an earthquake is: the movement of tectonic plates, sitting upon the earth’s crust. In Haiti, both the theoretical and practical education about earthquakes was virtually non-existent. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many children go uneducated anyway.

So, because of this lack of education, I found myself headed out in a tap-tap the first Saturday of my volunteer time here for a DRR (Disaster Risk Reduction) event at the newly completed school HODR had built in a town called Jacksonville, thirty or forty minutes west of Leogane. Of course, we would show up at the same time that another NGO arrives in town to do a sanitation education. And, of course, their event would involve loud music and puppets to get the attention of the village and especially the children. Ours was a bit more dry and lengthy and aimed at the teachers – we were outgunned – thus we were bumped to a later slot and the hygiene and sanitation education went ahead first.

This was all fine by me as we got to be a part of the dancing and watch the puppet show. They even had a giant Marti Gras style puppet that one person gets inside to be the feet and someone else runs the arms with sticks.

The downside was that our own education event didn’t start at 9:30 as originally planned. It didn’t start at 10:30 or 11:00. It wasn’t until 11:30 that six volunteers, two translators and fifty Haitian educators were settled into the classroom and ready to start.

We introduced ourselves and HODR, though most of them new of us from the construction of the school, and then we dove into the material. It went well enough. It’s hard to start something like that just around lunch time and ask people to pay attention while hungry and after a lot of crazy music and dance. We needed more interaction and attention grabbing within the event, but the material is sound.

We first discussed the causes of earthquakes. We discussed why they cause damage (the ground moves!). We also talked about how you measure them and most importantly what you can do to protect yourself in the case of an earthquake occuring.

It was surprising how little these Haitians knew about earthquakes, even after having suffered through so many recently. It was important to let them know that earthquakes are natural, inevitable, and that we need to be on guard and prepared to deal with them.

To that end we introduced the assembled educators to the earthquake drill. Emphasis in the Haitian version is more on getting outside of the building instead of the drop and cover that US school children learn – most of the buildings here pancaked downward thanks to their overly strong cement roofs and weak brick walls, so no school desk would protect a child. Instead we taught that the teacher and children should calmly, but as quickly as possible, exit the building and head to a safe spot.

It only took about three tries for them to stop running and pushing and screaming.

These drills matter immensely and will save lives. It’s always a game of sorts to children in US schools, since we do it all the time, it’s become second nature and an excuse to get out of the building. We told the assembled Haitians of one case that illustrates just how important preparedness is: The difference between the Chilean and Haitian earthquakes of this last winter.

On January 12, 2010 a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Leogane area of Haiti and over 200,000 people died. On February 27, 2010 an 8.7 magnitude quake hit the Maule region of Chile killing 487. Why did an earthquake 70 times stronger kill so many fewer people? The answer obviously can deal with building standards, which was the first thing the Haitians pointed out, but also has to do with preparedness. Chile is prone to earthquakes. They happen every year in Chile. The largest ever recorded was in Chile in 1960, a staggering 9.5. So Chileans know how to deal with earthquakes. Children do earthquake drills constantly at school and communities are organized to respond to the tremors. Haitians haven’t had an earthquake in 200 years, since the last time Port-au-Prince was levelled and so had let their guard down. We told the Haitians they need to be vigilant and ready to act.

And so we drilled them. We made sure they had the drill right and then we told them to teach it to their students and their neighbours and to spread the word about the proper response to an Earthquake. An important message to be sure.

We also talked to the teachers about the way a catastrophic event like an earthquake can cause trauma in children and how they can use song, dance, art, and other creative means to help children express that trauma and overcome it.

So even if we started late and the meeting lasted a little too long (the format of the program needs to be tweeked a little bit), the message communicated was important and I think most of the Haitians realised that and took it to heart.

So at this point in time I had done rubble work and I had worked on disaster risk reduction education. As I write I’m working on a couple of other projects that I will write about soon – a YouTube “Life in a Day” video contest and building shelters for those who have lost their homes to the earthquake.

Before I sign off though, I’d like to say – Haiti has some great beaches and I’ve been lucky that the last two Sundays I have been off to visit one in particular where the water is warm and clear, the lobster is fresh and gigantic (not exactly cheap, but cheap enough), and the beer is cold. A good way to relax with other volunteers and to scoff at the NGOs that show up in their 80k dollar land rovers while we come on tap-taps (the local pickup truck transports) so that our organisation can devote more of its resources to projects and less to our living standard. I mean really, do you need that extra land rover? Maybe you do, but maybe you don’t. I think too many organisations spend too much money on the wrong things. But more of that rant later.

For now, I hope you enjoy the pictures I finally got a chance to load up (too many for one blog post) and I’ll write more soon about the shelters, YouTube video and my upcoming trip to Jacmel this weekend.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rubble in the Morning

The morning routine is important to all organizations. With Hands On Disaster Response (HODR), it is breakfast served from six to seven and everyone out to the door to their work transport by 7:30. Our transport is usually a pick-up truck with welded on benches, called a ‘tap-tap’ because that’s how you communicate with the driver – pound twice on the side panel, “I want to stop here.” Pound twice more, “Ok, we’re ready to go again.”

The place awakens pretty gradually – there’s no reveille. It’s not easy to sleep after the sun starts peaking over the base’s walls, so most people are up by six or six-thirty. Nothing beats a natural wake up to the sun.

Breakfast consists of some oatmeal, bread, peanut butter and jelly. Pretty much the same as I ate for everyday for two years in the Peace Corps. Carbs for the big work day ahead. And, of course, there’s some good rail-road style coffee: always a “brew of the day,” which happened to be Towo – Haitian Revenge Coffee, this morning. It really is the same black sludge brew every day, but for sanity’s sake it’s nice to pretend it’s not. But it doesn’t really matter in the end when coffee is coffee and food is just food.

Come 7:15 or so, people start to get ready for their work day. The dirty shirts and shorts for removing rubble come back on (if they ever came off in the first place), the tools – sledgehammers, picks, shovels, wire snips, bolt cutters, wheelbarrows ,etc.— come out of the tool-shed to be loaded on the tap-taps. The Bobcats come alive with a slight growl and like some sci-fi cyborgs crawl out the back door with their drivers nestled in the caged-in seat. Not everyone leaves, some stay at base, but it gets quiet when 100 of 120 volunteers are gone.


HODR has moved into a partially finished nightclub/community center/radio station/internet café/bakery of a local guy named Joe. It’s a real sturdy building which is nice to have in an Earthquake zone. Our area is a large rectangular courtyard in the partially completed community center. At the end of each head is a small stage and large, 15 foot tall over-hangs, held up with big sturdy-looking pillars lines each long side. Under one side bunks are set up for volunteers. Under the other are work areas for fabrication, storage of cement and some work equipment (like the Bobcats) and a seating area with a couch made out of undistributed emergency tents in their sacks – lumpy cushions but nice to have none-the-less.

Since there are so many volunteers and staff, the bunks are augmented by tents set up all over the place, mostly on the stages and roof. An office occupies a room behind one stage and the bathrooms occupy the area behind the other stage. Showers are set to the side of the office, tarps set up over a framework of wood for division and privacy. Bucket baths and flush toilets are the way – water is drawn from a well via a diesel feed pump. No A.C. Nothing much in the way of fans. Simple and basic living. Nice to be back to that.

In our ‘backyard’ is a large supply base. Dubbed the Joint Logistics Base, it is shared by other NGOs: USAID, CHF, Canadian Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and others. Rows of containers take-up one area while construction of steel frames, long term habitation tents takes place in a large tent in another area. Many more large tents an supply dumps area arranged in the area. A large walled in compound, HODR shares security and logistics responsibilities with the other groups, providing them with an area to work and plan, and HODR with access to partners with financing and projects to implement. The steel frame tents are a USAID financed, CHF administered project producing sturdy, weather (and Hurricane) proof housing for Haitians.

There’s been a lot of cooperation in Haiti, even if there hasn’t been a lot of organization from the top. Maybe it’s just HODR being open to cooperation, but in the couple days I’ve been here there have been meetings with NGOs, UN Missions, and Haitian locals to coordinate planning and project implementation.

Rubble removal is the mainstay of HODR’s activities, but they also work in many other areas. There are people working in house demolition, as hospital runners and orderlies for the field hospital next door, developing sand-based water filters that can be produced locally, composting toilets and sanitation education, redevelopment of public spaces, building schools, interacting with orphans, and training teachers on disaster response education and how to help kids recover emotionally from the tragedy. The projects are many and people are encouraged to try out different ones. Each evening there is an ‘All Hands’ (get the pun?) meeting where the day’s work is discussed and the next day’s is presented. Afterward people sign up for the jobs that they are interested in for the following day.

So far, I’ve done Rubble Removal which is the mainstay of HODR’s work in Haiti.

Rubble Removal:

Someone in the news said recently that at the current rate of clearing rubble, Haiti will be free of it in twenty years. Twenty years! One of the projects HODR works on is removing rubble for Haitians so they can have a clear place to start anew. Whether the new start is a tent or a new house is up to them, but we can at least help them move on to that point.

This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. I’m used to being physical active, even in the heat (Drum Corps, anything in Niger), but I’ve never before put in a four hour shift of swing a sledge, dragging out rebar and concrete and carting rubble off in a wheelbarrow. For me, the heat here isn’t too bad, but working in it… that’s a whole other story. You sweat and sweat and sweat, till your shirt drips and your shorts and work gloves are soaked.

When I arrived at my first rubble sight, where two houses had collapsed against each other, a twisted pile of concrete, exposed steel rebar and buried belongings, I thought, as everyone does “Where do I even start?!”

It’s a process of sledging up the large chunks, to free the rebar which, if in good shape, will be used again, and to make the debris small enough to cart away in the wheelbarrows. Nothing is ever straight forward in clearing a rubble pile. Multistory houses create level upon level of solid roofs or walls that have to be completely smashed to move downward. Rebar becomes so twisted that it needs to be cut with heavy and awkward bolt cutters. For some reason Haitian roofs were much stronger than the walls so that a wall can be demolished in a couple minutes, but a roof will take thirty or more – maybe one of the reasons so many houses collapsed.

It’s offer the small victories over a stubborn piece of rebar or a particularly stout ceiling that keep you going through the heat and exhaustion and aches and pains. It almost seems to take longer to tear down a house than to build one in the first place. It’s amazing how many volunteers have been here with HODR for three, four, or five months, clearing away the rubble and helping Haitians find a place to start over.

-  On my first day there was a cute little girl named Jessica who was trying to help me out. After trying on my gloves herself, she put them on my hands for me, she brought me my water and tried to carry some rubble, though she tired of that quickly.
- Her brother(?), on the other hand, spent the afternoon clearing out one little piece of rebar by hand on the back side of our sight. Worked away at it for a good long while.
- Just like in Niger, kids run rampant. Not as bad as there, but they’re still all over the place. Sometimes they’re annoying, sometimes helpful, but most always cute little buggers.
- I am on picture taking crew on monday so will try to get some pictures up then.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Air Over Haiti

I know I said I would finish blogging about my trip, but real life moves on. One day I'll get back and finish those two posts (they're basically already written in my journal), but for now I have more important and current events to write about:

I’ve never flown over the Caribbean before. It isn’t an hour into the flight that we were passing over large bare, muddy, soggy flat land, much the way I imagine Haiti to look in the rainy season. Storm clouds, anvils a thousand feet high, dot the landscape (airscape?) around our Air France flight. I can’t stop thinking what am I in for? Why am I going?

Eight months ago I was just returning from Peace Corps and a couple months of traveling. I needed a new adventure to take me away from the boring, day-to-day of law school applications and sitting around my parents’ house. After the earthquake I wanted to help. I didn’t want to give money, I wanted to give time and energy, so I applied everywhere I could think of or find online. Now here I am on a plane to Port-au-Prince (PaP in the international slang down here). First thing: My French is a bit rusty, but I think it will come back quickly enough. Second: I’m a bit nervous. No need to be really. I’m going to be picked up at the airport, my hand will be held a bit. I think I’m nervous about what I’m going to see – and what I can do. Oh, and of course, it’s going to be hot and humid. All these thunderheads are dropping a good amount of rain judging from the smear of gray that follows under them.

We fly over strange turquoise streaks in the water. Reefs? It’s always great to see a part of the world for the first time. So many new things.

I didn’t write much when I was in Seattle. Only a couple of pages in a journal, one blog post. It was a comfortable eight months. I worked, I played with friends. I didn’t meet a bunch of new people; I was trying mostly to reconnect with friends of old. I had some good dates (and some bad). It was comfortable and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the life there. I could have, yet again, satisfied and content, but instead I pushed myself out to do something different in a different place. I pushed myself to be uncomfortable. I wonder why I do that. It seems to be a family trait with Kate perpetually on the move. What happened in our childhoods to motivate this? I can’t think of our parents ever pushing internationalism. So where did it come from, this wanderlust?

The muddy land we flew over wasn’t Hispaniola. We’ve moved back over open water again, though it’s dotted with many islands, big and small.

I guess, for me, comfortable just doesn’t inspire me. I want to be inspired. I want a muse. Travel and new faces can be muses of sorts. I wrote everyday I was on the road. I wrote much when I first arrived in Niger. I plan to write in Haiti.

I think Haiti will be a lot like Niger.

A short nap and I awaken to “Nous nous commençons notre descente vers Port-au-Prince,” we’re beginning our descent into PaP. Similar thoughts go through my head coming in over PaP as did coming in over Niamey. Poverty is obvious from the air – shacks and trash heaps. The Earthquake is evident too, though less obvious. Some collapsed walls and rubble. Though what we flew over was a short stretch from ocean to airport, not many concrete buildings to begin with. One thing quite noticeable from the air are the blue tents. They stand out against the metal roofs of shacks and houses. There are so many of them, clustered in groups, sometimes standing alone in a concession or alleyway.

As we taxi to the terminal we base a full on military air operation based in the middle of the PaP airport. Helicopters, field tents and support vehicles arranged orderly in the middle of grass fields between runways. A Peruvian transport loading up a contingent of Peruvian UN troops to head out is parked next to us on the tarmac.

The airport itself shows signs of the Quake: cracks and exposed brick work. The main building is still unused it seems and customs and baggage have moved into a secondary building.

Not quite as chaotic a scene as when I arrived at the Niamey airport in Niger – the porters are all held outside the gate, down a walkway from the exit from customs. That, however, didn’t stop someone from pulling my bag off the baggage conveyor and stealing the hard drive I had in my side pocket. Frustrating to lose so many photos and all of my music. A short attempt to talk to the airport and Air France officials was useless. They just shrugged and said I should go talk to someone else. The run around.

After the hard drive fiasco and meeting up with another volunteer, it’s off on a crazy drive to Leogane, a city to the West of PaP where Hands On Disaster Response (HODR) is based and the epicenter of the January earthquake. Something like 80-90% of the buildings in Leogane were destroyed.

Traffic is always crazy in the third world. Rubble piles in the middle of streets don’t help the free-for-all style of driving much. It was just a mess in PaP with busses, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles all competing for their route and lives.

We took a route that passed by many damaged and destroyed buildings. The main cathedral was just a shell, the entire roof had collapsed leaving arching walls sixty feet tall and stain glass windows intact. The parliament’s entire front façade had fallen away and many ministry buildings in the area were heavily damaged. I saw buildings that had fallen sideways, some collapsed, and some entirely all to rickety-looking to have been lucky enough to have survived.

Weather isn’t so bad. It is hot and it is humid, but it’s nothing worse than I ever experienced in Niger. Very much like Niger during the rainy season.The terrain is not all mud and bare ground as I had feared. A lot of green, palm trees and hills. No forests which I guess is what people are referring to when they say this half of the island was logged off.

People remind me of Niger also – friendly, energetic, loud, a bit pushy when it comes to waiting in lines. Here, though, I feel that being white will have a slightly differeny connotation. In Niger I was an anomaly, something out of the ordinary, but I get the idea that Haitians are more accustomed to the aid workers, especially after the Earthquake. It will be interesting to see how that affects relationships with locals.

It’s surprisingly nice to be back to this type of place and people, even if I’m not so comfortable with it yet. But, hey, wasn’t comfortable what I was escaping?

Monday, May 17, 2010

A long hiatus

It was about the time I left Madrid that I fell off the face of the Earth, at least blog-wise. It's a good thing that I kept a daily journal of my travels -- not that I will put up here a daily trip log, but I would like to end my trip. Here's the plan: one post for each country left. I have Belgium, the Netherlands, A short stop in London and Iceland. I'll have to sort through my pictures as I write the posts and pair them down. It's ridiculous how many pictures you take when you have a digital camera and a 4GB memory card. Sometimes I feel like I should go back to 35 mm.

In this post I'll finish Spain and tell y'all what I'm up to these days. So first up, history or current events? History forms the backdrop for our modern world, so let's start there.

Six months ago, in my last post, I was in Benavente, Spain, staying with my good friend Meagan from Peace Corps. It was a great couple weeks spent working on my spanish and my cooking. Me and Meagan cooked together in Niger/Benin and it was even better in Spain, even if we stuck to the tiniest budget we could. I could see myself living in a little Spanish town. I'm very jealous of how she lived there, learned Spanish, and had the chance to appreciate that style of life.

High-lites of Benavente:

A day trip to Salamanca, home to the oldest University in Spain (founded in 1218!!) and some good old Spanish architecture. Nothing exceptionally interesting, but it had a nice little university town feel.

TAPAS COMPETITION: Perhaps one of the BEST things I was able to be a part of during my trip. Many of the bars in Benavente had a special tapas for a euro in a competition where one would travel around the town tasting the tapas and vote on the best. My favorite was the cavier and prawn topped salmon pure ice cream cone. Seriously. It sounds weird, but yum. There was also the cow's stomach potatas bravas. The idea of tapas is great. Enjoy food with drink. Good food.

Walking about town. We rambled in the country and around town. Even in little Benavente the Spanish had a eye to parks as they developed their town. More compact towns with parks in the center and here and there. I think that's the way to do cities, not suburbanization.

It was the first of November that I made my way back to Madrid and then onto Brussels. And I'll leave that for the next post. Preview: Good beer and some good Aussies.

So where am I now?

Back in Seattle. I arrived here on November 23rd. Having spent just about a week each in Belgium, Netherlands and Iceland. I moved back in with my parents. Spent the holidays seeing family and friends I hadn't seen in years. Got my applications for law school in order and come the middle of January I was back at the job I had been working before I left for the Peace Corps. It seems in a way like I hadn't gone anywhere at all. My friends were all here doing basically what they had been doing when I left and now I was too. Comforting, but also a little discomforting at the same time.

I'm good at my job. I think I'll make a good lawyer, even displaying some of the drafting and research skills now. It's just not a job I would want to do day in and day out for years. I've been there a total of five months so far and I'm ready to be done. I best find a law degree that isn't associated with a firm like that (not that the people there aren't great).

I was writing today. First day in a long time. Inspired me to get back on this blog (that and seeing John and Cary for the DCI countdown and how they said they used to read my blog, but it hasn't been updated in a while -- GREAT to see you guys!).

I was writing about how it seems like I feel more in my element when I'm out of it. I'm more comfortable when I'm uncomfortable. New situations, new people, and the unknown help me feel at ease where the familiar and expected have me feeling in a sort of malaise. Life's funny like that. I wonder if it's a generational thing. My parents and my parents' parents were about settling down and starting a family. Don't read into this that I wouldn't like that. In a way, I'm jealous of my friends that are there, that have kids. If things had worked out differently in my life, that could have easily been me and I would have been happy.

Still, there's something that propels me forward. A sense of trying to experience something new or of reaching beyond what I know I can grasp. Something out there keeps me yearning for more. For good or for bad, it seems that I can't be satisfied staying still.

I'm off to American University for law school next year. It could have been the University of Washington, I could have stayed in Seattle. It isn't though because, in the end, it was the bit of hesitation and nervousness and fear that I felt in moving to DC that swayed me. I've enjoyed being in Seattle. But I feel I'm complacent here. It's time to get back on the road, to see something new again. It's time to be uncomfortable, unknown, and out of my element; it's time to, once again, find that version of myself.

If y'all are still interested I'll get up the other trip posts and try to be more active in my blog-o-sphere actions. I'm also going to get back behind the lens and starting taking more pictures. But for now enjoy the benavente spread. Not the best photos, but I promise better from Belgium and especially iceland. I'm gonna get back into this, stay with me.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Tales of the Alhambra, Madrid and Skipped Flights

Leaving on this trip, I went through the effort to find a tent in Niger, not an easy thing to find. Thanks to my PCV neighbor, Meagan, I was able to get a 'BugHut,' which is basically a mosquito net with a door held up with poles. It's great for Africa, light and easy to pack around. We used it a bit in Tunisia, the only problem was when it started to rain; no rain-fly so I had to hustle all my stuff under cover... at least the BugHut dries out quickly in the sun.

So coming into Granada, when will and I learned that there was absolutely NO available hostals in town, we thought 'oh, hey, we can camp.' Then we checked the weather. And we were assured by that no rain was coming. So we went for the camping option.

Unfortunately Granada is a bit colder than both Niger and Tunisia... go figure. It was just cold at night really, being in the mountains. Our first night I was FREEZING, even all bundled up in a sweatshirt and long pants, a stocking hat and SOCKS!

We ended up staying in Granada for four or five days.

Granada -

Granada is a nice place. I think it might be the capital of the bohemian world. You can see many, many... well, what Americans might call 'hippies,' but not quite the same thing. Our buddy, David from Poland, put it a good way when he asked, 'What do you call them... natural? This is the best place in Europe to live homeless, since it's warm and the people are nice.' And that about sums it up. Natural and living off the kindness of others. But man, do they have awesome dogs. So well trained. I even saw a dog helping itself to water from a water fountain, up on it's hind legs lapping at the stream of water spurting up. Quite cool. Good dog.

The big highlight of Granada is the Alhambra (which in arabic means, The Red One, so really, people keep calling it, The TheRedOne). Up on a hill overlooking town, it is quite a sight. We were shown a great vantage point by David a couple nights before we were to visit the actual Alhambra.

The Alhamba is famous mostly thanks to Washington Irving, who wrote the book 'Tales of the Alhambra,' saving it from being lost to time and forgotten. What a life that guy had. Traveling around Europe learning the language and culture for years. Became an ambassador for the states to Spain. Just writing and traveling. Wouldn't that be a great way to live? Ah... the aristocracy.

It actually requires buying tickets in advance to get into the highlight areas of the Alhambra, even with a specific entry time on the ticket. It is never fun to feel like you have a time-limit to see a place, especially when paying 13 euros. So maybe that has something to do with my opinion of the place, but I found worth the visit, but no more impressive than the alcazars we had already seen in Sevilla and Cordoba. Inn really it is more impressive, but it's due to the setting and not the architecture really. Set up on the hill, overlooking the city, a little hut would still be an attractive place to visit.

It really was a great place to visit, especially the Generalife, which, though it appears to refer to the insurance company, actually means 'Architect's Garden' in Arabic.

Will and I had a great time just sitting on the main path in the Generalife people watching, he sketched the scenery and I just happily wrote away and wandered off to take photos every once and a while. Good afternoon.

It was a nice time in Granada, aside from the cold nights. We boarded an overnight bus for Madrid a couple hours after seeing the Alhambra and woke up at the southern bus station for the capital.

I think many of my best pictures on this trip so far were taken here, so check out the picasa album.

Madrid -

First off, arriving at 630 in the morning, we had a couple hours to kill before we could check into our hostel... So we sat in a park near the place for two hours. It was so cold, I did something I hadn't done since I visited Paris last December: I put on shoes and socks. Shocking, I know.

Our first day in Madrid was full of museums. We saw the navel museum, which, if you're into models and swords and stuff, is a cool place. And of course, we were, so it was a full two hour visit. Plus it's FREE.

Then, that evening we were able to visit the Prado museum, again, for FREE. Everyday, from 6-8 the museum is absolutely free. What a great way to give people access to the arts. Two hours is NOT enough to really appreciate the museum, so most people visiting the city for just a couple days would probably still pay for entrance. But if you lived in the city or were visiting for a couple days, what a great way to see the art inside without breaking the bank. Two hours here and there, taking your time to see smaller sections... very nice.

Some of my favorites from the Prado were Goya and Velazquez. Especially the Goya pintars negra, his black paintings. So different from his portraits, dark, indistinct faces, but still full of emotion. Many twisted and... yeah, good stuff. Dark, but good, especially considering that this was all in the age of doing light portraits and landscapes. I always find those transitions between types/eras of art very fascinating.

The next day we were able to get into the Reina Sofia for free also. The same idea as the Prado. Brilliant! We also played frisbee in the park with a couple of dancers, Sarah and Maryann, from New York and Marco, another of the Italian guys we've met. Sarah and Maryann were Americans, but unlike almost every other Americans we met, they didn't make us cringe and speak in Haussa or Zarma so they wouldn't know we're Americans also. They spoke Italian and Spanish, were traveling right, in our opinion. Were laid back and into seeing a place for real. In other words, good companions for me and will for a couple days in Madrid.

Why are so many Americans abroad loud, annoying, and totally clueless? They also don't even try to speak foreign languages for the most part, or if they do try to speak, it's all American English-ized. Of course, we should probably distinguish between backpackers and what we've been calling 'tourists,' the people who have a tight schedule to keep, secluded hotels to stay in, and no interaction with the locals, other than in souvenir shops. But enough of that... onto the Reina.

The Reina is more focused on modern art, featuring a large collection of Picasso. It houses his masterpiece, Guernica. What is especially impressive about the exhibit is that in the adjacent rooms to the painting, the museum displays a series of studies Picasso made for the piece and a series of photos for the work in progress (including changes Picasso made part-way through). A cool look into the way such a piece comes together.

The Reina also has Miro and some famous pieces from Dali, like The Great Masturbater. It's a very living museum and the exhibits seem to change all the time. Also, it's great at incorporating a variety of art, not just painting and sculpture, but sounds, video, even dance art (no caged dancers, but the costumes and videos of performances).

Madrid definitely has it going in terms of art museums.

After two days staying in a hostel, we met up with Will's friend, Carrie, and stayed with her and her fiance for a night. They gave us a GREAT walking tour of Madrid. We saw the big park (I forget it's name), and quite a few different neighborhoods. We went for tapas and tea and hookah, and more tapas, and then a birthday party. Great great time and why you should make friends with people in places around the world so you can see the real life of a place.

Thanks to Carrie and Alberto!!!

So unfortunately (well, actually turns out it could be fortunate), my plans in the UK fell through. Josh's buddies had second thoughts about having us come to stay and join them on their trip (word must have reached them in advanced about who was actually coming) [too many parentheses?].

So, showing up to the airport a couple, four, hours before our flight to London, will and I decided we didn't want to go to the UK if we were to just continue getting hostels and seeing sights. Let's face it, the UK just isn't that exciting and it's EXPENSIVE. I've been there before. I would like to hit Scotland or Ireland again, but not now. So before our flight took of, I had decided to skip it, bought a ticket from Madrid to Brussels in two weeks time and decided to just jump back onto my original plans there, cutting out the middle.

So now I'm here in Benavente, staying with my Peace Corps neighbor, Meagan, the very same Meagan who gave me the BugHut. So not only did the BugHut return home, but I have a place to stay, free of charge for two weeks. Working on my Spanish and cooking real food in a real kitchen. Plus I'm going to take a bath tonight. A good break from the constant movement of being on the road, recharge for the last leg. Plus, it's a good start to the adjustment to a new, colder, climate.

More on the town and our visit to Salamanca later.

New Picasa albums for Granada and Madrid.