Thursday, July 19, 2007

As they say in the yearbooks: "Always Remember"

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so for this final post, I’m going to try to be less wordy and more picturey. So, like a student signing a yearbook, I’ll say “never forget” the things that the pictures below can remind us of:

For Picture 1. The joy of learning (as we did on our guided tour of the gardens). I was really impressed by the fact that the resort grew so much of its own food organically and sustainably and I loved learning about it all from Heidie (I’m not too sure on that spelling and Chrissy)

For Picture 2. How cool some animals are. How can you not love a rhinoceros iguana?

For Picture 3. The kids. For educators, we were didn’t spend a whole lot of time with kids down there, but it’s always great to see them.

For Picture 4. How ridiculously nice-looking the resort was.

For Picture 5. The beach! A terrific site to do an experiment, and not a bad place to just play around or lounge.

For Picture 6. What a nice treat it was to get some actual Dominican food while we were in the Dominican Republic.
For Pictures 7 and 8. Discovery!

Environmental Education- The Best of Both Worlds!

The process of carrying out a natural experiment has really confirmed some of the career/life choices that I’ve made. One of the great things about being a teacher, particularly an independent school teacher, is that one gains the ability to dabble thoughtfully in a lot of things. This trip in general, and the experiment in particular, was an example of having a great time dabbling in something I couldn't do forever. I long ago decided that being a professional environmentalist would be too depressing for me to handle, but I’m finding that being an environmental educator is actually not depressing at all. Working with kids, especially the kind of kids that get motivated by environmental issues, is fun and leads to a more optimistic view of the future. Nonetheless, because I still feel the fundamental work of a teacher is a better match for my personality than the work of “professional environmentalist” is, I continue to feel I made the right basic choice, at least so far.

It turns out to be a similar situation for the kind of small-scale experiments you do on program like this. I don’t think I would like to be a full-time ecologist. When I did an Earthwatch program two years ago (assisting an ecological scientist with research in a reef area of the Bahamas) I had a great time for the first few days. Eventually, however, counting mollusks or staring at algae for hours at a time got a little old. The problem was complicated by the fact that we didn’t ever get to see much of a clear outcome from our work.

For this project, it was extremely gratifying and even fun to be able to design an experiment (especially one that let me spend all my time on a beautiful beach) and carry it through to the end. It was also nice to be able to show it to people and get positive feedback. However, during the research time itself, I did find myself feeling that the classroom is a better place for me than the field. After two and a half hours of staring into the water, I would find that my eyes were getting a bit bleary, my patience a bit short and the exact connection between saving the planet and determining whether that blur I saw in the water was a large or small fish was becoming a bit unclear.

In short: the research was fun, but I like being with kids. And I really like the idea of being an environmental educator.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What an experience

First let me thank everyone for an experience of a lifetime. It was definitely an example of discovery at it's best. My trip to Punta Cana held a dual purpose for me. The first was to experience something new and the second was to experience an unmolested environment. I consider myself an accidental environmentalist. I was given this class to teach and had only a rudimentary knowledge of all things natural, however I found I was passionate when discussing mother earth. I have to admit I was an
awe of all of you. You were all well-traveled and had been passionate about nature and were ready for an adventure. I knew I was in good company. I enjoyed the vibe of the group. Every one had a good sense of humor and were so intelligent in their discourse. It was new for me and I have to say I studied each of you and wondered what made this group of teachers different from any other staff development I had taken part in. I hypothesized it was your education. Each one of you were educated by your experiences, not necessarily in the classroom. Each one of you had experienced life outside of the US. Living in America can spoil you for the simple things life has to offer. The excesses we are used to make us a little jaded. MY group was filled with people who took pleasure in observing a beetle, or a lizard, or some crabs. We had a great professor whom always had an answer for my simple questions. She was always a wealth of information and humorous and engaging. Dan was an excellent TA. He allowed us to explore and was non-invasive in our discovery. I feel as though I was well modeled into an environmentalist and my classmates had enriched my experience. I snorkeled over a coral reef, swam in a natural spring lagoon, and hiked through the jungle. A great experience for a girl from the rough side of Brooklyn, NY. An even better experience for a veteran teacher from Queens. I'm including some pictures that made me feel as though I discovered DISCOVERY.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

random thoughts

Yesterday was our day off and I went to Bavaros and got some food from the supermarket. I'm glad that I bought some interesting looking Dominican food that I can share with my family and friends. It's funny how I did not really have any real Dominican food (other than plantains) until I went to the supermarkets yesterday. But it's all good~

I will have to start packing and get ready to head back home soon. I'm just so glad that I ended up taking this class this summer. We just had all the nicest and the most interesting people in our group. Richie, Katie and Tim were our helpful translators that really clear up a lot of misunderstandings during our stay at Punta Cana. Richie especially taught me a lot about Dominican culture, which I'm grateful for. Katie and Jaime just had the most interesting stories that really let me know how much fun they were. It was always fascinating when Ashiviah talked about her unique culture. Elijah always cracked me up with his jokes and at times amazed me with his intelligence. Dan and Sara took care of us in various way. They were just so sweet, and they never complained with our requests. Lastly, the amazing Chrissy, Elle Wood in person, is always generous in sharing her knowledge. She is super smart and cool, I really learned so much from her.

Thank you everyone for a great time here in DR!!
So, we actually compiled our data and put together the PowerPoint presentation. Woohoo! Then I went over to the center alone to return some supplies. It was kind of dark and empty. Weird. I feel strange that we are leaving already tomorrow. On the one hand it feels as if we just got here, but on the other, it seems we have seen and done so much. I will not miss the mosquitoes, though, and I must admit I won’t need to see pizza for a long while! Am craving Asian food like mad. But it's been such a cool crew of people - I hope everyone stays in touch for a while!

Episode 1: Heart of Darkness

THE MISSION: Forest Reconnaisance at Night

OBJECTIVE: Get out alive and acquire knowledge to save the planet

Chrissy "Lieutenant Ohura" Colon
Elijah "Woody" Sivin
Dan Strauss codename Desperado
Richie "Buck" G.
Tim AKA The Magnet

Some may find it hard to believe how this uncanny crew survived the jungles of Punta Cana ecoforest located next to the hotel and resort. Yes! a jungle next to the hotel - I kid you not. This treacherous journey began with our clever leader, Chrissy, leaving a walkie talkie behind with Ashivia (in her air-conditioned rm# 3010). As I recall Chrissy said it was important to have communication with the outside world in case we are surrounded by a swarm of tarantulas or liquid magma.

In less than a minute into our journey we were swallowed up by the "selva" with darkness all around us. As we crossed this unforgiving terrain led by our charismatic leader I offered to take the lead in case we should come upon a predator. I am a quixotic individual and my "machismo" told me to protect our dear leader, however I realized that I am unable to distinguish between a water bug or the man-eating beetles from "The Mummy" (we acually saw a few of them!). In the end I decided to let Chrissy go ahead because of her expertise of the fauna; I would better be able to guard her from the back with greater time to react in case the need should arise.

As the team moved steathily through the forest, we began to see animals of proportions that were probably last seen on Land of the Lost. We stopped to investigate a gargantuan tarantula. Dan had the brilliant idea of putting something next to it for scale; and our fearless Tim sacrificed himself and put his most prized possession(A pen he received as a gift from the Queen of England) near the ravenous creature. As he furtively placed the pen down, the savage tarantula leaped and pounced on the unsuspecting object. There were screams everywhere; chaos; disorientation. SILENCE! we need silence! wait I'm the one screaming. I was alarmed to see that my normally steely nerves had disintegrated like a wet tissue.

After that incident our faithful leader chose to leave behind tim and me in this infernal place. I suppose it was a training operation for the new recruits. Unfortunately our cherished leader had never seen Backdraft ("If you go we go"). Luckily, we were able to use our apt survival skills
that we learned from watching "man vs. wild" to overcome these insurmountable odds. On our way back to safety we encountered some giant crabs and the invisible creature from the movie Predator.

Punta Cana with all its high end shi shi tourism should sell a T-shirt: I survived the Jungles of P.C.


Researching for my Ethnobotanical project has provided me the cultural element I was longing for upon arrival to the Dominican Republic. Though the biodiversity, in certain areas, was abundant, there was a definite lack of cultural diversity. However I was able to find an appropriate balance through my research project. After learning Miskitu in Nicaragua, it was fascinating to learn a few Arawakan words such as wanábana, mamey, hiwéra which are now understood in Spanish as guanábana, zapote and higuero.

I am proud to have completed 22 interviews with staff members here in Punta Cana. Many of the people I interviewed took me under their wing and proudly showed me the plants and fruits of my study. I will share with you the stories of Rubio and Leonor.

Rubio is the head of apicultura, beekeeping, at the Biodiversity Center. He was very eager to discuss his wisdom of medicinal plants and our interview lasted many hours because of his extensive knowledge. In addition to the sample set I presented, Rubio informed me of native Taíno plants such as guayiga and alamo, gave me a personal tour of the medicinal gardens, the fruit orchard, and the area where sugarcane and yucca are planted. He also gave me the opportunity to observe the beekeeping process, view the bones of a Taíno Indian, observe iguanas and follow the beautiful braying of Pedro el Burro.

After an interview with Leonor, she took me to the side alley of the hotel where the staff members eat lunch. Alas, traditional Dominican food! Leonor gave me a glass of jugo de chinola and I was able to speak with many staff members in many different positions. When they saw my sample set of fruits and plants, it was a race to the kitchen for them to see who could find the fruits and plants first. It was instructive to see the contrast of eating at the open air, scenic view La Cana, La Choza, Anais and Mama Venezia restaurants to the cafeteria style enclosed back alley staff dining room. The difference is ambiance could not be more disparate. Additionally, there were two separate dining areas for the Dominican employees and the Haitian employees. The segregation was very apparent from the beginning from the difference in uniform and status of job but I was surprised to see the lack of integration during staff mealtime.

Though my enthobotanical research project was a challenging task for the little time we had here, I feel fulfilled in the sense that I was able to learn more about Taíno,Dominican and Haitian culture and language and common uses of medicinal plants.

the final countdown

Yesterday was our day off, though, to be fair, I felt quite pressured in terms of work (both for school and an unexpected free-lance article deadline that the whole class heard me whinge about (sorry guys!). Thankfully, I still had the chance to go kayaking with Katie, Dan and Elijah (aka Bonobo ;>) It was really great. I think I picked up some good kayaking tips and skills from Katie (who graciously shared a two person kayak with me), along with a bit of her laugh! It was just really great to be out on the water for a couple hours, enjoying nature and good company and a couple good laughs. Not to mention that my arms got a good workout – as well as a mild sunburn!

It’s strange that we’re all parting ways tomorrow. It’s such a gorgeous setting and I don’t think I can get enough of amazing water! Now, I just have to compile all the data from the field project and put together our power point presentation with Ashivia and Joanne. It’s crunch time…………………

Tarantulas in the Dark

Chrissy led us on a night walk into the eco reserve the other night. It was an interesting mix of emotions: excitement, curiousity, fear, awe, disillusionment, sadness. The exciting part was just entering the dark trail, hearing all the sounds of the forest and seeing that first huge moth we came across with the glowing eyes reflected in the light of our head-lamps. At the first ojo indigena (they call them lagunas here - Chrissy says they're technically sink-holes. Sink-holes? Who wants to swim in a sink-hole?) a big bird came swooping at me from across the water, screeching. Chrissy identified it as a black crowned night heron. The curiousity of what was making all those different sounds in the dark, what was lurking just beyond those trees, just out of reach of the beams of our intrusive flashlights. The awe of seeing tarantulas that big, just by the path or on top of a termite mound - huge, huge, huge, and hairy - gargantuan was the word that struck me. They have an almost purply tint to them, they are so black. As we took pictures, I had the brilliant idea of laying a pen near the tarantula for scale - just as I laid it down, the monster attacked the pen, lunging at it, jumping on top of it and grapping it with its mighty, venemous fangs. We all jumped back in fear, startled - it had looked so docile, so dormant, just sitting there, until the pen got too close. I barely had my hand away when it pounced. We took plenty of pictures with the tarantula with the pen - I checked back on it twice to see if it had lost interest in the pen, but the first time I checked back, although it had let it go from its fangs, it was still sitting on top of it. The second time I checked, on our way out of the reserve, both the pen and the tarantula were gone. Where did it take my pen? If a thousand tarantulas were given a thousand pens and a thousand years, what masterpiece could they create? The disillusionment came when we all turned out our headlamps and flashlights, trying to experience something of the mystery and inky blackness of nature at night the wilderness. We got quiet and peered around in the dark...we were just starting to appreciate the magic when the distinctively aggravating music from the kiddy center at the hotel came drifting through the trees, reminding us that we had not gone anywhere, that although this beach area was once covered with forest like this, it had mostly all been killed, knocked down, developed, golf-coursed, paved, etc. On the way out, it was sad to see a dead hermit crab - like the ones Ritchie and I are studying, crunched and on the border of death in the gravel at the entrance - we had trampled it either on entering or exiting the reserve. How many other little animals had we unknowingly trampled in there? So, a bittersweet end to an amazing night - I wonder how many visitors to the hotel even bother exploring the reserve, to see what was left of we've done away with...(thank God that the founders had some sort of eco vision for the place - I can't imagine that Club Med or any of the other resorts have any sort of eco-reserve at all).

Pigs in the Trash!

Pigs in the trash!

I have been very intrigued by the variety of signs I have witnessed here in Punta Cana specifically for the staff members of the Punta Cana Club. Everyday as I would walk from the beach via the employee walk to the biodiversity center, I would pass signs that caught my attention. I especially loved the sign depicting that pregnant women got priority parking! Additionally, there were at least ten signs that read, “No Seas ‘foto de chanco’, Pon la basura en el zafacón”- Don’t be a ‘picture of pig’, put your trash in the trashcan. Everyday as I walked to the biodiversity center, I admired these signs especially with the irony of the plastic water bottles and other rubbish decorating the fields by these signs. The day I decided to bring my camera to take photos of these signs, I discovered that all ten signs were removed. I was surprised to see them missing as they were a part of my everyday scenery. What happened to the “Don’t Be A Pig” sign? It was then that I realized that though the trash remained on the ground and not in the trashcan as the pig signs pleaded, the pigs themselves were put in the trashcan. Pobre Chancos!