Bahamas Part I: Arrival

Posted: February 27, 2020 in Adventures, Travel
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I began writing this post earlier today in JFK airport before flying to Nassau, Bahamas. The JFK internet wasn’t working on my Chromebook, so I decided to type up my first blog entry for this trip since I couldn’t get any grading done. Now I’m at my couchsurfing host’s home with the background noise of a bunch of kids playing outside. Figured I might as well finish the entry I started earlier and and post it!

Airport Thoughts

I don’t like JFK. It’s the most difficult of the major NY airports to get to from my apartment and I usually don’t fly from there if I can help it. Maybe next time I’ll avoid airports altogether and cut down my carbon footprint by sailing on a ship somewhere (eventually, I’ll put up a long-overdue post about my wonderful experience volunteering on the sloop Clearwater this past summer…definitely put the sailing bug in me!).

The sloop Clearwater, docked at Cold Spring.

Fun Fact: Do you know which part of an airport is the germiest? I listened to an episode of the NPR podcast Short Wave on the plane and learned that, according to a small study conducted by Niina Ikonen and Carita Savolainen-Kopra of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the germiest spot is…those plastic bins you put your things in to go through security! Of course the study is small so more research needs to be done, but that’s surprising! Always wash your hands with soap and water after touching those bins. 

So what’s this about the Bahamas? 

I’ve never been to the Bahamas and it has never been on my bucket list of places to travel to, so why am I here? To explain, I need to backtrack a bit. 

AmeriCoprs*VISTA and Superstorm Sandy

In August 2013 I began a year of service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA Leader. VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America and is a branch of AmeriCorps (an organization similar to the Peace Corps, but in the US) that focuses on building capacity and sustainability of initiatives designed to work with/for impoverished communities. In most branches of AmeriCorps, members perform “boots on the ground,” direct volunteer work, but VISTA is different. While they do get to directly volunteer a bit, VISTA members spend most of their time behind the scenes, working at the organizational level to spearhead initiatives, run workshops, recruit volunteers for programs, etc. From 2011-2013 I served as a VISTA member in Albany supporting refugee and immigrant assistance programs there, and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Afterward, I moved back to Long Island and was recommended for a position as a VISTA Leader in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. 

If VISTAs work at the organizational level, VISTA Leaders are a step above, mentoring multiple VISTAs in one region or who are associated with a certain kind of service program (for instance, when I was a VISTA, my VL was in charge of mentoring a dozen VISTAs across New York State, all of whom were working in partnership with an organization called New York Campus Compact). As a VL, I supported a regional team of VISTAs working with disaster recovery organizations across Long Island. At the time, there was still a great need for assistance in the wake of Superstorm Sandy (which hit in October 2012), and over the span of that year I witnessed the long-lasting effects that a storm of that magnitude has on an area; much work goes on behind the scenes to make sure residents are aware of grants, support programs, resources, volunteer opportunities, etc. available to them. 

As a VISTA Leader, one of my roles was to attend meetings of the Long Term Recovery Group, a committe of representatives from hurricane support groups working acoss the island. I learned how each individual organization functions, the services they offered, their backstories, their managerial methods, etc. I also had occasional opportunities to visit disaster recovery zones and observe and/or participate in direct service with volunteers and staff members from some of these organizations, giving me a sense of not only the managerial but also the direct service levels of each organization. 

All Hands and Hearts (AHAH)

One of the organizations involved in recovery work on Long Island was All Hands, which has since merged with another organization to become All Hands and Hearts. I personally did not do any direct service with All Hands as a VL, but I did interact with their leadership team, and my VISTAs were in regular contact with All Hands, always speaking highly of the organization. I knew that All Hands provided room and board for volunteers, so back then I made a note to look into volunteering with them in the future.

Image result for all hands and hearts

Fast forward to 2020: It is the spring semester and I am adjuncting entirely online, leaving me a great deal of freedom to teach remotely (as long as I have wifi, grr JFK!). So, with nowhere specific to be and knowing I have income from the courses I’m teaching, I found a subletter for my apartment and decided to travel. I’d been wanting to volunteer somewhere and decided to look into two organizations from my VL days: NECHAMA and AHAH. NECHAMA is a non-profit I volunteered with for a few days during my VL service, but they are not currently accepting volunteers. AHAH however, had applications open for a many disaster sites. I applied to four, not knowing how likely it would be to get accepted, and found myself having to make a decision; three of the four programs offered me a spot! I could spend time building a kindergarten in Peru (they are still recovering from the 2007 earthquakes and many children are attending school in makeshift buildings), assist with hurricane relief work in Texas (still recovering from Hurricane Harvey), or head to the Bahamas for a slightly different kind of volunteerism, disaster response. 

Disaster Response vs. Recovery 

There are four stages of disaster management: 1) mitigation; 2) preparedness; 3) response; and 4) recovery. The first two stages happen before a disaster, while the last two happen after. Most of what we hear about is disaster recovery, which involves tasks such as rebuilding homes. However, before an area is ready for recovery it must go through an initial response phase. This involves a wide breadth of tasks that may change at the drop of the hat. Perhaps the most pressing need one day is debris removal, then it might be mold sanitation, repair, restoration of shelters for volunteers or residents, etc. Even though Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas five months ago, the island of Abaco is still in the response phase of disaster management, so tasks are not as structured as when an area is in the recovery phase, such as the case of building a kindergarten in Peru. 

Which To Choose? 

After receiving my three acceptance letters (the fourth program, in Puerto Rico, had a surplus of volunteers and didn’t need more) I weighed the pros and cons. Texas was most sensible; AHAH was paying for flights to and from site, I wouldn’t need to renew my passport (which was on the verge of expiring), there was reliable WiFi on base, and I’d have two days off each week to explore and catch up on grading. I also had a sense of what the work would be like, since the description of the recovery work being done was very similar to what I’d experienced on Long Island. Peru was the closest to “voluntourism,” with lots of opportunities to explore the area, and I could camp on site. However, there was no WiFi at the base, so I’d have to either get a SIM card or spend my off-time at an internet cafe to grade. The Bahamas seemed to be the location with the most pressing need, both of volunteer service and of tourist dollars. Plus, I’d never experienced the response phase of disaster recovery, and my course syllabus had a week scheduled on Caribbean music that happened to line up with my travel dates (I’m hoping to post a video from my travels as part of the lesson when it comes up). I felt a little connected to Hurricane Dorian since it easily could have moved north and hit my parents’ area in Florida, so this was also the disaster I’d followed closest. The only downside was that there was no WiFi on base, but as I went back on to the volunteer info. Google doc to double-check, I watched in real time as the volunteer coordinator changed the section on WiFi and added a new sentence: “We now have WiFi on base!” Decision made. 

Image result for hurricane dorian bahamas
Hurricane Dorian in full effect (image courtesy of Pierre Markuse)

Welcome to the Bahamas

Tonight I am in Nassau, at the home of my couchsurfing host Ronale. Ronale is from Abaco originally and was happy to host me after learning that I am coming to work with AHAH to aid in his island’s recovery. He is out working as a tour guide right now so I haven’t actually met him yet, but he was nice enough to open his home to me and arrange for a specific taxi driver to bring me to his home (there is WiFi at the NAS airport, so that was pretty easy thanks to WhatsApp). I am staying here for one night because I landed too late to catch a domestic flight to Marsh Harbour, so I will fly there tomorrow afternoon. Then, I’ll spend the next 21 days on base at Every Child Counts, volunteering six days/week for three weeks. Stay tuned for more updates!  

Interested in supporting hurricane relief efforts in the Bahamas? Contribute to my fundraiser for All Hands and Hearts here. Thank you!

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