Archive for the ‘Adventures’ Category

I’m not ready to be home right now. I’m writing this post from my bedroom in NYC, but I’m not ready to be here. I arrived yesterday a little before midnight, one week earlier than planned. The reason, of course, is COVID-19.

On Thursday, March 12th, five of us AHAH volunteers were scrubbing the mold out of a house in Marsh Harbour. We paused at noon for our lunch break and Aileen, one of the program managers, stopped by with bad news. As of that morning, All Hands and Hearts was suspending all operations worldwide for two months. Volunteers at all 14 AHAH sites worldwide had 48-72 hours to change flights, pack up, and head out.

AHAH released a statement about the decision. At its core:

The communities we work within are affected by disasters and are oftentimes lacking the infrastructure necessary to address a public health crisis like the coronavirus. We must take caution to not potentially expose these vulnerable communities to the virus through accidental transmission from our teams. 

Full statement here:

After Aileen left we sat there in shock. Volunteers had been working on this house for over a week, but we were only at the scrubbing stage. Without vacuuming and spraying, and with no volunteers working for two months, there was a high chance mold would grow back. We wanted to finish, but scrubbing was pointless on that day, so we packed up the equipment and waited for a truck to bring us to base.

The house

Meanwhile, AHAH teams at other sites made similar decisions; those who were mucking and gutting and those who were spraying went into overdrive and worked well past the end of our work hours to get the jobs done. The rest of us returned to base and joined the chaos of searching for new flights, cancelling old ones, and moving a huge amount of lumber into the Sprung for storage. The staff wanted to get volunteers out within 24 hours if possible, which meant endless goodbyes and a lot of packing up the entire base very quickly.

Over 1100 pieces of wood

I’m not sure what else to say right now. I’m bummed to not be there. There were no Coronavirus cases in the Bahamas and I wish there was a way that AHAH could have stopped accepting new volunteers but let those of us who were already there stay. I understand the logic behind the decision they made but I wish it didn’t have to be this way, not just for the Bahamas site but all AHAH locations. In Puerto Rico, the scheduled end date of the program is two weeks from now, so they’d been working from the start with the plan to finish everything by the end of March. Now they are scrambling to get as much done as possible by Monday, knowing they will not complete some of their intended work and will not be returning to finish. It’s a tough situation, and I imagine that the AHAH board spent a long time thinking about this decision.

Thursday night was my last night on base, so I stood up and presented a rap I was going to share as my leaving speech next week. I felt like a superstar with all the cheers and applause and hugs I got after I finished. Music is truly powerful and I think I helped lift everyone’s spirits that evening. I’ll post the lyrics here and update this entry with an mp3 link when I record it (update: Here’s the audio).

Just stand (All Hands) and start (and Hearts)
and take the time to make a mark
(your mark)
With hands
(All Hands) and hearts (and Hearts)
break the mold and do your part
(your part)

One day at a time we get the job done
With your hands and mine we work hard and have fun
Grab your safety glasses, gloves and a hat
Purple shirts by the masses, we step up to bat

Sleep beneath a mosquito net
Rise before dawn, yawn, and get set
Make breakfast and lunch, maybe PB&J
Take it to the trucks, muck and gut, start the day

Just stand…

Roll off to site, pass a bunch of destruction
To make the world right we gotta work on reconstruction
of houses and schools, and global attitudes as well
Global warming isn’t cool and it’s getting hot as

Hello folks, let’s begin the daily meeting
New face at the base, come up and give us a greeting
Let’s check out the board and talk about sites
Big ups before sup, and events for the night

Just stand…

Now it’s time for dinner made by hard-working cooks
Every meal’s a winner, tastes as good as it looks
There’s a line but it’s fine, one for veggie, one for meat
Fill a plate and dine, it’s a meet and greet

Check out the board to find your new location
Scrub, vacuum, spray, lord, I need a vacation
But really I’m kidding cuz I’m proud to be here
Living life to the fullest as an All Hands volunteer

Just stand…

Big ups to the crew, that’s you, for what we do
Even with Coronavirus our commitment is true
Now we may be leaving but we know it’s not the end
So keep on believing that we’ll meet up again

Soon we’ll write another chapter and I’ll see you in the rafters
Giving residents hope so they live happily ever after
Everybody in this place is smashing houses in the face
Keep on living life right, and you have a safe flight.

Carolyn Stallard, March 12, 2020

I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, I wasn’t ready to come back to NYC, but here I am, and I’m grateful that I get to have this roof over my head and a healthcare system that is functional enough to help out those who do become symptomatic with this virus. It’s ironic in a way; in the Bahamas there is ample hand sanitizer and TP and almost no talk of the virus, but lots of people are living in shelters or in mold-infested houses with broken roofs. Here in NY, stores are out of hand sanitizer and TP and there is endless talk of the virus, but people have houses with working roofs that they can self-quarantine in. Which reality would you choose?

Speaking of reality, as a volunteer said in his exit speech, “the future is here, just not evenly distributed.” I’d love to believe that what I was responding to in the Bahamas was an abnormal disaster, but I know better. I am already conscientious about my carbon footprint, but seeing the intense level of destruction in Marsh Harbour even six months post-Dorian makes me want to be even more conscientious about my environmental impact. One day that level of destruction will be even more routine than it’s already becoming, and I want to be able to say I did my part to keep the climate in check. Are you doing yours?

When I volunteer for things like this people tell me I’m amazing, but as a volunteer reminded us in her exit speech, what we are doing shouldn’t be considered amazing; it should be normal. Instead of telling me I do amazing things, find a way to do similar things, even if on a smaller scale. We all make an impact.

I’ll conclude with photos I haven’t shared in previous posts. Thanks for reading.

This is an area in Marsh Harbour that was known as The Mud, where many Haitian immigrants and Haitian-Bahamians lived in shanty houses. After the storm, the area was bulldozed and fenced off so that the shantytown would not be rebuilt. Read more about the area and its history here.
Boats *in* the water at Hope Town. Very different than Marsh Harbour.
The Hope Town lighthouse we swam to on our day off.
My Sunday adventure buddies: Maeve, Kiley, and Tyler.

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

Monday evening! Time is flying! I’ve been balancing volunteering, grading, and socializing pretty well, but time is passing incredibly quickly. Two of the closer friends I’ve made here are leaving tomorrow, and some others are leaving later this week. When I met them it seemed like we had ages left. How is this possible???

Here are some highlights from the past few days: 

I went to actual houses three times! The rest of the time has been at CAPS, mostly in the rafters, but one day I was the queen of the sledgehammer and the sawsall (a saw) and destroyed the cabinets of a classroom closet. I felt like a badass that day. 

Last week when I was at a house I got to do the “gut” portion of a “muck and gut” followed by “QC,” which stands for “quality control.” “Mucking” is when you go through the contents of a house and start cleaning it out, get rid of personal stuff, etc. “Gutting” is when you essentially deconstruct the house, pulling out all the debris, taking down drywall, etc. “Quality control” is when you finish pulling out debris and take out the screws and nails sticking out of the wood, sweep up, and get the place ready for scrubbing (the first stage of mold control). Since AHAH is working on the response stage of disaster management here in the Bahamas, we do a lot of mucking and gutting, scrubbing, vacuuming, and spraying. There is also a roofing team, but the majority of us are gutting and scrubbing. 

Before and after breaking apart a moldy wall.

Today (Monday) was the coolest day. I was on a team of just five, all women, ages 19, 21, 31, 31, and 68. This was truly the most badass team I’ve been on yet; we were breaking apart the drywall, wood paneling, ceiling, and tiling of a house and we were seriously all on fire. The 21-year-old and 19-year-old were the Team Leader and Assistant Team Leader, respectively, and I was impressed with how much they knew about this construction (or deconstruction) work. Likewise, the 68-year-old, Merelise, worked with the same energy as the rest of us. My fellow 31-year-old, Val, took apart an entire bathroom in record time, and I took apart all the walls and trim of an entire room. We were seriously a rockstar team and it was super cool to be in a group so effectively breaking gender stereotyping. 


I have heard so many stories about the lives of local people during and after the storm. Here are a few: 

  • CAPS served as an emergency shelter, and one volunteer told me a story she’d heard from a homeowner who had been at CAPS during the storm. She was in a room with a bunch of mostly elderly people, and her husband and one other man were holding the door shut as the water surged outside. When she looked out the window, all she saw was the sea, complete with sharks swimming by and people getting washed away. What she was seeing as the sea should have been the schoolground, but it was all under water. Somehow her husband had a huge burst of strength and was able to hold the door shut, saving everyone in the room, while others outside were washed away. 
  • Another homeowner, Donna Lee, sheltered in a room of her home with the rest of the family. Then the roof blew off that section and they moved to a closet…until the roof blew off there. Then they moved to the bathroom, which soon had the same fate. They spent the next three hours (I may have this detail wrong) attempting to crawl to their car while winds whipped around them at 183 miles per hour. Finally, somehow they got there, and one of her daughters was almost blown away by the force of the winds as they tried to get into the car. They eventually all got inside, thinking they were safe, and then a roof from another house blew by and took off the sunroof of the car. They survived though. 
  • There was a vigil this weekend and one man told the story of being in the house with his 7- and 11-year-old daughters. As the waters rose he came to a point where he accepted that it was his time to go, and he was swept under the water. Then somehow, miraculously, he reemerged in a tiny spot that was not underwater and survived, but his daughters did not. 
  • One of our AHAH cooks, Rosie, lost her entire house in the storm, right down to the foundation. She has been renting an apartment since. 
  • Another local, Richard, slept on a bench for two weeks after the storm, before getting to move into a halfway house. As he put it, there is nothing right in the Bahamas after the storm. Richard said that it takes the government around three days to shut down a school after they discover mold, and that no progress would be happening at CAPS if not for us. He said that locals had been doing quick jobs to get the schools up and running, but then mold would come back and kids would get sick again. 
  • At one of the houses as we were working a man came walking by, and I caught the following words of his song: “I’m a true believer when things are down and out.” 

Some other observations: 

  • Driving to CAPS one day we passed a truck on fire after it had exploded. Many of these cars had been sitting there for months after the storm, so it’s not surprising!
  • The ground keeps getting on fire, because people are trying to get electrical lines back in the ground but then will sometimes activate the wrong ones. Today we passed a fire truck putting out a ground fire. 
  • There are so many frogs living in these houses! We regularly have to rescue frogs as we’re working. 
  • There are also tons of cockroaches. Today one fell on my head and scurried under my hardhat! 
  • At one house we found a flare gun in the attack, probably left there from someone sheltering there. 
  • These darn dogs! Because they were domesticated there are so many who whine and look at you like they want to be petted, but then sometimes they snap at you, or they are carrying lots of ticks and fleas. We have to be careful around the dogs even if they seem super nice. 

Ok, that’s all for now. I had an AMAZING adventure on my day off yesterday. More on that in another post!

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

It’s Tuesday night and there is hardly any wind – finally a non-chilly evening! The nights have been getting slightly warmer and I’ve gone down to sleeping in just one jacket instead of two! X-D

Party Time

Sunday night I joined 45 AHAH staff and volunteers and headed to Little Harbor, where Lisa – the local who was hosting a party for us – lived. Lisa has an interesting story. She employs around 180 Haitian and Bahamian workers on her property, and after the storm she made sure that every one of them was well off before beginning work on her own home. I don’t remember the number, but she spent a very large amount of money making sure they could get their lives back to at least a bit of normalcy before she worked on herself. 

While we were waiting to go I started chatting with two other volunteers, Kiley and Tyler, who live in Seattle. They are also not huge party people and we’re all around the same age, and Kiley recently traded a full-time teaching life for subbing so that she could have some freedom to do things like this. Sounds familiar 😉 

Eventually we were able to get into a car and, after a half hour drive, dropped our jaws as we arrived at Lisa’s property, The Abaco Estate (or something like that…I forgot the name). It was HUGE and pristine, with a giant pool and lots of beach to explore (complete with a giant flamingo float in the water), plus unlimited beers, a bbq, and beach games. I didn’t know many people yet so the party was a great opportunity to get to know volunteers as we hung out on the beach. The most interesting people I got to know that day were Karin and Sid, who are both in their 50s and left their home and jobs to roam the world, volunteering as they go. They plan to do this for ten years or until they get their first grandchild, whichever comes first (they are hoping ten years comes first!). They are living out of backpacks and having a great time. They’ve volunteered on four AHAH projects (including three times in Puerto Rico), done Workaway stints, etc. The fact that they’ve been doing this successfully and loving it makes me feel great about my decision to just be an adjunct rather than pursuing a full time faculty position and fill the rest of the time with volunteering, travel, music, and other creative pursuits. Life is good! 

That was basically it…Tyler, Kiley, and I went for a long walk along the entire coastline, I got burnt despite lots of sunscreen, we collected shells, hung out in the flamingo floatie, and of course I made sure to speak French to one of the Haitians working the party. His name was Jean-Claude and he was so happy I could speak French with him! 

Bahamian Culture and Slang

On the drive back I asked our driver about Bahamian music culture. She was excited that I knew about rake and scrape (the official music of the Bahamas) and recommended some rake and scrape artists: Ronnie Butler, KB, and D Mac. Rake and scrape is called this because the instruments used are: A saw with a screwdriver, a board, harmonica, a goatskin drum, and occasionally cowbell. She recommended a song called “Broach On Your Bread” which is Bahamian slang for stealing your lover.

I also learned the term “hot cake,” which refers to the stray dogs around the island. It’s a sad term and is Bahamian slang for the burnt stuff you scrape out of the bottom of a pot and, post-storm, refers to the strays as well. Most of those dogs probably had owners before the storm but have been left to roam wild. Our AHAH base is a special needs school so we need to make sure to shoo the dogs away all the time so that they don’t try to come around when the students are back. Most of these dogs had domesticated lives and want to be petted, but we need to ignore them. 

Since Sunday, I’ve done more or less the same work I wrote about last time (up in the rafters) so I’ll skip that part of this blog update. However, because Sunday marked the six month anniversary of the storm, we had some very special guests at base: The majority of the AHAH board and the founder of All Hands, David Campbell. 

David Campbell and the History of All Hands and Hearts

On Monday evening during dinner David spoke to everyone about his work, then bought ice cream and had a Q&A session with anyone who was interested. The journey to AHAH started after the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. David is passionate about poverty alleviation and wanted to help those in need, so he gathered donations from friends and made his way there in 2005. He thought his experience there would be a one-off experience, but when he was there he realized there was a huge need for help, so he decided to start a small program to give volunteers a chance to serve. He thought he was done, but then when Hurricane Katrina hit the US he knew he had to do more, and All Hands was born (under a different name at that time). As time went on the organization grew and he found a team to help him run the organization. Meanwhile, the supermodel Petra Nemcova was started her own organization because of the Thailand tsunami. She had been living there at the time and lost her fiancee in the tsunami. Then, when she returned to visit Thailand months later, she was surprised to see that children were still not in school; no one was rebuilding. She determined that a generation would essentially be lost if those children missed out on too much school, so she started the NGO “Happy Hearts” to focus on post-disaster school construction. Like David, she wanted to create a program that did not charge people to volunteer, so that anyone could come and help. 

David and Petra met years later, saw how similar their interests were, and decided to merge their organizations, reestablishing themselves as All Hands and Hearts in 2017. To learn more, check out the backstory here:

Fun side note: Another board member I met was Adam Haber, who started the All Hands Superstorm Sandy program on Long Island. He looked very familiar and we determined that we may have been in some Long Term Recovery Group meetings together. I also met Chief Operating Officer Jorge Abreu, who told me about his mission to bring musical instruments to the bandrooms of the Bahamas once the schools are open again. A great mission indeed!

So…that’s all the updates for now. Tomorrow I head out to a local Bahamian’s house, my first one! The work at CAPS is not complete but we finished vacuuming and scrubbing, and AHAH changes up teams so that volunteers have a range of experiences. I will miss the opportunity to spray CAPS tomorrow (the last step in mold removal/prevention is spraying), but I’m excited for the experience to meet some locals and work on a house.

Found a keyboard at CAPS!

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

First of all, holy moly…it is an incredible jolt to your entire body and soul when you take a cold shower in a shower stall made of tarp while the wind makes the temperature feel like it’s the middle of winter. Goodness gracious, that was an experience. 

It’s Saturday night and it is freezing outside. The winds of the Bahamas are no joke and I was not at all prepared for the resulting cold temperatures. Note to anyone traveling here: Bring a sweatshirt. I am very grateful to two volunteers who went home today and left me two blankets. Hopefully I won’t be so cold tonight! 

Because it’s so cold out, the Saturday night AHAH party people were all here in the main building playing beer pong for awhile. They’ve since gone outside and a few of us made a little tabletop game area to play cards, Scrabble, and Scrabble Slam!, which is a lighter version of Scrabble. Much more my speed than beer pong. X-D

Fun side note: I’ve got a sticker on my laptop that says “Sloop” from volunteering on the Clearwater and people keep asking about it. Tonight I learned that the tiling guy with the great music (John) has been to the Clearwater festival every year since it started in 1974, and he and his wife own the ice cream shop that all the Clearwater Sloop crew go to when we dock in Croton-on-Hudson (The Blue Pig. The ice cream is homemade and delicious; highly recommend)). I’ll have to say hi next time I’m on the Clearwater! He has actually been to Pete and Toshi Seeger’s house in Beacon to bring chairs down to the festival during it’s early years, and they used to bring Pete vanilla ice cream. Apparently he loved vanilla ice cream! 😀 The other tiling guy (Peter)’s brother worked on the Clearwater 20 years ago. Small world! 😀

A Day In the Rafters

Today was a really cool day. I was assigned to the crew at Central Abaco Primary School (CAPS) for a day of scrubbing and vacuuming. This is a very important job; if a building is not properly de-molded, mold will likely grow back and make the inhabitants sick. Naturally, since this is a primary school, scrubbing and vacuuming are serious tasks. It’s also a job you can do without much training, so it’s one of the primary tasks AHAH volunteers do during the response phase of disaster management. 

Upon arrival at CAPS (a short drive from base), crew leader Halle led us through a stretching routine as we introduced ourselves (crews change regularly, and not everyone knows each other). Halle explained what we’d be doing and asked: Who would feel comfortable working in the rafters? I felt like I could do it so I volunteered along with five other people. This is one great part of AHAH work: You can always say you’re not comfortable with something and there will be another task for you to do; no pressure to ever do anything you don’t want to. 

Central Abaco Primary School

Although the initial mold removal phase of the work had been finished on a previous day, we were required to wear sanitation masks at CAPS because mold and other particles could be present as we scrubbed and vacuumed the wood. Figuring out how to make my mask fit properly was a little more challenging than I thought, but once I found a good one to use it was very easy to wear all day, and surprisingly comfortable! 

Next, I learned how to do the two tasks of the day. I was vacuuming, so the people scrubbing would thoroughly scrub each beam of wood, make a chalk mark, then I would follow them, vacuum each beam three times, and make another chalk mark to show that it had been scrubbed and vacuumed. Pretty straightforward.

When I climbed into the rafters, it took me some time to figure out the best way to move around. At first there were spots I thought I’d never reach, but as I got more comfortable I found that I could reach those spots and furt ones too! Soon the rafters felt like a playground, and I began to enjoy the task very much. I was also glad I’ve been regularly practicing yoga for the past half year; balance and flexibility really helped me succeed up there! And don’t worry mom, the beams were sturdy and I never felt in danger of falling. 🙂

During lunch I learned more about the project through the United Nations that is getting shut down. It’s called “Better Shelter” and is built on a local church’s property, led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). AHAH lended volunteers to help with the project for two weeks, but the latest update is that the government might tear down the shelters, since the locals are unhappy that illegal Haitian immigrants will most likely use the shelters (right now they are living in tents near the shelters even now, six months after the storm). Everyone here is very unhappy that the project is most likely not only going to be canceled but also that their work will be undone. One volunteer here was saying that although he has his own opinions about illegal immigrants, none of that should matter in a situation like this one. Although I most likely don’t agree with his overall standpoint on immigration, I absolutely agree with him; in a disaster zone all those opinions should not take precedence over at least meeting basic human needs.  

We were at CAPS from around 7 AM-3 PM, and I vacuumed for around 6 of those hours. I hope I get to go into the rafters again – that was a fun way to spend the day! After the scrubbing and vacuuming, another crew will come in to spray the building to make sure mold can’t grow back.

Tomorrow we have the day off and are all headed to a beachside party hosted by one of the locals. Should be fun! It also marks the six month anniversary of the storm, so some of the executives for AHAH will be on base. Apparently both the party with the locals and seeing the executives are rare occurrences, so I definitely chose a good time to join the program! 😀

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

Mold doesn’t stand a chance!

It’s Friday evening and I’m sitting in a beach chair on the porch of the AHAH base in Marsh Harbour. Just finished dinner after a busy but laid-back day of base duty. Good way to get acquainted with the site, but before I catch you up on my first day with AHAH, let’s back up a bit. 

24 Hours In Nassau: Captain Ron & Abaco History

I left off on this blog two nights ago, when I was writing and grading from my host Ronale’s guest room. Ronale returned earlier than planned, so we talked a bit while eating Bahamian food from his restaurant (he has a great motto he uses for couchsurfers regarding food: “If it’s in the house, it’s on the house!”). He said he instantly knew I was a New Yorker because I’d locked the front door; only one other couchsurfer he’s hosted has ever done that, and she was also from the US. Apparently we have a reputation! 

Ronale has three jobs in Nassau: Working with tour groups, running a gelato shop, and running a restaurant. He made sure to stress that although it sounds like he has a lot of work, it’s a laid-back life; he worked seven hours the day we met and did all three jobs in that time. He used to live in Florida (for 28 years) and said that the lifestyle difference between the US and the Bahamas is pretty extreme; we work too hard in the US! 😉 

Ronale, or “Captain Ron” as he is locally known, has quite a backstory. He and his sisters were born on the island of Abaco (where I am writing from now). His parents are Haitian immigrants who worked on a sugar cane plantation run by white Bahamians, then became some of the first Haitians to move to Marsh Harbour when there was demand for low-class labor there (similar to patterns in the US, Haitians were willing to do lower-class work that Bahamians did not want. His parents essentially founded one of the two major Haitian communities in Marsh Harbour, Pigeon Peas (the other is called The Mud). 

As I learned from Ronale, there are four main groups of people who make up the majority of inhabitants in the Bahamas: white Bahamians, black Bahamians, Haitian-Bahamians, and Haitian immigrants. As in many parts of the world, the Bahamas has levels of racism; Haitians have historically been considered more or less second-class citizens. Ronale experienced this firsthand while growing up on Abaco; he tried to befriend the black Bahamian kids in his class but was rejected because he was Haitian, so his earliest school friends were white Bahamians (later on, when he enrolled in another school nearby, the white kids from his old school would throw rocks at all the black kids except him, since they had already accepted him as a friend). 

Historically racism has perhaps been most prevalent on Abaco, which has a different history than other Bahamian islands. Many Loyalists from England immigrated to Abaco and built communities there, inheriting money from the commonwealth that allowed them to live comfortably.  When the Bahamas wanted to become independent, Abaco was the only island that resisted, since many residents benefited from their commonwealth connection (reminds me of the way Quebec has wanted to separate from Canada on various occasions, although of course that is a different situation). 

Haitians built up a culture inside white Bahamian culture on Marsh Harbour through the establishment of Pigeon Peas and The Mud, and post-Dorian they have been the main group remaining there; many white Bahamians left because, as Ronale put it, they never had to work hard for what they had because of their commonwealth connection and could return to family in other countries. Ronale also opened my eyes to some governmental racism; governmental support for Abaco post-Dorian has been minimal because the Haitian communities were hardest hit and therefore are not a priority. I witnessed this a bit today; there was a man on the AHAH who was very frustrated. He was supposed to be out building through a United Nations connection, but he was sent away so the leadership could have a closed door meeting regarding whether their program would continue. The government was concerned that the program was constructing buildings for the Haitian immigrants, which they don’t want to be the priority. 

Facts I learned from Ronale: 

  • The Bahamas is not part of Caribbean (perhaps you already knew this, but I was ignorant). 
  • There are five standard Bahamian side dishes (“the fantastic five”): Peas and rice, baked mac and cheese, potato salad, coleslaw, and sweet plantains. 
  • Cricket is the national sport of the Bahamas, but most people don’t play or even watch it (they prefer basketball). 
  • Some Bahamian people don’t know that the Baha Men are from the Bahamas. I added my own fun fact to this part of the convo: Did you know that “Who Let the Dogs Out?” was not written by the Baha Men? It was written by Trinidadian artist Anslem Douglas under the title “Doggie” (1998) as a women’s empowerment anthem after he was frustrated seeing so many men treat women crudely. Read more here.
  • Rake and scrape is the name of the music of the Bahamas, originating on Cat Island. Most Bahamians listen to American music though. 
  • Sydney Poitier is said to be the most famous Bahamian (he was born on Cat Island). 
  • Tourism has not been affected by the storm on other Bahamian islands; similar to the way that Americans stop paying attention to storms that land in other parts of the US, Bahamians have moved on from the storm. 
  • In the Bahamas you drive on the left side of the street. 
  • The buses in the Bahamas are super similar to the “dollar vans” that drive up and down Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn; you hop on, yell out when you want to get off, then pay. Guess that makes sense; the Flatbush vans are run mainly by the Caribbean community and although the Bahamas are not part of the Caribbean, there are some cultural similarities. 

The Next Day

When I woke up the next day, I drove into “downtown” with Ronale. Turns out he’s a bit of a local celebrity; everywhere we went, people smiled and waved, “Good morning Captain Ron!” He has built himself into a recognizable character, always wearing a captain’s hat. 

Downtown Nassau was small and colorful, with lots of little touristy shops (and lots of tourists). After many hellos we stopped at Sunshine’s, a breakfast spot, for some traditional Bahamian breakfast fare: Eggs and grits. Captain Ron insisted that I have a Bahamian soda and bought me a Bahamian cake (very traditional) and two other little cakes: Pumpkin and pound cake. Then he showed me where I could get on a bus, we parted ways, and I made my way to the airport. Thanks Captain Ron!

Flying to Marsh Harbour 

Flying on BahamasAir to Marsh Harbour was an interesting experience; the flight was packed, mostly of locals going back to visit. I was surprised to see a lot of them with big boxes of Dunkin Donuts, but as I later learned, there is no Dunkin Donuts available yet on Abaco, so it’s kind of a big deal. The flight was short – just 30 minutes – and as we approached Abaco I looked out the window and saw the remains of battered houses on a nearby island. I literally said “wow” because it was such a scene!

A picture is worth a thousand words.

After landing, I caught a taxi to the AHAH base, located at a school called Every Child Counts. I met Ollie, the volunteer coordinator, and got a quick tour of the base before being left to settle in before the daily 5 PM meeting. I’d arrived just around 4 PM, so I didn’t have to kill too much time before the meeting, at which I had to stand up and introduce myself (including answering a random question of the day. If you’re wondering, if I could choose any celebrity to have frozen yogurt with, I chose Louis Armstrong). 

After the meeting was dinner, at which I met some more volunteers. There are around 70 on base currently, so I have not yet met everyone. Those I have met all seem to enjoy the work; many have been on other projects with AHAH and/or have tried to extend their time because they want to stay longer. I met one volunteer from Italy who is trying to extend her stay, both because she really likes it here and because her home town and airport have been quaratined because of the coronavirus! 

Then, I spent the evening catching up the rest of the way on grading before settling in to a cold (not typical) and windy (very typical) night that I did not bring enough layers for! There is a box of free stuff that other volunteers have left behind…I might need to explore that if we have another cold night. 

First Day of Work: Base Duty

This morning I woke around 6 AM and ate breakfast with the rest of the team before everyone left for their worksites of the day. Since I was new, I was assigned to stay on base doing chores so I could get to know the site. Duties included scrubbing old names off of construction helmets, doing laundry, cleaning up after breakfast, sweeping, etc. Throughout the day I got to know some of the people who were on base for the day. In particular, I bonded with two tilers working on one of the rooms; their taste in music was really great and I was able to keep popping in to share some fun facts about the various kinds of music they were listening to (”Ah cool, the Buena Vista Social Club is a great band!”; “Oh, you’re not sure the names of the instruments in this music? That rhythmic sound you’re hearing is the tabla. It’s a set of two drums that have to be tuned very carefully and can produce quite a lot of tones. Yes you’re right, that other instrument is a sitar. It’s made out of a pumpkin!”; “Oh, you’re listening to ‘So What’ by Miles Davis! That’s very fitting, because the mode that jazz musicians sometimes play over these chords is called Dorian, just like the storm.”; “Yes, I love Stomp! That’s great that you’ve seen it. I’m jealous!” etc.). That same day, when I was playing some music, one of the staff came in and said “Is that someone’s phone, or is that…music? Is someone listening to this? It sounds like elevator music.” And that, of course, was some vibraphone music. So far I fit in better with the older folks. X-D

So…this first day was very straightforward and simple. Tomorrow I’ll be going out to a site to do some more in-depth work, so I’ll have another update whenever I have time. Then on Sunday we have off and everyone has been invited to a local woman’s property for a big party along the beach. Hope it’s cool!

A successful day of base duty.
While on base duty today I watched some staff and volunteers film a tiny safety video. The guy on the ground just got hit with a rake he stepped on. X-D

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

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!

I am sitting at home writing this entry between bites of a vegetarian enchilada bowl, priced at $7.99, from an upscale Manhattan grocery store. I love finding these – they are full of real ingredients, taste great, and are worth the trip to a Manhattan sidewalk!

I obtained this dinner through dumpster diving, a practice that is all-too-easy in New York City and elsewhere. If you haven’t already, read part one of this series for an introduction to freeganism and food waste.

As stated in my last entry, I had my first NYC dumpster diving experience in November 2018. Around eight of us showed up for the Freeganism 101 meeting, through which we learned all about this idea that was new to almost all of us. Then we hit the streets, where organizer Janet outlined the common practices of dumpster diving for the evening: No one is judged for what they do or do not choose to take, we announce what we find so everyone in the group can share, we keep the sidewalks clear for pedestrians passing by, no one has to open a trash bag if they are uncomfortable doing so, and we close the bags at the end to leave each stop as neat as we found it.

With these common courtesies in mind we proceeded to a number of stores. That night’s tour included a grocery store, a bagel shop, a pharmacy, a pet shop, a bakery, another grocery store…so many places! At each stop we untied the trash bags and found what seemed like an infinite amount of incredible items. I was amazed by how little we had to get our hands dirty to find good food in the trash; many items were thrown out in large quantities by type, making it easy to find fresh food (and makeup, sunglasses, earbuds…all sorts of items from the pharmacy!) without having to search very hard. Even with almost a dozen of us sharing the wealth there was too much food and we had to leave a lot behind.

A display of all the still-good food found at just *one* grocery store.

Is it really safe?

As we walked, I spoke to Janet along with Kelly, another dumpster diver, about food in the trash. Had it ever made them sick? Why was it thrown out? Surely some of it must not be good? Neither of them has ever gotten sick from eating anything from dumpster diving, including produce, dairy, and meat products. Often food is tossed directly from the shelves to the street, and stores regularly throw out perfectly good items when they get new shipments. Plus, so many foods are wrapped in plastic, so thete’s no need to worry whether they touch other items in trash bags. I started out hesitant, but in the months since that first tour I can confidently say that I agree with their verdict on the food; I have consumed yogurt, cheese, vegetables, fruit, milk, bread, salmon sandwiches (common at Pret a Manger), salads, and even sushi with no problems.

Here are some best practices for making sure the food you are eating is fine:

  • Thoroughly wash fruits and veggies before consumption
  • Check if perishable products are cold when you find them (often they go straight from the shelves to the street)
  • Put eggs in a bowl of water to check if they are good (if an egg floats to the top, don’t eat it)
  • Be aware of what else is in the trash bag with an item
  • For sashimi or sushi, a fellow diver taught me a trick: Fry the fish to make a tasty treat and ensure that it won’t spoil

I was also curious about expiration dates. I know they aren’t accurate, but how far could you go? In some cases, food thrown out is not even past its printed date, but even if it is, it’s often still fine for weeks or months; dates are not as accurate as we imagine and often refer to peak freshness rather than safety. Additionally, terms like “sell by” vs “use by” vs “best if used by” all have different meanings. For a full breakdown, check out this article from Consumer Reports.

Expanding the practice

That night, I went home with more quality food than I ever would have imagined. I also had the contact info. for Kelly, who lives close to me. We have since formed our own little group of Brooklyn dumpster divers, and on almost any night of the week (or early evening for some spots) we might meet for a dive. We have a list of preferred spots but really it isn’t necessary; walking down any commercial Brooklyn or Manhattan street can prove plentiful.

Before dumpster diving, I saved money by buying bruised fruits and vegetables at my local grocery store. Now, the quality of produce I bring home has drastically improved; I often leave bruised apples and oranges behind in the trash bags because too many great ones are thrown away. I find myself eating fancy things I’d never buy on my own: Gouda cheese with black truffle flakes, acacia honey with pistachios, chocolate-covered figs, fresh-baked olive bread, organic coconut palm syrup, or date nectar, a tasty sugar alternative made entirely from dates. Too often I leave good food behind simply because I don’t have room to carry it. One night, my friend Sophia and I found a bag filled entirely with expensive, non-expired blocks of cheese (the average price of a cheese block in the bag was $15). We took home over $125 of cheese each, but even so we left at least another $100 of cheese behind!

Trash bag full of fancy cheese

Dumpster diving can bring other incredible finds as well. I am now the proud owner of a fancy Korean rice cooker (I looked it up online and it’s worth a couple hundred dollars!) that was still in its packaging when I found it at an end-of-semester dorm dive; college students throw out all sorts of crazy things! I’ve found high-quality chocolate bars, protein powder, chia seeds, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, drawing pens, hairspray, shampoo, a glue gun…it’s never-ending!

How do I start?

If you are interested in dumpster diving but are unsure how to begin, consider these tips:

  • See if your there is a dumpster diving or freeganism meetup group near you
  • Check out this list of Freegan groups worldwide (you can probably google others)
  • Check out the worldwide (mostly European) TrashWiki.
  • If you’re in France, check out this app…I know there’s another one bakeries use, but I forget what it’s called…
  • Food waste apps in Europe: Too Good To Go; Olio; Karma; NoFoodWasted.
  • Food waste apps in the US: Food for All; Food Rescue Hero; Food Rescue US; GoMkt.
  • If you can’t find a group, grab a friend and look for the following spots: Grocery stores, bakeries, bagel shops, pharmacies (Duane Reade is always plentiful here in NYC), gourmet sandwich chains like Pret a Manger, Maison Kaiser, or Au Bon Pain. Bakeries or bagel shops are great places to start because bread products are easy to feel in bags before opening them and are thrown out in large quantities every day.
  • Bring a headlamp, gloves, reusable bags, plastic bags, and hand sanitizer.
  • If anyone questions you (which rarely happens), remember that trash on the curb is public property. You are allowed to be there.
  • If you’re checking out dumpsters, be careful about when and where you go; a dumpster in a parking lot is technically private property.

So…those are some tips to get started. I’ll end this post with a little slideshow of some of the crazy amounts of food I’ve found on an average night. I used to take photos after every dive but had to stop – there were too many! I also used to add up all the prices to determine how much money I saved – often one night’s haul would bring in $60-$100 worth of food! Of course, you can also give some of your finds to local shelters or organizations such as Food Not Bombs. There is way more than enough to go around!

It is 6:30 PM on a hot Monday evening in August. My friend Melinda and I stand casually outside a Manhattan grocery store, chatting as we wait for the next black bag being brought to the sidewalk. We smile at the store worker as he places it at the curb and stroll over to investigate, our carry bags ready. “This one is cold…seems like packaged foods,” Melinda observes as she feels the side of the bag. We untie the knot and discover that she is correct; a wealth of frozen treasures hide within. We sift through the bag, pulling out boxes of pizza poppers, enchilada bowls, frozen breakfast burritos, waffles, green beans, vegan “meat” strips…it is never-ending. There is no actual trash in the bag, just boxes upon boxes of still-cold frozen foods seemingly chucked straight from the shelves to the curb. I look for the expiration dates on a few items, knowing how meaningless those dates usually are but checking just in case, and on almost every item the date is approaching but has not yet passed. “I guess they had to make room for a new shipment.” I shrug, wishing this was surprising, and hand Melinda a box of gluten-free mac and cheese. We split the remainder of the items, regretfully leaving many behind. There is only so much we can carry, so we have to be picky to save room for items we want the most. I’ve collected at least $20 worth of food from just this one bag; what will we find next?

My freezer, packed to capacity with food found from dumpster diving.
Another bag from that 6:30 PM dive. None of the expiration dates had passed on these cereals.

The scenario described above is not uncommon in New York City. Outside almost every grocery store, bagel shop, bakery, specialty food shop, etc., on almost every night of the week, perfectly good food is thrown away. Eight dozen eggs may be tossed because of a single yolk messing up the cartons, $300 of fancy cheeses discarded because of upcoming sell-by dates, scores of apples sent to the curb for minor bruises, bulging trash bags filled solely with bagels because new batches will be baked in the morning.

I discovered the food wasteland of NYC a little over a year ago after hosting Benny and Mira, two lovely couchsurfers from Australia. They get almost all their food back home by dumpster diving and were wondering what the scene was like in New York. I knew very little about dumpster diving but was intrigued by their description (it does not require literally diving into dumpsters…unless you really want to), and a quick google search revealed a secret side of NYC – and of most cities – that I’d never known existed. I took the plunge by joining the group NYC Freegan Meetup and registered for an event, “Freeganism 101 and Trash Tour,” eager to learn more.

Freeganism 101

I attended my first “trash tour” on Friday, November 2nd, 2018. I met the group at 9 PM at a public meeting space in upper Manhattan and was offered an array of treats collected from the trash: Cookies, cake, yogurt, crackers…the quantity and quality of snacks present at that meeting blew my mind. Then we got down to business: An introduction to freeganism followed by a trash tour of the area. Here are some of the facts I learned there and in the time since about food waste (collected mainly from and from the NYC Mayor’s Food Waste Challenge to Restaurants):

  • 40% of edible food is wasted in the US, while over 50 million Americans live in poverty. (source)
  • NYC sends four million tons of waste to landfills every year.
  • Of that four million tons, roughly one third is food waste.
  • When food waste degrades in landfills it produces methane, a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming.
  • In her article on dumpster diving in NYC, Eillie Anzilotti states that 16% of New York City residents are food insecure, meaning they may not know where their next meal will come from or if they’ll be able to afford it.
  • Dumpster diving is one aspect of freeganism, a movement based around “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.” (
  • Freeganism is built on the following principles:
    • Waste Reclamation: “The practice of recovering useable items from dumpsters or street curbs that have been needlessly discarded.” This mainly includes dumpster diving, the act of rummaging through trash bins, dumpsters, trash bags, etc. of retailers, residences, and other facilities. Picking up a discarded chair or set of dinner plates from the curb is as much a part of dumpster diving as collecting bagels from a streetside trash bag; any items put to the curb as public trash are available for taking.
    • Waste Minimization: Freegans try to live a zero-waste lifestyle, always recycling, upcycling, etc. This also includes acquiring/contributing items from/to freemarkets, etc.
    • Eco-Friendly Transportation: Rather than contribute to pollution by driving an automobile, part of freeganism includes finding alternative methods of transportation, such as cycling.
    • Rent-Free Housing: Some freegans convert abandoned buildings into community centers, work spaces, or living areas, but rent-free housing also includes the exchange of living spaces through programs like Couchsurfing, Warmshowers, Hospitality Club, and even ones that require the exchange of services such as WWOOF, Workaway, Trusted House Sitters, etc.
    • Going Green: This mainly includes growing food, participating in community gardens, foraging, etc.
    • Working Less: By acquiring basic needs without spending much money, freegans are able to reduce the amount of time they need to be actively making income in the “money economy” and can devote more time and energy to the “core economy” (home, family, neighborhood, community) through volunteerism, activism, participating in TimeBanks, etc. Worker-led unions are an example of the freegan spirit within the workplace.

Learning about freeganism was very cool – I realized I’d been practicing many aspects of freeganism for years and had never known there was a term for it. Armed with my new knowledge, I followed event organizer Janet (who has been dumpster diving in NYC for over a decade!) and the rest of the group out into the cool Manhattan night air. It was 9:30 PM and we were about to discover just how wasteful NYC can be.

Stay tuned for Part II for more info. about dumpster diving, tips for getting started, and photos from some of my diving experiences. 

3 Days In Iceland

Posted: December 8, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Iceland, Travel

“It is also easy to hitchhike…I think it will be easy for you.”

This is what my couchsurfing host Marcin messaged me in response to my inquiry about how to get from the Keflavik airport in Iceland to his house just outside Reykjavik. My choices: An expensive shuttle, a local bus that was only running once every hour, or hitchhiking. It was the end of November, I’d just landed in a small snowstorm, and my local connection was suggesting hitchhiking. Well…it wouldn’t be my first time so…okay!

I walked out into the snowy Iceland evening (with warmer weather than New York, according to the pilot of my flight), through the parking lot, and towards the airport exit, figuring that would be the best spot to flag a car. I stuck out my thumb, watched a few cars go by, and then…

”Are you trying to hitchhike to Reykjavik?”

Wow! I’d been waiting maybe five minutes, and already a ride! “Yes I am!” I replied, and hopped into the back of the car, driven by a very sweet Icelandic couple just returning from a trip to NYC and Paris, where I’d just come from and where I was going. How cool!

As we drove, the couple (I don’t remember the pronunciation of their names so I will call them A and T) told me about Icelandic culture and their thoughts on New York and Paris. They couldn’t get over how many cars honk in both Paris and NYC; as A explained, in NYC the honking seemed like a way to greet fellow drivers and/or just a necessary part of commuting, while in Paris people seemed to honk for no reason. A thought it seemed rude in Paris, and just part of life in NYC. She also told me that in Iceland, honking is extremely rare; if someone honks, everyone stops and immediately thinks “Did I do something wrong?”

As we drove, A and T told me more about Icelandic culture. I learned that in Iceland, the Christmas season begins on December 11th, when the first of thirteen Santas (Yule Lads) visits each Icelandic house. Each of the thirteen has a specific quirk or interest (one is tall and lanky and cannot bend, another loves to eat Skyr – an Icelandic yogurt -, another loves candles, etc.). Each night, a Yule Lad leaves a small gift in each child’s shoe on the windowsill; if children are good they get little gifts, but if they are bad they get…a potato. A and T said the kids always seem to accept the potato as well-deserved if they’ve misbehaved, and many children decide to cook the potato so they don’t waste it. Each Santa also plays tricks; for instance, in A and T’s house the Santa who enjoys Skyr often smears Skyr on the window before leaving.

In addition to the thirteen Santas, Icelandic children learn about the parents of the Santas, mean trolls who enjoy eating children (their mother is an ogress named Grýla), and their cat, simply called the Christmas Cat. Children know that if they misbehave, they might meet the Christmas Cat and the troll parents, so they aim to behave. According to A and T, it really works!

Another Icelandic tradition is Sunlight Pancakes, which happen every year around January 21st, when the sun comes back after the darkest days of the year. On this day, families gather together to cook pancakes and celebrate the return of the sun. My host Marcin (who is Polish, not Icelandic) said that his job gives everyone a half day for Sunlight Pancakes, but another Icelandic local I met, Sveinn, said he had never heard of this tradition. Perhaps it only caught on in certain part of Iceland. 

To my surprise and gratitude, A and T generously decided to drive me all the way to Marcin’s house rather than drop me at a bus stop. I left their car with lots of advice on what to do in Reykjavik and an incredibly kind welcome to the “Land of Fire and Ice.” Icelandic people are so nice!

When I arrived at Marcin’s house, I rang the doorbell and was surprised when a Russian woman answered the door.

“Uhhh…hello. I’m couchsurfing here?”

The woman let me inside and told me no one was home, so I should make myself at home. She showed me what she said was probably going to be my room and then promptly went into her room and closed the door without a word.

For a few minutes I stood in the hallway, confused as to what to do. Was I in the right place? I’d just been in contact with Marcin from the airport…maybe I somehow got the wrong house? After standing dumbly in the hall for a few minutes, I put down my bags, then knocked on the woman’s door again to confirm tat I was in the right place.

“Yes,” she replied. “Marcin, he tell me nothing.”

Alright, well, at least I’d established that this was the right house. I asked her if she had the internet code but I don’t think she understood my question, then apologized and closed her door again. Then I remembered that I’d written down the password Marcin had given me, so I logged on and discovered that I had a message from him: He thought I would have been dropped off in downtown Reykjavik and had gone there to meet me.

Not long after, Marcin arrived and offered a cup of tea and snacks (this would continue to be a trend; Marcin is an extremely generous host when it comes to food and drink). Two other girls staying there that night – couchsurfers from Singapore – soon arrived as well, and we all got to know each other over tea and hummus. The girls had been there a few nights and were departing in the morning.

Marcin is from Poland and rents out rooms on his level of the house (in Iceland, sometimes people can have just a single floor of a multi-story house), plus one room for couchsurfers. Marcin also rents out a vacation home 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik, which I drove with him to visit on a mini tour later that evening, since he had to go clean it. Of course there wasn’t much to see in the dark, but he pointed out where I would be able to see the mountains, the ocean, etc. in the daylight. We stopped on the way to see one of the many thermal pools in Iceland, steaming with hot water and the smell of sulfur, and for a quick tour of downtown Reykjavik (including a quick stop at the Sun Voyager, pictured below). I also met his other roommates: Jacob (pronounced Ya-Kob) another Pole, and Anastasios, from Greece. As I learned from Jacob, after native-born Icelandic people, Poles are the largest ethnic group in Iceland (and this is common worldwide? Jacob said there are more Poles living abroad than in their mother country, with the largest population in Chicago).

That night I didn’t stay up too late; I had arranged to join a carpool with some Canadians the next day and was going to have to wake up at 5 AM to join them (eek!).



Day 2: Downtown Reykjavik, Thermal Swimming Pool

5 AM arrived far too quickly and I begrudgingly woke up to check my messages on couchsurfing…nothing. The Canadians were supposed to land at 4 AM, so maybe they didn’t have service yet? Over the next 45 minutes I continued to check my messages, until finally I got word that they landed late because of a flight delay and were heading to get the rental car. Then they would pick me up around 7:30 AM to head out. When 7:30 arrived I headed downstairs to wait for the pickup, only to receive a message after 40 minutes that they had too much jetlag and were heading to their hotel to sleep. Ummm…darnit? I’d turned down a couple other rideshare options for exploring the area and now it was too late to join another, so I went back to sleep very disappointed with this turn of events.

A couple hours later I woke up and had late breakfast with Marcin, deciding what to do with my day. Marcin suggested renting a car on my own, but gas is extremely expensive in Iceland and this didn’t seem like a sensible option without other travelers. I searched on couchsurfing again, looking for travelers who might want to carpool, and, by chance came across a very enticing event post: A local Icelandic photographer was taking his Jeep off-roading on Saturday to take some photos and he was offering rides to anyone who wanted to come in exchange for gas money. I sent a message, learned that he had one spot left, and suddenly felt much better about being able to explore.

That afternoon I made the most of the half day I had left by going to downtown Reykjjavik to visit the Perlan, a museum A and T had recommended. The museum is about the history of Iceland’s natural wonders (glaciers, volcanoes, ice caves) as well as the animals who inhabit the place and the people who settled there. I really enjoyed this museum (though not as much as Te Papa…that place was awesome). One highlight of the museum is a man-made ice cave replicating the largest ice cave in Iceland. You can only visit ice caves in Iceland with a guide, so this was a nice alternative on my short, budget-friendly trip. My favorite part of the museum however, was the section on climate change and how it affects glaciers. Here are some facts I learned during my visit:

  • Because of the volcanoes beneath, Icelandic glaciers are warm-based, around ten degrees Celsius.
  • Icelandic glaciers have black lines in them, which come from volcano ash. Just like you can use the rings on a tree to figure out its age, you can use the lines inside a glacier ice cave to trace eruptions.
  • The oldest eruption traced is estimated to be 1100 years old.
  • It is estimated that in 150-200 years, glaciers will be completely gone from Iceland because they are now melting faster than they grow.
  • Have you ever wondered why some ice is whiter than others? It’s because of UV radiation. More sun = more UV rays = more white.
  • Glacier lagoons (also very common in Iceland) form from glacier ice that melts and “calves,” breaking off into the water.
  • The temperature of the planet remained consistent for 100s of years until the Industrial Revolution in the 1850s, at which time the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased dramatically.
  • It is estimated that puffins will disappear from the south coast of Iceland to migrate to colder climates by 2020 (however, later when I told this to Sveinn, he said that he has heard differently and doesn’t think this will be the case quite so soon).
  • Shrinking glaciers exert less pressure on the earth’s crust, which will result in more volcanic activity by 2080.
  • There are over 400 glaciers in Iceland, covering about 10% of the country.
  • There are five types of glaciers found in Iceland, such as the cirque glaciers, formed in a bowl-shaped depression on high mountain slopes.
  • Many are located in eastern Iceland.
  • There are many living creatures on glaciers, such as:
    • Water bears: One of the most resilient animals on Earth, which feed on organic debris algae, plant cells, bacteria, and invertebrates.
    • Snow algae: Produce energy that supplies life to other forms such as water bears and glacial fleas. Snow algae grow in the water film of snow grains and their red pigment produces “blood snow.”
    • Glacier mice: Small stones completely covered with moss, typically up to 10 cm in diameter, found on the “snout” of some glaciers.
    • Glacial fleas: Often appear in large groups of dark hopping bodies during the glacial melting season.
    • Viruses: Active viruses can be preserved in ice for hundreds of thousands of years. When the glaciers melt, what will happen to the viruses that might be dormant inside the ice?
  • Glaciers exist in polar regions and in the highest mountains of every continent except Australia.

At the museum I also learned more about the various Christmas creatures A and T had told me about. For instance, the Christmas Cat, whose name is Jolakotturinn, is of Norwegian origin. Here are some photos from the museum: 


After the Perlan I took the free shuttle to the Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall. The building is quite impressive, with five floors for concerts, comedy shows, and other events. I picked up my ticktets for Saturday evening’s concert, a celebration of 100 years of Icelandic independence, and learned that although the concert was free with reservation, no more tickets were available (I reserved mine weeks ago). I also learned that while there was no dress code, I should dress a bit nice because kings and queens would be present! (I didn’t ask from where but I’m assuming Denmark, which used to reign over Iceland).

Next, I walked from the Harpa along the waterfront to Hlemmur Matholl, a food hall I’d read about on another travel blog. I had the impression that you could get free samples of various Icelandic foods before deciding what to buy, but when I arrived I discovered this was not the case. I ordered a nice but pricey vegetable soup with bread and fresh basil and spent a happy evening enjoying my soup and listening to everyone speaking Icelandic around me.

After eating, I walked another 20 minutes to Laugardalslaug, Iceland’s largest thermal swimming pool. Swimming pools are extremely common in Iceland; even in the middle of winter the pools are crowded with people enjoying the steamy water under the open sky. Laugardalslaug is actually made up of multiple swimming pools; I visited the Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool for laps, a large “hot pot” (like a hot tub but larger), another hot pot designed for people to lay down in, and an ice bath to finish my experience. There were four other hot pots I didn’t visit, plus a large area for water volleyball, another with a giant slide, and a huge indoor pool. Amazing!

Here are some facts I learned about Icelandic swimming pools:

  • There are 170 swimming pools in Iceland, the majority of which are heating with geothermal water
  • The oldest pool is Snorralaug in Reykjavik
  • The first hot pot opened in 1962 in Vesturbaejarlaug.
  • Icelandic children begin to learn to swim at age 6.
  • In 2000, each Reykjavik resident went swimming an average of 15 times.
  • A medium pool uses as much hot water annually as 80-100 single family houses.


After the pool I walked back to Marcin’s, and along the way it occurred to me that no one locks up their bikes in Iceland. Without fail, every bike I saw was just lying innocently on the front lawn, or against the fence, or propped up against its owner’s house. If only I could do that in NY!


Day 3: Off-Road Couchsurfing!

The next morning I ate a quick breakfast before Sveinn arrived for our off-road adventure. I met the three other couchsurfers joining: Theresa from Austria, Maruša from Slovenia (working as an au pair in Iceland), and Sridhar from India/US. As we drove we got to know one another and shared information from our cultures. Did you know that in Slovenia there are three Santas? The first is Miklavz (St. Nicholas), who arrives December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day in Catholicism) and brings gifts (he is the only one of the three to bring gifts). Next is Father Christmas on Dec. 24th, followed by Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost) to wrap up the year. I also learned about Bolludagur, a day when Icelandic people eat a special cream-filled bun; if you manage to spank your parents in the morning, they have to buy you a bun!

Amidst the conversation, Sveinn expertly maneuvered the very off-road territory. As we learned, Sveinn is not only extremely knowledgeable about his country and its nature, but also loves to share it with couchsurfers. Almost every weekend since 2014, he has gone out on photography expeditions, taking couchsurfers along to experience the Icelandic countryside. As we forged rivers and drove over rocky terrain I never once questioned my choice to join on this adventure; Sveinn puts safety first and made sure to explain to us every choice he made as we drove, even when he had to get out and check the depth of a river before we crossed it!

Throughout the journey we visited:

  • An unmarked road that had some awesome views
  • Hvitserkur (“White Long Shirt”): A waterfall which shares its name with the nearby “Elephant Rock,” also known as “The Troll of Northwest Iceland.” While I didn’t get to see this petrified troll, the waterfall, which is sometimes mistakenly called Eiriksfoss, was beautiful, with ice cascading down with the water. Sveinn mentioned that not many people visit this waterfall and that there isn’t much information online about it; based on my Google searching for this blog, I see that he’s right!
  • Krauma: The newest manmade hot spring, just one year old.
  • Hraunfossar (“Lava Falls”) and Barnafoss (“Children’s Watefall”): Hraunfossar consists of various creeks and cascades streaming out of petrified lava while nearby at Barnafoss, according to legend, an Icelandic widow lost her two children when they fell off a stone archway and drowned on Christmas Day. According to the story, she destroyed the arch so others would not suffer the same fate.
  • Lambarfoss: Another waterfall, next to the Lamba river. We visited this one as the sun was setting.

I’ll post my photos below, but for some professional photos of each area (and many other parts of Iceland), I recommend following Sveinn on Facebook or Instagram: (shared with his permission).


As the sun set, we decided to take our chances with the somewhat-favorable Northern Lights forecast in the hopes of spotting the dancing green glow. I had to miss the concert in order to chase the lights, but if I went it would have meant causing the whole group to miss the chance to see the lights if we drove back to Reykjavik and, well, I wanted to see the lights too!

We found a spot to wait in Sveinn’s Jeep and jammed out to some music (we discovered that many of us in the car are fans of metal bands like Nightwish and punk rock bands like Rise Against – awesome!). Then..the lights! At first there wasn’t much to see, just some slightly green-tinted cloudlike objects amidst the actual clouds. However, after we drove a bit to try to get a better view, the green became more apparent (as did the wind…holy moly…). At their brightest the Lights weren’t incredibly bright, but we could see them dance, which was pretty cool. Sveinn also set up a long exposure on his camera and then we could really see them…amazing to think that something so green on camera was only dully there with the naked eye. Both Sveinn and Maruša confirmed that sometimes you can see the Lights as vividly as they look on camera with your own eye, but with some cloud cover that night we had to settle for a duller image. Still cool to see! That night I also saw some wild Icelandic horses and discovered that what we call “Cooler Ranch” Doritos in the US are “Cool American” in Iceland. 


After the lights, we all returned to our respective resting places and I told Marcin and his roommates about my adventures while we all shared some wine, a nice end to my Iceland adventure.

Day 4: Departure

The following morning I slept in, knowing I wasn’t going to have time to do much of anything other than go for a quick jog and pack up. I couldn’t hitchhike to the airport so I opted for the public bus (significantly cheaper than the airport shuttle bus). It was a longer ride than the shuttle, but the views along the way were great! I arrived at the airport, went through security, and flew home. Since I was gaining a day as I flew, I flew from darkness into a sunrise, as you can see in these photos: 


This little trip to Iceland felt like a bit of a tease; I saw a tiny bit of the country, but there is certainly more to see. I would like to return in warmer weather, bring more of my own food (food in Iceland is very expensive), and meet up with Sveinn for another adventure. Þakka þér fyrir Sveinn, Marcin, and everyone else I met on this trip – you made my short Icelandic adventure a good one, and I hope I can return to see more of this beautiful country.

Stay tuned for another, less personal entry on general tips for traveling in Iceland on a budget. As always, thanks for reading!


“It’s because you are not a tourist, you are a traveler.”

These are the words my friend Charles said to me, quite matter-of-fact, when I was describing the things I want to do/am doing in Paris, and the things that bother me about fellow visitors I meet, cameras in hand, who stop at each renowned Parisian landmark for five minutes, take their photos, and move on, another check mark added to their touring list. Ugh.

Day 1: Arrival

I am happy to report that my time in Paris has been quite different than the usual foreigner experience, or at least I’d like to think so. Upon arrival at the airport, I found myself a little confused as to where to find the correct bus, so I stopped to ask directions, pulling out my rusty French vocabulary and realizing I’d forgotten quite a bit. To my surprise I was even mixing French with Dutch, a language I’ve been casually studying over the past few months (yes, it’s because of all the Flemish I experienced in NZ, for those who followed by travels there) but which I am by no means close to even beginner-level in, and, even more surprising, mixing French with American Sign Language. Quel dommage!

After locating the correct area, I bought a ticket and eventually boarded a bus traveling toward Bastille, at the heart of Paris, where my friend Solène works. I was arriving midday, so she had kindly suggested I drop my bags with her and explore a bit before she ended work. Solène is one of the couchsurfers I met on the Big Island of Hawaii; for those who followed that adventure, she is the one I met with our other couchsurfing friend Trevor to backpack into Waimanu Valley, then we three proceeded to spend most our time on Big Island traveling together.

I was thrilled to see Solène again, this time in her own city. We said hello and she took my bags to her office while I went off to explore the surrounding area. First, I walked along Roulee Verte Rene-Dumont, an above-ground park quite like the Highline in NYC. I strolled along for quite awhile, stopping to admire the views or catch a wisp of French conversation on the cloudy, brisk November afternoon. Here are some photos from the walk:

Next, I reversed direction and followed Solène’s advice to head to Bastille and the city center. I could have explored, but instead I wanted to soak up more conversation and get some work done (I am once again teaching online while traveling), so I sought out a French cafe. To my disappointment, aside from one expensive cafe, the only one I found was…Starbucks. It seemed so wrong to make my first stop in Paris this American chain, but time was a-wasting, so I ordered a tea (in French, bien sur) and settled in for some grading and eavesdropping.

After some time, I headed back out to meet Solène as she finished work. We stopped to buy a baguette, then rode the Metro to her apartment on the southeast side of Paris. It’s amazing how similar the Paris metro is to that of NY; I found the system to be a slightly smaller, slightly less rushed version of NYC, with tiny differences. For instance, there are folding seats near the doorways so that rush hour patrons can choose to sit or stand depending how much space is needed.

At Solène’s apartment we caught up while preparing a delicious dinner – a hearty vegetable stew baked with cheese on top – and an accompanying apple cake for dessert. I met Solene’s roommate Amèlie and we all enjoyed a nice dinner rich with broken conversation in two languages. Amazing!

Day 2: Jetlag, Catacombs, Circus

The following morning, Solène woke early to go to work and I slept in. The plan was to spend a few hours working online in the morning and then meet my friend Marie-Nöelle for lunch but alas, jetlag had other plans. Imagine my great surprise when I woke to see the hour of 12:10 PM on the clock! Zut!

Having missed my chance for lunch with M-N, I spent the early afternoon working. That night Solène and I planned to attend a class at her circus school, so I knew that by the time I left her apartment I would only have time for one activity before heading to meet her. I chose the Catacombs of Paris, checked the route, and left the apartment.

Or…did I? To add to my series of unfortunate events, I discovered that I did not actually know how to exit Solène’s building. Why wouldn’t the front door open?? Eventually I figured out that there was a button I needed to press, which was hiding in plain sight a couple feet from the door. These buttons would prove to be my enemy over the next couple of days; it took me quite awhile to remember to look for one before attempting to exit any door!

Having finally found my way out the door, I confidently walked to what I thought was the exit but…why won’t this gate open?!?! Once again I found myself baffled; I walked all around the complex attempting to find the exit, wondering what to do if I was indeed stuck (this didn’t worry me too much though; I can always benefit from extra time to work online). To my great relief a woman was exiting Solène’s building just as I was attempting to figure out how to get back inside, so I haltingly asked her how to exit the complex. “Ah, suivez-moi!” She instructed as she walked toward the same gate I had tried. And…she pushed another silver button. Darn these buttons!! “Uhh…et maintenant je cherche le metro,” I said as we exited the complex. The woman kindly showed me the giant M not too far in front of us, and I thanked her profusely before setting off for the train.

Once inside the station, everything was much easier. I am continuously grateful to have so much experience with the NYC subway system; it makes every other system seem like cake. I rode the train confidently to the Catacombs, successfully asked for directions in French at my transfer, exited, and walked in the direction of the sign for the building. I marveled at a long line I saw nearby, wondering what all those people were waiting for, and walked all around the area before realizing that in fact, that line was for the Catacombs! I walked back up and asked the two guys at the back of the line if it was indeed the correct line, and they responded that it was.

Over the next 60 minutes I got to know these two guys, Joakim and Kristian, as well as their friend Sarah, who arrived to meet them just a couple minutes after me. We discovered that we are all couchsurfers; Kristian and Joakim are from Norway, and Sarah was a young French woman who had just moved to Paris this past summer. Joakim, “the snail guy,” as he called himself, was in Paris to sell Norwegian snails and sea urchins. As I learned, the market for snails and sea urchins is suffering right now, and he had to expand his business circle to include not only Normandie, where he normally goes, but also Paris. Joakim explained that the French have been reselling Norwegian snails as “French,” which is hurting the Norwegian market and the pride of Norwegian fishermen. Joakim thinks it’s very important to know the origin of the snails, so he is not happy about what is happening within the business right now.

The hour-long wait flew by as I chatted with my new couchsurfing acquaintances. I learned that Sarah, like myself, had been considering volunteering at La Ferme du Bonheur, where I was headed the following Sunday. Joakim also invited us all to a party he was having at his apartment the following evening. Cool!

Eventually, we entered the catacombs and were able to explore. I had no idea what to expect and at first, just saw hallway after hallway like this:

Cool, but what were we heading to? Finally, we entered an area with a sign that read “L’Empire de la Mort” which translates literally as “The Empire of the Dead.” We all gasped as we entered, coming across walls and walls and walls like this:

As we learned from the signs, and with Sarah’s help translating some of the words, the catacombs consist of thousands of bones from the bodies of French inhabitants who were once buried in one or another cemetery, then dug up and systematically stacked to create the walls of bone that fill the catacombs. I had no idea!

The catacombs are HUGE – after hall after hall after hall of bones, learning bits of history along the way, we ascended back to ground level and left the building, feeling a bit disoriented as we discovered that we were multiple blocks away from where we began. Sadly, it was at this time that I bid adieu to my catacomb buddies. They were off to grab some dinner, while I was off to the circus!

A short train ride later, I arrived at Cirque Electrique, where Solène takes her aerial lessons. We happened to arrive at the same time so she led the way inside, I filled out a form, and we prepared for the lesson. This is a true circus school – the aerial students learn not only how to do tricks on ribbons and hoops, but also real trapezes – while the acrobat students practice handstands, cartwheels, and flips on the mats, all under a giant circus tent. I opted for the acrobatics class, so after extensive group warm-ups together we parted ways and joined with our respective instructors. I was the only English-speaker in the group, but as I discovered, you can absolutely take an acrobatics class without speaking the same language – ça marche!

I loved this experience – I have never been able to do a handstand, yet alone a cartwheel, and through this class I actually improved quite a bit! There were two other beginners that night, so we worked on the basics while the other students flipped all over the place. Meanwhile, just a couple feet to our side the aerial students climbed ropes, ribbons, and displayed daring acts on the trapeze. Trop cool!

Solène and I left the circus very content; it was a great experience and I hope I can learn more when I return to NY. I work at a circus camp for kids in the summer as the music teacher; it will be cool to be able to maybe show off some acrobatics skills when I return to circus camp next year! 🙂

Day 3: Lots of Walking

The following day, I woke earlier (take that, jetlag!) and was able to work a bit in the morning before departing for adventures. First stop: Lunch with Marie-Nöelle!

Unlike everyone else I was to reunite with in Paris this week, Marie-Nöelle is not someone I know from couchsurfing. Instead, she is a fellow vibraphone enthusiast! We met virtually on the incredible vibraphone forum,, and became friendly, since we are two of the few women on the site. Until this moment we had never met in person, but as soon as I arrived at her job I felt as if I was meeting an old friend. Marie-Nöelle works at an institution for the blind and I found her behind the counter selling products. Interestingly, what I thought would be a normal Friday in Paris was anything but; Black Friday is popular in Paris and Marie-Nöelle was extremely busy! She did have time for lunch, so we enjoyed a nice meal at a nearby restaurant (my first meal out in Paris) and I tried a French specialty, chestnut cake.

After lunch, I parted ways with Marie-Nöelle and proceed to walk all around Paris, first visiting Les Invalides, then walking along the Seine River to the Eiffel Tower. I did NOT want to be a tourist when visiting this gorgeous architectural structure, so I found a place to sit and gaze at the structure for the next 45 minutes, soaking in the tiny details, the names of the architects carved into the building, the rust, the angles, etc. I was continuously baffled by the tourists who kept appearing, staying for a couple minutes to snap selfies, barely looking at the building itself, and then moving on. I just don’t understand this…how can you say you’ve really seen a thing if you snap a photo and leave?! I did take some photos as well, but I like to think that because I stayed to observe, my experience was genuine.

When the November chill became too much to handle, I left my perch near the tower and walked along the Seine, planning to walk all the way to Notre Dame. However, the cold got the better of me and I sought the metro. Zut! I took the short trip to Notre Dame and walked around the area, taking in the beautiful, old architectural masterpieces standing guard over the people passing by. Under the glow of the evening streetlights I strolled all around, taking my time to observe each ancient structure. Eventually I made my way to Notre Dame and was immediately disgusted by the huge number of tourists taking a single selfie (or ten) before moving on. Really…how can you appreciate a place in this way?!

Ignoring the sea of selfie enthusiasts I found another perch from which I could sit and stare at the grandeur of this building, thinking about what it might have been like to live during the time it was built; surely I would not have been allowed to enter. In this century however, I could indeed enter, and so I did. Once again I was disgusted by the number of people whose primary goal was to take a photo and leave, hardly even bothering to look around as they made a quick tour of the cathedral, putting hats back on their heads as soon as they passed the security guard who asked them to remove them. I have to say, all of this, combined with the fact that inside Notre Dame there are brightly-lit coin machines for souvenirs as well as a gift shop, was extremely off-putting to me.

I left Notre Dame very disappointed and proceeded to walk through the Latin quarter hoping to find something to lift my spirits. As I walked, I noticed a beautiful church with an open door, so I followed the sounds of an organ and entered into a much less touristy, equally ancient structure. I wandered around a bit and then sat down, choosing to spend half an hour observing the architecture, listening to the organ, and reflecting on my trip and life. Merçi Saint Severin for the beautiful retreat.

I left Saint-Severin feeling much better and continued my stroll, which would eventually lead to a little restaurant where I was meeting Solene and our couchsurfing friend Theresa for dinner and music. As I strolled, a shop caught my eye, and I entered to find walls and walls of board games all in French. Heaven! I spent a happy twenty minutes picking up game after game and reading the instructions in French, tempted to buy everything but knowing I would not. What a fun place to find!

Next, I strolled over to the Pantheon to observe more grand architecture, then continued my journey to meet Solène, Theresa, and her bf. Theresa is a German girl whom Solène and I (and Trevor) traveled with on the Big Island of Hawaii. Theresa arrived the day I was leaving, so ironically we were now getting to spend more time on this night in Paris than we had in Hawaii! She was in town to visit her boyfriend (who she also met in Hawaii, but who lives in Paris), and that night we listened to flamenco music over drinks, then stopped at a tiny quiche shop for dinner. J’adore le quiche!

Day 4: Cité de la Musique

Saturday, my initial plan was to wake up early and catch a train to Normandie to visit two of my couchsurfing friends, Fanny and Nicolas. However, Fanny’s daughter was sick and I didn’t want to cause her any extra stress, so I opted to remain in Paris. I spent the first half of the day working online (I am constantly behind when working online!), then had a lovely homemade lunch that Solène prepared. It was a special au gratin dish that her region is known for, with toasted baguette with goat cheese and honey.

Afterward I said “à plus tard” to Solène for a few days and headed out to visit my friend Charles for the weekend.

I have hosted dozens of couchsurfers over the years, but Charles remains one of my favorites. A jazz accordionist, Charles first came to NYC three years ago when we agreed that he could crash at my place only if we played a house concert together. We met three hours before the concert, jammed on some tunes, and then performed for my friends. A great success! Charles returned again a year and a half ago (with another house concert), and now I was getting to visit him on his home turf. So cool!

Charles lives very close to the Cité de la Musique, so before going to Charles’ apartment I decided to spend the afternoon at the music museum (which is free for music students – hooray!). My goodness…that museum might be my favorite place in Paris. Everywhere I turned, I found myself gasping in amazement at the instruments on display: Stradivarius violins from the 1600s, timpani from various ages that clearly showed the progression of percussive innovations (tuning pegs, the pedal, the transition from animal hide to synthetic drum heads etc.), the very first Moog synthesizer, a ton of instruments invented by Adolphe Sax, a glass harmonica (I’ve never seen one!), a siren from Varese’s personal collection, and even the octobasse, the largest upright bass in the world. Plus, there was a clarinetist performing on the 18th century floor, and I happened to stop by just when he was giving a performance/presentation to a school group. Yay!

Solène once told me that to her, Paris is much different than NYC because of all the centuries of history so present. I understood her point, but I didn’t fully feel it until I was at this museum, seeing instruments from so long ago. I stayed in this museum for three hours, only leaving because the place was closing. What a cool experience – if you are into music history you must visit La Musée de la Musique!

Here are some facts I learned at the museum, followed by photos:

  • The mandolin is traditionall the “favorite” instrument for serenades
  • Adolphe Sax (inventor of not only the saxophone but also many other interesting instruments) was born in Belgium and moved to Paris in 1839 to participate in a competition for the renewal of military music
  • The octobasse, the largest upright bass, is from Quebec (or…there is one in Quebec? I didn’t quite understand everything the security guard told me). You use a footstool to play it.
  • The marimba only became a chromatic instrument at the end of the 19th century.

After the museum I made my way through the rest of “La Villette” to Charles’ apartment, following the series of photos he’d sent to help me find my way through the maze necessary to find his door. It was a joyous greeting when he opened the door, and I think we talked nonstop for the next few hours, cooking/eating dinner and catching up on life.

That evening Charles suggested we go to a nearby jazz club to catch whatever band was playing that night. What a cool place – the club is built in an old railway station, and all the concerts there are free. We entered the building and were immediately inside what clearly had once been a station lobby, now packed with people with beers rather than suitcases in hand, waiting for music rather than trains. The place was extremely crowded and I could hardly see, so Charles suggested we move to the side so I could stand on the window ledge. Bon idée!

From there, as the musicians began to play, I was surprised to see a very familiar instrument on the stage – a vibraphone! Incroyable!!! The band that evening was called Velvet Jungle, and they were amazing! Along with Jim Hart on vibes, there was Daniel Erdmann, who Charles said is one of the drummers in France who has studied African rhythms most extensively (he was playing drums and looping everything – super cool!), Theo Ceccacldi, a violinist who also had a synthesizer so that his violin could produce other sounds (Charles knows him personally and said he has a ton of cool projects), and sax player Cyril Atef. The group’s style can probably be described as fusion jazz, and they certainly rocked that house! After the second set I went up to talk to Jim Hart and we proceeded to have a super geeky vibraphone conversation, talking technicalities, comparing who we knew (the vibes world is small, and sure enough we have mutual connections), etc. He gave me one of his CDs for free and now we are FB friends – next time he is playing in NY I will definitely go to his concert!

Day 5: La Ferme du Bonheur

The next day I visited the special exhibition at Cité de la Musique, all about musical films. This wa odd to attend; when I walked in the first thing I saw was a room dedicated to Singin’ In The Rain, complete with some information on the musical and, oddly, a photo of RadioCity. The rest of the exhibition was similar, with a little information about various American musicals and lots of photos from NYC. I didn’t really enjoy the exhibit, except for a small area where I took a virtual tap dane lesson with Fabien Ruiz, a French tap dancer. I think I was just relieved to find something in French rather than English!

After the exhibit I stopped to watch a short performance about Japanese tea, then caught the metro and made my way toward Nanterre, just outside Paris, where I was volunteering for the afternoon at a place called La Ferme du Bonheur (the Happiness Farm). This farm is really cool – it doubles as an urban farm and an arts venue, featuring music, poetry, and dance performances regularly. I knew I was getting close to the farm when I saw a man herding a bunch of goats on the outskirts of the University of Nanterre campus. What an odd sight!

When I arrived at the farm, I joined a group of people drinking mint tea and listening to a very stereotypical French man speak. To paint the photo, he was tall and lanky, wearing a red turtleneck sweater, a large black beret, and casuallly smoking a cigarette as he spoke. I learmed that he was Roger des Prés, the ower of the farm. I am sad to say I didn’t understand too much of what he said, but I listened with the rest of the group and then followed them all back across part of the university campus to get to the farm fields (for more info on the farm and Roger, click here). We were quite a sight: Around 15 people pushing wheelbarrows, walking alongside the goat herd and one pig named Sylvie. C’était tellement drole. 🙂

When we approached the farm, Roger spoke to us some more about the farm and we saw the various “buildings;” an old green bus that had been converted into a toolshed, a large tent where we could put our bags, a yurt, where WWOOFers and other volunteers slept, and a wooden structure with a firepit inside. Again I didn’t understand everything, but I did understand that we were going to break up into two groups: Team Plant and Team Pig. Team Plant would be planting (naturallly), and Team Pig would be creating a trench and filling it with rocks, to create a sort of pen near where Sylvie eats her food. I joined Team Pig and followed the group to the area, again only half understanding what to do but following the example of those around me.

My time at the farm was great. It felt like Alma, Quebec, where I once participated in a French immmersion program in which no one spoke English. Here, I encountered the same situation; if I didn’t understand something, my work partners described it with other words in French rather than switching to English. This was really great for helping to improve my vocabulary and understanding of the French language. Plus, les caillou (the rocks) at the farm were really interesting, and one of the volunteers even found a fossil!

After we finished working, we all gathered near the fire to share baguette with homemade jam, farm-grown oranges, roasted chestnuts, and of course the delicious mint tea the farm seems to love. At this time I got to know Ilaria, an Italian woman living in Paris who is originally from just outside of Venice. Her parents were visiting for the weekend and they were alll volunteering at the farm that day, meaning that I was not the only non-native francophone in the group. I’m glad I got to meet them and the other people I worked with that day; a great group all around.

When I returned chez Charles that evening we were both tired and decided to forego the jam session we’d planned to go to. Instead, we spent the evening wathing Kirikou, a popular French children’s program (mention this name to any twenty-something adult in France and, as I discovered time and again, they will automatically begin singing the theme song “Kirikou n’est pas grand…”). Kirikou is a really interesting show; it is the story of a tiny but very wise little baby in an African village who is always solving the probems of the villagers and saving them from the evil sorceress who lives nearby. All the voice actors in the show are French Africans and it seems to be an effective portrayal of francophone Africa. I don’t think this show would have been allowed to air in the US, because none of the women in the village wear shirts, but this was totally acceptable for French children’s television. We are a bit behind, perhaps?

It was great to watch this show completely in French, with Charles pausing it to translate things for me along the way. He also insisted we had to sing the theme song every time it came up so I could practice more French. Merçi Charles! 🙂

Day 5: Biking Montmartre

On Monday, Charles and I embarked on a bicycle adventure!!! Charles has a spare bike that had been abandoned near his building, so we got to ride all along the riverside together and up to Montmartre. Along the way we stopped to see a cool barge and the only working drawbridge left in France, then eventually carried our bikes up a million stairs to get to Montmartre. There, we stared at the building for a long time and then went inside, choosing the less-touristy route and taking a long time to walk through the grand church. If you go inside, I think it is most interesting to look up at the ceiling and see the dome, and to imagine how incredible it is that this building form came from someone (or, multiple someones)’s imagination. What is the equivalent of this kind of genuis today? Back then, so much effort and innovation came out of religous movements, but what is the equivalent innovation today? Perhaps technology, and/or science?

After spending a good hour at Montmartre, Charles and I walked down the cobblestone streets past the touristy section to a completlely empty street to reach a small and seemingly rarely-visted museum. La musée de Montmartre is very interesting, and I recommend that anyone interested in escaping tourism and experiencing some of the history and charm of Montmartre stop there. We learned about Le Lapin Agile, the area’s oldest cabaret (and amazngly still open today), where creative types such as Picasso, Modigliano, Jacob, and Carco hung out. Across from the cabaret is the area’s oldest vineyard, opened in 1932. We also learned about the “tragic trio” of artists who lived in the house we were visiting (which is now part of the museum) and of various other artists who called Montmartre home. All in all, the tiny museum was charming and well worth the visit.

After the museum, we biked back to Charles’ place for a late lunch, and then sadly we said goodbye; Charles had a bunch of music-related commitments and I had an invitation from Marie-Nöelle to visit her house in the suburbs of Paris, so our time had sadly come to an end. I’m so happy I got to see Charles, and I look forward to reuniting again when he will be touring with a band in the US in late 2019/early 2020. We seem to have created a tradition of meeting every year and a half, and I hope we keep it up!

Day 5.5 + 6: Suburbs of Paris

Genevieve du Bois, which means Genevieve of the Woods, is an area outside of Paris that was once a great forest (hence the name). Marie-Nöelle picked me up from the train station there and we drove to her little house, situated in a very charming area. Upon opening the front door the first thing I saw in front of me was M-N’s vibraphone, just waiting to be played. That evening I met Florien, M-N’s son and a musician himself, and Bruno, her husband. Together we made and ate pizza and apple tart and had a very interesting conversation, with Florien practicing his English, me answering by practicing my French, and Marie-Nöelle interjecting when the words didn’t quite translate from me to Florien, and translating for Bruno, who only speaks French. Trop cool exchange of language.

After dinner Florien got out his guitar and a keyboard for M-N and we had a little jam session. Ahhhh, how happy I was to get to play a vibraphone in France!

The following morning, Florien “was sick” and stayed home from school so we could continue language and music exchange. That afternoon I was lucky to experience my first (and only) sunny day in France; every other day had been overcast, foggy, or rainy. We took advantage of the weather by having a “faire du tour” of the neighborhood. Marie-Noelle is a history buff and was able to point out a great number of interesting things about each area, but my favorite part was hiking through the woods.

Afterward, we returned chez M-N for lunch, and Florien proudly showed off the motorbike he has been building with his dad in the shed. M-N also shared her rich and well-researched family history with me, which was quite interesting and impressive. Soon after, my short visit in the French suburbs came to a close and I returned to Paris. Merçi Marie-Nöelle and family for welcoming me so generously; I hope we can meet again!

Back in Paris, I met another couchsurfing friend, Nolwenn, for dinner and my first French crêpe. Nolwenn is from Brest, the region in Brittany known for inventing the crêpe, and she is very proud of this fact. When she stayed with me in NY she insisted that we should make crêpes together, and now here in Paris she made sure that my first Parisian crêpe experience was a good one. Sadly our time together was short; I had not known she had moved to Paris when I was planning my trip and our schedules didn’t completely match, but I’m glad we at least got to meet for dinner before I returned chez Solène.

Day 7: Klimt, Architecture, Opera

Wednesday was my final ful day in Paris and, happily, one that Solène had off from work! We got to spend the whole day together, which was so nice. Solène bought some special French treats for breakfast: Pain du raisin and tarte du pomme, plus the usual baguette with butter, jam, and honey. Not much fruit and veggies in the typical French meal!

After breakfast, our adventures began. First stop: Atelier des Lumieres for an interactive exhibit on the work of Gustav Klimt. Remember when I wrote about attending the Leonard Cohen exhibit in Montreal? This was similar, except more focused on art than music. Upon entering, we found ourselves in a huge room full of people, with the art of Klimt (and some others) portrayed on the walls and floor. The exhibit consisted of a 25-minute show which took two years to create, complete with music composed to accompany the virtual, immersive display of art. It’s hard to explain what this looked liked in person, but the images on the floor and walls kept changing. Here are some photos to demonstrate:

Solène and I decided to sit through the whole show twice,once from the floor and once from the balcony, then stayed a little longer to learn more about Klimt and the other artists whose work was included in the exhibition. There was no actual artwork in the building at that time, but nonetheless through the experience I was able to get a sense of what Klimt is known for.

One funny thing: The clock struck noon while we were at the exhibit, and the room almost instantly seemed to empty out. As Solène explained, French people are very serious about taking a pause for lunch, and the lunch hour had arrived!

In a bout of non-Frenchness, Solène and I stayed a little past the lunch rush at the exhibit and sought out an afternoon meal closer to 13:00. When I told Solène that I’d had my first crêpe sucrée, she insisted that I had to have the other kind, crêpe salée (aka gallette) for lunch. As she explained, it is traditional to have la gallette with cider, of which there are two kinds: doux and brut. The only way I can describe this difference is that cidre doux is more like what we traditionally think of as an alcoholic cider in the US, and cidre brut is more like a beer-cider combo. They were both nice, and the gallette was amazing! I don’t have a big sweet tooth, so I tend to prefer the savory things like this over sweet ones, but nonetheless we decided to split a crepe sucre for dessert as a special treat.

Next, we continued our walk to visit all the stops I had not yet seen in Paris. Solène loves architecture, so she made sure we stopped at each beautiful building (some of which are famous, some of which are not) along the way. Here are some photos of the places we stopped:

We also made a special stop at Pierre Herme, which is supposed to have the best and also the most expensive macarons in France. I bought only two to sample: Ispahan, which had a nice combination of rose, lychee, and raspberry, and Caviar Petrosssian, which was supposed to taste like – you guessed it – caviar. I shared the two with Solene and we agreed that both were pretty good (though I continue to not have much of a sweet tooth, so I probably wouldn’t go there again…they were kind of expensive).

We also walked through the LGBTQ area of Paris, which displays its pride a bit differently than NYC. Rather than rainbow flags as the primary display choice, I saw things like this:

Our final stop of the day before heading to Le Theatre à Champs d’Elysees (for an opera Solene’s cousin was dancing in) was a mall near the National Opera of Paris. Solene and I both dislike malls, but this one was unique for having what she said was the best free view of Paris. I think she was correct – from the mall’s roof I could see the Eiffel Tower, the Opera house, Montmartre, and quite a few other landmarks. Definitely worth checking out.

After the mall, Solène and I walked another half hour to get to Champs d’Elysees, passing L’Arc de Triomphe, Le Grand Palais, Le Petit Palais, and other landmarks on the way (passing from the rooster to the donkey 😉 ). This was going to be my first time attending an opera, and I was happy that I could watch the musicians from my seat. The opera was La Traviata and the orchestra conductor was the kind I like to follow best. It was also interesting to see that all the instruments used in the ensemble were old; medieval flutes, horns with extra piping, etc. Most interesting of all however (for me at least) was the timpanist, who must have had at least 12 pairs of mallets he used during the performance, plus many, many, many tuning changes. He was busy all night, and I watched him most of the time. Yes, of course I watched the opera as well, but for me the musicians were the most interesting.

Alas, after the opera Solène, her roommate Amèlie, and I returned to their apartment and wrapped up the day. Solène left for work early in the morning and I packed up and left for my flight, my time in Paris coming to an end. I liked this city, but I found it to be very similar to NYC, and I wasn’t exactly “wowed” by any one thing (with the exception of the music museum). This trip for me was more about soaking up the language and culture and visiting my friends, which I am happy that I got to do. La Ferme du Bonheur and La Musée de Musique were definitely my favorite places, with the Catacombs of Paris and the jazz club I visited with Charles coming in a close second. I chose not to visit the very large museums on this trip because it was such a short stay (and everything is pricey) but I don’t have any regrets; they will be there if I want to see them in the future.

One last story: At the airport I watched a man explode when security wanted to remove the many tins of fois gras he had in his carry-on. Lesson: Avoid fois gras always. 😉

And so, now I’m in Iceland, feeling weird speaking English again. I will write another quick post later with some general tips about being frugal and making the most of your time in Paris, but for now, c’est le fin. Au revoir, et merçi tous mes amies pour les bon expèriences. 🙂