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Monday, August 25, 2014

Flying Solo

Recently one of my previous Broadreach students reminded me of something that I told     her a little over a year ago. She is off to explore Europe on her own for the next month and a half and has started up a blog to cover her solo adventures (http://gracefracher.com/). After reading about her trip, I was so excited for her and had to comment. 



I honestly had forgotten all about that conversation that I had with Grace and her friend, Analee, all those months ago, but as soon as she mentioned it the memories came flying back to me. I had been in Thailand for 10 days on my own scouting out future Broadreach programs and getting ready for my program. I spent time in Chiang Mai and Pai looking for sustainable organic farms and cultural experiences for future trips to participate in. I rode a mo-ped all over those two cities, sampled elephant riding, Thai cooking classes, bamboo rafting, hiking, tribal villages, permaculture centers, stayed on Khao San road in Bangkok, and visited the many majestic temples of Ayutthaya; I had been on planes, trains, and automobiles criss-crossing Northern and Central Thailand. To say the very least, I was on a travel high, and nearly breathless with the whirlwind of all those experiences in such quick succession. I gushed about about the benefits of traveling alone: meeting new people, taking risks, being more open, only worrying about yourself. I am beyond proud of Grace for taking the plunge and leaping out into the world alone. I decided it was time to share this insight with a wider audience. Get out there and travel alone!  

Growing up, my family and I did A LOT of Florida. And, I really mean a lot. It was great to get out of town and enjoy the warm contrast to New York winters, but Florida did not feel exotic or exciting. I had been to the same places in Florida so many times, it felt like being at home, just warm. When my father remarried, he went to Belize for his honey moon with his new wife. The stories and pictures that they returned with blew my mind. Throw in some Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen travel movies and I was convinced it was beyond necessary to get out of the U.S. and see the world. 

In High School, I was desperate to go with my French class on the annual trip to France, but as fate would have it, September 11th brought the cancelation of all international school trips the year it was finally my turn to go. My next chance was Mexico, well kind of - it was Can Cun, for my senior trip. An impressively large group from my graduating class traveled together to Can Cun for gradweek 2003: 7 days of binge drinking and debauchery. This trip should in no way qualify as international travel. But, in my string of irresponsible choices, I hopped off a stage to the dance floor below while barefoot and sliced my foot open on a piece of broken glass. In order to deter infection, a friend and I ventured off the strip on a public bus into Mexico, to a Wal-Mart of all places, for some first aid supplies. The experience was eye-opening - Mexico was a lot more than clubs and all inclusive resorts. Traveling abroad meant a lot more than white sand beaches, aqua waters, and frozen drinks. I wanted to see more, to know more, to really understand how different life was in other places. 

When I started University, I knew very little about what the next 4 years had in store for me, but I knew I would be studying abroad. The summer following my freshman year was filled with University Physics 1 & 2 so I would not fall behind on my core classes while I spent a semester in Australia Sophomore year. I convinced my best friend to sign up with me, and we were on a airplane to Brisbane in January 2005. I was so lucky to have Bridget as a traveling companion. She is patient, and fun, and up for anything. Having a friend gave me someone to live with, someone to commute with, someone to go to the beach with, someone to study with, and someone to party with. It was excellent, and except for the normal girlfriend drama when you are 19, it was pretty easy. My travel bug bite flared up again during my senior year, and Bridget and I signed up for a January intersession course in mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. This trip involved a group of about 20 students from our University, and Bridge and I did make some new friends, but  again I always had a roommate, someone to sit next to on the bus, someone to take photographs with, someone to put sunscreen on my back when I decided to wear it. 


After graduating, I decided I knew what I wanted out of a trip and I was ready to plan a trip alone (well, mostly). I arranged to volunteer at a marine science center in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa for 6 weeks, and I would spend 6 more weeks backpacking the coast from Plett to Jo'burg afterwards. On the way home, I would meet Bridget in London and we would have 10 days to spend in London, Paris, and Amsterdam together. When I got off the plane in Cape Town and made my way to my first backpackers' hostel, it sunk in that I would not have a roommate, nor would I have someone to cook dinner with. The following days would include sightseeing on my own. I may have panicked a little and I definitely felt pretty alone that first night. The next morning at breakfast, I met the hostel owner's daughter. She was a university student in Florida and was visiting her mother with her American boyfriend for the January break. She was very outgoing and invited me to spend the day hiking with her and her boyfriend. I jumped at the chance and got to visit local hiking spots that were not congested with tourists. Would I have done that if I was with my best friend from home? Instincts say no.


Throughout my time in South Africa, I continued to have experiences like this. South Africa is extremely amenable to backpackers and one of the best amenities is the Baz Bus. This bus provides a hop on, hop off service, from door to door of backpacker establishments along the coast and inland. One buys a pass for a period of time, rather than a particular route or distance, and you can travel as much and as far as you wish during that time. On my first Baz Bus ride, a talkative, friendly guy with lots of dreadlocks sat down next to me. He was a South African that worked at a backpackers North from where we were and he was meeting some friends further south. He spent the whole ride telling me all about places I needed to see and insisted that I visit the place where he worked when I passed through. A couple weeks later, I found myself at Tube n' Axe hanging out with my friend from the bus and his friends. I spent 5 days there, jumped the worlds highest commercial bungee jump, went on several jungle hikes, hiked the coast, cliff jumped into the Storms river, and spent evenings drinking with locals in the bar. Another time, I was in a town called Wilderness and met another single female traveler named Maile. We walked along some abandoned railroad tracks on the coast together, enjoyed the views, conversation, and meeting artistic and creepy squatters in an abandoned restaurant built inside a huge cave. Later in my trip, I was walking along the side of a road and Maile drove by, honked her horn and told me to jump in. We had a long lunch together and she did a tarot card reading for me. Years later, I have visited her in California twice and will hopefully be visiting her in Hawaii in the near future. 

The moral of the story is that when you have your bestie, or a family member, or a school group, you have a safety net. You have people who have little choice whether or not they talk to you or spend time with you and vice versa. When you make plans or change plans, you must consult with your tripmates and come to a consensus. Traveling alone gives you the freedom to talk to whoever happens to sit down next to you and to change your plans on a whim. If a person on the bus suggests that you get off at the next stop because he heard a rumor that there is a great waterfall - you are free to jump right off. In addition to the freedom to be spontaneous, you are also free from judgement. You are not traveling with any figurative baggage from home - you do whatever you want and only those you tell will know about it. You do not need to worry if your tripmates are having fun, if they think the trip is as meaningful as you do, if they are secretly counting the hours until they are on a flight home. Traveling alone may me the a selfish choice to make, but I swear it is the best choice you can make. Traveling alone allows you to have the lofty experiences you dream about when you decide you want to travel. 

I realize that for many safety seems like it would be an issue. I promise you, travelers look out for travelers. Foreign countries are not more dangerous than your own, they are just foreign. As humans we have a tendency to fear what is not familiar. But really, when has something been fun and not been at least a little scary in some way? Safety is absolutely not a worthy excuse. Go ahead, fly solo. You will not regret it. 




Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Jaws

I finally watched Jaws for the first time this summer. When I was a child, my mother told me that her brother has not swam in the ocean since first seeing the movie some 30 years ago. As an ocean loving beach bum of a child, I knew that I never wanted to feel frightened of the ocean, so I chose not to watch Jaws while growing up. As an adult, I recognized that the movie fueled much of the terror and hate expressed towards sharks, and chose not to watch the film out of principle. As I was preparing to spend my summer diving with sharks and teaching a group of college students about shark behavior and conservation, I decided it was finally time to see this legendary movie. The conclusion? I really enjoyed the film. I thought it was impressively well made for a film of its age. I enjoyed the parody of the summer town that puts tourism money above people's lives, as I can easily relate this mentality to the Hamptons of New York. I also enjoyed the marine biologist from "the institute" as he embodied so many marine biology stereotypes and it is good to be able to laugh at yourself. In the real world, it seems that it is obvious that a shark will not maliciously target a boat as it did in the movie and the film did not leave me too scared to swim. In the end, I enjoyed the cinematic experience and was left wondering how this film spurred decades of "monster" hunting and relentless shark killing.

I think that people's response to the movie had more to do with marketing than with the actual movie. The film gave fishermen and tour operators excellent material to drum up fears and encourage people to spend their money on tournaments and hunting expeditions. It also provided fodder to fuel natural fears and instill a hatred in humans that would prevent them from speaking out and putting a stop to the barbaric killing. Essentially, I do not blame Jaws for the mindless slaughter of 100's of millions of sharks. I blame people: the people that have done the killing and the people who have encouraged it or have just turned the other way. I think Jaws is an easy target to help us understand why people have been so shortsighted and cruel in their treatment of sharks, but really it is just human nature, and ignorance, to be blamed.

So now it is time for another round of Shark Week. The time of year where millions of Americans cozy up on their couches, with the air conditioning blasting, and chug a beer every time someones says "air jaws." Meanwhile, 5,709 sharks are murdered during each 30 minute segment (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/sharks-killed-per-hour-infographic_n_2965775.html). Every year I try to watch a couple episodes of Shark Week and each time I am disappointed and disgusted. I appreciate that they now include token conservation episodes and will mention conservation statistics, but the overarching mood of the week is fear for fun, with the fitting verbiage and spine tingling suspense music. While sharks are not cuddly kittens, they can and will hurt you if provoked, they do not warrant mindless terror. Sharks need to be respected, but should not be described as toothy killing machines for the purpose of fear mongering. Sharks need to be understood as a natural part of the ocean ecosystem, keeping prey populations in check, just as lions do in African grasslands. Or for an example closer to home, just as wolves and big cats once kept deer populations under control in the North Eastern United States. Has anyone else hit a deer with their vehicle? I have, and it sucks. But rather than cursing the less than genius herbivore, I cursed the humans that systematically removed all their predators. Humans are notoriously bad at learning from their mistakes. What unexpected impacts will the loss of ocean predators have? Let's just say, I hope you like jellyfish (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/40th-anniversary/jellyfish-the-next-king-of-the-sea-679915/?no-ist).

Photo: Hannah Cohen, Broadreach Student 2014
This summer, I can't help but be extra jazzed about the Shark Week phenomenon. I have just returned home from an unforgettable, sharky summer in Fiji teaching some of the brightest, most inspirational students I have met. The course included daily lectures about shark behavior and conservation taught by me, but the real teachers this summer were the sharks themselves. We spent 8 days (spread out over 3 weeks) going on shark dives with Beqa Adventure Divers (http://fijisharkdive.com/) getting to know the majestic bull sharks of Beqa Lagoon. Each day with BAD included two dives. The first sent us down to 100' to observe up to 70 bull sharks feeding on tuna heads reclaimed from the local fish market. After reaching the No Decompression Limit (NDL) of about 15 minutes, 15 more minutes
were spent watching Grey Reef Sharks at 30' feeding on tuna scraps, and then finally ten minutes at 15 feet watching white and black tip reef sharks also feeding on scraps. After a one hour surface interval, it was back down to 60 feet for 30 minutes of bull sharks feeding on tuna heads falling from suspended bins and being hand fed. While watching these feedings, we got to know individual sharks by their markings and behaviors. We recognized patterns and became aware of behaviors to look out for. Getting to spend so much time with these sharks really allowed the students and I to feel as though we had gotten to know these very special sharks. Sometimes the encounters were infused with adrenaline as the sharks became frenzied over the tuna heads, but in general, the whole experience was surprisingly peaceful. The sharks move in such a graceful and rhythmic manner, it is practically hypnotic. One might think that it is impossible to take your eyes off the sharks for fear that they will attack if you look away, but really you can't stop looking at them because they are so beautiful.

White Shark, South Africa
I have always been a shark lover. I think a big part of my love for sharks comes from a natural tendency to vote for the underdog. If everyone else is going to be fearful and hateful towards sharks, it is in my nature to embrace them. I have been on other shark dives (in Honduras), I have encountered sharks naturally (Bahamas), and I have even witnessed Great Whites from a cage in South Africa. Every time
I have an experience like this, my vote of confidence in sharks is reinforced. I know that not everyone has the time or interest to travel and dive with sharks, but I really believe that if more people had the opportunity to see sharks in this way rather than in the sensationalized yellow journalism on Discovery, there would be more outcry against the senseless slaughter of sharks in the global ocean. In recent years, voices have been getting louder and stronger in the defense of sharks, but there is still so much unnecessary killing bloodying the high seas.

As this year's Shark Week goes on, enjoy the entertainment of it. But remember that the goal of Shark Week is entertainment, just as was the goal of the legendary Jaws. Try to keep emotions in check and do not succumb to the fear factor. If you need help, just remember that more people die each year from shaking a vending machine so violently that it tips over and crushes them, than die from shark attacks. If this doesn't make you laugh and help keep things in perspective, I don't know what will.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Memories of Thailand

It is the time of year again when I start preparing for another an adventure of a lifetime. This is now my fourth year teaching summer study abroad courses for Broadreach and every year has brought new challenges, opportunities for growth, exploration, and inspiration. As I get ready to set off with a new group of students to a new and exotic corner of the world, I can't help but reflect on my experiences from last summer. Last summer's Thailand trip was really special in many different ways for me. The trip started with an opportunity to do some scouting for future programs and explore in the northern part of the country. I then went back to Bangkok and took a very slow public train to Ayutthaya to check on the accommodations and activities for my group there. In Ayutthaya, I went on a private boat tour of the major Wats and learned a lot about the history of Thailand. Back in Bangkok, I met my students and set out on an epic experience with some great kids. The program brought us in contact with many interesting people and places and I am quite sure we all learned a fair bit about fish, Thailand, and ourselves. After my students set off for the US, I met up with one of my favorite girls on the planet and I got to see yet another part of the country. Before traveling in Thailand, I had never stepped foot on the Asian Continent. After crisscrossing the country over the course of the summer, I was completely enamored with the country, culture, food, and people.

Since Thailand was my only experience in Asia, I somehow imagined that all Asian countries would be similar in someways. I know that this is absolutely ridiculous, as Asian cultures are extremely varied and diverse, but a little part of my brain expected life in Japan to be similar to life in Thailand. Now that I have lived in Japan for 2 months, I still catch myself comparing it to Thailand all the time, when really Thailand and Japan are as different as Japan and the U.S. Although the comparisons are not warranted, my new home has kept Thailand on my mind all the time. It probably does not help that I have been reading Thai detective novels and some very poignant short stories about life in Thailand. It probably also does not help that I was quite set on teaching in Thailand again this summer, but the Thailand programs were cancelled due to the political unrest.


Since I absolutely cannot get Thailand off my mind, I thought I would revisit my travel journal and share some of my memories. I think the major reason that Thailand has stuck with me in a way unlike any of my other travel destinations is the mystical feeling that pervades everything in the country. In exploring Chiang Mai, my first destination last summer, I was overwhelmed by the abundance temples, or Wats, that seemed to be present on the corner of every intersection. The Wats are like compounds with a main temple, dorms, teaching spaces, and administration buildings all walled in by a high, solid wall and gates that are closed at night.  The variation in style of the Wats is as impressive as their number. Some of the temples are gilded in gold and are so shiny and luminous it is almost painful to look at them in the summer Thailand sun, while others are humble straw thatched buildings, and some are huge stone ruins that were literally built ages ago. Bustling among the buildings and statues of the Wats are men and boys of all ages dressed in flowing, deep orange robes. The monks live at the temples with no possessions. Every morning, they go out into the streets with giant bowls and collect food from whoever is willing to donate. They live completely at the mercy of the people of the community, who also donate the money that is used to build and maintain the Wats. This charitable system works because of the intense superstitious nature of the Thai people; they donate to the Wat whenever they are in need of some good luck.

The Monks were one of the most fascinating part of Thailand. They are so peaceful, calm, and beautiful in their saffron robes. I was obviously insanely curious about their lives, their meditation, their life after monkhood - but it is not easy to talk to Monks. For one, females are not even supposed to walk next to them on the sidewalk. Proper protocol is to step off the curb, so the Monk can pass you without getting too close. One of my favorite experiences was therefore the "Monk Chat." Wat Chedi Luang, one of the biggest in Chiang Mai offers a sit and chat from 1-6pm everyday. During this time, several monks sit out in an open area and you can sit down and ask any questions that you have about Buddhism or being a Monk. The Wat is the location of the Buddhism University, so there are Monks there that visiting from many different Wats around the country. The Monks are studying Buddhism, but are also working on their English. The chat lets them practice their English and allows tourists to gain a better understanding of the religion. The monk I chatted with was very open and outgoing and was eager to answer my questions. I asked what the different shades of orange robes signified and learned that the colors represent the Wats that the Monks come from. I mentioned that I had assumed that the colors were a type of ranking system, like the number of stripes on my husbands shoulder. The Monk smiled and explained that in Buddhism there is no ranking, no castes, everyone is equal and the same. I like this idea, but there is one glaring exception: women are not allowed to be monks. The Monk's answer to this was quite interesting, but I am not sure how widely believed it is: there once were many women monks, but before the temples were built, Monks lived in the forests. Women are not as fast or strong as men, so all the women Monks were eaten by tigers and snakes. Only women Monks can teach other women Monks, so the lack of women Monks precluded any women from becoming monks in the future. I was not totally convinced by this response, but I let it go. An important note is that women can become Monk in other countries; in Chinese Buddhism, for example, women are welcome to ordain.

Fat Buddha
Another great story that the Monk relayed to me had to do with Buddha's appearance. When visiting all the Wats, I saw statues of Buddha in many different positions and I also saw fat Buddhas and skinny Buddhas. I learned that the different positions represented the different meditation positions and that there are prescribed meditation positions for all sorts of things - your birth day of the week (M,T,W,Th, F, S, Sun) is one of the most prominent. The fat and skinny Buddhas came with a rather comical tale. The skinny Buddha was a very, very handsome man, but, in order to be happy and live a pure life, he practiced celibacy. His pleasing appearance impressed the ladies and women were constantly trying to seduce him. In order to remove the temptation and live more peacefully, Buddha ate gluttonously and purposely reached obesity to keep the women at bay. This story might be slightly sexist as well, but it did make me laugh.

Skinny Buddhas in a walking meditation room at a Wat in
Ayutthaya
The superstitions of the Thai people go beyond donating food and supplies to the Buddhist monks and temples. While driving though Thailand, it is impossible to miss the vendors at every single traffic light that weave between the stopped cars to sell beautiful flowers strung together to be hung on rearview windows. When I first saw these vendors, I expected they would be ignored just like the people who walk between cars in NYC and try to wash windshields for a couple dollars. The vendors selling the flowers, however, were definitely not ignored. Practically every time I was in a car, whether taxi or airport transfer van or personal vehicle, the driver reached out the window with some money and then hung the flower garland over their rearview window. Apparently, these garlands grant drivers the necessary luck to survive driving in Thailand. And, driving in Thailand is no joke. While glancing through my journal from last summer, I stumbled upon this quote: "The most overwhelming thing, however, is crossing the road. Drivers do not yield to pedestrians and do not stop at crosswalks. There are no signs to "walk" or "don't walk." One day of walking has told me that I do not want to drive here." I did eventually drive, a motorbike at least, but I never did purchase a flower garland for luck.

Honestly, I could go on and on about Thailand forever. And I will more in the future. As much as I wish I was going back to land of smiles this summer, I am getting really excited about Fiji and teaching a course all about sharks. I am sure Fiji will be magical in its own way, It is just hard to imagine anywhere being as magical as Thailand.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Adventure in search of a good trail



In Albuquerque, one of Jamie's and my favorite things to do was to strap a backpack on Gnasher and head for the hills. It was not difficult to find a place to hike there, just drive towards the mountains, park when you couldn't drive any further, and start walking up. The trails were well marked and easy to find. We spent countless hours trekking around the Sandias and enjoying the views of the city and the surrounding desert. In Georgia, easy access to good hikes was something that we really missed. Now, we are in Okinawa, and beyond excited to start up weekend hikes again - even if Gnasher has to stay on leash to keep him away from habus.

On one of our first weekends here, we decided it was time to look for a good hike. We spent an hour on the internet trying to find information about good hiking trails, but were rather unsuccessful. Okinawa Hai (okinawahai.com) is a great site with tons of useful information. I have used it for finding restaurants and shops, but came up short when looking for a good hike. Most of the entries are very family oriented, so they primarily have information about nature walks that kids can handle. When looking elsewhere on the internets, I found a site that looked awesome at face value, but it turned out that all the hikes listed were in Okinawa prefecture, but not Okinawa the island (http://japanhike.wordpress.com/okinawa/). This site did have good description and photos of hikes on the surrounding islands, so check it out if doing some traveling in the archipelago. Not being able to find any information on good nearby hikes, we decided to drive all the way north to Nago mountain, which did have a small, but informative article on Okinawa Hai. The Northern part of the island is less populated and we thought the hike would be worth the drive. Unfortunately, it was a Japanese holiday and the traffic northward was so bad that we had to turn around after not even making it half way. We were already pretty far North, so we tried to do some last minute iphone searching to find a trail nearby, but had no luck. We turned around, went home, and went to the beach.

After our first hiking fail, we stuck to the beach for a couple weekends. I felt like I won the lottery when a friend of mine sent me this hiking guide, 2008 Okinawa Hiking Guide, that appeared to be exactly what I was looking for. We decided it was time to give hiking on Okinawa another try and I selected the first hike listed: The historical Yamada stone bridge and observatory. We did a little googling to find more information and found a blog (indietravelokinawa.blogspot.jp) that had some pictures from the hike that further inspired us to jump in the car. As we approached the area where the trail head was located, we quickly realized that the directions were outdated and it mattered. After a number of three point turns, we parked somewhere and explored some trails marked in Japanese. It turned out that we had found the trail that we were looking for, but even after finding the trail, the directions still did not make much sense. Regardless, we were appreciative that the guide got us out the door and to the general area for a great afternoon exploring.

We ended up parking partway up the trail and explored downward first to see where the trail started. It is a good thing we did this, as descending brought us to the old stone bridge for which the trail is named. The bridge goes over a stream that emerges from somewhere in the adjacent rock face. The water from the stream makes the jungle there particularly damp, verdant, and odiferous; the air is thick with the scent of tropical flowers and rich dark soil. I kept breathing deeply and enjoying the bouquet of scents throughout the hike, but it was most enjoyable at the stone bridge. After passing the bridge, we continued on down and found the actual trailhead, which was a small turn off directly from 58, with one parking spot. If you are traveling North on 58 from Kadena, the trailhead is on the right just before you reach the Renaissance Ramada. On the way there, there will be an ENEOS gas station on the right, then a stop light, and just afterwards, the pull in for the trail (If you want to park at the trailhead, but the spot is taken, you can park in the Renaissance Beach parking lot and walk south along the sidewalk to the trailhead). At the trailhead there is a large trail map with historical sites marked in English and Japanese. Apparently this trail is part of an an old road that connected the royal family's castle in Naha with all points North. You can follow the trail for a very long way, but there are sections that are along major roadways now.
Shrine at trailhead. This can be seen from 58.
Trail map at trailhead
Stone Bridge, looking down the trail
Stone Bridge, looking up the trail





Japanese home above the Stone Bridge

After our excursion down to the base of the trail, we walked back up to where we had started and began the trek to the top. At the top of the stairs from the stone bridge, there is the cutest little yellow and white Japanese house. The yard and patio were immaculate and their view combined with the solitude of the hillside made me rather envious of their sweet abode. Continuing up past the house, there was an entrance to a cavern with stalactites framing the entrance. Of course Jamie started planning a return visit with ropes and other gear so that he can repel down into the cave. I, for one, was not too disappointed that I had chosen to wear flip flops on this hike and was not well equipped enough to warrant any cave exploring. I am still rather nervous about the creepy-crawly fauna on this island. When Gnasher pooped on the trail, Jamie instructed me to grab an elephant ear type leaf to pick up the poop and throw it into the woods. Only problem was that grabbing the giant leaf required stepping off the trail. I was literally paralyzed with fear as I reached for that leaf and Jamie laughed on in amusement. Luckily, no habus got me that time, but the cave seems even more treacherous than a single step into the brush. Alas, I will likely have to get over my fears since caves are Jamie's favorite.

Just past the cave, the trail split in two. The helpful blue trail markers that assisted us to that point were pointed up a staircase to the left. The trail to the right was marked with pink plastic ties and seemed the road less traveled. Jamie pushed on to the right and we followed a gorge with water running through it for a while before turning upwards on a narrow path of yellow and orange clay. We soon saw mountain biking tracks and as the trail changed shape, it became obvious that this must be the aptly named "la luge" trail mentioned in the hiking guide. Some places along the way were a bit slippery, but the trail was pretty well maintained and not too difficult (on the way up at least). Along the way, we enjoyed spotting many caterpillars and spiders on the foliage and butterflies flying zig-zap patterns in every direction. There were many recognizable swallowtails, but also some new butterflies that I had not seen before. I was particularly smitten with a quite large black and white butterfly that reminded me of a newspaper page, but much prettier.

As we began to reach the top of hill, we could see power lines and a fenced off area with barbed wire. The trail turned up to the left and let us out at a small clearing with some benches, stone markers, and a graffitied cement observatory. From the observatory, there was an impressive panoramic view of both sides of the island including the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Royal Okinawa Golf Course, which was strangely empty. Attached to the rail of the observatory was a beautiful set of painted ceramic tiles that illustrated the view with labels in Japanese. This hike made me much more motivated to work on learning to read. It is so frustrating to not be able to read signs; I now know what it feels like to be illiterate. I have an adult mind and can understand and observe what is going on around me, but I can't read. Being completely illiterate must be the most frustrating and depressing condition. I swear I am going to practice my reading and writing everyday from now on; I even ordered a reading and writing workbook from amazon last night. It should arrive within the next month or so...

Across from the trail we had taken up, there was a giant staircase leading down. I thought this might hook up with the staircase going up that we had chosen against at the beginning of our hike, so we checked it out. Instead, it led down to a rather dilapidated picnic and parking area. We saw some pink tape leading away and down the road, so we followed it to a driveway. It appeared that this driveway was also marked with pink tape, so we kept exploring. The driveway was a dead end with a chain blocking the way into dense forest, but there was also a trail off to the left that was blocked with bundled branches and had a sign that appeared to say "caution" or "no entry." Of course we followed the blocked off trail. We saw a sign that said "to observatory" in chicken scratch on an old piece of ply wood, and soon after we met up with the trail we had followed to the top. Ignoring caution signs had paid off.

After hiking down and hydrating, we drove about a mile North and pulled over at a sandy beach. I did my first real swimming (not wading) and Gnasher PRed for swimming distance. Jamie went swimming, too, but not by choice. After G's impressive swimming at the beach, Jamie thought he was ready for dock jumping and threw the frisbee off the jetty. Gnasher did not chase it, so Jamie was forced to jump in. The water was cool, clear, and refreshing and had me looking forward to summer and all the beach days the future holds. But, honestly, in that moment, I was not really thinking much about the future, but relishing the present. How lucky we are to be on this adventure together.










Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Castles in the sky

View from Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
Welcome area to Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
I have to admit that before moving to Okinawa, I knew very little about the history of the island and its people. I still don't know much, but I am learning more with each adventure. One of the most striking visual reminders of the history of Okinawa are the beautiful castle ruins found on hilltops throughout the island. These castles are relics of the feudal days of the Ryukyu Kingdom before Okinawa was designated a prefecture of Japan. Shuri castle, near the city of Naha in the south end of the island, was the home of ruling family of the Ryukyu kingdom and the center of its government for centuries. This castle was built in the 1300's and although damaged several times throughout history, was most recently demolished in WW2. Shuri castle was rebuilt in 1992 and is now a park and museum (I have not visited this castle yet, but I will soon). The rest of the castles around Okinawa were homes to lords and the seats of local government. The Ryukyu kingdom was first invaded by the Satsuma Domain (now the Kagoshima Prefecture - the island of Kyushu and the island group that stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan) in 1609 and was taken as a tributary state of Japan. As a tributary state, Okinawa continued to be governed by its royal family. In 1879, Okinawa was officially made a prefecture of Japan and ruled by the central government of Japan. Today, the restored Shuri castle and the smaller castle ruins throughout the island have been dedicated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The second enclosure at Nakagusuku Castle.
Okinawa is mostly a very busy, very urban place. The majority of the middle and southern part of the island is coated in cement with many-story apartment buildings everywhere you turn. The castles of Okinawa are separate from the hustle and bustle of the city; they are above and away, and are surrounded by green jungle. It sounds cliche, but visiting the castles really feels like stepping back in time. There is an overwhelming sense of peace and enchantment at the top of the hills encircled by ancient castle walls. I have visited two castle ruins so far, and I have experienced the same sense of calm and peacefulness while wandering along the impressive structures at both sites.

Rocks are perfectly smooth on the outside,
but crudely cut on the inside.
Each side of the wall is separate and
the gap is filled with rubble
The first castle I visited was Nakagusuku Castle (gusuku means castle in the Okinawan dialect), which is just north of Camp Foster. This castle is the best preserved of all the ruins on the island and was quite expansive. Because it is large and well preserved, it is one of the most visited, and requires a 400 yen fee to enter the ground. The ruins consist of 3 large enclosures, each a little higher than the one before it, and 3 small enclosures along the side of the main structure. The enclosures are essentially large courtyards surrounded by massive stone walls that organically rise up from the cliff sides. The walls were created by piecing together giant limestone bricks. The bricks are not held together with any sort of mortor or cement, they just fit together perfectly. In one enclosure (technically the 3rd, but the first you reach from the visitor's center), the bricks are hexagonal and the wall looks like a turtle shell or a soccer ball. The face of the wall is perfectly smooth without any gaps, which is so impressive considering the walls were built in the 1300's without modern machinery. It is obvious that a lot of time, energy, and attention to detail went into perfectly shaping and stacking the rocks, but it is still hard to imagine how exactly people were able to complete such a formidable project.
Nakagusuku castle walls
Old foundation of palace at Katsuren.
Sacred cave site at Katsuren. Cement box with sand for incense.
It is fun, however, to imagine what the castles looked like in their glory days. Inside the walls, there were once houses and offices. These structures were built of more temporary materials, and have been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history. Nakagusuku was the home of the city offices until WW2 when the buildings were destroyed for the last time. I was obviously not alive during WW2, so that may be one reason that I did not know about the battle of Okinawa. But, I also feel like I received a very European centered education. I have read countless books and seen many movies about World War Two in Europe, but I know much less about the war in the Asian arena. In Okinawa, the effects of World War Two can been seen everywhere. Besides the fact that that war was the impetus for U.S. military bases dominating the island, there was also a huge loss of life and property and the landscape and appearance of the island was forever changed.

Informative plaque about baby skeletons.
Another interesting feature of the castles are the "sacred places." Throughout the structures, there are many seemingly random piles of rocks, or group of bushes, or just a tree that is labeled "sacred place." The south enclosure of Nakagasuku is called holy ground and has 3 sacred places or places of worship. People still come to pray at these sacred places. I am a bit unsure about how and why a place is designated as sacred and do not know the rituals that surround praying and worshiping at a sacred place. I do know, however, that if there is a sacred place in Okinawa, it seems right that it would be in the castle ruins. It has to do with that sense of calm and enchantment that I mentioned earlier, it just feels right that the castle ruins would be a place to come to be quiet and pray or meditate.

I visited Katsuren castle about a week after visiting Nakagusuku. Katsuren is located in a quieter part of the island - on the Yokatsu peninsula, on the way to White Beach. The castle, and the hill it is built on, are smaller and less grand than Nakagusuku, but the structure fits in perfectly with its surroundings. If the two castles switched places, they would be less beautiful. Katsuren is built in much the same style as Nakagusuku, with limestone walls making up 3 main enclosures, each being a little higher and a little smaller. There are many sacred places at Katsuren as well, and some especially interesting archaeology finds. Near the interior wall of the third enclosure (largest, and lowest- the first one you enter), there are many infant skeletons buried in the fetal position facing the wall. Anthropologists are not sure what to make of this find, but it is certainly interesting and a bit creepy.

View of Katsuren as you approach from below.
Katsuren was a bit less impressive, and took less time to explore, but is special in its own ways. This castle does not have a welcome center and there is no fee to visit. When visiting, one kind of feels as though they discovered a secret, enchanted space - even if there are other visitors. Between the baby skeletons and a sacred cave, Katsuren is well worth the visit.

View from midlevel Kasuren. 







View of the first enclose, from the third enclosure of Katsuren.
Farms surrounding Katsuren. 

Me at the base of Katsuren. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Moving on... down

Jamie and I moved into the apartment that will be our home for at least the next year this past weekend. Are we excited? Well we are happy to be a little more settled and to have more space, but, once again, the Air Force kind of screwed us. On base vs. off base housing has been a major point of contention between me and the Air Force since Jamie and I got married. The AF, being quite infatuated with rules, has a plethora of rules about where you can live and when. For instance, while you are in training, you must live on base, regardless of age, rank, behavioral record, or preference. This rule got us while we were living in Albuquerque. Jamie's career field has an abnormally long training period. While most new airmen have a training period of 3-6 months, the pararescue pipeline is about 2 years long. And that is if you go straight through, it can be even longer if you get set back or are injured. So, when Jamie and I got married and wanted to move in together, we were only allowed to live on base, despite Jamie having been in the Air Force for 9 months.

Living on base in Albuquerque was not actually terrible. Kirtland AFB is a large base, but most of the area is just fenced off desert. The part of base where people live and work is pretty compact and the housing is quite near the gates. Sure, it would have been great to have a cute little one bedroom with a yard (and chickens!) in the Nob Hill area so we could walk to bars, restaurants, breweries, and The Guild. But, the base really wasn't that far away from things. Everything was close enough that I used a bicycle as my only means of transportation for a whole month after selling our car. So, while I grumbled about our lack of choice, the situation wasn't that bad, and soon Jamie would graduate from training and the Air Force could never tell us where to live again. 

Just kidding. It is true that we were free to live wherever we wanted while we were stationed in Georgia. I think we made the most of it, too. But, the exception to the rule is overseas assignments. Overseas, The Air Force can force anyone to live on base. It seems there is some sort of agreement with the private company that builds and maintains the on base housing that the government guarantees that the housing will be occupied. If not enough people actually want to live on base, then the Air Force will take away your choice.  For us, base housing must be 98% full to receive permission to live off base. We arrived at a busy time and a lot of people were moving on base, so we were hopeful. When Jamie went to the housing briefing, we found out that Kadena, our new base, was in fact above 98% occupancy, but there was a new rule. Now, in order to be allowed to live off base, Kadena and its sister base a couple miles a away must both be at 98% occupancy. The sister base was not at 98%. We were told that we would not be allowed to live off base and that we might even be offered housing at the nearby sister base so that we wouldn't even be living on the base where Jamie was working! Ironically, this new rule is called the "live where you work policy."

Jamie is required to be on alert in case any training flights go awry, and therefore really does need to live near his squadron. The commander signed a letter saying that we should not live on another base, but it wasn't enough to be permitted to be live off base. Eventually, the housing office offered us two potential places to live. Technically, we could have refused these places, but if we did, we would not be offered housing again for 3 months and would not receive money for housing during that time. The kicker to the whole situation? The housing office is not required to offer us pet friendly housing and being offered a place where pets are not allowed is not an accepted reason to turn down housing. We could have been shown two places where Gnasher was not allowed to live. Our choices would have been to give up Gnasher (who we just flew across the globe), or to wait three more months and pay out of pocket for housing in the meantime. Luckily (everything is relative), the housing office showed us one apartment that Gnasher was not allowed to live in and one apartment where Gnasher was allowed to live. So we weren't totally screwed, but we really didn't get to make any choices about where we would be living. 

Our apartment is in a multiplex (2 upstairs apartments and 2 downstairs apartments) in the back corner of the base. We are about a 10 minute drive to Jamie's work and maybe 15 minutes to get off base and go to the beach. Needless to say, that was a bit of a shock after living walking distance to the water for almost a month. While we were living in the off base hotel, we could walk to the grocery store, a convenience store, more restaurants than I can count, the yoga studio, and the ocean. Now, we can't walk anywhere, except around the giant military neighborhood we are living in. There are some positives, our kitchen is pretty sizable. We have a lot of counter and cabinet space, and a dishwasher - all things that are not found in apartments off base. There is also some green space around the apartment, so we can throw the frisbee for Gnash without walking to a park. But really, who minds walking to a park? 

Essentially, I think it is unfair to ask military families to give up as much as they do and then take away basic freedoms like choosing where to live. Especially since these rules are not in place to keep us safe or aid us in any way, but rather to ensure a private contractor keeps raking in the doe. Jamie and I were pretty excited about receiving orders to move to Okinawa, but not everyone is stoked about living on an island in the Pacific ocean half way across the globe from everyone they know and care about. It is a sacrifice in many ways to ask us to move everything we own to another country. I think the least the government can do is allow us to live where we want so we can make the most of the move and enjoy our time overseas. We will still try to make the most of living here, but having to drive everywhere is definitely a drag. The worst part: I can see off base from my kitchen window like a forbidden fruit shining in the sun. But to get there, I have to drive through my giant neighborhood and go through a gate. It is absurd. 

When the sun comes out I will add some pictures of the apartment and the neighborhood. I know you are on the edge of your seats...

Kitchen

Kitchen Window

Back Bedroom

ONLY bathroom!

Living Room

Back doors

Laundry

Foyer Area

"Backyard"

Office

Front yard

We are apartment B

View from the front yard

Monday, May 5, 2014

From limbo to paradise... and beyond!

Life is always a wild and crazy ride, but the last year has been an extra strange one. Jamie left Albuquerque in April of 2013 and started setting up our new life in Valdosta, Georgia. He found the perfect house for us, after extensive house hunting, and made an offer to buy it. I arrived a month later with the moving van, ready (but not enthusiastic) to start settling in. After two weeks on a friends couch, we closed on our house and moved in. One week later, we received a rip (sp?) to be reassigned to Okinawa, Japan in about a years time. It was very much out of the ordinary to be reassigned so quickly after moving to a new base and to have a whole years notice before the reassignment. This rip put me in an interesting situation. I was very skeptical of the reassignment as a lot can happen in a year; I really had no idea whether we would actually be moving in a year, but it was certainly a possibility.

To be frank, I really wanted the move to turn out to be real. I was not impressed with Valdosta as a town or geographical location. I wanted the move so badly, I hesitated letting myself be excited about it in fear of the let down that would come if it was cancelled. And so I spent the year trying to settle into life in Georgia, knowing that I may move soon, but I may not. I mostly tried to grasp every opportunity possible without letting the possible move hold me back, but it was always there in the back of mind. Also, there was limited opportunity in Georgia. I found an amazing yoga community and taught marine biology at the community college, but there was no chance of going back to school or participating in research. Jamie and I held back on doing any major home improvements or landscaping projects because we could be moving soon. Essentially, I was in a kind of strange limbo. I might not move, so I should try to fit in, get settled, make friends, but I might not move so it could end up not mattering very much at all. In military life, you are always going to move at some point, but 9 months in one place is pretty temporary. It was a very strange, uncomfortable time.

Now that the move has turned out to be real, I am writing from a temporary living facility (TLF) in Okinawa, Japan. That perfect house that we purchased is sitting empty and lonely in Valdosta. I feel like I am floating around with no schedule, routine, or home base, but I have years ahead of me to settle in and feel at home. Since I will be living in once place for a while, I feel obligated to get to work on finding something meaningful and fulfilling to participate in. My number one priority is to go back to school to complete a doctoral degree. My life goal is to be research professor as a university. I have had great teachers in college, but I have also had many terrible ones. I want to be a great teacher at the college level and motivate and inspire young people to enter the field of science. I hope to mentor and support graduate students so that they can become successful research scientists, but also great teachers. I hope to stay true to the dream of great teaching in college instead of getting caught up in the rat race that university research can become. If I am accepted to the programs I have applied to, I will continue to share about my teaching and learning here on this blog.

In addition to going back to school and reaching for my big dreams, I want to fully appreciate and enjoy living in a foreign country and a beautiful subtropical island. The reefs here are very pretty with lots of soft and hard coral. Some sites are very fishy and others have amazing invertebrate spotting. I have only been on 3 dives and I have already seen this - there must be so much more to see. There are farms, mountains, museums, waterfalls, ruins, castles, caves, and many, many restaurants. I want to explore every corner of this island, leaving no stone un turned. I want to interact with locals, work on my Japanese, participate in the culture. And, I want to write about it all right here.

This entry is a bit of a catch up on what has been happening since I have been off the grid for sometime, but also a recommitment. I am on a serious adventure, in so many different ways, and I plan on documenting and sharing the details. Stay tuned!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Traditional v. Online Learning

As the online learning phenomenon has been taking over the educational system in the U.S. during the last decade, I had managed to remain mostly indifferent to the movement. I didn't think that I would ever want to take an online class, and I doubted that you can achieve the same level of education through an online course as through a classroom course, but I was not vehemently opposed to the movement. That was until many of my middle school students started choosing online high schools instead of the real thing. At that point, I began to feel a little angry; I was beginning to understand that all these online schooling options might really be about making money rather than what is best for the student, as online high schools are now getting state funding put aside for charter schools. Online classes can be great for adults with full time jobs trying to achieve a master's degree, but an online bachelor's is questionable, and high school online sounds like it would be downright detrimental to the student. School is about so much more than just memorizing content, writing a paper, and taking a test. School is about interacting with your peers and your teachers, discussing topics, going deeper, and learning from each other. And on the non academic front, school is about meeting people that are different from you, learning about other cultures, and trying out sports and clubs and extracurricular activities. The idea of high school consisting of a couple hours at your computer each day seems so sad to me.

I strongly encouraged my middle school students to talk with their parents and try to find an actual school that they could attend. I was mostly unsuccessful, though, and many of my students went on to stay home and complete coursework online. These students would come back and visit and gloat about the fact that they didn't have to go to school, and my heart would break for them. I continued to speak out against online high school, but I realized that having never taken an online class, I was at a disadvantage in my arguments. I know all the benefits of traditional schooling, having attended a traditional high school, college, and graduate school, but every single class I have taken has been in a classroom with other students and a real, live teacher. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I enrolled in an online class. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) hosts online graduate courses in climate and ocean science for teachers. The goal is to better educate teachers in the sciences so that they are better able to share information with students and other teachers at their school. Any educator can participate in these pass/fail courses and receive 3 graduate credit hours from the State University of New York at Brockport. My degree is in marine and atmospheric science, but really I haven't taken a single atmospheric course; this opportunity would allow me to strengthen my anti-online learning standpoint (I swear I entered this experiment with an unbiased mind), and bolster my atmospheric knowledge at the same time.

My AMS course started in September with a "gomeeting" with the course instructors and the students. The technology worked fairly well, and I was able to have all my questions answered regarding assignments and sign-ins for information access. There would be two more of these online meetings in the middle and at the end of the semester. Aside from the meetings, there were weekly assignments that were submitted to two mentors by email, who responded with corrections and feedback. The assignments were fairly simple and straight forward. I read one chapter per week from the course text book and there were review questions that went along with the reading. The questions were really just to prove that you had read the assigned pages, however, as they were simple multiple choice questions. The most interesting assignment were the "investigations." These consisted of visiting specific websites to access data sets from different governmental agencies and then answering simple questions about the data. The questions were never difficult, but this did expose me to new sources of information that I do hope to use in the future. Lastly, there was a "current climate studies" assignment that required linking to recent governmental climate publications, finding specific information in the publication, and again answering easy multiple choice questions. At the end of the course we were also required to informally propose a project that would make use of what we had learned in the course.

I feel that the AMS course had a lot of potential; I did complete all assignments and enjoyed most of them, but I do not feel I know much more about atmospheric science now than I did before the course. I think this is because of several factors, but mostly because of the lack of lecture. I am a person that can read from a textbook and teach myself material well enough to pass tests and write papers, but the information does not stick long term unless someone makes it interesting in a personal way. Having a professor relay personal stories and experiences turns academic material into an entertaining experience that lends itself to being stored in my brain into the furture. Reading a textbook just does not have this effect on me. Also, the type of questions in the course did not stimulate thought and critical thinking, they were solely a tool for the instructors to know whether or not the reading had been done, not how thoroughly I had understood what I had read. The email feedback was helpful, and whenever I had a question, my mentor was willing to spend time answering it, but again email is just so impersonal. At the end of it, I did not feel like I had learned at a graduate level and I was left even more disillusioned with the idea of online learning.

In an ironic twist, I am now teaching a "blended" online and classroom course in marine biology at the local community college. I went into this teaching experience extremely optimistic about what I would accomplish during lecture and the types of deep, stimulating conversations that would take place on the message boards regarding conservation issues and policy. My optimism was quickly dissolved and replaced with realism. The course is a five credit course with three credits being considered classroom and two credits being considered online learning. This means that students are meant to do a significant amount of independent learning and complete weekly online assignments. I assigned videos available on PBS.org about ocean conservation in conjunction with several related current events articles each week and wrote a detailed prompt to initiate a hearty discussion on the message board. I clearly detailed what was expected in their initial responses to the videos and news articles and required that they respond to at least 2 other students' responses agreeing or disagreeing with their viewpoint and defending their position. The response to these assignments was a lot of grumbling, complaining, low participation, and pathetic effort. My hopes and dreams of a robust conversation pertaining to relevant, current issues were dashed. I think I can fairly say that the online portion of the class I am teaching has been a fail.

As I interact with more and more young people, I have noticed that many of my students are great in class, but really don't want to put in much time outside of class. They love technology, but really enjoy using technology for fun, fleeting endeavors, not prolonged or challenging efforts. Technology has made life much more convenient, everything is available with a finger swipe, but actually spending time to read a whole article is not convenient and does not hold their attention. Doing homework, reading, writing, and having academic conversations through technology seems to be the antithesis of how students expect to use their devices. I don't think that it is impossible to have a quality online learning program, but I don't think that online is the right platform for high school and I really believe that undergraduate and graduate students are missing out and getting a lower quality of education when they take online classes instead of traditional courses. I am nervous that the online learning movement will continue to push forward and the next generation is going to be even lazier and less knowledgeable than the current one.

What have your online experiences been like? What do you think the world would be like without actual schools? I am curious if others have had better experiences and have different points of view.