Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pictures from Costa Rica Carbon Offsetting

When I was in Costa Rica for the CREST Traveler's Philanthropy Conference which I wrote about last week I had the chance to plant trees to offset carbon from my trip through Climate Action Alliance and Costa Rica Conservation Association. Though carbon offsetting doesn't solve the fossil fuel issues we have, it helps us to understand the impact that we have when we use them. Plus it was fun. Here are some pictures! 

Me, David Krantz and Catherine Ardagh of CREST

Monday, July 25, 2011

Highlights from Costa Rica

I attended the CREST Travelers' Philanthropy conference in Monteverde, Costa Rica this past week on behalf of my client Elevate Destinations to present on our volunteer trips in Haiti and the Gulf.

Here are some highlights:

1) Monteverde, Costa Rica - The setting alone was magnificent. Known for the Cloud Forest Reserve - Monteverde feels truly magical. The winding mostly dirt/rock road you take to reach it makes it even more mystical. I tried to walk as much as possible between session to take it in.

Seriously. Check it out. 

2) Offsetting my carbon! One of the conference outings offered the opportunity to plant trees to help offset the carbon from flying in to Costa Rica. It was great to get out of the conference hall and into the reserve to get my hands dirty and help contribute to the amazing efforts that are being done by Costa Rica to become one of the first carbon neutral countries. Climate Action Alliance and Costa Rica Conservation Association facilitated the opportunity

3) Pushing the envelope around travel, volunteering and donors. Coming together with a group of likeminded people that are doing their best to make a difference is not always just pats on the back and congratulations all around. People don't always agree with a method or a perspective or they've tried something and it hasn't worked. It was refreshing to see people admit failures or bumps.  In the end this is a great thing - it helps each of us to look around, strive to look at things a different way and push to do better. (More on this in another post). 

4) Simbiosis by Manuel Obregon. Manuel Obregon is a famous Costa Rican composer and now the minister of Culture for Costa Rica. 12 years ago he took a piano out into the forest for 3 days and recorded Simbiosis using the sounds of the forest and his piano to create  a synergistic composition. I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hearing and watching this amazing presentation live the last day of the conference. Wow. 

5) Meeting awesome people. 
To name a few: 

Chris Blackwell - though we only spoke for a minute or so - this was my starstruck moment of the conference. This guy is pretty inspiring. We all know him for Island Records - but his work in Jamaica is really amazing. Most island hotels ship in food from abroad - Chris is working on an organic agriculture program in Jamaica to support the local economy and grow food locally. 

Kevin Salwen - I got the chance to talk extensively with Kevin - since we shared a 4 1/2 hour bus ride sitting near each other. Kevin wrote The Power of Half about how he and his family decided to cut their "stuff" down by half and give half to charity. Not only is it an inspiring story- Kevin "gets it" in a way most don't. His family regularly visits Uganda and has created a genuine connection there. This is his book - looking forward to reading it. 

Soledad Naranjo - our amazing partner in Costa Rica for eco-tourism. She is truly one of the nicest and smartest women you will ever meet. 

Richard Edwards of Planeterra and GAP Adventures. He moderated my panel on voluntourism and has some great thoughts on the subject. Wish we could have had him as a panelist too to hear more. Follow him on Twitter

Marco Bollinger and Eytan Elterman, fellow bicultural travel junkies and founders of IseeItravel who are forging the way in utilizing video, photography and social media in enhancing the authentic travel experience. Thank (or blame) them for getting me to focus on blogging again as a main component of my social media strategy! Enjoy filming your documentary in Osa guys!


One thing I'd like to see in the future from conferences like this - more from the "beneficiary" viewpoint. The questions this conference kept bringing up for me was - how is power maintained for those who are "receiving" donations and support? How can we contribute to philanthropy that supports a balance of power between the "investor" and the "investee"? This was addressed to a certain extent - but I think it is important to continue to explore the solidarity component of philanthropy and travel. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Guest Blog on Scoping out the Gulf

I  was in the Gulf South this October doing research to design a volunteer program for oil spill cleanup efforts for my client Elevate Destinations. Check out the guest blog I provided for them on the experience:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Education, a mental revolution and the people working towards their advancement

Wednesday David and I had the opportunity met with one of the mayors of the city of Jacmel (there are 3). We met him at a building across from the city hall, which we could see from cracks on the fa├žade had been damaged by the earthquake. He explained to us that many of the public offices had been affected and people were working from ill-equipped buildings, and some under tarps outside.

I asked the same question I asked everyone I came into contact with in Haiti. What would you like to see happen in this country in the next 10 years?

His answer matched the beliefs of many people I talked to: a mental revolution - of the leadership and the population. He felt it was happening, that leadership was focusing more on improving the situation of the people and that people were moving towards empowering themselves and working together at a community level to seek out opportunities.

He also said education was the most important change that was needed to make this happen, something I heard from each and every person we met with. Roughly 50% of school-age children between 2003 and 2008 attended primary school, according to UNESCO. People without access to basic education are left out of decision-making processes and opportunities for employment. It has created a downward spiral that has made finding a livelihood and opportunities in Haiti difficult since long before the earthquake.

After our meeting, Maya, the director of advancement for St. Joseph’s, who was also helping us with translation during meetings and guiding us around Jacmel, showed us the building he had been in 5 minutes before the quake - an obviously beautiful hotel where he had been with a group of visitors. When the quake happened he was walking on the street, the earth rumbled, he had no idea what it was and he grabbed onto a tree. The tree began to shake, and he threw himself to the floor and emerged unscathed.

After showing us the remains of the rooms that he and the visitors had escaped by minutes, Maya also told us his life story. Maya had been a child slave. At age 6 his parents gave him over to his grandmother, who died a short while later. After her death, his aunt took him in. He was made to do the work for the entire household, he was beaten and abused until one day he ran away – preferring to live on the streets, begging and stealing for food. He was on the streets for 6 months, until he was put into a detention center where street children were held. Michael, the founder of St. Josephs, found him there one day and was able to take him in. At the age of 13 Maya experienced his very first day of school. He was cared for, loved and fed for the first time. He now supports the parents that abandoned him and has a family of his own, who he cares for in addition to the kids at the St. Joseph’s Family schools.

Maya and myself in a meeting in Jacmel

Maya’s goal is for St. Joseph’s kids and other Haitian children is to help them develop skills so that they can have an occupation and empower themselves. He is working with St. Joseph’s to further develop their programming in education and leadership. He wants to be able to make it easier for the children of Haiti to achieve the education and "mental revolution" he was privileged to obtain.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Road to Trinity House, Jacmel

After a restful night at the Oloffson, we started out bright and early on our way to Jacmel, a seaside town 3 hours from Port-au-Prince. What a journey. It began with uneven roads through markets where merchants sold wares surrounded by sewage and garbage. Once we passed through these areas, clearly screaming out for sanitation and aid (which coincidentally are areas where aid workers are not allowed to go!) we were on a straightaway to Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake. 90% of Leogane is said to be completely destroyed, which from the look of things, appears to be accurate. Most of the properties we passed were decimated or appeared structurally unstable and a multitude of tent cities and bedsheet cities (which pop up when tents are not provided) dotted the area. After Leogane it was on to the mountains, a windy road rivaling the one to Yungas (in Bolivia and considered the second most dangerous road in the world).

The horn serves a completely different purpose than it does in the US. Beeping basically means, I'm coming around a turn and will ram into you unless you steer clear. This signal is for anyone coming - animal, pedestrian or automobile. Pretty exciting. I spent my time trying to let go and take in the amazingly beautiful countryside. Every now and then we encountered UN vehicles clearing up landslides and government crews clearing rubble from the roads.

We arrived at the Trinity House (a St. Josephs' home) completely overstimulated in every sense by the incessant beeping of passing vehicles, the heat and continuously bumpy in the road, the colorful landscape and people, the smell of the ripest fruit and roadside cooking fires and spices, and the taste of bile rising in the throat every once in while on a particularly windy stretch.

It feels like we have been here for weeks, we have learned so much and taken so much in. This country is truly amazing. More tomorrow about meetings with the people on the ground.

Bon nui!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 2: Port-au-Prince

Tuesday started out frustrating. I wasn’t able to connect with some of the non-profits I had scheduled to meet with and ended up at St. Joseph’s for most of the day frantically searching the web for contact information while the demolition team banged away next door. It also gave me some time to chill with the kids. We played the piano, I was able to teach them heart and soul solo, and they blew me away with their musical skills.

St. Joseph’s takes in boys that are orphans or restaveks  - child slaves. When parents don’t have enough money to afford their kids, sometimes they give them to a relative or other person in exchange for their housing and schooling. The good intentions for their children often result badly and many children end up abused, working for hours, with no schooling and with scraps as food. St. Joseph’s takes them in and has created a family for them. Their goal is to make the kids feel loved, special and cared for, and as part of  a family. They do not do adoptions and the boys live there until they are 21. The boys are amazing, full of typical teen and pre-teen personality.  They are currently sleeping in a tent on the open air patio on the second floor of the house. Like many Haitians, they are scared to sleep indoors for fear of another quake. Understandable - I admit to sleeping uneasily, especially since feeling the 4.4 tremor on Monday firsthand.

Later on Tuesday we got a tour of the downtown which was the hardest hit area of Port-au-Prince. It felt like a scene from the movie Independence Day - especially the devastated Presidential Palace – like an alien battleship had just blasted it away. The area is as crowded as any part of the world I’ve ever seen. It feels as though everyone is coming out at once from a packed concert, everyone with business to do and people to see.  

When we arrived at our destination, The Oloffson Hotel, it felt like an oasis. Our room ended up being a gorgeous suite with a large balcony with a four-posted bed covered with sheets of elegantly draped netting for sleeping outside.  The hotel has an air of grandeur. It feels like you are transported back in time to the mid 20th century when famous artists, actors and writers regularly jet-setted (boat-setted?) to Haiti. We had the pleasure of sitting and talking with the owner, Richard Morse for almost 4 hours over dinner and drinks. A fascinating time during which we were enchanted by Richards stories of 25 years in an ever-changing Haiti.

They say Haiti is the land of contradictions, and we experienced that entirely. From St. Joseph’s hope, to the downtown’s destruction to the Oloffson’s history and grandeur, Haiti is nothing if not a lesson in contrast.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Port-Au-Prince - Day 1

The transition into a developing country airport is generally an experience in itself. Watching the chaos of porters scrambling for a gig; waiting in a line for a stoic immigration officer to look over the papers crumbled between your passport pages; sweating profusely as your mind wraps around the sights and sounds that signal you are entering a completely different reality. The entry into Port-Au-Prince was no different. After grabbing my bags from a decaying conveyor belt, I stumbled out into the glaring sunshine, glad to see a man holding a manila envelope with my name scribbled on it. Outside the arrival gate, which spilled directly onto the street, people crammed together to greet passengers and offer rides. I followed the manila enveloped man, doled out a few dollars for his help with my bags and found myself sitting in the passenger’s seat of a minivan that would take me to my guest house.

The trip through Port-Au-Prince was intense. Chaotic daily life was in full swing – colorful tap-taps and 4 wheel vehicles dodged pedestrians, many of which carried loads on their heads. The city is hilly, with beautiful lush mountains as a backdrop. For me, it was a mishmash of Managua’s lushness with La Paz’s hilliness and Niamey’s congestion and color. What set it apart, of course, was the rubble that crowded the streets, the broken buildings and the groupings of tents at every turn.

I learned that buildings with poor cement crumbled, whereas buildings with good cement “pancaked”- literally crushing everything between each layer. A mixture of both abound. What seems just as widespread are buildings that are tilted, walls gone, entire floors hanging at weird angles in an impossible balancing act. Often you will see workers in those buildings, hammering away in demolition mode, standing awkwardly on a floor tilted at least 30 degrees.
I arrived at the St. Joseph’s guest house, which is also a school for orphaned boys, and was greeted by the director, Bill and many of the boys that live in the house. After being directed to my room, I went to dinner at one of the hotel’s in Petion Ville (the richer parts of town) with some of the people that work with the boys home. I learned about the difference in life before and after the earthquake and about the relief efforts that are taking place. Many of the hotels are full of non-profit workers, the rooms booked for months for the ongoing work. Most workers are not allowed to leave the hotel unaccompanied and many areas of Port Au-Prince are off limits to them. It seems these extreme measures are in place because organizations are responsible for so many people coming from all over the world. An incident could cause harm to the individual, but also to the organization, who might lose an entire program due to any sort of physical incident occurring to one of their staff. It makes sense, at the same time, it seems illogical to block people who, by job description, from the people they are here to help! I also question the ability to design an effective project without this sort of access.

In any case, after dinner, needless to say, I fell into a deep sleep and did not feel the tremor I was told occurred about 3 am.
Very bright, hot and early Monday, I returned to the airport to pick up my father, David, who will be assisting me as advisory board member to Scopa Group and seasoned development professional. His layover allowed me to overhear these words from a missionary in the car next to me– “do you know where you will spend eternity?” to a group of Haitians hanging outside his car window. To his credit, the rest of the conversation was supportive, one man was asking him for help and he was asking how he could help himself, an empowering talk and very honest sounding.

After hours waiting for David’s delayed plane (remember when you didn’t have that little handheld device that tells you the exact minute a plane is coming in?) we were off again. The traffic is really horrendous, never seen it before, okay, maybe Mexico City, but wow! Unbelievable. They say it’s gotten worse since the earthquake due to all the ngos in town and the destruction of the downtown, so more cars are concentrated in a smaller area.

After a brief reprieve, we met with Jacqui from Voyages Lumieres, a travel agency that has been in Haiti for 12 years now. She will be helping design the fun aspects for the volunteer trips in August and November. Essentially, the after hours and days off from volunteering. What I really liked about Jacqui was her commitment to rebuilding the Haitian economy - ensuring that visitors use local guides and buy local products. The "fun" part of the trip is just as important as the volunteering for this reason - it helps to provide people that have undergone a drastic hit to all their systems, to regain their footing.

More later. In closing - a shout out to bucket baths and Doctor Bronner's Soap in 95 degree weather. Exhilarating.