CHOCAL: MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT THE CACAO NURSERY

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61As Adonia cruised into Amber Cove, Bruce and I admired the gorgeous tropical scenery of Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic (aka “the DR”).  We were eager to start the day, so we were among the first to disembark after our arrival.  It was too early to board the bus for Chocal; so, we explored Amber Cove, the $90 million-dollar port completed a year ago by Carnival Cruise Lines.  I took several photos of the attractive complex; however, I am eager to write about Chocal.  Amber Cove will have to wait…

In my first post about Fathom Impact Travel, I mentioned we would be helping Chocal with their cacao and chocolate production.  It is a women’s cooperative currently employing thirty women (as well as some of their adult children); however, their goal is to grow the cooperative and thrive.  Helping them to succeed will enable Chocal to hire more local women, and bring more income into their community.

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During the bus ride to Chocal, Leurys, a representative of IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development), prepared us for our upcoming morning at the cacao plantation and chocolate factory.  In addition to learning about Chocal’s creation in 2008 (detailed in the photo above), the entire chocolate-making process was explained, from cacao seedling to chocolate bar.  We would be contributing to many of those processes to help increase production.

I was curious how these women learned the business of producing chocolate.  We were told a consultant from Switzerland was hired to teach them the entire process, and educate them on the special equipment needed to process the cacao.  After the co-op obtained a loan from the U.S.A., the machines were built to specification and delivered to the factory.

Chocal is located high up in the mountains in the town of Altamira (Spanish for “high view”) where cacao grows naturally and abundantly, along with mango and other tropical fruits.  Many local farmers belong to a farming cooperative and make their living by harvesting their cacao and selling the cacao beans.

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Having Chocal in their community provides another buying source for their cacao beans.  When Chocal is in need of more cacao than their own trees produce, they buy from the farmers in their community.  In turn, when those farmers need additional cacao trees for their land, they can purchase young trees from Chocal at cost.  The farmers provide compost for the seedlings, and pay the equivalent of ten cents for each two-foot tall tree they purchase.  This covers the cost of the bag, and the (free) labor is provided by us volunteers.  IDDI representatives work with Fathom and Chocal to facilitate the volunteer process.

It was in the nursery where we ended each of our three volunteer days at Chocal; however, it is where I will begin our tour here, since this is the origin of chocolate.  It all begins with cacao.

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Once the teams were in place at the bag filling station, bag brigade, and seedling planting station; we rocked!  I never noted how much time we spent in production mode (perhaps one hour); but, whatever the time period, we produced.  Our bus load of +/- thirty volunteers filled bags and planted 504 seedlings our first day, and 584 the second day. Our group had less time to work on the third day; however, we still managed to complete 403 bags.  That’s teamwork!

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We met Jessica, age 9, and her dad, Len, during the first night aboard ship.  They were wonderful table mates, and became fast friends.  Erin and Erin were college friends who we met during the bus ride.

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Leurys explained how the bags should be filled to the top and compacted.  Next, a hole is inserted in the soil and a cacao seedling is planted.

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Carola (right), helps plant the seedlings.  She was our table mate on another night aboard ship.

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Gumarcindo lines up the seedlings on our first day.  Our group planted 504!

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By Day 3, Gumarcindo was trying to figure out where to put them all!

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These little cacao trees will be sold to area farmers at cost– about ten cents per tree.

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My new amigo, Gumarcindo.

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After our work was completed, Gumarcindo, the nursery manager, showed us how the beans are processed at the nursery, before they are taken next door to the factory.

First, the cacao pods are carefully removed from the trees, and then manually cut open within 7-10 days of harvest.  The beans and pulp are scooped out from the pod and placed into the top level of boxes in the fermenting room.  After two days at the top level, they are dumped down into the middle level for another two days of fermenting.  Finally, they are transferred into the bottom level where they ferment for an additional two days before being spread out in the sun to dry.

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Although many cacao growers skip the fermenting step before drying their beans, the Swiss consultant explained to the co-op members that fermented beans would make for better-tasting chocolate.

After the fermentation process is complete, the beans are left in the sun to dry to reduce the moisture content from about 60% to 7.5%.  If it looks like it’s going to rain, the roofs are pulled over the bean tables to keep the beans dry.

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The drying process is done carefully and slowly to ensure that off-flavors are not developed.  If the beans are dried too quickly, some of the chemical reactions started in the fermentation process are not allowed to complete their work.  This causes the beans to become acidic and taste bitter.  If the drying is done too slowly, however, mold can develop.

To ensure an even drying process, the beans are spread out in the sun and raked or turned periodically.  In all, the drying process takes about six days.

Once dried, the beans are packed in large sacks and stored in Chocal’s warehouse that is kept cool and dry.  Under these conditions, the cacao beans can be stored for years.

My next post will be about those cacao beans that are processed to become delicious chocolate!

Meanwhile, as our tour came to an end, we said “Hasta manana!” (See you tomorrow!”) to Gumarcindo and the IDDI facilitators helping out at the nursery.  All of them gave us a funny look, because nobody comes back tomorrow if they are on a Fathom cruise.  As a matter of fact, the Fathom website doesn’t allow for registering for multiple Impact activities at the same location.  Besides, most people opt for a variety of volunteer opportunities rather than just one.  Not me.  Between my passion for all things chocolate and my strong belief in the women’s co-op; I was determined to spend as much time as possible at Chocal. Bruce was fine with it, so I called Fathom’s headquarters as soon as we signed up for the cruise and pleaded my case.  Happily, the gal I spoke with empathized and did a manual override of their computer system to sign us up for to volunteer at Chocal all three full days in the DR.

When Bruce and I returned the following day, we found Gumarcindo and greeted him with, “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?”  (“Hello, Gumarcindo!  What’s up?”)  (“Que lo Que” is a special DR greeting that is very much appreciated by the locals, so we enjoyed using that greeting often!)

A big grin and a fist bump greeted us back!

On the third day, I was sad to have to tell Gumarcindo, “No hasta manana.”  I didn’t know if or when we would ever be back…

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Next up:

CHOCAL:  MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK

 

 

 

FATHOM:  PREPARING TO MAKE AN IMPACT

Fathom’s Adonia departed Miami for Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day during the early evening while golden light of the warm sun reflected off the condo towers. The view from our spot on the top deck was beautiful, and we enjoyed the sail-away before joining in on the first activity.

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It was then we discovered this would be nothing like a typical party cruise.  Waiters weren’t hawking expensive cocktails, and the poolside activities were much different than I had ever seen before.

For those who chose to participate, we were given a “passport” and instructed to look for five stations that were scattered around the two poolside decks.  At each station, we did the required activity and earned a stamp in our passport.  One station was posted at the railing of the upper deck.  The end of a string was tied to the railing, and the other end was tied to the pool railing across the deck below.  We were instructed to take an index card, and write an inspiring message to a random passenger below.  We were given a metal bell to attach to our card and asked to tie it in a loop around the string.  A good push sent the bell and message down the string to the waiting hands of another Impact Staff member below who untied the message and gave it to a random sunbather on the pool deck.  Smiles and laughs spread throughout the pool area.

At another station, questions were posted on glass window panels, and we were instructed to respond to any or all of them.  “What are you grateful for?” and “What is your passion?” were two questions that I liked, as was “What is your favorite inspirational quote?”  I chose to answer that one with, “Believing in your dreams can be far more rewarding than living by your limitations.”  I previously wrote a blog post about the origin of that quote.

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The final station was clever.  We were photographed and given a Polaroid mini photo and asked to write our name and city on the picture.  We then placed the photo (with a magnet attached to the back) on the huge map located on the metal wall of the pool deck.  Mine joined several others from the state of Georgia where we live now.   (Georgia ultimately won over my beloved home state of California where I instinctively went to place my photo.)

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As the photos collected, it was interesting to see where other passengers were from.  Many had traveled from faraway states and countries!

All of these details are to say this wasn’t shaping up to be your typical Caribbean party cruise!

During the following full day at sea, many workshops were offered to prepare us for upcoming Impact Travel activities.  We were assigned to small “cohort” groups where we would meet with the same passengers and facilitator for two preparation workshops and one wrap-up session, and there were several optional workshops we could attend as well.  For those who would be teaching English, there was an additional required session.

We were fortunate to have Colin as our “cohort” leader.  A former professional football player with the Cincinatti Bengals, he didn’t look the stereotype of someone who deeply cared about other people and making a difference in the world.  This environmentally conscious, Whole Foods-loving do-gooder had the looks of the Mr. Clean Man!  He was hilarious, though, and I’m sure our cohort group laughed far more than any other.

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The purpose of the “Getting to Know the Dominican Republic” workshop was to orient us to the customs and culture of the “the DR,” learn about its history, and build a community with our fellow travelers as we prepare for our on-ground impact experience.

The workshop entitled, “Being a Fathom Traveler” is described on Fathom’s website as, Fathom Travel is about transformative experiences through connecting to locality and place with an open heart and mind. Being a Fathom Traveler sets you up with valuable insights, tools and knowledge that will help you get the most out of your experience.”

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Colin’s final cohort workshop, “Fathom What’s Next,” will be detailed in a later post.

I also attended a couple of “Social Innovation” workshops that helped prepare us for our on-ground experience by learning skills for authentic interactions with others.  These workshops were designed by Ashoka and Ashoka Fellows (www.ashoka.org), and they were quite interesting!

The ultimate goal of these workshops was to help us integrate the week’s experience into our lives going forward.

Coming up next: 

CHOCAL:  MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT THE WOMEN’S CHOCOLATE COOPERATIVE NURSERY

 

 

 

FATHOM- A UNIQUE WAY TO GIVE BACK

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There are so many different ways to open your heart, and give back to society.  Whether it’s through volunteering in your own community, joining an overseas mission with a church, or opening up your wallet; it all helps make our world a better place.

Carnival Cruises presented a unique opportunity to give back by launching Fathom, their one-ship (“Adonia”) cruise line and presenting the concept of “Impact Travel,” Carnival’s trademarked name for cruising with a purpose.

Taking the focus off the “it’s all about me” attitude of passengers that cruise companies cater to, most people who book a Fathom cruise do so with the purpose of participating in several of the Impact Travel volunteer opportunities available on shore in the Dominican Republic.  Although volunteering is not required, typically 95% of the passengers on most of the cruises have done so, since Fathom launched in April 2016.  (Unfortunately, though, as I explained in my previous post, Fathom will cease to exist at the end of May this year.  More details will follow in a later post.)

Once aboard ship, we discovered a “feel” among the passengers unlike anything we had previously experienced during our years as guest lecturers/ craft instructors.  Instead of an attitude of entitlement (“What’s in it for me?”), many of the passengers we talked to were eager to arrive in Puerta Plata, in the Dominican Republic (“the DR”) and volunteer during each of our 3-1/2 days in port.  For those who didn’t sign up online ahead of time for the available volunteer activities, they were disappointed to learn many of them were booked full.  (All opportunities were located a bus ride away from the port, requiring buses to transport volunteers to their activities.)

Wait lists were started for the various activities, but the lists grew longer as passengers came back after the first day of volunteering and shared their excitement about the impact they had made through their efforts.

In addition, passengers were only permitted to sign up online in advance for three activities– one for each full day; however, groups were dispatched in the morning and afternoon allowing for doubling up each day in some cases.  As enthusiasm grew for volunteering, several passengers added to their three activities; so, they could make more of a positive impact on this impoverished country.

This is the attitude of the typical Fathom passenger.  Most didn’t care about the lack of over-the-top amenities and entertainment now standard on the newest mega-ships.  Instead, passengers lingered over coffee in the dining room after dinner and shared their experiences of the day.  The most common question asked was, “What ‘Impact’ activity did you do today?”  That was often followed by asking, “How was it?”  Passengers eagerly spoke proudly of the impact their group made that day.  For those who worked at Chocal, we shared the all-important numbers:  pounds of cacao beans sorted, pounds of cacao nibs sorted from shell fragments, quantity of chocolate bars wrapped or packaged; and, at the nursery, the quantity of bags filled with dirt and seedlings planted.  (When those numbers were revealed during the bus ride back to ship, the passengers broke out in applause and cheers.)

Think back on the last cruise you took, if you have taken an ocean cruise.  Does any of this sound familiar to you?  I didn’t think so…

Next up:  PREPARING TO MAKE AND IMPACT

Adonia, as we depart Miami:

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The Adonia was a former Renaissance cruise ship and has a capacity of 704 passengers.

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The Ocean Grill was an alternative dining room with a $25pp charge.

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This very cool huge photo of a diver was on the stairway landing wall on the way to the gym and spa.

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We were given a free upgrade to an outside cabin.  The large window was nice to have!  Behind me are the closets and bathroom.

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Miami

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Notice the backed-up traffic heading towards the beach.  Ugh!

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This bridge leads to homes of the 1%-ers.

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It takes a 1%-er to own a house and yacht like that!

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PRE-CRUISE:  VISITING VERO BEACH

The idea of going on an Impact Travel cruise came from our friends, David and Melody.  They had heard of Fathom’s unique concept and shared it with us.  We were intrigued and looked forward to experiencing it together.

Unfortunately, several days before the cruise, Melody had a back injury too serious to be able to travel; so, they had to cancel out.  David and Melody still wanted us to visit them in Vero Beach prior to the cruise, so we made our way south on December 28th.

While Melody rested, David gave us a fabulous tour of Vero Beach during the first full day of our visit; so, it made it easier for Bruce and I to find our way around while exploring over the next two days.

Over the next couple of days, between poking around the galleries, visiting the McKee Botanical Garden, taking long walks along the boardwalk at the beach, and watching the manatees; we got a great feel for the area.  Bruce and I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere and friendliness of the locals.

It just wasn’t the same not being able to share it with our friends, though; and, we were heartbroken Melody and David wouldn’t be able to experience the cruise.

On New Year’s Day, we left Vero Beach for Miami to board Fathom’s Adonia.  It was a day of mixed feelings—concern for Melody, and sadness our friends would be missing the upcoming adventure; but, excitement that our volunteer work in the Dominican Republic would have an impact in more ways than one.

The following are scenes from our visit in Vero Beach.:

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Bruce and David

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Melody, at a farm near their house, before her back took a serious turn for the worse.

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“Woody” was made out of LEGOS!  What a surprise to find an amazing Lego sculpture exhibit waiting for us at McKee Botanical Garden!  Throughout the gardens were beautiful Lego creatures constructed by Sean Kenney, the world’s first LEGO Certified Professional.  Made of regular off-the-shelf Lego pieces, the exhibition featured thirteen individual displays built with over 300,000 LEGO pieces.  This guy was the most complex and made from 4,424 pieces.  He measured 10″x 8″ x 20″.

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This life-size gardener was constructed from 34,340 LEGO pieces.

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42,164 pieces were used to build this praying mantis.

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This Monarch Butterfly has an 8-foot wing-span and was created with 60,549 LEGO pieces.  It’s the second largest sculpture Sean Kenney has every created.

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Uh-oh!  This Milk snake is about to chow down in this cute field mouse.  Both sculptures were made from a total of 12,069 pieces.

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Our national bird, the Bald Eagle is made from 42,198 pieces and measures five feet tall.

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In addition to this squirrel, there were other squirrels and birds on the fence eyeing the bird feeder above (filled with LEGO pieces!).

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31,565 pieces were used to create this huge hummingbird.

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This Giant White Triumphator Lily made from 32,514 pieces was giant, measuring 72″ in length!

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How about a life-size rototiller?  It took 20,903 pieces to create it.

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Next up:  Aboard Fathom’s Adonia

Impact Travel: A New Adventure

After a few dozen big ship cruises as a guest lecturer (mostly travel photography) and crafts instructor, I was ready for a different cruising experience.  Back in 2002, my mom had wanted to take a river cruise on the waterways of Belgium and Holland, so we paired up for a non-working cruise and headed to Europe.  One time on an intimate riverboat was all it took; I was hooked and never thought I would return to the big ships again.

That all changed when some friends bounced an idea off us that was different than the typical big ship cruising experience:  impact travel.  I had never heard of the concept in cruising, but Fathom, a one-ship cruise line launched by Carnival Cruises last April, had done just that.

Fathom’s 704-passenger former Renaissance ship, Adonia, made headlines by being the first cruise ship to take American passengers to Cuba; but, what I didn’t know was that the ship sails to Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic for one-week impact travel cruises on alternate weeks.

Puerta Plata wasn’t on the top of my bucket list for destinations—I had been there before as a teenager on a family cruise—but this opportunity intrigued me.  After hearing David and Melody’s excitement about the concept and their idea of having us experience it together, I did some further research.  Bruce and I both loved what we discovered, so we signed on.  After visiting them in Vero Beach, we’ll drive down to Miami and hop aboard Adonia together.

Now, before I explain further and (possibly) get you excited about the concept of impact travel, I recently learned from two different USA Today articles that Fathom will cease operations in spring of this year.  The ship has been sailing far under capacity, and the cruise line is losing money.  Unless you book your cruise and travel soon, you will be out of luck.

We got an affordable deal– $850 for BOTH of us, including port fees and taxes, for a one-week cruise.  Even at this great price, it is doubtful the ship will sail anywhere near capacity.

On our day of departure, we will set sail from Miami to Puerta Plata.  During our transit, we will participate in workshops to learn about the culture and prepare us for our chosen volunteer activities.  While the ship stays docked at Amber Cove in Puerta Plata, passengers will have the option of being tourists, volunteering, or both.  Those of us who will be volunteers will spend three days immersing ourselves in the local culture and collaborating with local volunteers on community projects that will have an impact on education, environment, economy, and more.

The need in Dominican Republic is tremendous.  The poorest half of their population receives less than one-fifth of the country’s annual GDP, and most of them live below the poverty line.  Job prospects for women are especially scarce.

While looking over the various choices of how we could help make an impact, one option stood out above and beyond the rest:  Chocal, a women’s cooperative that cultivates organic cacao plants and produces chocolate from bean to bar.

Under the guidance of Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI), Chocal has been successful in creating jobs, providing local cacao growers with an outlet to sell their plants, and generating income from the sales of their organic chocolate.  Along the way, the women have learned new skills and have been afforded the opportunity to continue their education.  Flexible work hours have allowed the women to do all this while still caring for their families.

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As volunteers, we will participate in the complete cacao production cycle:  from planting and cultivating the organic cacao trees, to sorting cacao beans, to molding chocolate, and packaging the final product for sale in their gift shop and aboard Adonia.

According to Fathom’s website, by helping to improve production and increase sales, we will be helping Chocal to thrive, so it can hire more local women and provide more income to the region.

This is a win-win!  Visiting a full-production cacao plantation was on my bucket list; however, trying to incorporate it as part of a vacation with my husband was proving to be difficult.  Bruce is totally on board with this and has even enthusiastically agreed with my idea of volunteering all three available days at Chocal rather than choosing two other activities.  Our friends will also be joining us on one of the days at Chocal, and then spending another day making clay water filters.  I’m sure we’ll have a lot of stories to share that evening over dinner back onboard ship!

Stay tuned for more on this upcoming adventure!*

*Unfortunately, thieves have gotten smarter and figured out how to prey on travel bloggers, so for security reasons (even though we live in a guarded community and have a house sitter), our travel dates will not be noted, and future posts will not be published until after we return. 

COLORS OF GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

The path to Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair in Tennessee  from our home in Georgia is through gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  One of the reasons we enjoy participating as vendors at the fair is so we can enjoy the park during our free time before and after the show.

You never know what you’re going to see.  In July, 2015, we came across “Lawrence Elk,” but we didn’t have such luck this past July.

Now that we are doing the fall show as well, we expected to see black bears, wild turkeys, and fall colors.  Bruce was in luck seeing a bear, we both saw several turkeys; and, best of all, we had the pleasure of enjoying the array of autumn colors of the leaves during the drive home.

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See some of Bruce’s art glass at http://www.CookedGlassCreations.Etsy.com 

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BEAUTIFUL BOTANICALS

If you find yourself in Atlanta and would like a peaceful place to get away from the noise of the city, Atlanta Botanical Garden is a lovely place to unwind, and get in a good walk.  Although we were there to enjoy the Dale Chihualy blown glass sculptures, I couldn’t resist photographing the gorgeous orchids and other beautiful botanicals.  Here are my favorites from our afternoon of wandering through Atlanta Botanical Garden:

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CHIHUALY IN THE GARDEN

Yesterday, Bruce and I visited Atlanta Botanical Garden to enjoy “Chihualy in the Garden,” a spectacular exhibit by internationally acclaimed glass artist, Dale Chihualy.

The show featured 19 installations throughout the beautiful 30 acre-garden, including these:

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Next up:  Atlanta Botanical Garden Florals

A SHARED PASSION

Since joining U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) in 2010, I’ve met so many wonderful people I would have never met otherwise.  Participating in any swimming event means being around others who have a shared passion:  SWIMMING.

My past few days have been happily filled with swimming and being around many amazing people who share my passion.

Two of the days were spent (in part) in Atlanta volunteering in the hospitality suite for the 2016 USMS Convention.  In addition to getting to spend time away from the pool with a few of my teammates, it was a great meeting delegates from around the country and seeing people again who I had met at previous competitions.

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Bumping into Tim Waud brought back fun memories of this:

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That’s Tim in the patriotic hat representing USMS as Head Coach for our team at the 2014 FINA World Championships in Montreal.  I’m the one in the white shirt, and all the other gals are my awesome teammates!

 

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I forgot to bring my camera back to the convention today, so this is a grainy picture of me with three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Rowdy Gaines.  If you watched swimming in the last few Olympics, that was Rowdy’s enthusiastic voice you heard on NBC.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Bruce and I headed in the opposite direction to Warner Robins for the Georgia Golden Olympics, a qualifying meet for the upcoming 2017 National Senior Games which will take place in Birmingham, Alabama next June.

In addition to several of my other teammates, my favorite teammate, Anne Dunivin, came to compete in the meet.  Type the name “Anne Dunivin” in the search box up above, and you will see I have written about Anne several times.  She is a rock star in the swimming world.  Why?  Because she is going to be 100 years old on October 17th, and she is still passionate about swimming!

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Anne, with daughters Virginia and Barbara

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Queen Anne!

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Anne, ready to race!

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Anne, in great form racing the 100 Yard Freestyle.  She won gold!  (Of course, it helps to outlive your competition!)

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Anne and her daughter, Virginia.

Anne was in demand at the meet.  She was interviewed by a local newspaper and two TV stations (WGXA and WMAZ)!  Here she is giving an interview for WGXA:

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That’s Bruce getting a kick out of listening to the interview!

See the interview here:  http://wgxa.tv/news/local/100-year-old-woman-proves-youre-never-too-old-to-be-fit

It was a long day (10 hours!) in the 94-degree heat, but it was well worth the 90-minute drive south to spend time with Anne and her daughters, cheer Anne on, and qualify for the National Games.  I ended up with four gold medals and one bronze medal in the meet; and, I was the only woman to compete in the 200 Yard Butterfly.  (Hey, you have to show up to win!)

The picture on the left is with four of my medals, and again after I picked up my final medal.  I swam in the first event (400 Yard Individual Medley) and last event (500 Yard Freestyle), so it was a very long day.  It was dark by the time we arrived home!

Today, after returning home from the USMS convention, I received a wonderful message from Julia Galan of Swimspire.  She had asked me to write another article for her website, and she notified me that it went live.  Here it is:

http://www.swimspire.com/six-suggestions-solo-swimmer/

Julia had asked me to submit a photo of Bruce shooting underwater swimming video and another of me swimming.  Little did I know, she dug up some photos her dad had shot of me at 2014 USMS Summer National Championships to add to the article, too!  It was such a happy surprise to see the article on her website with some fun photos that brought back great memories!

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Julia, with her brother, Peter, and her dad, Florian

These past few days have been so joyful, inspiring, and FUN!  I hope you have a passion– or discover one– that brings you this much joy as well!

 

CONQUERING THE IRONMAN PENTATHLON (U.S. MASTERS SWIMMING)

The following article was written in the middle of the night following my participation in the SouthSide Pentathlon last Saturday.  I have never been able to sleep through the night following a swim meet, so I have made a habit of rolling out of bed and hittin’ the keys.  

This article will appear in the next “Georgia Masters Newsletter,”  for Georgia’s U.S. Masters Swimming regional team.

CONQUERING THE IRONMAN PENTATHLON

By, Elaine Krugman

Since joining U.S. Masters Swimming in 2010, I have competed in a pentathlon swim meet each September.  Sponsored by the SouthSide Seals, one of the small local teams that fall under the Georgia Masters regional team umbrella, the SouthSide Pentathlon is a fun meet.  Rob Copeland, along with other members of his swimming family run the meet and do an outstanding job.  This year, Megan had the results out in a flash!

Remembering back over past pentathlon meets, one of my favorite Masters Swimming memories was the 2010 Peachtree Pentathlon (as it was called then when it was held at the Kedron pool in Peachtree City), when I participated as a newbie in the Sprint Pentathlon which included the 100 Yard Individual Medley, and 50 Yard races of each stroke (Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke, and Freestyle).  In the 50 Yard Breaststroke, I made National Qualifying Times (NQT’s) for my age group—exactly to the hundredth of a second!  Being so new to Masters Swimming, I was shocked and very excited.  It meant I could swim an additional race at Nationals beyond the three races allowed for all swimmers.

Little did I know that would be the last time I would make NQT’s in an electronically-timed meet.  (Hand-timed meets typically result in faster race times, and that was the case for me when I last made NQT’s in 2013.)

I embody the motto for Georgia Masters: “The older we get, the faster we were.”

Since that first pentathlon meet, I have looked forward to competing in it each year.  In 2011 and 2012, I raced the Sprint Pentathlon, because I was a sprinter.  (Everything I did was fast:  walk fast, talk fast, move fast—it was the only speed I knew!)

In 2012, that all changed.  I discovered the joys of distance swimming when I competed in the Georgia Games Open Water Meet.  I entered the 3K and 1K races and swam faster as I progressed through each kilometer.  When I told Coach Mike Slotnick (co-host of Masters swim meets at Steve Lundquist Aquatic Center) about it, he declared, “That’s a sign of a distance swimmer.”  I replied, “But, I’m a sprinter!”  (His declaration became a regular thing during subsequent training sessions when we swam together, and he noticed my speed increasing as the session progressed, rather than the opposite.)

Mike finally had me convinced, and I started training for the long pool events:  1650 Yard / 1500 Meter Freestyle, 400 IM, and 200 Butterfly.  After successfully completing (meaning I wasn’t disqualified and I didn’t drown) the 200 Butterfly at a meet, Rob Copeland challenged me to compete in the Ironman at the next SouthSide Pentathlon.  “You’re on!” I replied with enthusiasm.  “Uh-oh, what have I gotten myself into…” was what I later mumbled to myself.

In 2014 (there was no pentathlon meet in 2013), with much hesitation (and a stomach full of butterflies), I registered for the Ironman.  Top-Ten swimmer, Marianne Countryman did too, so I knew I wouldn’t win my age group; but, my goal was to just complete the darn thing without getting disqualified on any of my events—and, without the lifeguard having to jump in to save me.

I succeeded at both goals, and a funny thing happened after touching the wall after my last event, the 200 Yard Butterfly (Yes, they save the hardest event for last!).  In between panting like a dog and gasping for air, I said to the swimmer in the neighboring lane, “That was fun!  I’m doing this again next year!”

Unfortunately, I had to pass on the 2015 meet due to a setback after having hip surgery, but I was back at it this year with much anticipation and preparation.  Prior to the meet, I had “raced” the Ironman four weeks in a row, completing the events in 35-40 minutes with short rest in between races.  My race times were horrible under those conditions, but I figured it would make the actual meet seem easier in comparison.  It worked.  I actually took the most time off my last event of the pentathlon, the 200 Yard Butterfly, and I even had something left in the tank to anchor the 400 Medley Relay at the end of the meet!

I was proud of our small group of Ironman competitors.  Out of the eighty swimmers at the meet, only eight of us took the Ironman challenge; four women and four men.  Since we were all in different age groups, we all won first place (Hey, you have to show up to win!)

The youngest “Ironman” was Nautical Miler, Gina Grant (18); and, the oldest was John Zeigler (70).  Other Ironman participants included Sara Edwards (39), myself at 54 years-old, and Ellen Clay (57) for the women; and, meet host Rob Copeland (59), Joe Hutto (64), and 1984 Olympics Bronze Medalist for Sweden, Michael Soderlund (54).  (As a side note, Michael also competed in the 1980 and 1988 Olympics.)

Hey, Ironman guys and gals, let’s do it again next year!

*As a side note, I finished first of the four women, and I beat one of the men.  Woohoo!