OUR NEW CUBAN FRIEND “BENI”

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We quickly learned that our new friend Dilvenis (he preferred to be called “Beni”) loved American music (especially Blues), so we clicked with each other immediately!  Beni excitedly said, “You know who my favorite is, it’s Otis Redding!  Look!  It gives me goose bumps just thinking about him!”  Sure enough, he showed us his arm, and it was covered in goose bumps!  I replied, “You know all the words to ‘Dock of the Bay’ Bruce; so, how about you, Beni?  Do you know the words?”  Beni replied yes, so I said, “Hit it!  Sing it, boys!!”  And, here it goes, such as it is:  https://youtu.be/gXNdiCOk9vU .

Beni told us about all the concerts he had seen when he was in New Zealand:  Bruce Springsteen, Little River Band, James Brown, and more.  “You were in New Zealand?”  I wanted to know more.

While working as a bartender in a local restaurant, Beni met a woman from New Zealand and was able to get a visa to go visit her in 2004.  He stayed for nine months, and then returned again on another visit for six months.  While there, he got a New Zealand driver’s license and still carries it in his wallet.  He was proud to show me his license from my favorite country.

We chatted about all of the gorgeous places we had each seen in New Zealand, and some of the work he did there.  He was an extra in the movie, “King Kong” and worked at Miramar Studios.  (I was sure there were plenty more stories to hear about that!)

Unfortunately, the romance with his Kiwi girlfriend didn’t last, nor did his days as a movie star (well, make that an “extra”).

After hearing about his experiences in New Zealand, the conversation returned to music.  I told Beni I would send him music from some of his favorites if he gave me his address, so we exchanged contact info. and agreed to keep in touch.

Since returning home more than a week ago, Beni and I have sent e-mails back and forth almost every day.  We have learned more about his musical tastes, and his life in Cuba as a bartender, cook, and soon-to-be pastor.  (He just took the exam and will receive the results soon.)

Although Beni has written some of his messages in English, he finds it easier to write his more involved e-mails in Spanish.  Thank goodness for Google Translate!  I copy and paste into Google’s free online tool, and it immediately translates the message into English.  It doesn’t always make perfect sense, but I am able to understand it for the most part.

In turn, I write in English, and then I copy my message into Google Translate to convert it into Spanish.  I include both the English and Spanish in each of my messages back to Beni.  So far so good!

In one of his messages, Beni signed off with, “Big bear hugs to you and Bruce!”  That made my day…

This is what I have learned about Beni’s life:

He was born in the Sierra Maestra Mountain chain in Granma Province and is the youngest of seven brothers and sisters.  His family fought against Batista’s corrupt and repressive dictatorship during the 1950’s.

Growing up, he listened to English and American music by Paul Anka, The Beatles, James Brown, Elvis, and others.

Beni has two daughters (30 and 31 years old), and a twenty-year-old son, but he described himself in one e-mail as a “lonely man”.

One thing that struck me warmly in one of his e-mails was this: “If some friend wants to write me I am open to meet and make friends.  It’s time to tear down the walls and build bridges.  Do not be afraid to introduce me to more people.”

It’s time to tear down the walls and build bridges.”  There is so much I can say about that, given our current state of governmental affairs here in the U.S.A.!  He is absolutely right, and that is why the former administration loosened restrictions for Americans to travel to Cuba.  How sad we now have a president who wants to build walls and tear down bridges…

Overwhelmingly, the feeling we got speaking with Cubans was they were eager to make friends with Americans and felt warmly about us as people, regardless of how our governments feel about each other.  We (and everybody we talked with aboard Fathom Adonia) agreed that we feel the same way about the Cubans.  They are such warm and friendly people!  It is not them we despise; it is their repressive government.  Will Raul Castro be better for the Cuban people than Fidel was?  He is Fidel’s brother; however, I am at least optimistic that he and President Obama were able to come to some promising agreements.  We’ll see what the future holds between Castro and Trump.

What I do know is that Bruce and I plan on taking a land tour of Cuba in the future to see more of the country and meet more of its people.  Until then, Beni and Bruce will be groovin’ through the years at the “Dock of the Bay”.

Scenes from Santiago de Cuba:

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This is Hector, a wood carver and painter.  We bought this sculpture as well as one of a couple dancing.

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Two American 1950’s era cars were parked near our ship.

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Looking back at Santiago de Cuba as we sailed away.

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I spotted this man from the 9th deck of the ship and was able to capture him with a fully zoomed-in lens while we were cruising by.

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This family came to watch us sail away.  They were sure having a good time!

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San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (Castle)

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Coming up next:  OUR HAPPY RETURN TO CHOCAL

 

MAKING FRIENDS IN CUBA

When we left the port for a walk through the streets of Santiago de Cuba, we hoped we would meet some locals we could converse with in English, since our Spanish is extremely limited.

A large center for artisans caught our eye as a first stop, because I had also hoped to bring back a small wood handicraft to add to my international collection from my travels.  Surprisingly, in addition to woodcraft, we also spotted a glass artist who did torch work to create glass figurines.

Although Eduardo didn’t speak English, his assistant, Grisel, spoke enough to communicate with us and translate to Eduardo.  We conveyed that Bruce was also a glass artist, and I showed them my earrings that Bruce had made for me.  The two men talked “shop”, and a bond was formed.

After a long conversation, we wished them our best and thought we would continue on our way to Cespedes Park where the cathedral was located.  Eduardo turned and grabbed a glass globe containing a purple flower from his display shelf and insisted on having Grisel wrap it up as a gift for us.  We insisted on paying, but they wouldn’t allow it.  Instead, we asked Grisel what her favorite color was, so we could send her one of Bruce’s fused glass bracelets.  Business card in hand, we were on our way, amazed at what had just transpired.

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On average, Cubans earn the equivalent of a mere $20-$40 per month.  (Actually, their new currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC, is worth about $1.)  The fact they wanted to give us a “present” (as she insisted) spoke to what our interaction with them meant.  They were so pleased to learn we were Americans, too; and, it warmed my heart there was still somebody in the world who liked Americans.  I truly believe that won’t be the case in the coming years…

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During other interactions with the locals who spoke English, we were pleased at the overwhelmingly pro-American sentiments expressed to us.  I was thankful we visited Cuba so early in Trump’s presidency.

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After listening to a violinist in Cespedes Park (the town square), we climbed the stairs and peeked into the cathedral.  More enjoyable, though, was watching the bustling streets below us.   A few 1950’s-era American cars drove past, and well-dressed students in their crisp blue uniforms walked by with their backpacks.  (Later in the week, in the Dominican Republic, I would learn just how hard the word “backpack” would be for a Spanish-speaking woman to pronounce in English!)

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Fidel Castro gave his first speech from this balcony in 1959.

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The first building on the left was built in 1519.

Along our stroll through the streets of the city center, we came across a small town square where an unusual band was performing for tips.  The featured instrument was a 1950’s hand-cranked organ, unlike anything we had ever seen before.  When I gave the musician a big smile and a curious look, he responded in kind and was pleased I wanted to photograph his band.  The music they played was fabulous, so I shot this clip:  https://youtu.be/rvc7L25oIgg .

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We enjoyed strolling along the pedestrian street and watching the people go about their day.  Although I am not much of a shopper back at home, I am always curious to poke into local shops when I am traveling, just to see what the locals buy and sell; and, at what price.

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Playing dominoes is a favorite pastime in Cuba, so we paused to watch a couple of games being played in the small city parks.

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Before making our way back towards the ship, we allowed plenty of time to return to Eduardo’s shop to buy them a cold drink and say a final goodbye.  Eduardo had left for a meeting, but we treated his wife to a cola and promised to send one of Bruce’s glass bracelets when we returned home.

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In the same artisan’s complex, we stopped to look at some other shops and came across a friendly man who spoke English.  He asked, “Where are you from?”  When we replied that we were from the United States, he grinned and asked if he could practice his English with us.  The extroverted man said he didn’t want anything from us, but did we have time to just have a conversation?

Well, that is exactly what we had hoped for when we stepped foot on Cuban soil…

Next up:  OUR NEW CUBAN FRIEND “BENI”

 

 

 

SANTIAGO DE CUBA: CUBA’S SECOND LARGEST CITY

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Knowing we would be in Cuba for only one day on this cruise, Bruce and I weighed the advantages and disadvantages of taking a ship-sponsored excursion versus going it alone as a self-guided people-to-people experience.

Fathom’s website states:  “Self-Directed People-to-People activities include educational activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba and/or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities. Travelers who elect to forego the Fathom sponsored Immersion Activities will be responsible for adhering to a full-time schedule of activities from an authorized category (e.g. educational, religious activities, humanitarian projects, family visits) and maintaining their own records demonstrating compliance with OFAC requirements.

Travelers opting to engage in a self-directed P2P program or relying on one of the other travel authorizations will not be monitored by Fathom and are required to maintain records related to the authorized travel activities for a period of five years (a copy of your travel affidavit and documentation evidencing the activities that you participated in while in Cuba).”

Really?  We must keep these records for five years?  Is a U.S. government official going to come pounding on my front door in a few years demanding to see these documents?  If I don’t produce them, will I get thrown in jail?

Of course, I wouldn’t trust anything our current president and administration does over the next four years, but I think this and the following blog post and my photos will suffice as evidence of my activities.  I even have a “people-to-people” video as proof!  More on that in my next post…

In the end, neither of us could fathom (no pun intended) the idea of being herded onto a bus with 40 other passengers and spending half the time just trying to get on and off the darn thing.  Besides, how much contact would we really have with the locals if we are being shepherded from place to place?  Sure, we would see more, but what Bruce and I really wanted to do was just meet and converse with Cubans.  The seeing would have to wait until a return trip to Cuba—that is, if our current regime will permit it in the future…

Before the cruise, I had done research on all the places to visit in Santiago de Cuba.  I even printed off a map and highlighted San Pedro de la Roca del Morro (castle), Cepspedes Park, and Santa Ifigenia Cemetary where Fidel Castro was laid to rest.  We were going to hire a taxi and see them all!  Not.

Instead, I showed the map to one of the Impact Travel staff aboard ship and asked her to highlight where we should head out on foot.  Both streets she recommended were located directly across from the port, and one of them was strictly for pedestrians.  Perfect!

After passing four armed guards stationed throughout the customs terminal with Springer Spaniel sniffing dogs in tow, we insisted on having our passports stamped (The dedicated passport stamper was lazy and would only stamp it if you asked), and cleared the gauntlet.

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As poor as Cuba is, and as poor of a city Santiago de Cuba appeared to be, we did not see any poverty in the streets.  The poverty rate in Cuba is only 5% (compared to about 14.5% in the U.S.A.), so nobody appeared to be starving or in bad condition.

During the day, we stopped into a few stores to see what was being sold and for what price.  These sodas were .60 CUC each (about US $0.60).  They were delicious!

A gallon of milk costs about 7.00 CUC, and a can of sardines was 1.75.  A bottle of shampoo averaged 5.00.  Toothbrushes cost about .75-1.00, and a small sofa would set you back 250 CUC.

On the surface, the prices in many respects were similar to ours; HOWEVER, when you think about their average monthly pay (about $1/day), it takes a full day of work to pay for one toothbrush!  Two days of work will pay for one hour of internet access from a desktop computer at an internet café.

The supermercado (super market) wasn’t all that super, either.  Entire six-foot long shelf units displayed just one item, such as identical large plastic bottle of cooking oil.  Would you like to buy some crackers?  You have perhaps three varieties from which to choose.  Chocolate?  I was shown either chocolate spread or chocolate drink as my choices to purchase.  I would never survive…

Cubans receive food subsidies, so at least they don’t have to spend all of their hard-earned money on what little variety they find for groceries.  In addition, Cubans receive free telephone service, free health care, and medicine is priced the lowest in the world.  Housing and extremely low-priced utilities are highly subsidized, and there are no taxes on public jobs (which account for 75-90% of the jobs, since there are very few self-employed people). Education is a high priority in Cuba, so it is free.

If it sounds like I am pro-Communist, I assure you, I am NOT.

This is the sad economic fact in Cuba:  According to Encyclopedia.com, Cuba’s economic freedom score was 28.7 (in 2014), making its economy one of the world’s least free.  As an entrepreneur who created and ran a successful computer-related services business for twelve years, has also enjoyed a small hobby business creating and selling photo notecards for over thirty years, and is currently (and happily!) running my husband’s successful art glass jewelry hobby business; I am definitely all about economic freedom!

I also all believe strongly in the first amendment and being able to speak out against our current government without fear of being thrown in jail, beaten, or worse (at least for now).  That wasn’t the case for Cubans in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  It remains to be seen what the future brings…

Coming up next:  MAKING FRIENDS IN CUBA

Meanwhile, here are a few scenes around Santiago de Cuba.  There are MANY more photos to come in my next post!

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MAN OVERBOARD!

As the Adonia sailed south towards Cuba on March 13, 2017, Bruce and I enjoyed a typical sea day for us: a workout in the gym, dining al fresco on the aft deck, attending lectures and workshops, and walking up on deck.  It was a beautiful day, and the sea was like glass.  It was so calm that I was able to do difficult yoga balance poses in the gym without so much as a wobble.

After attending an afternoon lecture about the history of Cuba, Bruce and I were ready for a walk in the fresh air; so, we made our way upstairs.  As we walked past the card room and spa, we heard loud yelling in the hallway.  A crowd gathered around a young, college-aged man who was yelling obscenities and sounding very incoherent.  Just as I said to Bruce we needed to get security, a woman in the crowd said security had already been called.  Just as two crew members from the pool area came in and also stated security was on the way, the extremely agitated passenger bolted, stumbling as he ran to the starboard side of the ship.

It was only moments after we continued out to the pool deck that the ship’s horn blasted, and the officer of the watch announced, “Man overboard!  Man overboard!!”  Crew members darted around us, grabbed life rings hanging from the railings, and tossed them overboard.  We saw several flying into the sea.

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I turned to Bruce and said, it’s HIM!  That guy jumped!!

A flare was shot out in the direction of where the young man had jumped overboard from the spa area of the 9th deck into the sea below.  The ship abruptly changed course to circle back; a rescue operation was underway.

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As we watched from the walking track of the 10th deck, we could see life rings float away, orange smoke pouring out of the flare, and a head bobbing in the sea.  Meanwhile, the crew lowered one of Adonia’s rescue boats and sped off with a pilot and two crew.

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When their boat approached the bobbing head, the jumper started to swim away in the opposite direction!  He was alive, and he survived the jump!  From the 9th deck, the only way anybody could survive that far of a water landing would be to enter vertically.  A flat landing would result in death, we speculated.

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What amazed us is that the jumper didn’t want to be rescued.  It took several attempts of circling back until the crew was finally able to get ahold of his shoulders and drag him into the boat.  Then, one of the crew had to hold the agitated man down.

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As the rescue boat returned to the ship, we were watching the scene unfold right under us.  The rescued man was rambling incoherently and making it very difficult for the crew to transfer him to the ship.

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When he was finally safe onboard, the passengers erupted in a loud applause.  The rescue operation was a success!

Although a couple of the passengers who witnessed the entire event unfold from the very beginning told us the content of the young man’s rants, and other passengers provided details of his identity and behavior previously that day, I have omitted this information as a matter of privacy.  In addition, I have whited out the man’s face in the photos.

I am proud to reveal, however, that our ship’s captain was a British woman, and the pilot of the rescue boat was also a woman.  Congratulations to both of them and the entire crew of the Adonia for a job well done!  If there was one consistent opinion we heard expressed from other passengers about the shocking event that unfolded during our (previously) peaceful day at sea was that the crew could not have done a more excellent job!

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Later, we were informed by the captain that the jumper was being held in the medical center for observation, and he was sent to a hospital in Cuba the following day when the ship arrived in Santiago de Cuba.  He and his parents did not return…

Next up:  Santiago de Cuba:  Cuba’s Second Largest City

 

FATHOM ADONIA: CRUISE #2

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As we sailed away from the Dominican Republic last January, my heart ached to return to Chocal.  The friendly women at the co-op, Gumarcindo at the cacao nursery, and the IDDI facilitators had grown on Bruce as well.  We both wanted to return, and it seemed to be the only thing we wanted to talk about during our drive home from Miami.

By the time we returned home, we had made the firm decision to book another Fathom cruise to the D.R. and Chocal before the ship leaves for Europe in June.  Immediately after we arrived home, I headed into our house and picked up the phone to call Fathom’s office.  Since we only wanted to book a cruise if we could return to Chocal, our cruise date would be dependent on that availability.  Our first choice was sold out, and our only other availability was for a cruise that included a stop in Cuba as well.  One day in Cuba isn’t enough, and only two visits to Chocal in the D.R.  wasn’t enough either, but something was better than nothing.   With suitcases still packed in the back of our car, we were already booked for our next cruise!

It would be two-and-a-half months before our departure, but we were filled with excitement for what was to come.  During our free time, I researched Cuba and the port we would be visiting:  Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city of our mysterious neighbor, just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.

Although Fathom has a strict policy about not bringing items for donation, there were two ideas I had for gifts I wanted to bring to Chocal:  photo notecards of each of the people I had photographed back in January, and ear plugs.

Why ear plugs?  When Bruce and I toured the factory, the noise level from the machinery was horrendous, and we noticed none of the workers used ear plugs.  By the time they reach my age, they will be deaf!  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went on Amazon and purchased a box of 3M industrial-grade foam ear plugs in cardboard pouches—the same type I was given at the hospital when I had an MRI.  After a day’s work in the factory, I thought the workers could place the ear plugs back in their pouches, and put them in their pockets.  The ear plugs could be used again for several days before they would need to be replaced.  I figured I could then obtain an address where I would send more to them in the future.

On March 12, with photo notecards in hand and ear plugs in our suitcase, we boarded Fathom’s ship, Adonia, and set sail from Miami.

We knew our cohort leader, Collin, and his wife, Katie, would still be on leave, but we were happy to see many of the friendly staff we had met on our first cruise.  It felt like “home” to be back aboard this beautiful ship!

As an extra bonus, we were surprised with a free upgrade to a beautiful balcony cabin!  It was a first for us, so we couldn’t have been more thrilled.

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We looked forward to enjoying a full day at sea before our arrival to Cuba, a “bucket list” destination we had spoken many times of visiting after President Obama had loosened up travel restrictions in an agreement with Raul Castro.

What we didn’t yet know was what unbelievable event would unfold during our sea day—something most crew have never experienced during their years at sea.

Coming up next:  MAN OVERBOARD!

WELCOME TO MY WORLD! FOUR WAYS TO INVOLVE YOUR NON-SWIMMING SPOUSE OR PARTNER

This is dedicated to Bruce, my soulmate for over thirty years and husband for nearly 25 of them.  You have always been there for me, even when you thought I was nuts!  (Only you would have the patience to video my painstakingly slow 2000 yard butterfly for Butternuts.  Yes, I am a nutty Butternut!)  I love you more than ever, I’m your #1 fan, and will always remain your Aqua Dog.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

WELCOME TO MY WORLD! FOUR WAYS TO INVOLVE YOUR NON-SWIMMING SPOUSE OR PARTNER

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IT’S A WRAP: FATHOM’S IMPACT ON THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

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Fathom Impact Travel’s mission is: “Unleash ‘Eudaemonia’ (Greek for ‘human flourishing’) through empathy-driven social impact and ‘alongsideness’.”  In addition, their mission is to “transform the lives of travelers, families, and communities for generations to come in meaningful and sustainable ways.”

Some of my research on Fathom Impact Travel activities in the Dominican Republic prior to our cruise uncovered speculation and doubt as to whether the impact was significant.  Was Fathom accomplishing its mission?

Check out the numbers our cohort leader, Colin, shared with our group during the wrap-up session aboard Adonia:

At Chocal, the goal was to contribute toward greater productivity by sorting beans and nibs, enabling the women to focus their time and resources on the more intricate chocolate-making process.  Bruce and I feel the three groups we worked with put a significant dent in the bags of dried cacao beans we sorted!  During our week at Chocal, 265 travelers cleaned 179 pounds of nibs, which equates to 5,295 finished chocolate bars!  We also packaged 5,128 chocolate products and prepared them for sale.

This was accomplished during the 18th voyage of Adonia.  The total impact of all eighteen voyages to date amounted to 4,518 lbs. of nibs cleaned, which produced 133,288 finished chocolate bars.  In all, 81,042 products were packaged and prepared for sale.  That’s a lot of chocolate!

Over at the nursery, Fathom didn’t start sending volunteers until the 7th voyage.  Since then, 19,202 cacao seeds were planted by Fathom volunteers.

Meanwhile, while we were productive at Chocal, other volunteers were participating in other projects.  Here are those numbers:

RePapel (where we volunteered on our last day in the DR)- 221 people produced 1, 185 sheets of paper during our cruise.  To date, 14,719 sheets of paper have been produced for stationary and notecards.

Reforestation- 170 people planted 1,978 seedlings in the nurseries, and 1,150 seedlings were planted from the nurseries into Dominican soil.

Concrete Floors- 140 people made concrete floors for seven homes where 23 people live.  To date, the total is 60 homes (for 246 people).  In addition, a concrete multi-use outside court was made at a school of 168 students.

Water filters- 53 people made 67 clay filters for 335 people.  To date, 1,041 filters were made benefitting 5,205 people.

These numbers don’t include the amount of hours volunteers spent teaching English to Dominican adults and children.

Do these numbers seem insignificant to you?  They sure don’t to us, nor did they to the others in our cohort group.

During our wrap-up session, we were encouraged to take this experience home with us to our own communities, and continue the mission of making the world a better place for all of us.

Personally, Bruce and I aren’t sure whether we made a greater impact on the women of Chocal and RePapel or whether we were more impacted by the experience.  What we do know is that we want to go back!  As soon as we returned home and walked in the door, we made some phone calls and got booked on another Fathom Impact Travel Cruise.  Although it didn’t work out to return for a full week in the DR, we did get booked on a voyage that will include both the DR and Cuba.  We will volunteer at Chocal twice and teach community English once while in the DR; and, the ship will call on Santiago de Cuba for a people-to-people experience.

I’m sure I will have plenty to write about after our next adventure, so stay tuned!

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Colin, our cohort leader after our wrap-up session.

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Bruce and I brought back Colin’s favorite Chocal chocolate bar to give him as our parting gift.  Unfortunately, he’ll be on leave when we return for our next cruise.

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Our new friends, Jessica, and her dad Len.  Jessica is sporting a temporary tattoo of Fathom’s logo.  This was the “prize” I won during a shipboard activity during the sailaway.

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Rayna, and her dad, Carl, came aboard with Mom and Sis.  Like Jessica and Len, they were table mates during the cruise.

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Our last sunset in the DR

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Arriving in Miami

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Quite another perspective from our cabin window!

 

 

 

 

 

 

PUERTO PLATA AND AMBER COVE

The last time I was in the Dominican Republic was the summer of 1977 when I was fifteen years old and getting ready to enter the 11th grade of high school.  It still boggles my mind to think that was forty(!) years ago.  How can that be?  I don’t even feel forty years old!

That summer of 1977, my parents took us four kids on a cruise aboard NCL’s MS Skyward.  It was our first (and only) cruise as a family, and it was my first time out of the country.

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That’s me with our tour guide in Puerto Plata, 40 years ago at the age of 15 (with a little more hair, and a few more pounds on my frame).

I was curious to see if I would remember any of Puerto Plata, and Bruce had never been there before.  Not knowing what to spend our Vacations to Go shipboard credit on, we decided to take a Fathom excursion, “Best of Puerto Plata,” on our free afternoon in the DR.

The great thing about historical sites is they don’t change.  I was sure to recognize Fort San Felipe since it was built 1564-1577!  I did (sort of) remember it.  Here is what it looked like from the eyes of a fifty-five-year-old:

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We also visited the Brugal Rum Factory.  Unfortunately, the factory was closed for the day, so we didn’t get to see it in action.

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Here are more scenes from Puerto Plata:

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Plaza Independencia

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Back at the port, Amber Cove was bustling when Carnival or Holland America shared the pier with Fathom’s Adonia and increased the tourist population by thousands.  A well-designed port with a variety of recreational activities covering 25 acres, Carnival Cruises sunk $90 million dollars into the facility and opened it for their ten cruises lines’ ships in 2015.

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Amber Cove features a gorgeous meandering pool that is free to use, and other activities for a charge, including:  zipline, kayak and other watersport rentals, and cabana rentals.  There is also a restaurant, bars, and a shopping village.

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I had my eye on the pool, so I spent one late afternoon swimming while Bruce kicked back on a lounger.

Shopping options included a mercado with local handicrafts, so I picked up this purse made from coconut palms for Melody back in Vero Beach.  For me, I added to my chocolate label collection by picking up a couple of chocolate bars produced by one of Chocal’s competitors.  Shhh!

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We were impressed with Amber Cove.  It was a beautiful place to relax and enjoy during our free time in Puerto Plata!

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Next up:  It’s a Wrap:  Fathom’s Impact on the Dominican Republic

 

 

 

 

 

RECYCLING PAPER WITH REPAPEL

When Bruce and I first committed to traveling to the Dominican Republic (the DR) aboard the Adonia and participating in Fathom’s Impact Travel program, our vision was locked on Chocal.  Volunteering at the cacao plantation and chocolate factory was what I had my heart set on, and Bruce was pleased with the plan.

Once aboard ship, though, our cohort leader, Colin, persuasively talked us into signing up to volunteer at the paper recycling co-op.  RePapel is a women’s entrepreneurship initiative which turns wasted paper from the local community into recycled paper products that are sold to consumers.

We told Colin there was no way we would give up one of our Chocal activities, though, and RePapel was booked solid for our only available time—the Friday morning before the Adonia would set sail for her return to Miami.  Sitting at 7th and 8th on the waitlist didn’t look promising; so, we opted on Friday to see if there were some no shows out at the RePapel bus.

As it turned out, we were in luck!  A lady on our Chocal bus the previous day overheard us talking about our plan.  At breakfast on Friday morning, she came over to our table to say her husband didn’t want to go; so, she wouldn’t go either.  Would we like her tickets?  Heck yeah!

Off we went to RePapel where we would help produce paper beads for jewelry and recycled paper for handicrafts to be sold by the women.

By working with the women of RePapel, we would help the ladies generate more income for their families.  The co-op allows for flexible work schedules, so the women can spend more time at home caring for their children.  Fathom’s website states, “Unemployed or underemployed local residents are able to transition to self-supporting entrepreneurs, proving that community-driven economic initiatives empower and sustain communities.”

Upon arrival at RePapel, we could hear the ladies singing.  Our group of volunteers broke out in big smiles, looked at each other, and laughed.  These ladies were having FUN!  They were very happy to see us and gave us a warm welcome, as we made our way to the courtyard where we were split up into small groups.

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Bruce and I were first sent to the jewelry workshop where we used strips of colorful paper that had been torn out from discarded magazines.  We were shown how to make paper beads; however, Bruce and I were old pros at this task, since we had taught the handicraft in arts and crafts classes aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line cruises.

Next, we were given a piece of cord to string a necklace from the paper beads and a variety of other beads made from dried tree seeds.  These necklaces would be sold in their gift shop.  Time was quite limited at this station, so I quickly assembled this necklace before our group was transferred to the paper recycling station:

The first step in this process is separating the clean portions of used paper from the portions with ink.  We sat on the patio in a circle with one of the ladies while we tore sheets of the paper apart to separate these portions into different bins.  While we worked, our guide answered questions about life in the DR.

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The next step in their paper recycling process was to mix the small bits of torn paper with water in a washing machine to begin breaking down the fibers in the paper.

The wet, pulpy mixture is then scooped out of the machine and dumped in a blender (yes, the same kind you have at home to make your smoothies) to further break apart the fibers.

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The fun part in the process came next.  We were given a wooden-framed screen to use as a sifter to extract the cleaned recycled paper pulp from a huge sink where it was dumped from the blender. We then took it over to a table where we turned the screen over onto a piece of cardboard, pressed the screen, and then carefully lifted the screen off the wet paper.  The newly-created paper was transferred to the cardboard to dry on racks out in the sun.

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Once the paper is dried, it is removed from the cardboard and stacked onto another table.  Here, used roll-on deodorant bottles get a second life as a manual “iron” to smooth out the screen pattern marks and wrinkles in the paper.  This required some muscle—a great dryland workout to keep my swimmers’ shoulders and arms in shape!

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These sheets of paper were ready for the women to make stationary, greeting cards, and other handicrafts for sale.  I bought a five-pack of some cute little greeting cards with matching envelopes.

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The entire time we worked side-by-side with the ladies, they sang and danced.  From what I read from another blog, this isn’t their usual workday routine.  When the Fathom volunteers come to help (for a couple of days every other week), though, they are just so happy to have us there!

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Bruce and I were happy to be there to help these entrepreneurial women, and we were thankful we had the opportunity to do one last Impact Travel activity before the ship set sail for home.

The following are scenes from the neighborhood around RePapel:

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Just outside of the co-op where they were drying work gloves and clothes out in the sun.

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I photographed this cute little barbershop from the bus window.

 

CHOCAL: FROM BEAN TO BAR

In my previous post, I described the first steps in making chocolate, and mentioned how I talked my way into a factory tour for the following day.

Orlando made good on his promise to arrange a factory tour during our second day at Chocal.  After Bruce and I worked for awhile at separating cocoa beans, Orlando escorted us to the machines off the back patio where we met up with one of the ladies.  As she explained (in Spanish) the chocolate-making process and showed us the machines, Orlando translated as I attempted to record the information on my digital recorder.  As I sit here trying to listen to Orlando’s translation, the background noise of the loud machinery is making it very difficult to hear him!  Note to self:  Purchase ear plugs for the workers, because they aren’t using any, and they are going to lose their hearing!

Picking up where we left off previously, the next step in the chocolate-making process is for those cocoa nibs to be ground up in a grinding machine to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce what is now called chocolate liquor or chocolate liquid.

Next, the chocolate liquor goes through a second refining process to further reduce the particle size of the cocoa mass.  Cocoa nibs contain approximately 53 percent cocoa butter (depending on the cacao species); so, it is during this second refining process that the percentage is either increased or decreased, depending on the desired finished product.  For chocolate bars, cocoa butter needs to be added, so the chocolate liquor is transferred to another machine where it will be combined with additional cocoa butter and other ingredients.  This process is described below.  For cocoa powder, the cocoa butter content must be reduced.  At Chocal, they use a syringe to remove as much as possible.  Next, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove more of the cocoa butter.  Baking soda is added to the remaining cocoa and the “press cake” is cooled, pulverized, and sifted to form cocoa powder.

“Press cake” is also used to form cocoa balls for hot cocoa drinks.  This is what the ladies are making in the photo later in this post (and in the photos in my last post).

To produce eating chocolate,  extra cocoa butter is added to the chocolate liquor in a mixing machine, along with sugar and other ingredients, depending on the type of chocolate being made at the time.  In all, cocoa butter accounts for about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.

For milk chocolate, milk powder is used at Chocal, whereas fresh milk is used at Cadbury.  (If you have seen a Cadbury Milk Chocolate label, you will notice the logo showing that a “glass-and-a-half” of milk goes into each block.

After the chocolate is mixed, it is transferred to another machine to refine it.  Next the chocolate goes into a conching machine.  Conching is a kneading process that develops the flavor of the chocolate, releases some of the bitterness, and gives the resulting chocolate a smooth texture.  In general, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother the texture will be.  It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Chocal conches their chocolate for just a few hours; however, the entire mixing process takes a full day between the three machines.

After the chocolate is conched, it must be tempered before it gets poured into chocolate bar molds.  Friction during the conching process naturally heats up the chocolate.  That liquid is then brought down to temperature using a marble table that remains cold due to the air conditioning in the room.  The women spread the chocolate on the table using metal spatulas, mix the chocolate around, and fold it inwards to cool the chocolate quickly.

Tempering is a stabilizing process that helps keep the chocolate crystals from clumping together, which would give the chocolate a grainy texture.  It also gives the chocolate a smooth, glossy appearance and prevents the cocoa butter from separating out.  If done correctly, the chocolate bar will shine on the outside and make a snapping sound when broken in half.

Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds.  The women at Chocal do this by hand and tap the molds to remove any remaining air bubbles.

Finally, the chocolate is cooled and then removed from the molds for packing.

It was fantastic getting to see how the entire chocolate-making process is done, from bean to bar.  The machines were so much smaller and different than the ones I had seen in the large, modern factories; so, at times, it was a bit confusing trying to figure out which machine was doing what.  Some of it got lost in translation, and much of it just got lost due to not being able to hear!  I’m still not exactly clear on which of these machines do which job, but I figured it out for the most part:

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I believe this is where the cacao beans are roasted.

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After the beans are roasted, they go through a winnower to separate the cocoa nibs from the shells.  I think that is the job of these machines.

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Once all shells are removed from the cocoa nibs, the nibs are gound in this machine.

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This is the pressing machine where the nibs are pressed to make chocolate liquor for chocolate bars.  The remaining “press cake” that is separated from the liquor is used to make cocoa balls for hot chocolate and cocoa powder for baking.  Here, a syringe is used to remove the cocoa butter from the press cake, so the remaining cocoa can be used for cocoa balls and cocoa powder.

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I’m not sure about the purpose of this machine, but it may have been to further process the “press cake” for powder.

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This worker was using the smaller machine to produce fine cocoa powder.

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In this machine, sugar, milk powder, and additional cocoa butter is added to the cocoa liquor and mixed.

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Here, the mixture from the first machine is further mixed and refined.

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This where the magic happens!  The refined mixture is placed in this conching machine to grind it to a homogeneous consistency.  The full mixing and conching process takes one day.

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This is the marble table where the chocolate is tempered.

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Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds for chocolate bars and cooled.

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Nidia, our tour guide

At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to our group to assist with packaging the chocolate.  After we finished, the others made their chocolate purchases while Bruce and I went to see what the ladies were up to on the patio.  This time, when we said, “Hasta manana!” they believed us and flashed us big smiles.  We would be returning the next day for one last time.

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Milagros, the factory manager

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When we arrived for our final day at Chocal, the woman in the photo above (with the green blouse) ran up to me and gave me a big hug!  Our tour guide, Nidia, did as well.  We were pleased they were happy to see us once again.

After we completed our work inside, Bruce and I joined the ladies while our group hit the gift shop.  Instead of making cocoa balls, the ladies were sorting beans, so I joined in.  My new friend opened up a fresh cacao pod and shared the beans with me.  Although the beans are very bitter, the pulp is sweet and delicious!  The idea is to suck on the beans, and then spit it out without biting into the bean itself.  Yum!

 

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These beans sell for $2/lb.

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While we were working, some local farmers stopped by to sell their beautiful vegetables.  Nidia ran back to call out to the others, and some of the ladies ran up to make a purchase.

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The time came to say “Adios!” and “No, no manana” to the women, give them hugs, and make our way to the bus for our final ride back down the mountain from Altamira.  As I gazed out the bus window during the bus ride, I knew I wanted to return.  Bruce did, too, and the wheels in our minds started turning…  (More details will follow in a future post.)

In my next post, I’ll show you around RePapel, a women’s co-op that recycles paper and makes beautiful stationary and jewelry for sale.

Meanwhile, here are additional photos shot at and around Chocal:

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A local farmer spread his cacao beans out in the sun to dry.

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