JHU Around the World: The Caribbean

Old San Juan

Welcome to JHU Around the World, a collection of my thoughts and musings as I travel the world representing Hopkins! I’m Dana M., and this is my fourth year back at JHU working in admissions (I’m also an alum – I graduated in 2001 as a Political Science major).  I have traveled abroad on my own and for Hopkins before, but this year, I am literally spanning the globe!  By the middle of November, I will have traveled to 8 countries on 3 continents, with 5 languages and 8 currencies.  Just don’t quiz me on what day or time it is, and I should be fine!

You can read about my past travels:

China

London

Turkey

Paris

After two very short, jet lagged days back in Baltimore (there was so much delightfully, trash tv on my DVR and football to watch!), I set off again for group travel in the Caribbean.  Initially, I was supposed to join Alec from Columbia, Denny from Tufts and Jodi from U Penn for an 11 day trip to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Trinidad; but Hurricane Sandy through a wrench in the plan, requiring a (somewhat) dramatic escape from Jamaica (more on that to come!).  I am writing this blog from the Philadelphia suburbs (I read PA too), and at the risk of sounding paranoid, I feel like Sandy followed me….

There were lots of downed trees and detours in PA!

But back to the beginning!  Alec and I were the first to arrive in Puerto Rico, so we met up at the airport and headed into San Juan to check into the hotel and settle in.  Our hotel was located right on the beach, and with a few free hours, I decided to bring my book down (still A Storm of Swords) and read ocean side.  I don’t know if I was just tired from all of my travel or if the ambient ocean noise is really that relaxing, but I read all of 3 pages before falling asleep under a palm tree.  It certainly wasn’t the worst way to spend the afternoon, and I met up with Alec that evening to head into Old San Juan and scope out the dinner scene.  We walked around a bit and then picked a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant.  I’ve loved all of the local cuisine so far, and Puerto Rico was no exception.

The next day, we met up with Denny for a mourning tour of the old city and some afternoon school visits.  Old San Juan is quite charming -- it’s an old colonial city and reminded me a lot of  other former Spanish colonial cities like Managua, Nicaragua.  The architecture is quite lovely and there are a number of artisan shops sporting traditional Puerto Rican carnival masks, called vejigante.   Alec purchased one, but he had is safely wrapped up before I thought to take a picture.  Any google search will show you these amazing creations.

Puerto Rico was both very hot and very rainy when we were there (had I known what was coming, I might have been happier about it), so after our walk around we headed out to our school visits and evening program.  I’ve been getting my fill of political ads now that I’m back in the US (and in PA!), but it was interesting to be in a common wealth where there are very particular issues of statehood that dominate local politics (the three positions as I understand them are for statehood, for secession, and for the status quo as a protectorate).  One of the guidance counselors from Baldwin was actually running for local office in addition to managing a heavy load of seniors (talk about being well organized! I asked what day it was at least 10 times over the trip!).

Old San Juan
Old San Juan
The beach at San Juan

The next day, we had one more visit before heading to the Dominican Republic.   The Dominican Republic is one of those countries that collects revenue by making you purchase a visa at the airport to enter (Turkey does the same thing), but Denny had to pay an “extra tax” to the passport control agent before getting his passport back.  Looking back on the experience, what I find most amusing was my reaction: shock and indignation!   Prior to working in admissions (and campaigning in 2008), I spent three years working as a white collar criminal defense attorney.  I have represented individuals accused of far worse than soliciting a $10 bribe, and the idea this surprised me shows just how long I’ve been working in my ivory tower! (I say this lovingly, of course, but college admissions is far more idealistic than either of my previous professions: law and politics.)

So we entered the Dominican Republic under somewhat auspicious circumstances, but it was by far my favorite part of the trip.  That evening, we were taken out to sushi by a great alumni couple (the husband when to Columbia and the wife to Tufts.  The daughter was far to young to recruit to JHU at under 3 yrs old, but I thought about planting a covert bumper sticker or two).  You might think sushi was an odd choice but just remember that the fish is very fresh and very local.  Some of the best sushi I’ve had has been in the Caribbean, and the plate of sashimi we ordered was divine!

Santo Domingo

We began our school visits the next day and met two very interesting students at Carol Morgan, who were working on an environmental project affecting the ocean life in the Dominican Republic.  The guidance counselor, Michael, showed us a fish tank in his office containing two lion fish.  I myself am a diver and a fan of the BBC series Blue Planet (it’s excellent!), so I knew these were very aggressive fish that have to be kept away from other species in tanks, lest they eat their companions.  What I did not know (and the students told us about), is that the lion fish are not indigenous to the Caribbean and that in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, many pet owners opted to release them into the ocean rather than have them suffer an untimely demise.  These fish have rapidly increased in population and are a real threat to the ecosystem.  They have no natural predators in the Caribbean waters, spawn twice a month, and eat up to 100 fish a day.  Lion fish are successful predators because they have venomous fins to sting larger prey with, and while they are not dangerous to humans, they are generally thought of as poisonous by locals in the caribbean. In Asia, lion fish are delicacy, and these two students were working on an environmental project to encourage local fisherman (and students in elementary schools) to fish and eat them.  They are also working to feed small chunks to sharks in the hopes they acquire the taste.  Fascinating!

Saturday was our day off on the trip, and after such an informative prior day, I opted to spend the morning diving.  I did two see lion fish on my first morning dive, and though they are quite beautiful in person, I gave them the evil eye.  I also saw several eels, rays, a scorpion fish, arrow shrimp, and possibly my least favorite sea creature of all -- a school of jellyfish!  They swam bye during the descent on my first dive (easy enough -- down I go!) and again near my safety stop on the second dive, when I was supposed to remain still (to avoid decompression sickness and quickly eliminate nitrogen from their blood, divers will stop 3 -- 5 meters below the surface).  Let’s just say I was squirming during that stop…

I was also given a banana to take down on my second dive and feed to the first school of (non-jelly) fish I saw.  I had no idea fish liked potassium so much, but it was quite an interesting experience!

httpv://youtu.be/u8zJKVT8N9Y

After my dives and a nap on the beach, I met up with Alec, Denny and Yishiro (the Columbia alum, sans JHU bumper sticker) for a very lovely beach side lunch of ceviche and grilled octopus (delicious!).  We also walked around Santo Domingo afterwards (another pretty, Spanish colonial city) and found ourselves at an outdoors art festival/live music performance.  One of the performers downloaded a whole zip drive full of Dominican rap and hip hop music for Alec, which I have waiting for me and my gym mix on dropbox (the internet is amazing!).

On Sunday, we headed for Jamaica, via Miami.  Though the two islands are very close together, there weren’t any direct flights (apparently, people living in one island don’t need to vacation in the other, which makes sense once you remembered that you yourself don’t live on a tropical island…).  Despite meeting some great students, riveting conversations with local guidance counselors, and eating some truly delicious jerk chicken, we had pretty lousy luck in Jamaica from the get go (or maybe we just used it all to get off the island on Tuesday!).

Jerk restaurant cooking pits--yum!

Jodi from U Penn had been traveling in South America, and was supposed to meet up with us in Miami for the second half of our Caribbean trip (Jamaica and Trinidad).  Her flight from South America was delayed, so she missed our connecting flight and had to fly out the next morning (which had her missing our morning school visits as well!).  Alec and Denny both had their packages of college materials seized by customs and had to return to the airport on Monday to retrieve them (fun).  I myself received an unrequested wake-up call on Monday about an hour before my own alarm was set (and couldn’t go back to sleep), but the hotel offered me a free massage to compensate for it, so I’m not sure that actually counts as bad luck.

On Monday morning, Alec, Denny and I spoke to a packed house at Hillel Academy in the hills of Kingston.  In Kingston, the wealthier citizens live in the hills, well above sea level; a fact I found interesting (it’s both geographically more desirable and more secure), but less relevant prior to Sandy.  After Jodi arrived, Alec and Denny returned from the airport with their boxes, and I had my massage (again, not such a hardship), we set off for an afternoon Education USA college fair and then an evening program at the American International School of Kingston. The evening program was very well attended (as they had been in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic), and we were asked lots of good questions by our visitors.

After the program, Cheryl-Ann took the four us to a fantastic, local jerk restaurant.  I am still thinking about the chicken and the festival sticks (they are kind of like donuts, but appropriate for dinner time consumption, or so I have told myself).  During the ride over, she started to tell us about reports of a hurricane making landfall in Jamaica Wednesday morning.  You would think we were abreast of this situation already, but Sandy hadn’t really been on the national radar much before that Monday and during my travels I have had very limited access to TV and the internet.  It actually reminds me of my days as a freshman at JHU (I didn’t even have a cell phone!).  I was so wrapped up in what I was doing -- from meeting new people, to attending new classes, and joining new clubs -- that I spent very little time in front of the TV or reading the news.  The internet certainly existed when I was in college (yes, I had email), but it was nothing like it is now (no Facebook, no Twitter, and the word blog was non-existent!).  My life freshman year was really consumed by the life I was leading, and this trip has felt very much the same.  For most of the day, I remain disconnected from the outside world, and spend very little time on the internet or watching TV when I can (timezones and language barriers don’t help either).  So you can imagine my surprise when dinner conversation turned from college admissions in Jamaica to the impending hurricane!

Our plans the next day involved a college fair and tavel to Trinidad on a 7:40pm plane.  We tried to move our plane up, but their were no more direct flights that day, and the airlines required that all changes be made at the airport (about an hour away), so we opted to keep our original schedule.  I am lucky to have an all-around fantastic family, and one of the things I learned from my father is how to be calm in moments of extreme stress.  I am sure you have all had the experience of hanging out with two or three friends, where one person’s bad mood influences how you all feel about the day.  Now add extreme stress and danger to the situation and change bad mood to panic, and you can understand why it’s important to the group dynamic that you remain calm (and even be a southing voice).  So all day I kept saying, “It’s going to be ok,” “We are going to be fine,” (true) and “We’ll make it to Trinidad” (wrong).  Denny took to referring to me as the “optimist,” and I think the mantra did as much to calm my own nerves as it did to help our group.

And of course there were bad signs throughout the day.  It rained all day on Tuesday, with the downpour picking up as the day went on.  The fair ended early and schools across Jamaica closed at noon.  Jodi’s alum cancelled their lunch because she lived in a flood prone area and wanted to get home early to batten down the hatches.  The airport Fedex (Jodi also had her packaged siezed!) closed hours early at 1pm and it took her twice as long to return to the hotel -- between the flooding and traffic -- as it did for her to head out.

After Jodi’s experience, we were unsure how long it would take us to actually get to the airport, so after we all finished lunch (our hotel had excellent food), we opted leave early for the airport -- and it’s a good thing we did!  Despite being listed as on time on line, our flight to Trinidad was cancelled.  When we arrived at the airport and realized this, it felt like time slowed down.  Almost immediately, we saw our airline only had one more flight leaving Jamaica that day (and for several days afterwards) to JFK, and that they were closing check-in in only 25 minutes.  All four of us live in the North East (and 3 of us either live in NY or have parents there), so a flight to JFK was the second best option (the first, of course, being our flight to Trinidad).  Immediately, Alec ran over to the Caribbean Air help desk, and we all followed closely behind with our luggage.  After some quick pleading (very quick!), the clerk ran over to the check in counter to see if there were even 4 seats left on the plane.  We must have been saving all of our Jamaica luck for this moment, because they agreed to check us and out luggage in (quickly) and rush us through customs and passport control.

It was a very full flight, so we wound up with four of the last seats on the plane.  They boarded the plane an hour and a half early and we took off more than an hour before its scheduled departure.  As I stood online to board, the calm I felt all day started to fade away.  Airlines don’t move large planes up by over an hour unless they NEED TO LEAVE NOW.  So there was a part of me that was nervous about take-off in the rain and an even larger part of me that was afraid we wouldn’t actually take off at all.  Jamaica is not a country prepared to withstand a hurricane like Sandy.  There are many working class and poor citizens that live in homes with tin roofs, so I knew the destruction could be devastating. In fact, 70% of the island lost power and the government enforced a 48 hour cerfew in Kingston on Wednesday to prevent looting.  The thought of having to try and return to the hotel and weather the storm without preparing beforehand (there was a supermarket across the street that was no doubt bare by Tuesday night), was frightening.  I didn’t mention my stress until after we landed (panicking on a full plane is even worse than panicking in a group of four!), but I did close my eyes and quietly say a prayer until we were airborne.

The view from the plane window

We landed close to midnight, so Jodi wound up staying at my parents appartment that night (Alec lives in NYC and Denny’s Mom does as well).  Jodi left early the next morning and I spent the next two days in the city recuperating (plus my parents really missed me -- I hadn’t been home since August!).  It wasn’t I realized how completely exhausted over the next two days that I realized what a toll the stress had taken on me.  Apparently, my calm attitude is the Dorian Gray of emotions -- I pay for it later!

NYC the day after leaving Jamaica. There is no place like home!

Despite loving my trip, there is really no place like home, and the return to NYC was very sweet.  I went for a run in central park, a swim at the UWS JCC, saw my mom installing her George Bellows exhibit at the Met (it’s a very cool process -- filled with conservators, curators, art techs, markings on the wall, and of course art.  Sadly, she wouldn’t let me photograph it, as she was afraid I’d immediately post it on line.  She’s a smart lady), and saw three college friends (Anna, Bonnie and Brian).  Somehow I knew there would be some dramatic moment in NYC (it seemed almost natural after Jamaica), and in fact I watched Bonnie leap up and give the himlich maneuver to a patron at lunch after she noticed her choking.  It was really the oddest thing -- Bonnie had also traveled to Turkey that fall, so one moment we were talking about our mutual love of Istanbul, and the next minute she was telling me to hold on…. It’s the third time she’s had to do that this year, and I have since taken to referring to her as “wonder woman.”

Vadim ’01 (and Paris travel buddy) and Bonnie ’01 in their “casual” clothes.

Of course, after all of this, I really thought I had escaped Sandy.  But as Justin Heller wrote in Catch 22: just because your paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

Stay tuned for my next around the world installment: Monaco and Nice (now with fewer conspiracy theories)!

Things I learned about travel in the Caribbean:
-- None of our evening programs started on time in the Caribbean -- in fact, I was the only one who had expected they would!  Without fail, if we called a program for 6, that was the general arrival time of most guests.  So by the time you check everyone in, you don’t wind up starting until 6:20.  I  am chronically 5 minutes late in life (it makes my mother crazy!), so I actually found this quite charming.
-- The Jamaican accent is amazing.  I’ve heard lots of different accents this fall, but this was my favorite.
-- Having to escape Jamaica led to some delightfully nerdy puns on my facebook page.  My favorite came from my friend, Kimmy: “let us know if Jamaican it out ok.”  It still makes me laugh.
-- Caribbean coffee is excellent.  I am a bit of a coffee snob and addict (which may explain my height and most certainly explains my crankiness in the mornings).  I had to struggle through quite a few cities this fall (occasionally opting for tea or resorting to diet soda), but finding a good cup of coffee on this trip was easy.  I had planned to buy a few bags at the airport on my way out…..