Sunday, January 28, 2018

48 Hours in Toronto - Part II

We started Day 2 with a tasty breakfast cooked by Ruzanna -- cheese blintzes and egg battered Canadian bagels (and tea).
After breakfast and showers, we headed out for adventure. First up was the Vikings exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. We learned about Viking history and enjoyed pieces from history and the present. Due to the nature of sea-life, some items haven't survived and were recreated from painstaking research - like the Viking ship sail on the bottom left corner. My sword fighting was limited in range and Ruzanna was disappointed that the wool sack-style dresses weren't on offer in the exhibition gift shop.
While the wood failed to survive, these iron rivets from a boat did. I liked how they were displayed.
We fueled up with this tasty peanut butter tart in the café (and the fruit that Ruzanna had packed for us).
We spent some time walking through the rest of the museum, taking in as much as we could (but there is so much to see). I liked this modern art installation.
We then headed to Sweetgrass Spa for some relaxation, swimming and massages. It started raining right as we left the museum, so this was a perfect way to stay cozy.
Relaxed and ready for our night out!
My visit happened to fall during Winterlicious, so we had lots of exciting prix fixe options. Ruzanna picked Cibo Wine Bar for our pre-concert feast. We both had a glass of rosé, the polenta fries with gorgonzola dipping sauce, the salmon, and the gelato with berries. Everything was delicious (especially the bread, not pictured).
The main event of the weekend - DJ Jazzy Jeff and Skratch Bastid - took place in Koerner Hall at The Royal Conservatory. (And no, we didn't pass through a filter of light, but I liked this image in black & white better.)
The evening was full of hip hop greatness - turntablism, scratching, collaboration, and instrumentals. There were amazing vocalists, rappers, stories and dancing. A good time was definitely had by all, and in a very acoustically impressive space.
Ruzanna wanted to go to another comedy show afterwards, but alas, DJ Jazzy Jeff kept things going long enough that I was able to make it to bed by 1am. Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

48 Hours in Toronto - Part I

A couple of months ago one of my co-worker pals, Ruzanna, invited me to Toronto for a concert and a visit. This weekend finally arrived! Ruzanna met me at the airport with quiche for the train back to the office. I (of course) went straight for the snack room and started comparing the Canadian snacks to the London, Portland (OR) and San Francisco snacks. They did not disappoint!
After work, we went to Poutini's House of Poutine for a delicious local delicacy.
I had the vegetarian mushroom and onion poutine and Ruzanna had the traditional poutine with gravy, cheese curds and hand cut french fries.
We then headed to the Toronto Light Festival.
It was cold but everything was so neat to see. I liked this neon sign, the fire breathing dragon and the starburst lights on poles.
I am not entirely sure if this was supposed to be interpreted more creatively, but it's a little hard to do my mermaid impression in a parka.
Before heading to our next itinerary item, we grabbed one of these for fuel. They described it to me as "sort of like a beaver tail" which I also wasn't familiar with. It was kind of like fried dough, only crispier and hollow in the middle so they could coat it with hot fudge. Not too bad! 
We ended the night at Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club. The show was hilarious. The headliner, Chuck Byrn talked about America and Canada mostly. I was almost falling out of my chair. He got on immigration policy in Canada and said, "So, our policy is kind of like, um, bring a coat? And there's a 60/40 chance our PM will come to the airport and bring you one!" Oh man, I do love Canada, and this is my second trip this year, so 2018 is bound to be a good one! 

Friday, January 19, 2018

All Hands in St. Thomas - Part III

In my last post I promised to bring you some of my favorite things and fun times that I had in between the work. I thought the views from so many of the homes were surreal, like postcards.
One of the nights, a group of us escaped basecamp for Red Hook, where the expats live and play. It was weird to walk into more of a resort area but the tropical beverages (complete with fuzzy lobster stir stick) were delicious. And, we stopped for ice cream on the way back to our taxi!
One of the volunteers in our group rented this tiki boat for our one-day weekend on my last full day. It had room for 300 people, so all of the volunteers, staff and community members were invited along. There was a steel drum band playing the whole time. It was a lot of fun.
We sailed around the bay where the cruise ships pull into the island and then headed into Honeymoon Bay on Water Island for lunch and a swim.
I couldn't stop taking photos of the water near the beach. So pretty!!
And probably the best part of my trip was meeting incredible people - both locals and volunteers. These two ladies, Holly (left) and Lise (right), were two of my favorites. We laughed and chatted non-stop after they arrived. I also met lots of other awesome people too (although they're not pictured) -- thanks so much for your warmth and general awesomeness, y'all! I have a strong feeling I'll be seeing some of you again soon.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

All Hands in St. Thomas - Part II

People have been asking me how things are in St. Thomas. I didn't take too many photos because we were either in a van driving to our worksite, or we were working. With many of the residents present, it's ideal to respect privacy and think about what people are going through. What I can share is that they still have a long way to go. Power is being restored - 92% of customers at present - but 9,100 customers still need to rebuild their homes before they can be reconnected. Roads are rough but passable - in some cases you have to wait on oncoming traffic to get around particularly large potholes. The New York Times wrote a great article on the power situation which includes other updates on January 9th. Here's a bit more about my trip:

Some of the houses look okay from the outside, minus the blue FEMA tarp where the roof was. In some cases, like with this house, there was no roof and two exterior walls were missing. With rain continuing to fall over the past four months, the damage continued.
In other cases, like this school, the building looked mostly fine at first glance, but black mold was hiding in the sheetrock and behind wooden trim. Spot testing needs to be done to make sure all the mold is removed and the areas treated before rebuilding. Much of the furniture was also damaged with the presence of mold.
Another challenge is all the debris. Once things are removed, they need to be sorted and organized while they wait to be removed by Public Works or private waste removal companies. If you have a vehicle, you can take things to dumpsters but they are very full. As you might imagine, space on the island is limited.
Speaking of space - here was my space at base camp. I had a cot that I put my air mattress on, which was so much nicer than sleeping on the floor. I had my own fan after the first night, which was luxury. And I had a spot to hang up my mosquito net. 
Clockwise from top left: we stayed in a church banquet hall that relies on a cistern for water, so the gray water from the sinks were used for toilet flushing.

The dishwashing station was outside the kitchen door (wash, rinse, sanitize system going on there!).

There were four indoor showers for 70 people, so I usually opted for the outdoor, port-o-shower option which was hose-fed (cold water only).  Due to the limited amount of water, we took 90-second Navy showers (good thing my dad trained us well on his Coast Guard ships during kids' weekends!!).

The outside of the building (where the ladders slept).  Inside the door on the bottom floor, all the supplies and tools are stored. Each team has a little taped off square on the floor with all the things you will need for the day. Once the vans arrived, we loaded up and hit the road.

The inside of the second floor where we slept and had a kitchen (middle photo). We made our own breakfasts and lunches (yeah, don't ask what I was "cooking" myself). Dinner was made by an awesome local woman - Maekiaphan, mother of 12. During the storm, she and her husband cooked and distributed more than 3,500 meals to those in need after the two hurricanes hit the island. She was even featured on Good Morning America!

The last photo is everyone's boots - left so as to not contaminate base camp.
Work in progress - chipping away sheetrock stuck between screws and framing. (And yes, I know you're not supposed to stand on top of a ladder but that was the tallest one we had and I held onto the door frame just in case!)
Don't worry, it wasn't all work. Tomorrow, I will bring you some of the fun, friends and sights. Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

All Hands in St. Thomas - Part I

As many of you know, I had the opportunity to kick off 2018 in St. Thomas working with the community as they recover from the impact of Hurricane Irma (category 5 on 9/6/17) and Hurricane Maria (category 4 on 9/20/17). The organization I worked with, All Hands and Hearts, delivers post-disaster recovery assistance, primarily to high-need homes in partnership with volunteers from across the globe.

These households belong to people in a variety of situations - everything from lacking insurance (or enough insurance) to individuals with disabilities or income-based needs. An assessment team from All Hands goes out and meets with anyone who applies to determine how long the job will take and how many people the site needs. All costs are covered by the organization (except for dumpsters to haul away debris), saving the average homeowner roughly $28,000.

Before the rebuilding can begin, structures need to be cleared of debris (wet, organic and damaged dry materials) and items showing the presence of mold. After that, sanitation takes place which consists of lumber (mostly) being treated and scrubbed with bleach to remove and stop the spread of mold. After those two stages, rebuilding can begin.
When I arrived, I found out that the day off had been shifted, so my first day of work was actually our one-day weekend. So, a bunch of volunteers headed to Magens Bay for some swimming and sun. Referred to as one of the world's most beautiful beaches, it was featured in the movie The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part I. 
It was nice to see a little bit of the island, but all the broken palm trees were sad. This field was once a forest, next to the main road to the beach, where a cruise ship company has since replanted a bunch of saplings to bring the beach feel back to their guests. 
After beach day, it was time to get to work. I donned my Carhart's and a hardhat and found my name on the board - muck and guts were my week. Mucking is removing anything wet (standing water, mud, etc.) and gutting is removing the debris (sheetrock, tile blocking sheetrock, furniture, damaged appliances, carpet, roofing materials, screws, etc.). We also removed downed trees and roof debris from the yards.
This was a work order for my second day. The family has been displaced since the storms as their house is missing the roof and two exterior walls. You could tell from what was left how much care and pride they had put into their home. It was very sobering to see what was left.
Standard gear for the trip - kept me nice and safe!
Stats on the team's progress from when I arrived to when I left. Some of the jobs can take a half day and others can last a week. There were about 70 of us (10 staff and 60 volunteers) working on the project when I was there. Everyone worked incredibly hard and earned their sleep!
As we worked, lots of critters were around. The iguanas were my favorite.
Even though it was difficult to see people's homes torn apart, there was some hope in the air about things to come and beauty on the horizon. We learned about trauma recovery and some ways to make sure we were helping more than hurting. In trauma recovery (for natural disasters in particular), it is especially hard in communities because your support systems are also likely to be effected by the disaster as well. The two hurricanes effected 100% of the residents of St. Thomas and there is still a lot of work to be done.

If you have a weekend, a week or a month that you want to use to pitch in, check out the organization's website at the top. Most meals, lodging, worksite transportation, tools, etc. are covered by the organization - you just need to get there.

I am still processing the whole trip and have other things to share but wanted to get my thoughts started. Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Beautiful Banff - Day 4

For New Year's Eve, we went to Park Distillery for a five-course meal and live music. The distillery makes gin, vodka and rye whiskey. We booked too late for a table, but had two nice seats at the bar with a great view of scotches and whiskeys. Some of the highlights were the tuna ceviche and their chili vodka in a shrimp shooter and in a yummy pineapple cocktail. We left in time to walk back to our room to watch the midnight fireworks from our balcony window. Cheers!
For New Years brunch, we headed to the Juniper Bistro. We shared the salmon benny and the stuffed French toast (full of warm apples and brie). I love a good sweet and savory brunch!
After brunch, we headed out to find a few final sights including the Banff merman. Brian gave me a copy of Atlas Obscura for Christmas and this oddity is one of the Canadian mentions. The origin story is a bit of mystery but whatever it is, it's a rather creepy thing to behold.
We then headed to the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum to learn about several of the First Nations peoples in the area. This display let you stand on squares of light on the floor to hear a phrase in different native languages.
We then walked around a bunch of art galleries and headed back to the Park Distillery for a tour and tasting. We learned about their process and saw their compact, on-site facility. They have four vodkas (espresso, vanilla, chili and classic), gin and the rye whiskey. In 2020, they will have aged rye and they also have aged gin in their shop for sale, but we didn't get to try those.
We headed back to start packing and to do some reading. We walked around downtown a bit more and had dinner (which was fine but not notable). We have enjoyed our time here so much and really want to come back in the summer. Everyone has told us that the hiking is the best here and that summer is their peak time. It's hard to believe, given all the people here this week, but we're willing to come back and see for ourselves. Until next time! (Which I hope will be in a few days when I am off to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for some hurricane relief work, but the WiFi might prevent real time posting. Either way, I'll be back to share some photos and stories soon. Hope your 2018 is off to a good start!)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Beautiful Banff - Day 3

Okay, so as we were planning our trip, I saw this "mountain top New Year's Eve yoga class" and thought that it sounded like an amazing way to wind down 2017. Upon closer inspection, I found that in order to do it, you also had to take a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain. As someone who has always been terrified of heights, I figured I would worry about that part later. Last night I thought I might have a panic attack, but I was able to sleep and made it to the terminal.
I waited until the very last second to get in the line (and a giant tour bus had just pulled into the lot). When I realized that two other people would be riding with us, I forewarned them that I may act like a small child but I had my own tissues. They were super nice and chatted with us the whole 8 minute ride. The woman kept telling me I was doing a great job, patting my leg from time to time. I had my eyes closed most of the way up but wanted this photo proof that I actually did it. I was pretty excited that I didn't even cry (which my mom--and some small boys from a ski-lift incident in Tahoe--knows is an accomplishment).
It really was worth the terror of that tiny little box to take in the full view of the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park.
After an awesome yoga class, which really helped work out the previous two days of skiing, we bundled up to check out the view from the observation deck. There are seriously mountains on every side - so incredible.
This is the face of relief, and a tasty tequila cocktail to help my nerves survive the way down.
They snapped everyone's photo on your way back down in the terminal, right before the doors closed. We thought it was good enough to buy (although you had to purchase printed copies, hence the slightly wonky crop job on my part).
On our way back to downtown Banff, we stopped off at Surprise Corner to get a good view of the Fairmont Hotel (which is where we had sushi on our first night). There is another, equally as beautiful Fairmont Hotel in Lake Louise (where we had lunch the other day), which is about 40 minutes from Banff. 
We spent the afternoon walking around the shops in the shadow of the mountains. (Brian took this from the middle of a crosswalk.) Afterwards, we soaked in our hotel's rooftop hot tub (wearing our ski hats) and enjoyed the full moon. More on our NYE dinner in tomorrow's post -- but happy New Year to you!!