ACES: Spring Break 2012

Two weeks ago, I traveled with a group of 16 Bucknell students and faculty to the Dominican Republic with a student-led group called ACES for a service-learning trip. I had heard only positive things about alternative spring break trips- these trips change your life- and as a graduating senior, I felt it was my last opportunity to apply for the chance to make a difference and find a new appreciation for everything I take for granted. Extremely unsure of what to expect, I packed up my carry-on and prepared for an adventure.

The Dominican Republic is a small island with rolling hills, tall palm trees and tropical flowers in pinks and reds. The sun seems to shine everyday and the water is the brightest, most vibrant wash of turquoise blues. Goats are tied together in small herds along the streets, nuzzling at the neighboring fruit stands full of bananas and mangos for sale. The radio plays Spanish music that reflects the language and the culture-fast, passionate and full of life. Children play in large groups from even larger families and every household is familiar with a plate of beans and rice. I felt the sincerity and compassion of the people like the sun overhead, a soft warmth that spread across my skin and into my heart. The people I met, the smiles I remember, and the stories I heard were full of suffering, compassion and unbridled hope.

I will break up my experience into a series of small vignettes, mental pictures that lay partially developed in the dark room of my mind. I hope to share them so the pictures, in all their beauty, will materialize for you as they did for me.

Vignette 1: Food Drive

We are standing in a single file line, leading from the back of the house up to the high metal gate. The straps of the bag-heavy with beans, rice, pasta, and cooking oil-dig into the skin on my hands. I can feel my palms tense and beads of sweat begin to form under the shadow of my sunglasses. The sun beats down on the faces of the women, children, and young men who wait on the opposite side of the fence. They stare at us with large brown eyes and I look down at my feet, wondering why I am here and they are there. 

Last night, the ACES group had made almost 200 food packages with measured Ziplock bags of rice and sugar, giggling and jamming to music into the night. The seriousness of our mission was realized as we counted bags and prepared for the morning activities. Some families will not get a bag, one of the group leaders tell us. We don’t have enough to go around. 

The food drive coordinator calls out names to come and receive their bag. One by one, the empty hands and hungry mouths appear before me. These are the neediest people in the community. Everyone will not get a bag. I feel ashamed. 

Children are everywhere. They play and joke but it is mid-morning, the time most children should be in school. Here in the Dominican Republic, school is not an entitled right but a treasured privilege. I am reminded of my own academic trajectory, the assumption that I would always go to a premiere American university. The distance between my dusty flip-flops and the small pink sandals of the girl standing behind the fence seem miles apart. She reaches her fingers through the holes in the fence and scuffs her feet. We are worlds away and close enough to touch.

After the drive, we take some time to walk through the community. The stream bed next to the houses is dry and caked in discarded food wrappers and plastic bottles. People are friendly and I speak to some children using my limited Spanish phrases. The girls give shy smiles and tell me their names. Before we get back on the bus, a couple of girls sneak up next to me and request a photo. I ask Phil to take some pictures of us and he obliges. They giggle and laugh at one another. I feel both warmed by their joy and angry at my helplessness.

As the bus rumbles away, I want to yell, “Stop, we have more to do! We have more people to help!” But I sit in silence as the houses disappear beyond my sight. I am reminded that there are always people who need our help, who deserve to know they are worthy and deserving of a life free from suffering. It is our job to never give up the belief that our small acts of kindness make a difference. Like water droplets, our seemingly invisible actions, when combined, make up an ocean of possibility.

Photos by Phil Kim ’12.

Bigfoot’s Birthday Celebration

Five weeks ago, on February 14th, I celebrated a very special day. I dressed in red, ate chocolate covered strawberries, and ended the night with a glass or two of red wine at the bar with three close friends. Each of us were there for the same reason, to pay tribute to a mystical idea which deserves yearly recognition. This event was Bigfoot’s Birthday.

Now some may have celebrated Valentine’s Day, a lesser known holiday having something to do with a saint, construction paper, and half eaten heart-shaped boxes of stale chocolates. For the majority of us though, Bigfoot’s birthday was just another reminder of how a wonderfully hairy individual has continued to elude the majority of us for one more year. And while Bigfoot Birthday cards have not hit Hallmark shelves, be on the lookout for some incredible party ideas.

The idea for Bigfoot’s Birthday started while eating dinner on February 13th. Many people are sick of the love conversation. They are angered that one day a year they must be reminded on how alone they are, how the whole world is sharing cupcakes and holding hands as starry-eyed lovers. I paused the conversation to disagree.

“For me, the way I feel about love is like the way I feel about Bigfoot. I’ve personally never seen him, but he doesn’t make me angry or anything. Maybe he’s real, maybe he’s not. So Valentine’s Day is like Bigfoot’s Birthday. Even if you don’t know it’s real, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate.”

And Bigfoot’s Birthday was born. Granted, Valentine’s Day was a couple of weeks ago and many of you may be disappointed that you did not know about this holiday alternative. Never fear! Another benefit about Bigfoot’s Birthday is the speculation as the actual day. To my knowledge, no exact date has been determined which means every day is cause for celebration. So put on a hairy brown suit, turn on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot, and clink glasses in honor of the camera-shy natural beauty. 

Traveling Vegetarian

Happy Spring Break…and Spring rolls.

I wanted to leave you with a blog post my friend Justin e-mailed me a couple days ago about Vietnam, a traveling vegetarian’s heaven. My requirements to finish my senior year (and senior thesis) was the only thing preventing me from buying a plane ticket on the spot. This short post reminded me of a couple students I had met at the Student Environmental Conference, vegetarians who chose to eat meat while on the dusty road, aka traveling carnivores. In foreign cities and unknown destinations, maintaining a healthy meat-free diet can be quite difficult not to mention the strange looks one might receive for refusing pork chops and BBQ beef. I need to tell them I found the perfect country cuisine.

For my Spring Break, I will be traveling with about 15 other students and faculty south to the Dominican Republic for an alternative spring break service trip called A.C.E.S (Advancing Communities: Educating and Service). We will be staying a week to provide medical care, construction help and educational services. In my effort to continue my vegetarian experience, I was relieved to find that there would be a beans and rice option as well as salad at every dinner meal. There was some question regarding the possible use of chicken stock in the dish but I will just have to wait and see. I may have to sacrifice some chickens next week and if so, Dear Chicken God- I am truly sorry. 

So with another international adventure ahead, I promise witty commentary and vivid pictures upon my return to the US. In the meantime, read about Vietnam and enjoy the spring weather.

Travel through Dance

The American College Dance Festival Association (ACDFA) Northeast Regional conference was held at Penn State this weekend, Friday through Monday. The four-day event invited students from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey to break from routine and luxuriate in the shared passion of dance. This year, Bucknell University was an anxious newcomer full of excited students and faculty ready and willing join the cause. The theme of the weekend for me was travel, movement within artistic expression.

Each morning, sleepy-eyed dancers piled onto the bus at 6:40am to make the 1.5 hour trek to the expansive Penn State campus. Our schedules were filled with a series of master classes and performances by fellow undergraduate students. First Experience with Travel: driving along Route 45 in the early morning and late evenings, blended images of Amish horse-drawn buggies and fields of grain moving past the windowpane. We cradled our coffee cups and granola bars as the other dancers slept, 40 extra minutes of sugar-plum dreams.

I traveled internally. Compositional Improvisation begin on the floor: eyes closed, lower back resting solidly on the slats of varnished wood. Move your body slowly. Become a traveler within your body. Explore as a tourist, investigating the knees and shoulders and triceps as new and foreign destinations. Tap into renewed physical awareness. Pam Vail, a modern dance professor from Franklin & Marshall, provided the Second Travel Experience: moving within body awareness. How often do we acknowledge our bodies, the vessel which selflessly holds our essential organs, bones and muscles? The most unique and intimate parts of ourselves are held suspended in a living, breathing organism moving through time and space. I thanked my body for its strength and support.

Travel Experience No. 3 was traditional movement as a dancer in space. The packed room channeled Martha Graham herself in deep-seated contractions and explosions across the floor. Head up. Arms out. Our bodies moved in leaps, turns and extensions working to awaken the skin on the soles of our feet and stretch elastic tendons. Dancers dancing long to travel in this way forever.

We travel by observation. As audience members, flocks of pastel skirts, bodies in stillness, and partnering synchronicity confused and excited us. I was transported to moments of love, pain, exhaustion and power. In this way, I moved with the dancers in physical envy, the Fourth Travel Experience. I was a lonely New Yorker, a cocky businessman, a young peasant girl. Art gives us the ability to travel effortlessly through time and place through other’s visions and ideas. Great dance embodies the most basic of human emotion without masks, frills or disguise. It is recognized by a universality of human connection. 

So travel, combined with PB&J sandwiches, handfuls of trail mix, and short naps during intermission summed up my ACDFA experience. I was part of a collective identity known as “dancer” and offered my own pointed feet and rotated hips to the organic community. And while my time as a college dancer is coming to an end, the love of dance and travel only grows.