One of the themes of our trip is the severe drought in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley. In the small city of East Porterville, the drought has certainly made itself known. The residents mostly depend on wells for drinking water and showers. Due to the drought, many people’s wells have dried up and people have no water to drink. Many are suffering, and almost all have looked to the Church for support. Pastor Roman Hernandez of the East Porterville Iglesia Emmanuel has made connections with Tulare County and some large corporations to help provide his community with water. On top of the usual spiritual support, the Church has collaborated with the county to set up two shower houses and an additional series of sinks and mirrors. The showers are separated by gender and age and run from 5 AM to 9 PM. Members of the community circle in throughout the day to utilize the facilities that, unfortunately, will only be available for two more months. Pastor Roman commented that as a minister he never imagined himself working with the Anheuser-Busch Beer Company, but surprisingly, the company has come to this community’s rescue. Budweiser generously donated 50,000 cans of water to the East Porterville Church to give out to suffering residents. Pastor Roman said, “In the beginning I was generous with the cans and I gave a family more than what they needed; now I am worried that I will be out of water by the end of the day.” Unfortunately, the large shipping container outside the Church is just about empty and the 50,000 cans of water have dwindled down to about 200. To show our support, we donated our only three gallons of water to a family who arrived while we were there. By chance, we visited East Porterville on a day when the county was conducting a door-to-door survey to find out which residents had water. Some of our students were able to go with the volunteers to help fill out the surveys. Hopefully, the county and the church will continue to work together to provide for the community but the drought continues with no end in sight.
One of the great parts of this trip is traveling in a group of six thirty-one-foot RV’s from El Monte RV rental. Spending time in the RVs is by far the most exotic experience of our trip as it is a way of living that none of us were familiar with and we needed to get used to it in some way, whether we liked it or not. The learning we gained from this experience and the adjustments we had to make in order to get used to the RV is what made it fun.
The RV is in general really well planned; it can shelter many more people than it looks like and we had to learn the techniques to turn the vehicle from a sleeping place to a form of transportation. The challenges were not few; we had to handle being with many people in a tiny space for a long time. The organization of the place was really difficult due to the lack of space to put our stuff. But when we stopped you can push a button and part of the wall moved out on both sides to give more room. Each time we moved, we had to clean up our mess so we could push in the sides to drive around. One of the RV’s was just for the photographers who are traveling with us, one was for the teachers and two were for the boys and two were for the girls. Each day we would go out to shoot and then end up in an RV park for the night. Some were really beautiful like the one in Malibu; others were kinda sketchy with people living permanently in their RV in the middle of nowhere. One night we even slept in the parking lot of a big Wal-Mart. You can do this when you travel in your house. Each night we would cook dinner and all eat together. The last night in the Sequoia RV Park we had a beautiful campground, cooked Jamaican food and sat around a big bonfire. Each person had to say what they liked about the trip and what they were looking forward to in Mexico.
The interesting part was that once everybody got used to it, our group became more united. Even though there were complaints in the beginning of the experience, we are now able to say we had a really fun time.
For our second day in Mexico, we continued working on stories we found the previous day. My group stumbled upon a restaurant in Rosarito called El Nido. While ordering lunch, we noticed a message at the top of the menu saying all meat and produce served came from their own local ranches. We spoke to the owners, who enthusiastically offered to take us to their farms. We arrived at the farm today around 6:15 AM and toured around until a little after lunchtime. Later, all the groups returned to Hotel Las Rocas for critiques. Ron and Michael (the photojournalists we are working with) gave great advice to our budding photographers on landscape, detail, and photo-journalistic styles.
We packed into the RVs and departed Las Rocas for San Diego. Needless to say, driving a caravan of six RVs through the crowded and complicated city of Tijuana was a real adventure. The GPS navigation took us through a wrong turn and cabs and cars coming from all directions soon swarmed us, forcing us to split up. Our CB radios fell out of range, so each RV had to fend for itself. A certain amount of panic ensued as we wandered the back streets of TJ (as the locals call it).
The lead RV, aptly named War Pig after a lead sled dog in Alaska, happened upon a kid on a bike named Alex who pulled alongside and waved for them to follow him. They tagged behind Alex for a short time and successfully made it to the border. Alex then turned around and went to find the rest of the caravan. Meanwhile, the other RVs (El Guapo, Paddy Wagon, Titan, Plague Ship Party Bus, and Magic School Bus) were circling the downtown area near the border trying to find the correct exit. Several signs pointing to San Diego led to dead ends and turnarounds; cabbies, kids, and people in other cars waved us on to direct us the right way. Eventually, Alex found us and told us to follow him. Plague Ship Party Bus was able to get to the border, but the other four RVs got separated again and had to find their way on their own. After around another fifteen minutes, we had all made it to the border crossing. Unfortunately, Titan was selected for “secondary screening”. After waiting for one and a half hours, the border patrol confiscated all of our eggs (yes, just some regular chicken eggs) and we finally were able to cross. The caravan was back together, and we headed to our final destination for the night, a Wal-Mart parking lot. We set up camp while some kids ran into Wal-Mart for some dinner. War Pig even cooked up some steak and pastry puffs. Fully exhausted, we finally got some some well deserved rest to prepare for the morning drive to the Central Valley.
Today we divided into our small work groups and traveled by taxi to separate locations. Some groups went to The Wall, the giant fence where the USA/Mexican border meets the ocean, while others explored the streets of Tijuana and Rosarito. My group (Nikki, Dan, Jeong Ho, and Luca) had the pleasure of visiting “The Ranch”, a large community centered around a Christian Church, the Iglesia Bautista El Camino, a home for orphaned and abandoned children, a Mexican school, and a Christian English Bible College. We departed Las Rocas Hotel at 4:30 am and arrived at the compound at 5:00 am to attend an early morning bible class. After we visited some of the children’s classes and observed their daily routine, we sat down for a formal interview with Bob Walker, the American missionary who established the Ranch, and his son, A.J., a former student at the American school. Bob and A.J. gave us insight into their teachings of the Faith and how the children find salvation, as well as how “The Ranch” was established and how it continues to flourish. Afterwards, we interviewed Tiffany, an American missionary who has spent two months teaching at the Ranch. It was interesting to hear about the Ranch from a different and more relatable perspective. Once we completed our interviews and gathered tons of footage and photographs, we had the opportunity to play [and speak broken Spanish with] the kids from the home. We played soccer and basketball with them and they took us around the Ranch, showing us their animals and the activities they like to do after school.
Once we bid farewell to the children and the wonderful people at the Ranch, we headed back to Las Rocas for a quick nap and to prepare for our photo critique. At 2:30 pm, the whole group gathered in the conference room for three hours to share our photos with our amazing professional photojournalists Michael Robinson Chavez and Ron Haviv. They gave us extremely helpful feedback on our images, pointing out the aspects we did well and offering suggestions to improve our photographs both in post-production and in the field. After several hours of critique, we loaded the RVs and went to cross the border back to the USA.
The night before we left for Ensenada, photographer Michael Robinson Chavez told Tristan, Julia, Mark, and me to meet him in the front lobby of our hotel by 7:30 am. Originally we were going to drive down an old road and explore the quirky shops and villages along the way. Then, Michael spontaneously decided to contact his friend Tito, who manages a classical music institute in Ensenada. We piled into the small taxi and began our coastal journey down to the port city. Upon arrival I noticed Ensenada’s pristine condition and its repetitive tourist shops. I was concerned that I would not be able to find any good material to photograph that day because it was almost too perfect. After a heavy American pancake breakfast, we arrived at the institute to find that it was empty. When Tito arrived he informed us that the students would not appear until late in the afternoon, which would conflict with our schedule. Tito said he would take us to the only nursing home in Ensenada, and to a Catholic church where he taught nuns to play classical instruments. When we arrived at the nursing home, we were taken down a light-filled corridor lined with couches, blankets, and resting seniors. Many of them were unresponsive, while others struggled to understand me when I said “hola”. We were led into a small room where a group of seniors were painting flowerpots. Evelisa, a woman who works with Tito, quickly stationed herself at the piano and began playing Mexican classics. Immediately the grim atmosphere lifted in the room while many of the seniors clapped and danced. It was charming to see their faces brighten at the sound of the music.
After leaving the nursing home, Tito brought us to the Catholic church. A nun dressed in red and white greeted us. She brought our group to the music room where various nuns nervously filed in. They clutched different instruments including violins, a flute, and a mandolin. The remaining nun sat at the piano. They only played one song for us because they had to rush to their afternoon prayer. I have little experience working with nuns since I am not catholic, so it was slightly surreal witnessing them playing these instruments. As we were leaving they kindly gave us Mexican rice pudding. Unfortunately, we could not include any images of the nuns as they requested we not publish them. We finished our afternoon in Ensenada with the best fish tacos ever! We said our goodbyes to Tito and Evelisa, squeezed into our small taxi, and drove back to our hotel in Rosarito.
Today I awoke to Skelly’s torture for the second day in a row (yesterday it was cold water, this morning a super duper loud wakeup call and a bunch of dirty dishes to wash from last night’s dinner). Ask anyone, I am not a morning person and there is a very specific protocol you have to adhere to in order to wake me up. Most people don’t have the skill set. Lucky for Skelly, he can be equally as intimidating as me in the morning when needed, but the rest of the time he’s just a goof.
Yesterday was a long travel day as we left Fairbanks at 1:15 am, flew to Seattle and then landed in Los Angeles around 9:30 am. We then had to pick up the RV’s and buy camping supplies so we did not actually arrive at the Malibu RV Park until after dark. We woke up to a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean and realized that we were not in Alaska anymore! After the dishes were washed, we started our Great Student Cook-off Competition! Here’s how it all went down – Ariel’s dad was nice enough to buy us lots of ingredients (Lobster, Steak, Shrimp and much more) and the teachers set up five different buckets with random ingredients like radishes, clementines, scallops or Spam. Each RV drew numbers out of a hat to decide who would cook what. After all of the ingredients were distributed, we had three hours to prepare our dishes and we were required to use every ingredient in our buckets, plus a few “free items” such as salt, pepper, olive oil and charcoal for the grills. Things got very competitive very fast. Each RV team had to bring our completed dishes to the judges by 1:00pm. Our team members were me, Ariel, Jackie, Sabrina, Dillon, Tristan, Maria, Big Kitty, and Jodie and we chose the bucket with steak, mushrooms, potatoes, bacon, Spam, onions, garlic and fennel. We organized ourselves extremely well as the majority of us were experienced “chefs”; we even cleaned as we went! The RVs were extremely cramped to cook in, but we all got along and worked together seamlessly, while some of the other teams had very heated arguments and we heard a bit of screaming. In the end it all worked out and turned out to be nothing more than a fun, healthy competition. Some of us had relatives that live nearby including alumna Julia Greenberg ‘08 and my cousin Jake who were invited for lunch and they turned into our celebrity guest judges. Our final score was based on appearance, taste, and how well we used our “surprise” ingredient (ours was Spam). The boys (Dan’s team) got really creative and displayed their food beautifully on really big leaves they found (and cleaned) in the campground and they came in first place; our team placed a close second. We felt very successful and we all had a great time.
Later that day, the LA/Malibu area had some heavy rain-showers, which were greatly appreciated by everyone in the campground! It even included a beautiful double rainbow that everyone photographed. Last, but not least, we had a special dinner for Ariel and Dan’s birthdays (both turning 18!) at Typhoon Restaurant, which was really fun and delicious. Overall, it was a very packed, exciting and special day.
As we reached our last day in Alaska, a group of twenty students and teachers decided to venture out and enjoy a small plane ride tour over the dramatic Alaska Range and especially Mount McKinley. When we reached the runway we stood in awe of the beautiful Alaskan landscape. As the first plane came in sight, the students rushed to grab good footage of the landing. Jon Nierenberg, our guide for the week, arranged for the two small planes to fly down from Fairbanks and land on a tiny runway with no terminal at all. An abandoned cabin and an unused RV were the only objects in sight. After the tiny planes landed, we boarded and took off. The mountains of Alaska were even more breathtaking from this point of view. We all sat in silence as we took in every minute of these outstanding sights. Snow covered peaks and giant glaciers were laid out below us. The plane ride was so relaxing and peaceful, with the sound of the engine running and the warm air inside the plane, some students even dozed off, later calling it the most expensive nap they will ever take. We flew around the tallest peak in North America and the pilot even flew close to the sides of the mountain so we could feel the wind pushing the plane around. After a dramatic hour and a half flight, both planes landed safely and we rushed back to the Touch of Wilderness B&B to pack our things as we were heading for our flight from Fairbanks to Seattle and our next adventure.
Alaska welcomed us with a sunrise so picturesque I could post it on Instagram with a #nofilter tag. After a hearty breakfast at the Touch of Wilderness B&B, we started our day. We drove in Skelly’s (A.K.A Yellowjacket) Suburban and blasted Avril Lavigne and sang along to Kelly Clarkson, a secret Skelly will take to his grave, until we arrived at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali National Park. The park is over six million acres, roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts. We would only be able to see a small fraction of the entire place.
Upon our arrival at the learning center there were a few civilian casualties courtesy of the black ice lining the walkway. After a very informative talk about climate change and its effect on the Alaskan landscape, we embarked on a short hike into the park. In the winter, the park road is only open for twelve and a half miles up to the Mountain Vista Rest Area. The park was originally founded in 1917 to protect the area around Mount McKinley, which at 20,320 ft. is the tallest mountain in North America. In 1980, the park was expanded to its current size. During this hike we learned more facts about the ground we were walking on, and even got to witness MJ (our teacher) pick apart a piece of moose dropping to show us the difference in their diets during the winter time. She said that in the summer they are full of nutrients like a fully topped pizza but in the winter they are dry as a cardboard pizza box.
During our hike we were able to take really cool photos and some of the more daring photographers (with waterproof shoes) jumped into a stream to take shots from under a sheet of ice. We got to see Luca fall a couple more times and then we retreated back to the learning center.
At the learning center, MJ kindly let us interview her on all things climate change and her own personal experience with Alaska. After we interviewed MJ we were able to interview Chris, a park ranger from Ohio, who was able to shed some light on why people choose to move to Alaska and the dichotomy between life in Alaska and life in the rest of America (what they call “the lower forty-eight”).
Finally, once Ivan was satisfied with the interviews and we managed to get enough footage in between phone calls and door slamming interruptions, we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the lodge. It was a great way to be introduced to the Alaskan landscape and wildlife and I now have a much better understanding of the place where we are living for the next few days. All of this being said, I can’t wait to go dog-sledding tomorrow!
What better way to get into the swing of Alaska than heading into the wilderness with Frodo, Dos, Python, Cora, Pirate, Willow, and another sixty Alaskan sled dogs. We drove down to the kennels at Earthsong Lodge after breakfast and got acquainted with the dogs. John Nierenberg, the owner of the lodge, gave us a rundown on how to control the sled, and it was soon time for us to mush on our own. It began snowing. We stood anxiously on the sled brakes, bobbing up and down as the dogs tugged feverishly at the towrope. Running is clearly in their blood, and all they want to do is go. The guides gave the go ahead and we released the brakes. The dogs exploded off the line, leaving us at the mercy of their jet fighter-like acceleration. We hung on for dear life as the dogs reached a blistering cruising speed of eight miles per hour. All right, so they weren’t quite jet fighters, but for all of the adrenaline junkies on the trip, it definitely did the trick.
It wasn’t long before we had gotten the hang of it and were mushing through the open tundra. We could now relax a little and take in the spectacular views that Denali has to offer. We were surrounded by miles of rolling hills dotted by spruce trees with a backdrop of towering peaks that pierced the clouds. We traversed fields, lakes, and narrow tree lined paths along our twenty-mile journey. By the end of the day, though we were exhausted, all we wanted to do was keep sledding. The fresh air, the amazing views and the incredibly friendly dogs themselves made for the perfect post-travel day. They gave us an adventurous and lively start to our journey and got us all excited for the rest of the experiences to come in the next three weeks.