Knights Impact 2019: Adventure day in Grand Turk

For our last port day we did not schedule an impact activity but instead gave the students an opportunity to choose their own adventures. Most of our group had never cruised before, some had never been out of the U.S., lots had never swum in the ocean (it was only my second time) or gone ziplining or snorkeling or any of that good stuff, so even though it was more of a “fun” day it was still a good way to get everyone out of our comfort zones a little bit. We had about 5 hours in port in Grand Turk so we had to make the most of a brief stop. One group maximized the time by booking an excursion that squeezed in a dune buggy ride, horseback riding, ziplining, and snorkeling. They got back just in time to board the ship and they were exhausted, but very happy!

I went with 7 students who had chosen a snorkeling and conch diving excursion. Back in the fall in Cozumel was my first time snorkeling and I loved it, so I was excited to go again. Students had mixed experiences: swimming in the ocean was more daunting than they expected, and using the snorkel mask definitely takes getting used to. It’s not natural to breathe with your face in the water, and some of them said it was hard to remember to breathe through their mouths instead of their noses, or that the mask felt too confining. But everyone ultimately was happy and excited that they went, and I do think it’s much easier to do the second time than the first time, so I hope they will all try it again. After snorkeling we tried out diving for conch. I got back in the water for that part but didn’t actually dive, just looked around under water a bit more and then got out. My lesson learned yesterday was to take off my rashguard when I’m not actually swimming–otherwise I get too cold! Finally, we went to a small beach at Gibbs Cay to visit the stingrays. It’s amazing to see them just gliding around under the water. The guides knew how to catch and hold them so we could touch them and give them kisses. I touched one but did not give a kiss, even though it’s supposed to be lucky. (I don’t kiss the Blarney Stone either!)

It was a tremendous day that seemed to go by in a flash. Grand Turk is unbelievably beautiful with aquamarine water and gorgeous beaches. I definitely want to go back and spend more time there. Chris and I finished the day with fried plantains on the beach before collecting the students to board the ship and head for home. We’re on our final sea day now and will dock in Port Canaveral early tomorrow morning.

On the way to the reef

Snorkeling Mode: Activated

Conch diving

A swim noodle is your friend!

Rays under the water

Gibbs Cay where we visited the rays

Carnival Breeze (left) and Carnival Magic in port 


Knights Impact 2019: San Juan, Puerto Rico

We had a super busy and successful day in San Juan yesterday. After two stops in tropical-looking ports surrounded by rural environments, it was surprising to pull into a major city! We were off the ship at 8:00 a.m. and used Uber to get over to Casa de Niños Manuel Fernández Juncos. Casa de Niños is a home for boys ages 8 to 18 who have had to leave their homes due to abuse or neglect. Apparently some of their family situations are so precarious that their parents are not allowed to know where they have been placed. It’s always sad when a child can’t be with his family but the 30 boys at Casa de Niños receive excellent care including counseling and a transition program when they turn 18. The facility is spacious, tranquil, and immaculate, and it was even a little more immaculate when we got finished with it. Lidia, who coordinates donations, met us at the front door with a to-do list and the students got right to work washing vans, repairing a cracked wall, raking leaves, and cleaning windows.

These students continue to impress me with their willingness to dive right in and contribute, even in unfamiliar surroundings and for the benefit of people they don’t know. We also had a chance to talk to some of the employees and learn a little more about how Casa de Niños operates, and everyone asked excellent questions.

After our morning of work we toured old San Juan and the two forts/castles that stand on the coast about a mile apart. San Cristobal is on the northern side of the peninsula and El Morro faces west. I took a group of 4 students and we started at San Cristobal, then walked up along the coast to El Morro and down through the town with a stop for empanadas back to the port. It was a lot of walking after our strenuous morning but we enjoyed it. As we were leaving El Morro we encountered Chris with the other 8 students. They had run into the governor of Puerto Rico and gotten a picture with him! We did not get so lucky but we did get a picture with an iguana.

San Cristobal from below–we had stopped at a sidewalk stand for smoothies and fruit salad.

Both forts fly the U.S. flag, the Puerto Rican flag, and the Spanish military flag.

The cylindrical structure on the right is called a garita; garitas are symbols of San Juan.

In front of El Morro is a huge lawn where people fly kites.

Our group inside El Morro

They met the governor!

We met an iguana!

We were all happy to get back on the ship at 3:30 and relax before dinner. It was a big day! Sailing in and out of San Juan is beautiful because you sail right past the 2 forts and the city skyline.

Bye, San Juan!

Now we are en route to Grand Turk, our last stop. Today will be an adventure day: one group is going ziplining and horseback riding and another group (including me) is going snorkeling. Stay tuned!

Knights Impact 2019: St. Thomas Humane Society

We had a short (only about 6 hours) port day in St. Thomas, USVI today but it was enough time to finish a good chunk of volunteer work at the local Humane Society and still have a chance to visit a gorgeous beach. I was glad to see that St. Thomas has a Humane Society and it seems to be well supported with both funding and volunteers. There’s obviously considerable need for it as it was full of adult dogs, a couple of litters of puppies, and about 60 cats and kittens. The students dove right in to walk dogs, wash dogs, paint a kennel, reorganize a closet (probably the most heroic and necessary task of the day), and inventory donations. I had brought my camera so I found myself unexpectedly in the role of Dog Photographer (phodographer?). Like many shelters, this one has discovered that animals are more likely to be adopted if they have a cute photo online that doesn’t depict them in a cage. I hope I met expectations!

Can you resist this face?

How about this one?

How about a kitty?

I will say that this experience was a good lesson for everybody in the challenges of managing a volunteer- and donation-based organization. As a group of 14 we slightly strained the abilities of the 2-3 paid staff to keep us moving in the right direction. And the state of the closet that our students reorganized was a testament to the perils of accepting donations: you get stuff, you hope it’s the right stuff, you have to find a place to put it and a system to put it to use. All in all I am sure we left the Humane Society a little better than we found it, and the staff were grateful for our help.

MGA purple representing!

After the Humane Society we went to Sapphire Beach. A couple people had told me it was sort of a “lesser” beach but if that’s true I’m not sure I could handle the “nicer” beach. Sapphire is beautiful, set in a little round bay with a great view over to St. John, and with a comfy cantina and seating area for when you need a break from swimming in the gorgeous blue ocean. The students loved it enough that most of them did not even want to go souvenir shopping, and souvenir shopping is usually their favorite thing.

Knights getting a much-deserved swim!

I have more pictures but getting them uploaded is proving to be a struggle so I will just say goodbye to St. Thomas and give a shout-out to our fantastic van driver Petra. After today she is definitely an honorary MGA Knight!

Bye, St. Thomas! Hope to see you again soon!

Knights Impact 2019: Sea day and Dominican Republic

Sunday was a full day at sea as we sailed from Port Canaveral to Amber Cove on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. The morning was gorgeous and I got up early to have coffee on the uppermost deck before most people were out of their cabins. We planned brunch and then dinner with the students as the basis for our preliminary reflection activities but gave them a good chunk of the day to explore the ship and get to know each other. They have a photo scavenger hunt to work on as well as a door decorating contest and nightly presentations about the islands that we are visiting. At brunch we started off with some reflection questions: What was your motivation to participate in this program? What have you already learned since leaving home? What do you want to know about someone else in the group? What do you expect from our activity tomorrow? The answers were interesting and varied and overall this group continues to impress me: they like each other, the ones who didn’t know each other at first are becoming friends, the more withdrawn ones are coming out of their shells, and the more extroverted ones are acting a little more nuanced. Plus they are ALWAYS on time and in place, and often better at solving minor logistical problems than I am!

Between brunch and dinner I had planned to eat sushi with Chris (we barely ate at brunch on purpose) and then go to the pool for a while. We accomplished the sushi and it was delicious, but no sooner had I changed into my swimsuit than it started raining and Did. Not. Stop. It rained till well into dinnertime! I love a sea day more than anything but I was not quite prepared. I did try to make the most of the time by taking a few pictures around the ship:

The main dining room, which is called Sapphire. Shout-out to Nelson, the hardest working waiter in the business!

Does every ship have one of these atrium lobby situations?

The Lido deck before the rain started

Apparently it’s called a “whale tail.”

Knights Impact door-decorating prowess on display

Bonsai Sushi where Chris and I had lunch. Delicious and very affordable.

Le sigh.

And I did have other work to do so the day was not lost. Sea days are the best, no matter what the weather. This one was capped off by the first “Elegant Night” dinner. It is always cool to see our students dressed to impress!


This morning we arrived in Amber Cove and were off the ship for our first impact activity by about 9:15. We worked at a women’s chocolate cooperative called Chocal and got to learn about the entire process of growing cacao and making chocolate as well as how Chocal was formed and how it has grown. The town of Altamira where Chocal is located–about a 45-minute, steep, hilly, occasionally harrowing bus ride from the port–is largely agricultural. Women in particular have few job opportunities. A group of women who were doing small-scale chocolate production found a market for their product (organic, artisanal chocolate) and have grown their production through government grants and partnerships and plain hard work. It’s nothing like a factory: although they now have small drying machines and sorting machines for the cacao, a great deal of the work is still done by hand from planting seeds and transplanting seedlings to molding chocolate bars and sealing up packages of cocoa powder. We got to try out nearly every step of the process: filling bags of dirt to plant seeds in, planting the seeds, walking through the harvesting and drying process, breaking up and separating the seeds, and then molding chocolate. Most importantly, as a group we filled almost 1000 4-ounce bags of cocoa powder to help Chocal complete an order of 8000 bags that had come from a local supermarket that is now their biggest customer. I had a great time doing all the tasks, tasting everything that was handed to me, and inflicting my tiny Spanish on the staff, but as usual I was most impressed with the students, who pitched in whole-heartedly and with tremendous energy.

Learning how to plant cacao seeds.

Moving planted seeds into place.

Filling bags of dirt to hold seedlings.

Teamwork makes the dream work!

Filling the bags the seeds would be planted in.

Our guide Alexandra explains the drying process.

Look at this excellent group!

At Chocal’s processing facility, up the road from the nursery.

Molding chocolate: if your mold looked right, Raina (in the red bandana) would reward you with a spoonful of the melted chocolate.

Filling cocoa powder bags.

We were at Chocal for 4 hours and it felt like about 90 minutes. All too soon we had to head back to the port and get ready to return to the ship for our 4:00 sailing time. It was surprisingly emotional for me to see Amber Cove again and then have to leave it so quickly. It’s a beautiful country and being there in 2017 was my first experience of the Caribbean and its special way of life. I’m really glad I got to go back and I’m glad the students appreciated it too.

Late lunch in the port before boarding.

Back on board and adios, Dominican Republic!

Beyond this point: bonus pictures!

Dominican flag flying on the ship for our arrival in Amber Cove.

We have all been photographing our food:

Fruit plate at brunch

Ebi nigiri

Tuna & mango tartare

Beet carpaccio with grapefruit and blue cheese

Towel animals are mandatory:

And finally, maybe students think I am at least a little bit cool at least some of the time?

Knights Impact 2019: Sailing Away

Let’s cut to the chase: all the students were on time, we made good time on the drive down, everyone was good-humored about being wedged into a van, all the luggage actually fit in the van, the ship is delightful, the food is excellent, and I’m pretty sure everyone has already learned at least one thing. All in all an outstanding departure day!

We–12 students, 2 leaders–left Macon at 5:30 a.m. after Chris executed some heroic luggage Tetris to get everyone’s bags into the back of one van so that we were able to all ride together. These students and their family members are champions: most of them had had practically no sleep but managed to show up on campus by 4:45 to make sure we got away on time.

So awake-looking! So cheerful! Most of them slept through most of the ride down.

We took this photo to make sure we could reproduce the arrangement on the way back.

The drive was long (6+ hours) but not difficult. Check-in at Port Canaveral was hectic but only in the way that getting 5,000 people and their bags out of cars and onto a ship inevitably is. Our students showed good problem-solving and communication skills from the beginning: one spent an hour or so of the drive on the phone between her bank, her boyfriend, and her mother to locate a deposit that had mysteriously vanished from her account. She was unflappable, though she did say afterward that she’s probably going to change banks.

Once we got on the ship (around 1:30), things moved very fast: into our cabins, upstairs for lunch, over to a quick program meeting, and then off to muster drill. Muster drill is the cruise ship equivalent of an airline safety presentation, but everyone has to show up to their muster stations and they literally take attendance, so it doesn’t go nearly as fast. Most of us caught a quick nap between muster drill and dinner and showed up to dinner looking much more perky than we had been before. For the first time in my short life as a cruiser I slept through our actual departure from the port! (I have an excuse: I’d been up since 3:00.)

Our neighbors at Port Canaveral were a Disney ship and another Carnival ship (Elation).

Everyone on deck for the sail away party!

Waving to people on other boats is more fun than it should be.

Program meeting: downloading the Carnival Hub app and adding ourselves to a group chat, going over the rest of the day’s schedule, handing out some homework.

We are doing a door decorating contest and students are already hard at work.

Group dinner in the restaurant was great fun as everyone tried new food and got to know each other better. I think we’ve got an excellent team here and I can’t wait to see what happens over the coming week. Tomorrow is a sea day (my favorite!) so we’ll be doing some team-building and reflection activities as well as having a little time to recuperate between our travel day and our first service-learning day in the Dominican Republic on Monday.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Knights Impact 2019: Packing!

Tomorrow morning at 5:00 a.m., my colleague Chris Tsavatewa and I will set out with 12 students en route to Port Canaveral to board Carnival Breeze for a week of service learning activities in the Eastern Caribbean. Our GroupMe has been buzzing all day with packing talk. As a packing aficionado I couldn’t wait to weigh in (hmm, pun intended?) on the topic. Other than 2 sea days (one at the beginning and one at the end) we will spend our days in port doing volunteer work at organizations like the Humane Society and Salvation Army, so we don’t have to be too dressed up, but we also need some nice clothes for “elegant night” dinners and maybe the odd bit of swimwear. Here’s what I came up with and what I did with it:

My suitcase: low-cost-carrier carry-on size. It has lived a good hard life since I bought it in Paris in 2015 for practically no money.

T-shirts ahoy! Not pictured: one pair of jeans, which I’ll wear on the drive down tomorrow.

This is the largest number of swim pieces I have ever owned. I highly recommend a rashguard top (long-sleeve swim top as pictured on the left) if you burn easily or are at all concerned about sun exposure.

2 dresses, 1 pair of linen pants, 1 pair of linen shorts. The linen is already wrinkled but I dont’t think the dogs at Humane Society will mind.

Everything in the suitcase including toiletries, flip-flops, pajamas, and a sweater. Now for carry-on items:

Electronics and chargers (add to this my Olympus E-PM1 camera, which isn’t in the picture because I used it to take the picture)

Wallet, passport, headphones, keys, spare lipgloss, Milou folder (you should distrust people who call him Snowy) with travel docs and program information in it, another folder with some homework, and a Royal Caribbean lanyard which Chris assures me is okay to take on a Carnival cruise.

I have to throw a few things into the suitcase in the morning but overall I’m ready. Watch for more posts this week as I visit 2 new territories, one new country, and return to the Dominican Republic for the first time since 2017. I am excited but I think the students are at least twice as excited as I am!

P.S. Wouldn’t have forgotten these but I almost forgot to give them a shout-out: Sea-Bands! Maybe it’s “just” the placebo effect but seriously: THEY WORK.