A Travellerspoint blog

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Why I'm Breaking Away

You know that saying, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life"?

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Just days after an amazing farewell party from my colleagues and friends from Good Jobs New York (http://www.goodjobsny.org/newsroom/signing-after-13-years-bettina-damiani-steps-down-project-director-good-jobs-new-york), I hit the road. It wasn't easy leaving a job that I love, much less one that I was thankful to have for over a dozen years.


But for as long as I can remember I have wanted to take a trip that would take me to another country for months and allow me to immerse myself and learn its language. After saving my pennies and preparing best I could, it seemed like the spring of 2014 would be the perfect time to start. The next seven months will reconnect me with family and friends, send me on an adventure that will help me make new friends and to study and speak Spanish in Central America. "Breaking Away in 2014" will document all the adventures (mostly good, but I'll share the missteps, too) that await me and share them with you. Enjoy the ride!

Posted by BettinaNYC 08:40 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Week One: Hitting the road

A road trip from Florida and visiting family and friends

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The first adventure (I broadly consider this sabbatical having three: road trip from Florida to NYC, visiting family in Rome and studying and traveling in Central America) is to visit my mother's sister, my Aunt Nancy and to pack up a van with what's left in a small storage unit that included many items that belonged to my mother and her family. It was a quick visit to St. Pete but I was thrilled to catch up with a couple of high school friends and enjoy one of the best treats the town has to offer, beautiful beaches and sunsets!

Waking up the first day of my travels at Fort De Soto Park.

The warm waters of the Gulf seem to bring out the best in Chad and my high school friend Debbie and her husband Mike.

View of the sunset from behind the Bilmar on Treasure Island.

We took the slow road back home to New York with the first stop in Savannah, Georgia where we camped outside of town for a couple of nights. It was a delightful, sunny day where bits of American history were available at every turn. With my eye on urban planning, I was excited to check out the historic district’s amazing architecture and many planned pocket parks. And so many trees! The students, I assume mostly associated with the Savannah College of Art and Design, create a youthful vibe that juxtaposes the hundreds years old buildings. A very cool town.

A 500 year-old tree. Amazing!

After Savannah, we drove to Raleigh, North Carolina and stayed with my cousin Allison and her pup, a boxer-mix rescue named Minnie Mae (yes, you must say it with a Southern accent). Allie suggested we visit Stagville [http://www.stagville.org/], one of the largest plantations in the South that got its start in the late 1700's. At over 30,000 acres, it is a huge testament to the country’s history, as troubling as it is. The official tour was in three sections: the home of the owners, the homes of the slaves in Horton Grove and the Great Barn. The barn built by slaves was immense and seemed as strong today as when it was built in 1860. The most moving moment of the tour was visiting the homes of the slaves where the guide pointed out fingerprints in the bricks of the chimney. We were encouraged to touch the bricks and to appreciate the tactile-ness of the museum. Words can't describe what it was like to touch those bricks.

In the center, the imprint of a hand.

At the top right, toes, possibly of a child.

After nearly a week in a car, we arrived safely in New York. By the way, has anyone driven long stretches of Interstate 95 lately? I lost count of how many drivers are texting, talking on their phone, eating and sometimes doing a combination of all of these. I certainly prefer the slow road.

Anyway, we were back in time for Easter.

Now, it's time to unpack from the road trip and get read for family and friends part two: Italy!

Posted by BettinaNYC 13:53 Archived in USA Tagged florida savannah raleigh Comments (0)

Roman Holiday, Only Better

Visiting friends and family continue in the Eternal City

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Teatro de Marcello, Rome

Visits with family and friends continue with a two and half week springtime trip to Rome. As always, it fills my heart to visit Italy and I am lucky to have the most welcoming family. There’s nothing like Rome’s chaotic streets, the sunlight (it really is different here), the hum of the vespas and the gentle clanging of espresso cups on their way to the sink. And then there's the food.
I was fortunate to be in Italy in time to join my cousins and my aunt and uncle to celebrate Zia Pia’s (my great, great aunt) 102 birthday! She looked great and there’s no better way to celebrate a birthday like that than with a cake with tons of in-season strawberries and champagne. That day also included a trip to my Zio Silvio and Zia Rita’s home in San Cesareo, just south of Rome. Memories of visits to Italy in my youth are most strong at this warm home with an amazing garden where I undeniably had some of the best meals of my life, played with dogs and many, many cats, and where I sang to all kinds of music (especially the Beatles) loudly with my cousins.

Today, new memories are created as I spend time with my cousin Marcello, his wife Antonella and other cousin Fulvia, her husband Fausto and son Filippo with whom I stayed. They are sweet as pie, even Filippo when he whirls a nerf soccer ball by your head. For those unfamiliar with the obsession of Italian boys, the need to play calcio, even in the living room, is something that cannot be tamed.
Chad arrived in Rome a few days after me and the tourist activities began in earnest. A couple of days into his trip, we celebrated his birthday by getting up at the crack of dawn to see Pope Francis at Wednesday’s general audience service. We wedged ourselves into Piazza San Pietro with tens of thousands of other people from around the world and patiently waited for the pope mobile to come in our direction. While my view consisted mostly of back of peoples hands and their cameras, I did get a couple of good glimpses. It felt good to see this pope and give him a bit of a thumbs-up.

Auguri Chad!

A day trip to the the north of Rome to Bomarzo above with my cousins and below at Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Braccio with Chad.


Fulvia and Fausto enjoying a break in the sun at Bomarzo

As Chad and I visited many of the traditional sights in Rome I was reminded of past trips when Fulvia and I were given nearly free reign of places. For example, and maybe it was just the excitement of being young in a fantastic place, but I hold on tightly to memories of running with abandon in the Castle Sant’Angelo in all its nooks and crannies conjuring up ideas of how fabulous (and terrifying depending on what room you were in) it would have been to be there in during the Roman Empire. That’s not to say that Italy should not protect its treasures the best it can but so many closed doors and velvet ropes puts a damper on the imagination.

More Damianis after an amazing meal at Kosher Yotvata at Piazza Cenci
Zio Giorgio (far left), Zia Rita and Zio Silvio (seated far right) and lots of cousins.




Comfortably situated on the high-speed train back to Rome from Florence, I reflect on the beauty of this Tuscan city. I also am shocked at the amount of luck that presented itself to us while here. We arrived at the Termini, the main train station in the center of Florence without a hotel reservation. In the high season. On a budget. But it was mid-week, I told myself. We’ll find something.

With the typical shrug of the shoulders and slight raising of the hands, I was reprimanded by a woman who replied to my shock at the quote €150 per night for a room. “Signora!! It is high season!” Chad and I walked away like deer in headlights. After an unsuccessful phone call and a linty of “booked” responses from internet searches, we went old-school and hit the pavement to find a room.  Near the train station, just after one of the staff of a hotel told us they were booked, someone yelled down the stairs that a room had opened for one night and at a rate so much better than the €150 we were quoted before. After sharing a cafe with one of the owners later that morning we were informed that the room remained available for the rest of the trip. Whew!
For our trip to Florence I was content to roam around the city and take in a day trip to almost anywhere but Pisa. Yes, the tower and basilica are amazing. The throngs of tourists are not. But Chad had his heart set on seeing this iconic bell tower so we compromised: arrive at the crack of dawn before even one busload of tourists get there. Our Florentine luck continued when one of the owners of the hotel (whom I had recruited in trying to talk Chad out of going to Pisa) said that a previous guest could not use a round-trip train ticket for two to Pisa and had left it for her to give to someone.  Travel tip for those that need to see the Tower of Pisa: go very early in the morning. We arrived just before 8:00 to a serene piazza with only a couple of folks meandering around a 1,000 year-old church and bell tower with a passing local getting to work on a bicycle. And some workers.

In Pisa. Yep, still leaning.

Another wonderful turn of events thanks to Facebook (it pains me to say that) is that I learned a friend and former neighbor was in Florence to perform in an opera festival. Chad and I joined Jonathan and walked the curvy strade dodging the fashionistas in search of what I was told was the world's best sandwich. And it is true. All'Antico Venaio did not disappoint. I still can remember my dreamy sandwich of cheese, zucchini, and truffles on warm bread. You don't go for the five-star service (though the guys behind the counter didn't laugh when I asked them to make me their favorite combination without meat, so that is five star to me!) since there are only a handful of seats crammed into the side of the spot. On my second visit there, I blissfully ate my sandwich with a glass of Brunello while sitting on someone's stoop a few doors down from the shop. For me, it was the best seat in the house.

To top off (or ruin, depending on who you talk to) our trip to Florence, we shared the train back to Rome with the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Thanks to Chad for the paparazzi-like photo.

Going to Italy was an unexpected part of my adventure plans for 2014. But I am so grateful for the experiences, the chance to have Filippo show me the amazing sights of Rome and thrilled that I was able to share with Chad one of the world's most beautiful countries.

Posted by BettinaNYC 15:31 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Introducing Wonky Thoughts

Italy Edition

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It's no use trying to stop my brain entirely from looking at the world through a policy lens while on this adventure. So instead of fighting it, I'll attempt to nurture it with the occasional "wonky thoughts" entry. I hope readers chime in with their experiences, thoughts, and of course corrections along the way. That said, I can't imagine a better first wonky post than one from Italy.

Italy's changing demographics have been written about ad nauseam. Among the reasons, broadly speaking are immigration from people fleeing poverty, low Italian birth rates and the economic crisis that has effected much of Europe's Mediterranean countries. But an underlying component that is now even more glaringly obvious to me is the role of organized crime that fuels the immigration piece. Of course, everyone knows the mafia and its influence on business, but I underestimated its role in the world economy.

During dinner with a friend from work when they lived in New York City, Dan and his wife Elisa, who moved to Rome a couple of years ago, Elisa recommended Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia (a best selling book and now mini series) after I had mentioned the obvious increase in the African and Chinese population that was shocking to me since my last visit here in 2006.

Reading the book written by Roberto Saviano, a journalist from Southern Italy, it is part thrilling autobiography and part lesson in economics of organized crime, (the business model is too complicated for me wrap my head around) I realized that the mafia is the glue between the rise of immigration in Italy and access to cheaper fashionable consumer goods for not only Europe by the U.S. The Africans hawking cheap Gucci and Prada bags on the streets of Rome and Florence made by Chinese workers help fuel this demand.


Certainly, the factories of Tuscany and Naples that make the clothes and leather goods were difficult to work in when mostly skilled Italians labored in them. But if history is any guide, I can only imagine the awful working conditions endured by these recent immigrants. I've always peered at the goods being sold on Canal Street in Manhattan with more than average skepticism. But now, I presume there is a similar, if not the exact same, business model taking place in Italy and parts of the United States. If you read the book, the beginning is particularly a page turner, I suspect you'll never look at buying clothes the same way again.

Posted by BettinaNYC 14:11 Archived in Italy Tagged thoughts wonky Comments (0)

Part Three Begins!

Nica Travels and Spanish School

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I had read that all of Nicaragua wakes up at 5:00 am. My first morning here proved that tenfold. It was a Saturday just shy of 4:45am and the sounds of a marching band, fireworks and celebratory gunshots competed with the roosters under our window to ensure the visitors from the north were awake.

In our first days in Central American we've found everyone to be generous and full of smiles. Chad and I enrolled in a Spanish school called La Mariposa that is also an eco-hotel, animal rescue, farm and runs a handful of community oriented projects. The school is a gem of a place and we're really enjoying our Spanish classes.

I was fortunate on our first full day to be at the school while most of the students were off on a day trip allowing me to join the school's founder Paulette for a hike with about a dozen of the more than twenty dogs that live here. We reached the top of hill to be rewarded with an amazing view of the Masaya region where I got my the first glimpse of a volcano. Paulette, a social worker from the UK set up La Mariposa about 10 years ago after having spent years traveling here. Hearing about her dedication to creating a businesses committed to socially and environmentally just practices was a perfect transition into this adventure.

We've decided to do a home-stay versus the other boarding options (eco-hotel or cabanas) because we wanted to be exposed to the language and culture of Nicaraguans. And it fit nicely into our Central American budget. Our new Nicaraguan family could not be kinder. Hernaldo, the father is a bounty of knowledge as his family has been in the region for generations. He speaks proudly of his garden and fruit trees with my favorite being the handful of avocado trees that periodically drop its goodies at my feet. His wife Aura Maria has never ending patience with my broken Spanish and delivers up amazing meals from a kitchen that most American's wouldn't recognize. Their granddaughters (one is nearly 2 years-old and the other around 20 years-old) that live with them are charming. The baby, Angelina has finally started to warm up to us, especially Chad affectionately calling him "Chad-ee" and Miracela is at university in Managua studying English. This makes for wonderful conversations when she is there and she helps us learn cool words Nicaraguan kids use like "tuani" that means awesome.

This first week also introduced us to the magical Laguna de Apoyo about 45 minutes south of our town, La Concepcion. Swimming in a lake that some believe has healing powers was just what I needed after a very hectic beginning. The water is warm because the lake is inside the crater of a volcano. Resting with a cold beer and reading while swinging in a hammock is just what what the doctor ordered!


Sunsetting over Volcan Masaya

Last night we had a night hike on the Volcano Masaya. It was the first time I had been near an active volcano and it is stunning. Albeit it a bit noxious. We learned that the community that lives closest to the volano, Panama, must endure chronic health problems and serious infrastructure issues since the gases from the volcano eat through everything, even nails.

I am happy to say that as we round out week two in Nicaragua, I am settling into a groove (Spanish classes in the morning, activities or relaxing in the afternoon), enjoying immensely the abundant wildlife, new friends and I just might be learning to tolerate cold bucket baths!

Posted by BettinaNYC 16:42 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged spanish school la mariposa Comments (4)

File under lesson learned

You say goodbye and I say hello.

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It took a couple of days for us to realize this, but when the locals we pass on the street respond to our "buenos dias" with "adios" they aren't blessing us. They are saying goodbye. Which actually, makes sense, no?

Posted by BettinaNYC 17:00 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Libertad for an anteater

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Our stay in Nicaragua is not just Spanish lessons. We recently helped the staff of La Mariposa return an anteater to the wild. Someone had dropped it off here (La Mariposa is an animal rescue, too) noticing it was injured. The folks at La Mariposa nurtured it back to health and asked if we wanted to lend a hand transferring it back to the forest. Without an ounce of hestitany, Chad and I jumped into the back of a pickup truck and off we went. Here's Chad's great video of the event:

And the view of the Nicaraguan countryside from the back of the pickup was spectacular.

To learn about Chad's experiences on our trip, check out his posts on tumblr: parfeay.tumblr.com

Posted by BettinaNYC 12:59 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged anteater Comments (2)

A day in Leon provides an introduction to American history

Who's Oliver North?

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Tidbits of Nicaragua's history were evident in nearly every turn during a day trip to the city of Leon. The country's original capital, it is now home to universities, commerce and striking architecture. Though it is far from touristy.

Instead of opting for a museum on contemporary art, we chose a less traditional destination which turned out to be the saddest and weirdest part of the day when we went to the Museum of Legends and Traditions or Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas. The subject though was timely since the week prior, my conversation classes were about duendes, or trolls. I learned that duendes are not considered just a myth here. In fact, they are frequently sited here, even just last week, if you're to believe local TV news reports.

The most striking thing in this eclectic museum is that it does not tell tales of myths but of many truths. The museum was a prison during the Somoza dictatorship where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and killed. Visitors are sent through a range of emotions: one minute we are looking at the locally made gigatonas (larger than life puppets seen in parades and pictured below) only the next to be distracted by what used to be prison bathrooms.



Another must-see site and one of the highlights of the day was a trip to the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion, the largest church in Central America. The view from the roof was beautiful: volcanoes in the distance juxtapose colonial and more modern architecture.

One of the many activities at La Mariposa is a weekly history lesson. During last week's discussion about the Revolution a photo of Oliver North popped up in the powerpoint presentation. For the Americans present we knew who it was immediately but the professor giving the presentation momentarily forgot North's name. Who could blame him? Oliver North is small potatoes compared to the most famous American around here, William Walker. Walker is so famous in Central America that Costa Rica has a celebration in his name. They celebrate his death.

I either forgot or was not taught about this peculiar bit of American history. But our tour in Leon gave me the highlights: In the 1850's, American business interests were intent on taking over Nicaragua and Walker was their man to establish an expedited route for shipping gold from California to New York. William Walker promoted these efforts by making himself the president of Nicaragua, instilling English as the national language and reinstating slavery. Long story short, he was booted out of Nicaragua and later assassinated in Honduras.

The trip to Leon was a fascinating history lesson. And not only to learn about colonialism and revolutions. One of Nicaragua's most famous poets, Ruben Dario, is revered here and while poetry is normally not my go-to art form reading his works (here for example: http://www.dariana.com/R_Dario_poems.html) provided a new cultural lens to help understand this part of the world.

Posted by BettinaNYC 13:27 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged leon Comments (2)

Wonky thoughts: Bad NGO. Bad!

From Nicaragua, when good intentions go wrong

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Latrines, the only viable option for the rural community near La Mariposa, on the right. Donated toilets that require water are unused on the left.

The staff of La Mariposa, aside from having fabulous teachers also have an array of people behind the scenes that help support the surrounding communities in more subtle ways. For example, like when a non-governmental organization (that will remain nameless) bought materials and built bathrooms for the nearby Panama community. Panama, sitting under Volcano Masaya, is one of the poorest communities in Nicaragua. There are most likely many reason for this but that side of the volcano is enveloped by noxious fumes (that eat through most building materials) and other than pineapples, not much else can be grown there. Also, here's the kicker for any conversation about development, there is no running water.

All of this makes Panama a great place to provide much needed assistance. So, while building toilets in a desperately poor, rural Central American community sounds like a lovely idea worthy of a group's annual report, building them where there is no water supply and monster eating fumes, turns out simply to be a waste. Staff from La Mariposa remedied the problem by building latrines. Water is so rare, a fellow student Joshua who has volunteered at the school for the past three summers, told us during lunch one day that kids ran out of class during a rainstorm to shower.

Fellow student (and proud Texan) Markey gives the durable concrete slide a try outside a school in Panama. The fumes for the volcano would eat through a metal slide.

Posted by BettinaNYC 09:56 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged wonky Comments (0)

Leaving the La Mariposa Nest

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For two months I was fortunate to call the tiny barrio of San Juan de la Concepcion home and was graced by La Mariposa's kind and excellent teachers, its staff and countless animals (I will spare you the endless photo stream of dogs, birds, turkeys, roosters, chickens, monkeys, frogs, butterflies and various unknown critters). OK, here's just one!


La Mariposa is an oasis not only because it is in the jungle but because it introduces students to the generosity and culture of Nicaraguans while simultaneously contributing to the local economy. La Mariposa is more than a language school and eco hotel. It's a farm and animal rescue, has helped programs like a women's bakery cooperative and after school programs get off the ground. It supports librarians in at least two public schools and helped create a program for people with disabilities along with other countless acts to help its neighbors.

My grammar teacher Elisa has the patience of a saint and I will reflect fondly on our weeks sitting in "Lucy's Ranchero", even those hour-long drills of verb conjugation! Learning a new language is rewarding but learning from strong, confident women like Elisa is a thrill.

Volunteering on a reforestation project. We also researched how to build bat boxes to help increase the bat population that is threatened due to development, pesticides and deforestation.

The La Mariposa experience would not have been the same without our homestay. From the moment we walked into the Blass' home, we were treated like family, despite our limited Spanish skills. Each day after school, two-year old Angelina greeted us screaming "Cha-betti! Cha-betti!" and ran into Chad's arms. Our gracious host mother, Aura Maria made the world's best frescos; juices from pitaya (dragon fruit) piña (pineapple) lemon, calala (passion fruit) among others.

Many evenings we watched (and judged from our rocking chairs) the Latin American version of Dancing with the Stars, Ballando Por un Sueno. I had heartwarming and sisterly-like conversations with their daughter Maricela who has an amazing, albeit quiet determination about her. There were fascinating conversations (lots of listening on my part) with our host father and I learned about Nicaragua's history from his first hand accounts. Stories of conflict are necessary to share but never easy to hear.

As we left San Juan I felt prepared to experience more of the sites and culture of this amazing country. A heartfelt thanks to all the people whose path I crossed that made the time at La Mariposa about more than learning Spanish including: the Blass Family, Paulette, Guillermina, Elisa, Richard, Ruth, Amanda, Marky, Joshua, Oscar, Marty, Kinema, Ismael, Gabriel, Moises, Miguel, Nixon and the Butterfly man, Erico.

Muchas gracias por todo!

Chad joins teachers and other students in a soccer game.

Posted by BettinaNYC 17:55 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged la mariposa Comments (0)

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