Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hurricane Matthew - My Red Cross Response Experience

It wasn't too long ago when I received an e-mail from the San Diego chapter of the American Red Cross.  The e-mail was sent en masse to every Red Cross volunteer in our region.  It was all over the news that Hurricane Matthew was brewing, and it didn't register in my head that I could be called to action.  Gerry and I had just returned from Italy where we vacationed with friends, and my suitcase wasn't fully unpacked. I quickly packed my suitcase with the appropriate clothes and shoes, went to headquarters to pick up my Mission card and disaster folder, and before I knew it, I was on a Delta flight to Columbia, South Carolina.  It happened so fast. When I arrived at the airport, there was an AVIS rental car waiting for me, and a motel room to hunker down in for the night since it was nearly midnight when I arrived.
I had waited six years for the opportunity to help in a major national disaster, but the time wasn't right due to my job and/or familial responsibilities.  All of the courses I'd taken and workshops I attended over the years qualified me to be deployed to the Carolina states to assist in this flood disaster.  I was in South and North Carolina for a total of ten days, but I had earlier committed to a minimum of 2 weeks of service.  Before I explain my early return home, I must tell you that I met and worked with a group of wonderful and giving individuals that formed our strong team of six, which later became seven.  We each had our own strengths in character, and where one of us lacked in physical strength, the others picked up and carried the rest of us forward.  Our team was a well-oiled machine, and we vowed that no matter where Staffing sent us, we would stay together.  
My awesone team, fom left to right:  Bobby, Margot, Linda C., Glendeleen, Julie, Linda H. (our supervisor) and me.

After closing the Calvin Heights Elementary School shelter in Wilmington, North Carolina, we learned, to our dismay, that we would be separated.  We knew, really, from the beginning that it would be hard to keep us all together to the end of the disaster recovery, but it was worth wishing for.  Three would go on to work the ERV (emergency response vehicle which is used to transport food to various shelters), two others went to support a shelter on a college campus, and our fearless leader is in her new assignment as a shelter manager. 
Photo Credit:  Linda Hayes
While everyone on the team was compassionate, Bobby and Linda C., to me, showed the most compassion.  Bobby loved talking to the clients (shelter residents) and getting to know them, and Linda C. was really taken with the children.  One very young child endeared herself to Linda and looked to her for hugs.  I thought of Julie as the mama bear.  She constantly checked on things, greeted arriving guests, helped to keep the distribution area tidy, and reminded our supervisor to eat her meals.  The muscles of the team were Bobby and Margot. They could put together and tear down those cots so fast, it made me exhausted to watch them.  I could not help with those cots because of arthritis.  I also could not help with lifting heavy items, and there was a lot of that going on in the kitchen and cafeteria.  Bobby and Margot also kept the restrooms clean and trash bins empty. Glendeleen, Glen for short, was assigned to our team two days before we were separated. She immediately made herself at home, picked up our vibe and joined right in as if she was with us from the very beginning.  Our supervisor, Linda H. was loaded with information, constantly had her finger on the pulse of the operation, and worked diligently with headquarters. In the evening, when all of the clients were tucked in their cots for the evening, because there is a curfew in the shelters, Linda H. would reward us with a small plastic glass of wine, if we wanted it, to thank us for our hard work and to simply relax and talk about the day's events.  It was a great bonding time, in that dim hallway of the 4th grade wing of the school.
Working the shelter is constant and tiring work.  It's physical, mental and emotional.  I found myself holding back tears on one occasion, and I felt like I was starving on another occasion.  I kept saying to myself that I would find time to take a little nap when the time was right, and I never did.  I was always the last to go to the bed, and the first to rise.  I would make myself available to work in the cafeteria, as not everyone was awake in the gymnasium yet, and that's how I got to know the Salvation Army crew and the school cafeteria manager.  The Salvation Army truck was my go-to place for my morning coffee.  It was my secret for a short while. 
This is Shirlene, the school's cafeteria manager.  This amazing woman volunteered her vacation time to assist us in the shelter.  She also set up a cot in the kitchen where she would sleep because she worked long hours.  Until one day, sleeping on a cot became unbearable, so she then went home to sleep in her own oomfy bed.  She is the first person I would see in the morning.  She is also a wonderful singer.
After days and days of caring for the clients and tending to their needs, I one day found myself feeling so worn down, and my eyes were stinging from sun sensitivity.  I couldn't find my sunglasses the day before, and the sun shining in my eyes was becoming unbearable that I knew it would be unsafe to drive a vehicle, which I was doing a lot of the time.  The day we learned we would be going our separate ways, my body was telling me that this would be the perfect time to stop and go home to rest.  Being in constant physical motion for hours and days got the best of me.  
To not listen to my body would surely mean a lupus flare-up, and I didn't want to risk that.  I hadn't been so sick in a long time, and I don't want to go there again.  I have the autoimmune disease called lupus.  Thinking back, I remember someone asking me on Facebook if I was handling my pain well.  I appreciated that question, and I think I might have forgotten to reply to her.  Well, I have been home for four days now.  I am in constant touch with my team, and they are out there continuing to serve those affected by the floor. They are heroes forever, in my eyes.
The day after I returned home, I received a call from Cathy, Workforce Engagement Manager, with the Red Cross.  She said that I would be a perfect candidate for the Shelter Supervisors Workshop.  Linda H., throughout my deployment, frequently told me that, too. The San Diego chapter is gearing up for fire season, and there's that big earthquake that the world is talking about. I've always liked being in charge, and I feel this will be a perfect fit for me.  I just have to look like a disaster action team member.  I didn't have the proper T-shirts, polo shirts or vest to wear.  There wasn't enough time for me to acquire them.  Ugh, I looked very much like a newbie, I will be ready for the next call to action.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Under the Tuscan Sun: Looking for Bramasole

Like it or not, I am a total book and motion picture nerd.  Mix that with travel, and I become obsessed with having to see where that film was made, or to find out what was that one thing that drove someone to write a novel that would become a classic or a cult favorite.

Before we left for Italy, I shared on Facebook that I couldn't wait to see the villa that inspired author Frances Mayes to write the book "Under the Tuscan Sun".  I had not yet read the book but I saw the movie numerous times.  Now that I'm home, I am reading the book now.  It is simply delicious!  I just couldn't get enough of all that was Italian in the film.  And Diane Lane, . . . who wouldn't wish they could be her for a day?  I'd already been to a few major cities in Italy and made jaunts into country towns, but I hadn't yet made it to the idyllic hill town of Cortona, which was tops on my list of places to visit for our end-of-summer holiday.  I had to get to Cortona this year because the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" was celebrating 20 years since its publication in September 1996. The time was right to go back to Italy!

I was just getting over a three-day stomach flu when we left Assisi by car.  With my husband Gerry at the wheel, and friend Ed at his side as navigator, we made our way to Cortona. Daisie and I sat in the back seat enjoying the views along the way.  Total eye-candy, those views!
Cortona sits on top of a hill about 1,968 feet above sea level.  It is the highest town we visited on this trip. This dominant position over the valley offers a spectacular view from all over the town of the surrounding valley and even Lake Trasimeno.   Before beginning our search of Bramasole (pronounced  brah - mah - so - lay), we decided to take a look around the town for a place to have a very nice lunch.  We settled on the Ristorante al Cacciatore where I had a lovely pasta e fagioli soup, perfect for my settling tummy.  With full stomachs, we did our last-minute souvenir shopping, then we were off to find Bramasole, which means "yearning for the sun".  On the way back to the car, I passed an art gallery which featured a movie poster of the film on its glass door. Cortona is known for many things ancient, Etruscan and modern, but its citizens love the attention the book and film has brought to their town, and they're basking in all its glory.  
Before leaving town, we went to the tourist information office off the Piazza della Republikka.  I asked the concierge if given a choice, would she look for the house that was used in the "Under the Tuscan Sun" film, or look for the house that inspired the book. She said to skip the house used in the film.  It's ugly and there's nothing to see there.  Go to the real villa, she says.  Before leaving San Diego, I searched the internet.  Many "Under the Tuscan Sun" geeks said forget the real villa, go to the house from the movie. Others said otherwise. Well, just tell me how to get to both, and I'll decide when I'm in Cortona.  I choose to listen to the concierge, and she gives us a map of the town, and driving directions to the Bramasole.  She also said it's within walking distance but a portion of the trek is uphill.  I think, "no, thank you".  I just got my energy back from being sick.  I want my search to be easy. Driving there sounds better, and the map makes it seem easy.  But it really wasn't.  

Looking at the map, we follow the concierge's blue ink line from the parking lot, exiting the walled town, driving the road that hugs the ancient walls, and take that road all the way around and further up into the mountain.  At one point, Ed says to Gerry that he's driving into a one-way street so Gerry maneuvers a Y turn and gets back on the right road.  The concierge said if you pass the Eremo Le Celle, a sanctuary, you're going the right way. Follow the road up the hill and follow the signs to Hotel Cory's.  Pass it and stay left of the fork.  There is a small bar (cafe) at the apex of this fork. The road will take you downhill. Bramasole should be on our right.  You can't miss it, said the concierge.  It's a big pink house. Seekers say it's peachy pink.  I'll decide the color when I get there.

We end up at the stop sign and no where to go but right.  Ahead of us is the most gorgeous landscape you ever saw.  Vineyards, rolling hills, orchards, farmhouses, cypresses, villas.  It was so dreamy.  Okay, snap out of it.  We turned right and pulled into a parking lot in Torreone.  I approached an old man and asked, "Dove il Bramasole?".  He shrugs and raises both hands that say "What are you saying?".  So I repeat it in English.  Gerry approaches and does his best to communicate with hand gestures.  Daisie and I see a jogger approaching our direction and I wonder if it would be cool to stop him and ask for directions.  We decide it would not be okay to interrupt his rhythm because he was so focused on his running.  Then we see a couple walking the wide promenade.  It is lined with trees on both sides, and their walk is very leisurely.  As they get closer, we approach them.  I say to the woman, "Scusi, do you speak English?".  Please say yes.  Please say yes.  And the woman says, "Well, yes, I do." "Yes!  Thank you!", I say.  She laughed at us and said, "I know how you feel.  I've been there!".  

Meet Al and Kathy.  They're from Tampa, Florida and spend a few months in Cortona each year.  They had just flown in earlier that day and were out for an afternoon walk.  They own an apartment in the city center of Cortona which they rent out to tourists when they're not using it.  They set us straight on how to find the Bramasole, and that it's not far from where we're standing.  In fact, we can walk there from the parking lot.  Al says we would be interested to know that he shot the cover for Mayes' third book of the Tuscany series, "Every Day in Tuscany".  Get outta here!  I can't believe what I'm hearing!  He says he was taking digital photographs in the piazza years ago.  A stranger approached him and asked to see his photos.  Apparently, this stranger had ties to Mayes and the publishing world.  Before long, Al got a call from Mayes asking if he'd photograph the cover to her third book.  Wow, what are the chances of me meeting someone connected to one of my favorite authors?! This is wildly crazy, I'm thinking, and I am one starstruck, besotted woman.
In our conversation, Al continues with a story where Mayes had purchased a second home higher up in the mountains outside of Cortona in Monte Sant'Egidio.  Known as Fonte delle Foglie, the Font of Leaves, the secluded stone pile was first built in the 13th century by "hermits who followed Saint Francis of Assisi." Mayes added a second structure to the 3.7-acre compound, which now has four bedrooms, a writing room, and ample entertaining space.  This home was the subject of the book mentioned above, "Every Day in Tuscany". Mayes no longer owns the home due to the fact that thieves had ramsackled the home while she was away from the country.  She was heartbroken, and had felt watching over two homes was too much work.  I found a photo of the stone villa on Pinterest.  What a beauty!
Do you want o know what Al says next?  He says that he and Kathy are frequent visitors to Villa Bramasole when Frances (uh-oh, we're on first-name basis now) is in town. Unfortuntely, Frances won't be in Cortona for another couple of weeks.  Darn!  Our conversation lasted perhaps 20 minutes, but it's time I won't soon forget.  Before going our separate ways, Al said to look for the terraces.  He was around when laborers and artisans were cleaning up the terraces of the Bramasole.  Kathy said you can't miss it because of its pink color.  So off we went in our car, backtracked and as we turned the corner, there it was to our left - the most magnificent rustic house and terraced garden I have ever seen. It's easy to see how we missed the house at first. It's partly hidden by stone walls and trees, and I wasn't expecting the house to be so high up on the hill.  It truly is a special place, and it gives me goosebumps to know that it stands near a roman road, and that there's an portion of an Etruscan wall in her enormous, terraced back yard.
We exited the car and began taking photos like crazy.  I took note of all the little details of Frances' property that eventually made its mark in the film, like the shrine in the stone wall and the shuttered windows.  The color of the house was not pink or peach, or peachy-pink. The color seemed to change depending on the direction from which I was looking.  It was like the stucco had a faux finish.  It went from pink to peach to gold to orange.  Seeing the large amount of olive and fruit trees, and other plantings, I felt this villa was more of a farmhouse.  The Bramasole is famous for its olive oil which has won numerous international competitions. It was surreal being at the Bramasole.  I thank God I got well enough in time to have this experience.  Being there was most definitely the high point of my vacation.  

The celestial stars were aligned that day, and the gods that be said this was meant to happen.  Thank you, Frances, for taking me on this journey.  

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Terra Cotta Warriors & Tang Dynasty Show in Xian

Another destination checked off my wanderlust list!  Thanks to local farmers digging a well, millions of people are able to view these wonderful full-size figures of clay warriors.  As always, I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to see our world's treasures.  

Think you know everything there is to know about this UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Here are 5 amazing facts about the Terra Cotta Army and its auxiliaries that I didn't know at the time of my visit last fall:
1.  China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, spent most of his life searching for immortality and built himself a burial complex.  The complex was the biggest in the world - and it was probably never completed.
2.  The clay soldiers remained untouched for more than 2000 years until 1974 when they were unearthed by Chinese farmers digging a well.  It is now believed that some 700,000 workers worked for nearly three decades on the mausoleum. So far, archaeologists have uncovered a 20-square mile compound, including 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, a pyramid mound marking the emperor's tomb, remains of a palace, offices, store houses and stables.  This is all located in Pit #1.  Yes, there are more pits.
3.  Qin was known for his brutishness: He ordered the killings of scholars whose ideas he opposed, and showed little regard for the life of the conscripts who built public works projects, including his burial complex. Numerous laborers and artisans lost their lives during its construction, while others were reportedly killed in order to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location and the treasures buried within.
4.  The emperor's tomb itself still hasn't been excavated. According to first century accounts, mercury streams were inlaid in the floor of Qin's burial chamber to simulate local rivers running through his tomb.  In 2005, hundreds of samples from the earthen burial chamber mound were tested and came back highly positive.  Debate continues over whether to evacuate the tomb at all and what methods should be used to protect the contents as well as the people working at the site.
5.  Construction of the tomb began when the Future Emperor of China took power at the age of 13.

The following photos are from Pit #1 where many workers guarded the area and excavated and tagged the statues.

Pit #2 is located 22 yards to the northeast of Terra Cotta Pit #1.  It is the most spectacular of the three pits.  Compared to Pit #1, the combat formations are more complex and the units of armed forces more complete.

Pit #3 lies 25 yards to the north of Pit #2.  This forms the headquarters of the garrison, exercising military control over men contained in the other two pits.  

After spending a few hours viewing the Terra Cotta Army, we drove through the city of Xian to see some more impressive statues.
In the evening, Gerry and I enjoyed a Tang Dynasty cultural performance with dinner.  Obviously, it was all so wonderful.  Such a great way to end a long day.

Um, no, we are not actually in the pit with these terra cotta marvels. We couldn't resist paying for one of those faux photos, but it does look awesome, doesn't it?

Safe travels,

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