Shooting Puerto Rico with Architecture MN Magazine

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Last week I traveled to Ponce, Puerto Rico on assignment with Architecture MN Magazine.

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My assignment was to capture the humanitarian efforts of a group of Architecture students and faculty from Dunwoody college and the University of Minnesota.

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I also hoped to capture the beauty and hardship of this US territory. 

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Puerto Rico already had a struggling economy before Hurricane Maria tore into the island six months ago.

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The hurricane caused catastrophic damage and while some of the island has recovered, it is obvious that there is still a lot of work to be done.

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It’s been six months since the hurricane.  In the busier areas of the island jumbo green highway signs still lay twisted and bent alongside major highways. Stoplights at busy intersections are still not working. Light poles are bent. Giant windmills are missing their blades. Blue tarps still provide a makeshift roof for a smattering of buildings. Doors are boarded up - but it is hard to tell if they were already that way pre-Maria. Small herds of stray dogs run the streets.

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When you venture a little deeper into the island - and visit some of the neighborhoods that were struggling before the hurricane - you really see the damage. Even six months later many people are living without water or power. Some houses look like no progress has been made since the storm tore through six months ago. Some of the residents cannot move forward until their insurance or relief funds give them approval.

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I accompanied two Architecture professors from Dunwoody to visit one of these neighborhoods. We went there to talk with the locals, assess the damage and figure out how Dunwoody can help. They are working closely with the Neighborhood Housing Services and they are committed to helping rebuild this community. 

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Seeing a destroyed swing set and abandoned toys in a wrecked home really struck a cord with me.  It left me wondering what else I can do to help. 

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That evening we joined the students and went on a kayak tour of a bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. Tiny organisms sparkled like underwater fireflies as we paddled under the stars. Magical!! Definitely one of the world’s greatest wonders! 

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I began to realize that the professors had planned for us to see some of Puerto Rico’s most devastated areas on the same day we saw some of its greatest beauty.

Quite a day. What an amazing island! 

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The next day we visited a Head Start school in Moca. The kids were so sweet and welcomed us with signs and gave us pins that represented their area flag. The Neighborhood Housing Services announced that they are committed to help rebuild the parts of the school that had been destroyed!

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They plan to open a community computer center in this trailer. 

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The Dunwoody staff intends to support this project as well.

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That evening I returned to my hotel in the town of Ponce. 

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The hotel was beautiful on the inside...

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and outside! 

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I took a stroll around beautiful Ponce to take in some street scenes. I felt very safe.

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Puerto Rico is definitely a beautiful part of the world that should be on your bucket list. The architecture and colors are amazing!

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As you wander the island, you see glimpses of how Puerto Ricans are feeling now. A little lost. A little forgotten...  

  “Puerto Rico Se Levanta!” Translates to “Puerto Rico We Will Rise!” This inspiring phrase can be seen everywhere. 

 “Puerto Rico Se Levanta!” Translates to “Puerto Rico We Will Rise!” This inspiring phrase can be seen everywhere. 

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And speaking of the people.. I haven’t even begun to talk about the people! They are SO incredibly friendly and have great pride in their island! One conversation I had over and over again with the locals was about the beauty of the island.

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Everyone wants to make sure you see the beauty! A wonderful woman I sat next to on the airplane ride down even called me four days later to make sure I was having a good time and had seen the beauty in her island. 

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Of course the beauty is impossible to miss! 

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If you are considering a trip to Puerto Rico - go!! They’re open and ready for your visit! The major tourism areas are completely recovered. And they really could use your support.

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I am very grateful for this opportunity. Thank you Architecture MN Magazine for this amazing job. Thank you to John Dwyer and Laura Cayere-King, the two Architecture professors from Dunwoody who hosted my stay and made me feel very welcome. I consider them dear new friends! And a big holla to all the Dunwoody students! 🙌🏼 I had so much fun with you all! 

 ❤️Jill  

This is a little video from our time there. It was created by one of the students, Ryan Kelly, and includes a teeny bit of my drone footage. Great job Ryan!! Click this link to watch: 

 https://www.facebook.com/ryan.kelly.9655/posts/10208760568331136

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What I want to remember about Uganda

This Blog Entry is a part of my Uganda Trip Page. Click Here to read all of the blog entries as well as information about the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, the American Refugee Committee & how to help.

Uganda is a complex land and after only one short week of travels, I know I do not have nearly enough expertise to summarize the country, the people, the lifestyles. 

So I am going to share a story for now.

I made many new friends on this trip. I traveled with a group of staff from the American Refugee Committee as well as a few other guests. American Refugee Committee is based out of Minneapolis so there were many locals on my trip. 

I became very close with the girl pictured above. Her name is Amanda and she is also a photographer from Minneapolis. We went through this entire experience together. I am so grateful that she also came as a guest of ARC. We had similar attitudes and adventurous spirits which made for a lot of laughs and great fun. We were also able to talk about what we saw and how we felt. We were inspired together. 

On one long car ride, we were talking about our experiences. I told Amanda that my goal prior to traveling to Uganda was to show the world that refugees are like you and me. That no matter where you go, you will find joy and love and the strength of the human spirit, even amongst people that have been forced to leave their homelands in search of peace, and have endured many hardships along the way. 

I told her I didn't want to share the stereotypical photos of a malnourished child with hollow eyes, tattered clothing and flies buzzing about. I felt that we had seen that so much already & have perhaps been de-sensitized. I wanted to emphasize the humanity of the refugees. Amanda astutely pointed out that we obviously didn't have to worry about that! 

At that point we were on our second full day at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement. We had seen drummers and tight-rope walkers and artists and more! She knew we had captured images that represented the human spirit because it is so vibrant and apparent there!

The people of Uganda really amazed me. They didn't complain when we were forced to wait to de-board our plane. Instead, they were polite and happily chatted amongst one-another while we waited. No groans and loud cell-phone calls like you'd witness on the tarmac at JFK. Quite the first impression!

They were also outgoing & so quick to smile. Everywhere we went, kids yelled "Mizungo!" which means person with white skin. Kids would yell to their parents "Mizungo! Mizungo!" and the entire family would stop to wave. They'd also call out "Hi! How are you?" which was so endearing. 

I also witnessed that they were very hard workers. From sun-up to sun-down, the hundreds of people I saw were busy at work. Life in the refugee camp does not have our modern day conveniences.

There is no running water. Most do not have electricity. There's no jumbo-grocery store. So what you mostly see when you are there is people working.

You see people - kids included - carrying the yellow plastic bins on their way to retrieve fresh water. You see moms and dads bent over in their gardens. You see clothes-washing and food preparation in small plastic bins. 

And you also see people living in harmony. Imagine living in a town of 120,000 people where everyone had just arrived from a different country! So many different customs and religions and cultures. All meshed into one small 80 square mile settlement. 

Later that night Amanda and I were looking through our photos when something struck her: "We ARE taking those photos!" she gasped.

Sure enough, if we looked closely at our photos from our visits to the settlement, there were signs of poverty everywhere. 

We realized that the magic of the place, the people, their friendships, their hard work, their kindness, their smiles, their "Hi, How Are You?'s" transcended appearances. Their attitudes made it possible to be in the middle of a poverty stricken place, yet not focused on the poverty. It happened immediately to us. Unknowingly even. 

 

The refugees of the Nakivale Settlement had shown us through example that they are not defined by their current situation. They were acrobats and artists and farmers and mothers and lovers and kids who like to play, laugh, live, create!

And that, my friends, is my story. Is it enough? I hope so.  For now at least.

Thank you for listening!

❤️ Jill

A few pictures from outside the settlement: 

Safari!

This Blog Entry is a part of my Uganda Trip Page. Click Here to read all of the blog entries as well as information about the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, the American Refugee Committee & how to help.

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In our last day in Uganda, my new friend Amanda (from Heartbeet Kitchen) and I left our group and began the trek back to the airport.

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We were accompanied by a driver and a Ugandan woman who is on the American Refugee Committee staff. Her name is Shamimn.

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We left early in the morning which gave us time to do a small safari at Lake Mburo National Park before catching our 11:30pm overnight flight. 

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It took a few hours and many bumpy roads to get to the park.

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Once we were there, we couldn't believe our eyes!

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We hired a park guide to show us around. They carry guns to fend off any aggressive animals. There is only one lion in the entire park, but animals like hippos and water buffalos can become aggressive if you get between them and their youth.. 

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These wild boar were my favorite. The way they moved their short stubby legs made us all laugh. I'm smitten.  

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Uganda! You do not cease to amaze! I am happy we got to see this beautiful side of Uganda before heading home. What an amazing country! 

The High Spirited Folks of Nakivale!

This Blog Entry is a part of my Uganda Trip Page. Click Here to read all of the blog entries as well as information about the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, the American Refugee Committee & how to help.

The first few days at Nakivale were spent meeting the various residents and learning about their passions.

There are over 120,000, yes ONE HUNDRED TWENTY THOUSAND refugees at the settlement! 

This is just a small glimpse into a few lives there.

Yes these people are poor. Much more poor than most of you reading this. But that's not what catches your eye when you're there.

Instead, you feel inspired by their passion for their hobbies. You can't help but smile at their high spirits. 

 I hope I convey this through my photos 

ACROBATS

The Nakivale Refugee Settlement Acrobatic Group spends their free time practicing the art of gymnastics and acrobatics.

Their skills took my breath away! It was amazing to see what they could do with so little resources.

They constantly landed on the hard ground with just their bare feet.

 balancing two bottles on a knife!

balancing two bottles on a knife!

You can tell by their huge smiles that they LOVE their death-defying hobby. 

And I think they were really proud to perform for their american guests! They were very skilled and had obviously put in many hours of practice.

 

WOMEN EMPOWERMENT

Women in need of a new beginning meet with American Refugee Committee to discover opportunities available to them in the settlement.

Together they learn new gardening skills and work a plot of land to provide nutrition for their families and an income to create their new future. This program has been so successful that men have also joined - looking for a way to also provide for their families.

There was talk of possibly moving the program to a larger space! 

 This guy. His real name is Woodrow Wilson. He runs the program at the gardens and gave us a tour. Several days later my friend Amanda and I ran into him during the 5k and ran a good amount of the run with him! His smile is contagious.

This guy. His real name is Woodrow Wilson. He runs the program at the gardens and gave us a tour. Several days later my friend Amanda and I ran into him during the 5k and ran a good amount of the run with him! His smile is contagious.

 

ARTIST COLLECTIVE: OPPORTUNIGEE

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 We ate lunch with several of the Opportunigee artists at their compound in the settlement.

We ate lunch with several of the Opportunigee artists at their compound in the settlement.

  This was our typical lunch when we ate at the settlement.  We had it three days in a row. Beans, rice and a delicious peanut sauce. So filling! I really enjoyed it. (Photo by Amanda Paa with Heartbeet Kitchen.)

 This was our typical lunch when we ate at the settlement.  We had it three days in a row. Beans, rice and a delicious peanut sauce. So filling! I really enjoyed it. (Photo by Amanda Paa with Heartbeet Kitchen.)

 A painting on canvas by one of the Opportunigee artists

A painting on canvas by one of the Opportunigee artists

 One of the leaders of Opprtunigee, Patrick, donated his own land for the artist collective building. They filled soda bottles with cement and made beautifully colorful walls!

One of the leaders of Opprtunigee, Patrick, donated his own land for the artist collective building. They filled soda bottles with cement and made beautifully colorful walls!

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{Art Is Everywhere} When envisioning this trip to Nakivale Refugee Settlement with the American Refugee Committee, I had a hard time picturing the refugees having any interest in a giant rainbow umbrella... I was wrong!


The #shineonyoucrayumbrella was the perfect gift to give the artist collective group called Opportunigee (Opportunity + Refugee = Opportunigee!) I explained the story of the umbrella & how it has traveled the world & been photographed by various artists, all with unique perspectives...

We went from a sort of calm & quiet dialogue - to an animated, art-making frenzy! We brought the brella outside and immediately started creating. It was so great to share the universal language of creativity. 

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Afterwards, we shared many hugs and left two umbrellas at their collective. 


I can't wait to see what they add to the rainbow brella photo collection!

 

BURUNDI DRUM TROUPE

The entire drum troupe is made up of refugees from the country Burundi. 

Such beautiful people - they filled the air with high energy music and laughter. Inhabitants from the settlement crowded around to watch their performance. They lifted the sprits of all who watched.

I was amazed at their stamina. They put on a very high energy performance for over an hour under a strong sun. 

I was also really interested in their outfits. As you have seen in my photos, they live in small dirt homes. How did they manage to have such clean, brightly colored outfits?

I do not know the details but I did ask that question to a few locals. I was told that their clothes are made of a waxy material that repels dirt.

I was also told that they occasionally send their items to a woman who irons them. 

This is one of the best dance and drum troupes I've ever seen!  

In Conclusion  

Having the chance to meet these different groups was a real honor. Their high spirits, energy and passions were such pure examples of the natural need for joy built into all of us. Inspiring indeed.❤️

The Road To Mbarara 6/17/17

This Blog Entry is a part of my Uganda Trip Page. Click Here to read all of the blog entries as well as information about the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, the American Refugee Committee & how to help.

Today I woke up to the sounds of exotic birds chirping in Entebbe, the capital city of Uganda. I peeked out my window and saw a monkey scatter his way along the road in the early morning light. Later I was told that I was lucky to see one - they usually only come out at night.

A fellow American Refugee Committee traveler named Jon and I walked across the street to Lake Victoria. It is the largest inland lake in Africa. The water was very still and reflected the colors of the morning sky. It reminded me of our beloved Great Lakes back home. Sadly there are signs stating that you cannot swim in the lake. It has been polluted by surrounding factories. What torture it must be in the heat and look at this forbidden water.

After a breakfast of mangoes, salted avocado, eggs and coffee, we gathered up as a group of 7 and loaded into a van. It was time to make the 5 hour drive to Mbarara.

Even though we had just completed nearly 24 hours straight of travel, I welcomed the thought of a long drive. I was catching my first glimpses of Uganda in the light and I wanted to see as much as I could!

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The drive was very surreal. Lack of sleep plus scenes straight out of a Nat Geo magazine had me constantly wondering if this was real life. Women wearing colorful dresses balancing baskets on their heads, children happily playing shoeless in the dirt, crazy moto drivers flying by with loads twice the size of themselves. Goats everywhere. Brightly colored doors with litter strewn about. Palm trees and policemen. Fields of corn and other crops. And water canisters piled up on every empty space available.

It was nice to see a bit of the capital and some of the rural towns today! Everywhere we went people were very outgoing and welcoming. I felt totally safe.

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We had a great time stopping at the equator for lunch. They had a little demonstration set up where you could watch water go down a drain and rotate in different directions depending on which side of the equator you were on.

We are almost to Mbarara now where we will gather as a group tonight, have dinner and prepare for our first day at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement tomorrow.

As I have mentioned before, I am traveling with the American Refugee Committee. There are several staff members in my group. I am also traveling with a few other photographers and social media folk. We will be staying in a hotel in the town of Mbarara and driving down a dirt road for an hour each day to reach the Nakivale Refugee Settlement.

I am excited to share with you the sights and stories of the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in the next few days. It is an area that most foreigners are not allowed to visit. 

 And we get to do so much more than just visit! We get to meet the people, learn their stories and run a 5k with them! 

Thanks for taking the time to follow along on my travels! 

❤️Jill