ASB Part II

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Carrying the toilet out of the house

Carrying the toilet out of the house

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

Here’s my long-awaited second post about the ASB trip I took last spring break.

The day after we destroyed the house, we got up early again, as usual. One of the worst parts about the trip was using the bathroom in the church we stayed in. Only the girls bathroom had showers, three of them. The bathroom floor flooded whenever we used them, so after a day the tile floor was a mess of fallen hairs, wet towels, and loose clothing. The showers were so small a guy my size couldn’t turn his body around without hitting the walls. The dividers between the showers were so short that when the guys used them they could see each other’s heads. The conversations the guys had in the showers became one of the running jokes in the trip. I didn’t participate in the conversations though – everyone on the trip took their showers at night, but I can’t stand that, so I got up ten minutes earlier than everyone else to shower in the morning.

We drove an hour to get to our site. It’s too bad we had to stay an hour away from where we worked. We debated a few times whether or not the trip had a net positive environment impact, considering all the driving we did.

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Jeray put us to work trimming some palm trees growing outside a museum in the national park. I took a lopper and cut down branches that were too low or went out too far. Some of the girls took the cut branches and put them in piles. Then a ranger brought a pickup truck and we threw the branches into the back. It got full fast, so I climbed on top and compressed the pile of branches by stepping on them. It was fun.

The next day we finally got to do what we came to do – real environmental work. We drove to the ocean, where we got onto a boat that took us to a little island. The floor of the island was comprised of crushed sea shells in many places. Jeray told us the island was once inhabited by natives, then by a wealthy family who built a house there, the stone foundations of which were still standing near where we docked. We walked through some wilderness to a barren area. It was very hot every day we were there (I forget if it was two or three days). There was little breeze at the center of the island, and the white sea shell fragments seemed to reflect heat. We made sure to drink a lot of water.

On the boat

On the boat

Our job on the island was to remove an invasive species, the Agave plant. Actually, there were native Agave plants on the islands that were distinguishable because they had ridges on the edges of their leaves. Let me tell you, there are few non-poisonous plants you want to stay away from more than Agave plants. There are painful spikes at the tip of each leaf that hurt like hell if you ran into them, which you inevitably did. Actually I’m not sure whether they should be called leaves. They were more parts of a cactus: firm, with a watery inside. Their firmness made the spikes hurt even more. It was important to cover as much skin as possible, and we all wore sunglasses so our eyes wouldn’t be poked.

Some people spent the entire day going ahead of the group and cutting off all the spikes was loppers, and the rest of us would tear the plants out of the ground. The roots often went deep and were tangled with other roots, making this difficult. When we finally uprooted the plant, we either threw it into a big pile, rested it on a branch, or threw it onto an area of ground that was so salty there was no threat of the plant taking root there and growing again.

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

You can see the chopped-off tips

You can see the chopped-off tips

On the last day on the island, another girl on the trip and I walked around with a woman who was working for the park. She had just graduated from college and was eager to be around people her own age, because usually she worked alone. She had a plastic canister of some sort of plant killing solution on her back, and our job was to clear the way so she could spray it on the center of an invasive tree species. Her backpack started leaking and the toxic orange liquid got all over her shirt.

At the end of the last day, all the guys got together to work on the biggest Agave plant we could find. It looked like something out of Land of the Lost. It had grown to the height of a tall tree, with the center branch turning into a trunk about six inches thick. We rocked it back and forth until it finally fell. Jeray told us it was already dead, but we were proud anyway.

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

We only worked three hours or so a day, due to our long drive, the heat, and frankly the lack of much work to be done. The work could be hard sometimes, but it was fun. Honestly, it seemed more like a vacation than a service trip for me, and I think most students treat ASB that way.

Observing the alligators

Observing the alligators

Most nights, we drove to an area of the park with a boardwalk that allowed us to view alligators and other species common to the everglades. We got pretty close to the alligators. We must have seen dozens, but they almost never moved, even blinked. One girl shone a flashlight into the open eye of one of them at night for at least a few minutes, and it did nothing. Seeing one actually glide through the water was rare, and I never saw one walk on land. There was a dead alligator in the water that turned a disgusting white and smelled horrible. Perhaps the most exciting alligator moment happened when another alligator came up and bit the body.

At the end of the week, we packed our possessions into the vans and started the drive back. There was a little dispute over what to do with the half-day or so we had for recreation. About half of us, including me, wanted to lounge around on the beach in Miami. The others were obsessed with seeing a manatee and wanted to go to the manatee park. We took a vote, and the beach option won.

On the beach in Miami

On the beach in Miami

We ate lunch at a bar in Miami with a surly Australian waitress, then we spent some time at the beach. The people who wanted to see the manatee were making it clear they weren’t enjoying themselves, sitting on benches near the entrance of the beach and watching us lay there. Finally, the site leader who led the manatee faction pressured us into leaving the beach to see the manatees, and we did. We drove an hour or so to a manatee park, but there were no manatees to be seen. We left and drove north.

I don’t remember where we slept that night. The next day, we drove through a big storm in Georgia. We ate at a Waffle House because one of the guys on the trip was curious what it was like. I think I was the only one who had been to a Waffle House before. Since Waffle House is predominantly a southern chain, and Columbus has Waffle Houses, they joked that this made Columbus part of the south.

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

We were so eager to get home that we ignored ASB rules and drove through the night, arriving in Evanston around one or two in the morning. We slept on the floor of the apartment of one of the site leaders. When we woke up the next morning, there was snow on the ground.

ASB Everglades

ASB, or Alternate Student Breaks, is a program that sends students to service opportunities all over the country (and, recently, the world) over winter break, spring break, and the end of the summer. There were lots of ASB programs for Northwestern over spring break. I don’t remember most of them, but one was in the Bahamas, I think, and I know there was one in St. Louis that involved homeless people. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the group going to the Everglades!

Unfortunately I lost most of the pictures I took, but I’ll include some taken by my friends.

We left Evanston very early on the Saturday morning after finals week. 6:30 was the meeting time, I believe. We waited for everyone to show up, then we drove south into Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We stopped for the night in a suburb close to Atlanta, Georgia.

Driving worked like this. If you took a driver certification test before the trip, you got a ten dollar discount (the trip cost a relatively cheap $275 overall). I’d already taken this test to become a Saferide driver. Only people who took the test could drive, and we were only allowed to drive two hours between stopping and switching drivers. We had to buy something when we stopped to prove to the university that we did. We were only allowed to drive, I think, between 9 AM and 6 PM.

We were encouraged to bring mix CDs and almost everyone did. I burned about 6 or 7 of them, but they quickly fell on the floor of the front seat and got scratched up. A guy on the trip burned a CD of Ukrainian folk music that everyone hated.

It felt great to get out of the car in Georgia. It was early evening and the temperature was perfect, just warm enough to be outside comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt. We parked our van outside the church we were staying in for the night, then we drove around looking for a restaurant. We settled on a 50s diner type place. The portions there were huge, and I couldn’t help but notice that an unusual number of people eating there were fat. I got the country steak and I couldn’t finish it.

We slept on the floor of the basement in the church. Before we fell asleep, we played a few “bonding” games, like telling everyone the story behind your first name. We also played a game called “High, Low, Ha,” in which everyone said what the highest, lowest and funniest part of the day was for them. We played this game at the end of every day. I forgot to bring a pillow, so I wasn’t very comfortable and I had trouble falling asleep. I later bought a cheap pillow at Wal-mart.

We got up early the next day and drove through Florida. It was great to see the change in scenery, which seems to happen immediately after entering Georgia. I wondered when I would see the first palm tree, and it ended up being right inside Florida’s border. I actually enjoyed driving a lot.

In the evening we arrived at the church in Homestead, Florida we stayed at for the rest of the trip. Then we went to Wal-mart to buy food and supplies. They split us up into four teams, each of which would cook dinner one night of the trip. Each group was given thirty dollars to buy the food. My group decided to cook cheeseburgers and fries. We had ice cream for dessert. We cooked our meal Thursday night, the last night we were there.

homestead_fl

The next day we woke up early and drove about an hour to get to Everglades National Park, where we did our service work. We met a really cool and funny, kinda weird volunteer park ranger named Jeray, who was basically our guide/leader/helper the rest of the week. He was always there to supervise our work. He was originally from Arizona, but he signed up for a three-month volunteering stint in Florida after being laid off. They provided him with free housing and a stipend, I think.

We were all waiting around before work, so Jeray showed us how to knock coconuts out of a palm tree and hack them open with a machete. It was much harder than you would think. Here’s a picture of me doing it.

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He set us to work taking apart an old house on stilts they were about to demolish. The girls grumbled because they expected to do more nature work, but I and the other guys on the trip, I think, had a blast. We got to rip out windows, toilets, doors, and water heaters with as much recklessness as we wanted, then we got to throw them in a dumpster. I really regret losing the pictures I took on this day. During a break, all the guys destroyed a wall in one of the rooms by kicking it and hitting it with a crowbar. It was a great day, and the temperature was really nice.

I’ll write the rest of my account of the trip later, when I have more time. Here is a picture of the entire group:

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