Saturday, March 29, 2008

estamos aqui!

= we're here in Mexico! I love this country... its been so fun to wake up my sleeping Spanish over the past few days. The weather is gorgeous-- Monterrey is the third largest city in Mexico, a major industrial hub (the "Pittsburg of Mexico" because of the steel industry), and is surrounded by beautiful, steep mountains that hug the city.

Scott & I are hosted with the Ordonez family, parents of Carlos Ordonez who traveled with us in 1997. Carlos also lives here in Monterrey, but wasn't in town the first days we were here, and also doesn't have a guest room, so we are staying in his parent's lovely house, with 5 star service courtesy of mama & papa. Welcoming, warm company, plus all the mangoes we can eat. You can't go wrong!

The thing that has been harder to get used to in this country transition is eating later. Lunch comes usually between 1:00pm & 2:00pm, but sometimes not until almost 3:00pm. Consequently, our first two nights we left home to go out to restaurants for dinner at 10:00pm. This is normal! The restaurants are all packed at this time-- there are waits of 45 minutes for tables, on a Tuesday night. que loco.

After two nights of this, and long days of speaking Spanish and being in the sun, on Wednesday I came home, and I think we moved up dinner an hour because we were so hungry. So we ate at 8:30pm and I was in bed by 9:30pm... and it was so necessary. I could not keep my eyes open!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

hottest tickets in town

Apparently, tickets for "Viva La Gente" through Ticketmaster in our first city of Monterrey are the second most purchased tickets in the city over the last four weeks! Mexico, here we come...

I scream you scream...

...we all scream for ice cream!

Brenham, TX, is home to the third largest ice cream producer in the United States: Blue Bell Ice Cream. We went on the factory tour our first day here-- and sampled delicious, creamy flavors at 9:00am! My favorite was watching the ice cream sandwich machine in operation... yum, yum.

We've spent the week preparing for Mexico, and closing out our first part of our US tour. Our show on Good Friday had a much better turnout than we expected, and I was surprised to run into a girl we had traveled with in 1997 and hadn't seen since... Stacy Grange! It was fun to catch up with her-- she drove down from College Station for the show.

And yesterday we went over our final procedures for crossing the border- we are taking the buses to about a block away, then unloading everything and walking over the border. We re-load on two Mexican buses on the other side, which have about half of the luggage space of our current ones. It is going to be an adventure!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

tour finalized!

Our remaining Texas tour dates are now confirmed! After we return from Mexico, we will come back to New Braunfels, which is between San Antonio & Austin, then the Woodlands, which is a suburb of Houston, and finally Plano, TX, which is near Dallas.

I believe then the cast will fly out of Dallas, and four airplanes later, will land in Bangkok.

I (Ellen) will be going ahead of the cast to Thailand a week early, to finalize some of the education set-up there. The advance team wanted the assistance of someone who knows the cast to determine who will do which volunteer opportunities. I am excited to have that chance!

Enid, OK!

Here in Enid, I am staying with Carl & Bev Carroll, along with my roommates Nina from Finland and Teng from China.

Carl and Bev have been trying to help us "work the system" in regards to our trash collection... Carl is making his famous honey mustard chicken tonight for dinner and has stressed repeatedly that he is only giving us the meat, and the bones are his (so they don't need to go in our trash bags!)

Enid is a friendly town... our beneficiary here is called Leonardo's and it is a children's science and art museum, named after Leonardo Da Vinci. It is an incredible warehouse and adjoining castle-shaped playground, that is the biggest community built structure of its kind. 10s of thousands of volunteer labor hours went into the Adventure Quest park, and its really a cool place for kids and families. I helped sort piles of donations for the art projects that Leonardo's leads. The third floor at first glance looked full of heaps of trash, but they value every cardboard tube, empty spool of thread, scrap of fabric, and we helped get them all in a proper place so they can be found for future works of art.

Our theatre here in Enid is supposedly haunted by the ghost of John Wilkes Booth, who died in this town. Luckily we had nothing out of the ordinary happen during the show... he must've liked us.

trash time!

Before we left St Joseph, we kicked off one of my favorite cast activities... For the next five days, we are carrying around all of the trash that we would normally throw away or recycle. The only exception is toilet paper or other bathroom trash, but if you take a paper towel to dry your hands in the bathroom, then it goes in your trash bag.

Its a fabulous exercise in being aware of our waste--- especially when we buy fast food, and when we eat all of our meals on disposable plates with plastic silverware.

There are two schools of thought on this activity: I see people either trying to reduce as much as they can and see how it affects their lifestyle, OR they take everything they usually would and see how much trash it is. I'm doing the latter, and it is really hard to remember to put everything in my bag. I have a little "stinky trash" bag inside the big one for fruit peels, teabags, and other things that will smell.

We will carry everything for the entire city of Enid, and on our first full day next city we will sort out the recyclables from our bags, and see how much we carried was trash, how much was recyclable and just overall how much there was.

Though its a little bit gross (I have to hold my breath now every time I open my bag), its a great activity to hold ourselves accountable, and to open up a discussion regarding international opinions on environmental awareness. I'm excited for the wrap-up conversation... and for the way that this activity changes the cast behavior in regards to their trash in the future.

St Joe's

March 12, 2008: St Joseph, Missouri- "where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended." Those two bits of history happened on the same date (April 3) in St Joe's, 18 years apart.

Scott and I were lucky enough to stay with the Campbells: Denise & Chad, with kids Zac (17) Sydney (11) and Kennedy (4), along with Sandra from Switzerland & Francois from Namibia. We had a quick and fun four days, playing air hockey and pictionary, and going on walks in the beautiful spring twilight.

We drove straight into spring from Chicago-- our first day in St Joe's hit 70 degrees, which really brightened the general cast mood! There's something so exciting after a cold gloomy winter about packing your winter coat in a box to ship home. Our tour only gets warmer from here.

We had a full schedule in St Joes- our community impact projects were the Stand for Peace program at Sydney's school and one other in town, and some people painted mini "buildings" for a tiny tot town event that the community holds each November. I love projects like that when the cast really gets to use their creativity-- there was a pet store with a colorful jungle mural, a post office with a working mail slot, and from the scraps of other buildings, two guys created a basilica!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

favorite Chicago stories

Here are some of my fave Chicago moments:

On Wednesday we had a fun staff party, where we did a "How to Host a Murder"-type event. It was pirate-themed, called "Murder Among the Mateys". As an international staff, we sometimes encounter fabulous challenges with language, and it turns out, pirate jargon is no exception. I spent the busride to the party explaining to Yui from Japan and Manuel from Mexico the following terms: buccaneer, commodore, privateer, gurgling, and wench.

Picture Sofie from Sweden: she is standing on the street corner downtown Chicago in a flowy jagged hemmed skirt, a large green parka, hightop tennis shoes, striped socks, and long curly hair. She is counting her change, trying to figure out if she has enough cash to buy a coffee before the bus leaves. A homeless man approaches her and hands her a dollar bill. He says to her, "Here you go, honey. I know how it is. I've been there." She was so shocked she didn't know what to do beyond saying thank you and keeping the dollar!

the whirlwindy city

we were in blustery, snowy Chicago for a very fast week. Three days of classroom programming in inner city high schools was an intense experience for the cast... lots of metal detectors, showing ID at the door, and very positive responses from the majority of students we interacted with.

Our sponsor was the National PTA, so our school projects were under the microscope for potential future projects. I hope they were pleased, as I was very proud of how much the cast is improving in their facilitation of activities, and the creativity at which they approach ways to personalize the games to their countries and personal style. The week was also a test drive of an activity & leave-behind puzzle that I designed with the help of one of our students, Ultan from Ireland, who is a talented graphic designer. We used to hand cut world puzzles out of posterboard for every classroom we went into, and I am so excited about the higher quality and less labor that this new version allows.

We had decent turnout for the show in a city that is really challenging to promote in, because of the vast amount of entertainment any given night of the week. The Copernicus theatre was a funky old movie house in the Polish part of town-- it doubled as a Polish community center. UWP Chicago alumni sponsored our meals on show day, and they did a polish theme for lunch, complete with sausage and delicious perogies from a local restaurant. The only downside of the show was the backstage: there wasn't one!
It really changed the shape of the show, as everyone had to enter the stage from the sides, and to get around behind the stage you had to run outside in the parking lot, where it was of course about 15 degrees, windy and snowing. I'm pretty sure everyone has a cold now.

Even though casts love the idea of big cities like Chicago, in reality, it makes for an extra grueling schedule, because we are hosted all over the metro. That means that most people got up before 6am every day, took the L in to Union Station, then took our shuttle buses for another 45 minutes to wherever we were meeting first thing. Reverse that to go home, and most people got back between 7:30-8:00pm. Do that for 6 days in a row, and we're all ready to go back to the small town where our meeting point is five minutes from our host family's house!

BUT big cities also offer a lot of cool opportunities. We partnered with the National PTA to help them with an event they hosted at the Field Museum. They held a Parent Summit, and parents could bring their kids, and then while they were in the parenting classes, we took their kids around the Field Museum. A great way for us to get to see a cool museum from a kid's perspective... and we got in free! The only hard part was it was after our show day, so we finished taking down the set at midnight, and were at the museum at 8am. The cast had the afternoon free for sightseeing, and I went home and took a nap.

Scottie and I were lucky to be in the staff hotel this week-- right downtown at the Sheraton near Navy Pier. We went to dinner at Heaven on Seven, a Cajun restaurant, with Michael & Alyssa Burgart. It was so fun to catch up with them for an evening!
Our hotel team tried out Ed Debevicks - always a good time, and Al's Italian Beef Sandwiches, which were delicious.

And I was so excited to have Kato and Bethie come visit for the weekend! Katie took a bus from Minneapolis and made it in time for the 2nd half of the show friday night. Bethie, who had seen the show earlier in our tour, made it in late Friday- taking an evening flight. They joined us at the museum and helped out a group of kids... their team was the Bodacious Bugs. We visited Millenium park, had a drink at the Signature lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center, and on Sunday B & K won the Wicked rush lottery and went to the matinee. To end our week we drove out to Wheaton to have a fantastic homecooked dinner at Howie & Dorothy's house. I was so glad that it worked out to see them too.

A quick, crazy city, and then we're off, back across I-80, and then turning south to drive into spring!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Chocolate City, USA

We've been in Burlington, WI, since Wednesday. Burlington is known as chocolate city because of the big Nestle factory that is here. When the wind blowing, the whole town smells like chocolate. Unfortunately, they don't have tours, otherwise we would definitely have gone. Instead, we focused on other local Wisconsin flair, by visiting two dairy farms and having brats for lunch.

Burlington is a really charming town, very friendly with lots of lakes... my host family keeps lamenting that we're not here in the summer so we could go waterskiing. We worked with an incredible non-profit organization called Love Incorporated, which is a thrift store, transition living center, food pantry, food kitchen and many other community services all rolled into one. My favorite part is that they will use everything you drop off. Items that they can't sell in the thrift store gets baled and sold to developing countries for $150.00 per bale of clothing.

Burlington's sold out show in the high school gymnasium contained our sound technician Andrew's worst nightmare-- during the song right before intermission all the sound went out... band, microphones, everything. The cast finished the song "Keep the Beat" acapella, with the audience keeping the beat! They pulled it off so well that some audience members thought it was supposed to happen that way. Many of the students commented in our cast meeting yesterday that that moment was one of their very favorites in up with people so far... knowing that even when something goes horribly wrong, they can pull through.

Go Muskies!

Our three quick days in Muscatine focused around the Muscatine schools (Go Muskies!)--- our beneficiary was the Muscatine Community School Foundation, and we led our Stand for Peace classes in 48 classrooms in one day, plus visited another 15 classrooms at the high school. Our show in the high school auditorium was sold out, and we had people waiting to see if they could get late seating.

Muscatine was especially fun for me, because Lorene Lewison, my high school show choir director who originally connected me to Up with People, lives there and it was so neat to see her and her family.

We also met with a really fascinating organization called the "Stanley Foundation", which is based in Muscatine. They started as an organization that funded informal interaction between international leaders that served at the United Nations. It brings a whole new meaning to "those who play together stay together." They would host retreats, tennis tournaments, other events in the 1950s for UN delegates so they could interact in a more relaxed environment. Now they have expanded and morphed into a foreign policy think tank. They have a number of programs, including producing international segments for NPR, and they produce videos and discussion questions on international issues that church groups, community leaders, college campuses, etc., can receive from them free of charge to host a current events discussion. They led for us a discussion on peacekeeping missions (like well-digging in Djibouti) by the US military, and if that is an appropriate task for them, and if not, what other organization should be doing it. Check them out at