Archive for the ‘Interviews with Experts’ Category

Q&A with Panama Study Abroad Program Leader, Aly Dagang

Monday, March 5th, 2012

SIT and Smithsonian Journeys have come together to offer a four-week summer study abroad program in Panama for students age 18 and older. The program will provide firsthand experience in biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation in Central America’s southernmost nation.

Amy Kotkin, Director of Smithsonian Journeys, speaks with Aly Dagang, program leader and Associate Dean for Latin America at SIT, a division of World Learning.

Aly Dagang, Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader

Aly Dagang in the field with students

Amy Kotkin: This June, Smithsonian will partner with World Learning on a month-long program for college students who would like to study tropical ecology and sustainability issues in Panama. Why is Panama a particularly important place to study these issues?

Aly Dagang: Panama is an outstanding place to study tropical ecology due to the range of vastly biodiverse ecosystems that occur within close distances. Per square area, Panama is the most biodiverse country in the Neotropics. The proximity of terrestrial, marine, and coastal ecosystems allows students to experience multiple, unique environments throughout their studies.

AK: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), located in Panama, is regarded as one of the world’s foremost centers for long-range studies in tropical ecology. Will students enjoy access to some of STRI’s research facilities during their stay?

AD: Yes, students will have the opportunity to spend one week at Smithsonian’s Bocas del Toro Research Station on Colon Island on Panama’s northern Caribbean coast where they will attend the marine ecology and fisheries module of the program, taught by a Smithsonian staff scientist. In the Panama Canal Watershed, students will visit Smithsonian’s Barro Colorado Island research station and become familiar with active research experiments undertaken by Smithsonian and Smithsonian-affiliated scientists.

AK: The program encompasses stays in both Panama City and David. Can you tell us why it is structured in this way? What are the advantages?

AD: The program is structured in this manner to provide students with the broadest access to tropical ecosystems as well as to natural resource use projects that students will be introduced to and where they will spend time. In David, on Panama’s Pacific coast, students will attend Spanish classes at the national university while engaging in field experiences in the cloud forest of the La Amistad UNESCO World Heritage Site (PILA). In the PILA buffer zone, students will live and work with rural families engaged in sustainable cottage industries aimed toward the conservation of PILA’s natural resources. In the capital, students will engage in the climate change module and meet with practitioners and scientists who are actively working on projects seeking to broaden the knowledge base with a particular focus on the effects of climate change in the tropics. Students will also visit projects that are exploring integration into the international carbon market.

AK: Homestays are a key element to all of SIT’s programs. Why do you house students in homes rather than dormitories for a segment of their stay, and can you tell us anything about the homestays in Panama?

AD: Homestays are one of the hallmarks of the SIT experiential learning model. Living with a local family allows students to become immersed into the local culture, to forge relationships with people from the area in which they are living, and become much more familiar with local norms, customs, and lifestyle. On the Panama program, students live in homestays while in David, in the PILA buffer zone, and sometimes in Panama City. In David and Panama City, our hosts are working class families who tend to have long-standing roots in their neighborhoods. In the PILA buffer zone, families are rural agriculturalists who have lived for many years in the mountain region where students are based. Most host families in general have children and large, extended families.

AK: Spanish instruction is also included in the program. Do students need any particular level of proficiency in order to register?

AD: No, there are no language pre-requisites for the Spanish classes. Students of all language levels are accommodated within the program.

AK: What can you tell us about the faculty for this program?

AD: Faculty are drawn from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the national university, local NGOs, and one international NGO. Instructors are highly regarded and are considered experts in their fields. In addition to the program’s Academic Director, each module is taught by an individual expert providing students the opportunity to interact with specialists in each of the fields of study.

Students explore Panama’s cloud forests

AK: The Panama program includes 6 college credits. What are the requirements for credit?

AD: To earn all six credits, students must complete satisfactorily all requirements of the two three-credit courses, Spanish and Sustaining the Earth in the 21st Century, as articulated in the course syllabi.

AK: The program was first offered in 2011. What did last year’s college students particularly value about the experience?

AD: I believe student’s were most captured by the homestay experiences, both rural and urban, as they allowed students to integrate into society as well as provided them with new perspectives and visions of Panama and its environmental resources. Also students seemed to find the field excursions to the mountain forests and to the Caribbean coast particularly engaging and unique due to the hands-on, experiential learning they engaged in there.

More About Aly Dagang, Ph.D.:
Dr. Dagang, a California native, completed her B.A. in international development with an emphasis in Latin American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. She obtained her Ph.D. from the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Her research was carried out with local farmers and examines biophysical and socioeconomic aspects of wood and fruit tree repopulation of grazed, extensive pastures in Central Panama. Dr. Dagang was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the province of Panama Oeste. She has worked on numerous projects in Panama with foci that include gender, agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, community development, environmental education, forestry, and conservation.  Dr. Dagang was academic director of the SIT Panama program from 2002 to 2009 and now serves as associate academic dean for the SIT Latin America portfolio. She is also the agroecology professor for the SIT Study Abroad Panama semester program.

Want to learn more? Click here for more information on Smithsonian Journeys’ Study Abroad Programs.

Q&A on France

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Study Leader Kim Munholland is Professor Emeritus from the University of Minnesota. A specialist on modern France, Dr. Munholland has published several books on French history, with an emphasis upon French-American relations in the twentieth century. Munholland has served as Study Leader on our France Through the Ages tour. Here, Journeys Education Manager Sadie McVicker sits down with him for some insight on his long career in historic preservation.

Sadie McVicker: You have extensively researched and written on the subject of French-American relations in the twentieth century. Which aspect or historical turning point of French-American relations do you find most fascinating and why?

Kim Munholland: There are several moments in French-American relations that have caught my attention. Recently I have been working on the past two hundred years of this relationship, beginning with the French assistance during the American War for Independence, producing a “Lafayette syndrome” in which Americans often define a special relationship that has existed since Lafayette fought beside George Washington—and came to regard our first president as a father figure. Yet this positive image has often been challenged when American and French interests have diverged or been marked by tension. On the positive side, there is an American fascination with French culture from the country’s intellectual life to its enjoyment of everyday pleasures. This is seen in the lives of American exiles, who have sought a second home in France, particularly Paris. At the same time there have been official, more political differences between the two countries that too often behave as “hostile allies.” In this latter area there are several moments that can be seen as turning points over more than two centuries, but the most important was the relationship that developed after the French defeat of 1940 and wartime relations, particularly differences between Charles de Gaulle and Franklin Roosevelt. This conflict was a central concern of my book, Rock of Contention: Free French and Americans at War in New Caledonia, 1940-1945. These wartime differences established a pattern that has marked French-American disagreements and misunderstandings since then.

The fortified walls of medieval Carcassonne

The fortified walls of medieval Carcassonne

SM: Another of your areas of expertise is how the wine industry was impacted by the Vichy regime. Can you please give a brief overview of how much the Vichy regime did effect the evolution of the French wine industry?

KM: Vichy’s policy of collaboration with Germany during WWII created serious problems for the French wine industry when the Germans insisted that a large amount of the great French wines, particularly Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, be reserved for the German market, including the German armed forces. The French realized that they would have to sell their wines to the Germans, but to protect their most valuable wines French winemakers began hiding some of their best vintages so that they would have a supply to rebuild their trade after the war. German taste for French wines also meant that the great wine cellars, such as at the Tour d’Argent in Paris, were in danger of depletion. Demands of high-ranking German officials (Hitler was a teetotaler) such as Herman Goering, could have had disastrous consequences for these great cellars. Again, a process of hiding occurred in self-defense. Another impact was that German demands for copper for their war industries meant that French vintners lacked copper sulfate, which was used to protect the vines from mildew and other diseases. This meant a drop in wine production, making it even more difficult to meet German demands. Finally, to increase agricultural production, Vichy issued regulations requiring larger vineyards to tear up ten percent of their land planted in grapes in order to increase supplies of vegetables and fruits. Since the war, French wine industry has recovered, and we will be traveling through some of the great, if less well-known, wine regions from Languedoc to the Loire valley.

SM: The France through the Ages itinerary is comprised of one beautiful and historically significant site after another; which site visits are you most looking forward to visiting with Smithsonian travelers and why?

KM: There are many wonderful places to see on this trip, beginning in Carcassonne, but the one that I am looking forward to with great anticipation is Rocamadour. The site is absolutely sensational and made a lasting impression the first time that I visited it many years ago as a graduate student in French history. At that time we could visit the caves at Lascaux, to be closed shortly thereafter. Thus, it will be a visit filled with nostalgia for me. It also will enable me to rediscover an earlier interest in Medieval France since Rocamadour was a pilgrimage site. Equally interesting is the town of Albi. The Cathedral of Saint Cecile is one of the most interesting in all of France, very hard to categorize and should surprise everyone who has not seen it before. Albi has lent its name to one of the most bloody episodes of the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade against the heretical Cathar sect that had its roots in the region and was supported by the powerful counts of Toulouse.

SM: For a city so renowned for its scientific and engineering industries (aerospace and high tech), Toulouse has a rich literary and artistic history as well, personified by Antoine St. Exupéry and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. What led Toulouse to excel in these areas?

KM: The emergence of Toulouse as a center for the aeronautic and high tech industries has its origins in France’s impressive economic recovery after World War II. Successive French governments were determined to modernize France, particularly in the area of aircraft production. Key to this program was government support and encouragement to the aeronautical engineer and entrepreneur, Marcel Dassault, whose company began to produce some of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. This program successfully sought to reverse an image of France as the technological inferior of Germany, often cited as a cause for the country’s military defeat in 1940. The climate of Toulouse is well suited, perhaps similar to Los Angeles, to the development and testing of aircraft prototypes. The result was a spectacular growth of French aircraft development and production, leading to the location of the main assembly point for the Airbus. An advanced electronics sector developed alongside the aerospace industry of Toulouse. But it has not been all technology and modernity that gives Toulouse its claim to fame. Toulouse has long had a strong cultural tradition dating back to the time of the troubadours and the days of Raymond of Toulouse, who encouraged the arts in his capital city. In addition to its literary and artistic richness, Toulouse is home to a major symphony orchestra.

SM: You spent several years living in various areas of France. What aspects of la vie en France do you miss the most?


Q&A With Italy Expert Angela Buriani

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Born and raised in Florence, Smithsonian Study Leader Angela Buriani is an expert on Italian art and all things Italy. Here, she takes time for some engaging Q&A with Travel Planner Emma Impavido.

Q: Why do you enjoy leading people around Italy or to Florence?

A: I am always extremely glad and proud to bring travelers around Italy in general and to Florence in particular. Italy is a special country, special from several points of view. It is beautiful and fascinating but also sometimes difficult and different. An Italian journalist wrote, “To be Italian, it’s a full time job.” I believe that being in contact with a native person helps the travelers to fully enjoy and understand Italy, going deeper than the mere appearance.

Angela Buriani

Italy expert Angela Buriani.

Q: What does it mean to you to be Italian? Or is it more important to show allegiance to a region?

A: We are a very young nation, so it is no wonder some people still show a low national spirit. I love my region, Tuscany, but I definitely consider myself first of all Italian and to me being an Italian means to be part of the beautiful and immense heritage we have inherited from our ancestors.

Q: What sort of topics will you address in your lectures?

A: During my lectures on tour I discuss the history of the city we are visiting, its art, and its people. I try to give people a sense of why certain things happened in that place and not elsewhere and what makes that place unique.

Q: Your focus is on art and history, what other topics do you cover?

A: Travelers are generally very interested in knowing about our present way of life, the organization of the society and politics. I also love to talk about the food and wine of Italy, I have a special professional interest in these topics. A tour through Italy is naturally also a tour through our traditional foods and local wines, that varies from season to season. At every meal we have the right wine paired with a particular dish, and it becomes an occasion to discuss the two and why they work so well together. In this way the travelers gain a better understanding of Italian cuisine, but more importantly they enjoy the ritual of eating together; this is a fundamental part of our everyday life in Italy.

Q: What is the one thing you want any visitor to know when they leave?

A: I would love visitors to know the long history hidden behind the sense of beauty, the pleasure for simple things and the general wish for enjoying life that characterizes Italy and the Italians.

I want them to understand the sense of beauty and of challenge that has always characterized the Italians. I believe that this is clearly visible on any journey through my country.

Packed yet? Click here to learn more about traveling wth Angela Buriani, and here for all of Smithsonian’s tours to Italy.

Q&A On Luxury Small Ship Cruising

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Vasos Papagapitos, President of Travel Dynamics, one of our esteemed travel partners specializing in small ship educational enrichment cruises, talks with Smithsonian Journeys staff member MaryBeth Mullen about the distinctive small ships, Corinthian II and Callisto.

The distinctive small ship Callisto

The distinctive small ship Callisto

Q. How is small ship cruising aboard the Corinthian II and Callisto different from other cruises?

A. Small ship cruising differs from traveling aboard large ships in many ways, some more obvious than others.  One of the great advantages of small ship cruising is the access to smaller ports and harbors that are off limits to larger ships. Then there is the ease and convenience of disembarking only 100 or fewer guests for shore excursions, as compared to several hundred.  Aboard our small ships, flexibility prevails, so if there is something special and unexpected that we wish to take advance of ashore, we can always return to the ship a bit late and know that the dining room and ship’s staff will be happy to accommodate our schedule. And one of the true delights of small ship cruising is the relaxed and convivial atmosphere aboard, which fosters easy conversation with fellow travelers and new friendships.

Q. With nearly 20 international cruises planned aboard the Corinthian II and the Callisto for 2012, what are some of the most popular destinations?

A. In spite of the political upheaval in certain pockets of the Mediterranean Sea over the past year, the Mediterranean remains our most popular and resilient destination.  Nothing can compare to the beauty and significance of its sites—whether dating from Greco-Roman times, or other periods. Contributing to the popularity of our Mediterranean voyages is the fact that we visit them through a the perspective of a particular theme, including a voyage that follows the route of Homer’s Odyssey, or a voyage that explores the Secret Art Treasures of Italy, and a voyage that examines the expansion of the Venetian Empire, sailing from Venice to Cyprus.

Q. The Corinthian II is an all-suite 114 guest ship. Can you describe the accommodations and amenities for first-time cruisers.  

A. The accommodations aboard Corinthian II are very spacious, with a sleeping area and a sitting area, as well as marble-appointed bathroom. A number of suites have balconies. There is ample storage space, and the wonderful cabin stewardesses anticipate every need. Travelers consider their suites a true home away from home.

Q. What is the dining experience like on these smaller ships? 

A. Guests enjoy continental cuisine, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients from the local marketplaces. We have an “open seating” tradition on board so that guests can dine with different travelers each evening, which makes for stimulating conversation.  If guests prefer a quiet table for two, or to dine with friends, a table can be reserved through the maître.  Lunch is often served in the dining room and on deck, so that guests can select their preferred venue. In addition to breakfast in the dining room, coffee and pastries are served on deck for early risers.

Q. In addition to the Corinthian II, you also offer programs aboard a much smaller vessel, the private yacht Callisto traveling to West Africa, Turkey and the Greek Isles. What is like traveling aboard such an intimate ship?

A. Traveling aboard Callisto is a true joy. Guests feel that they are on their own private yacht, and the ever-accommodating service personnel welcome them like family on board. We take full advantage of the unique properties of Callisto by visiting regions in greater depth and calling at ports that are unknown to larger vessels.

Q. Will there be Smithsonian study leaders and tour managers to handle logistics aboard each cruise?

A. Each trip is staffed by outstanding study leaders that bring an important educational dimension to the travel experience. Not only are their lecturers stimulating, but they are always accessible for one-on-one conversation.  And our tour staff is well known for its warmth, professionalism, and expertise.

Q. On average, how many ports are visited throughout a cruise? Essentially, how active are these trips? 

A. We generally visit a different port each day, so that on a nine night cruise, we might visit a total of nine or ten different ports during the cruise. In many ports we spend a full day to allow for a rich sightseeing program, which is always included in the price of the trip.  Knowing that travelers enjoy relaxed time at sea, there are generally several days where we spend a half a day in port and the balance of the day at sea. The trips are active; however, travelers can decide whether they wish to participate in all of the organized activities and sightseeing, or strike out on their own from time to time.

Q. Where are you traveling this year? Do you have a favorite destination?

A. This year I look forward to traveling on our program to West Africa aboard Callisto. It is such an unusual and intriguing itinerary, and I am especially interested in seeing the islands of the Bijagos Archipelago, located off of the coast of Guinea-Bissau, known for their remarkable wildlife and the traditions of the Bijagos peoples. If I had to name a favorite destination—which is not easy to do—it would be the Aegean Islands, my homeland.

Click here for cruises aboard Corinthian II and here for cruises aboard Callisto.

Frequently Asked Questions about our Private Jet Tours

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Smithsonian Journeys offers a unique way to learn while you travel and experience what the world has to offer. Our tours by private jet allow you to see the world’s top sites with top experts and unparalled access. Our experts answer the most frequently asked questions about private jet tours for you here:

Visit the moai of Easter Island on our private jet tours.

 Q.  There will be 78 people onboard the jet – won’t this experience have a crowded “group tour” feel?

A.     The jet is a Boeing 757, originally designed to accommodate about 233 travelers, but for our expeditions, is specially configured to generously accommodate only 78 travelers. So travelers on our expedition will enjoy a very spacious and comfortable interior. And the crew-to-traveler ratio is 1 to 5, so the service onboard the jet is highly personalized, Once on land, travelers break up into small groups, rarely touring with more than 15 others, and often much less than that – and are always accompanied with a dedicated, very knowledgeable guide. And there are multiple alternate and optional touring opportunities to further personalize the experience. When visiting a monument like the Taj Mahal, for example, all groups start in different locations to avoid the “group tour” feeling. The only time you are with the entire group is on the jet and at gala meals – which become a celebratory experience with everyone sharing highlights of their touring for the day.

Q.     I have food allergies and special dietary issues. Can the staff accommodate these concerns?

A.    Absolutely. We invite all travelers to provide detailed personal information prior to departure so that we may address any issues. We travel with a private chef aboard the jet who makes sure all food preferences are accommodated while on the private jet. We also have expert “advance” staff on the ground in each country working with all restaurant and hotel staff to further ensure all special requests are taken care of. You are in good hands.

Q.    Do the seats on the jet lie down flat?

A.    No. None of our flights are at night and all of our sleeping is done in the very best hotels available. Our seats are plush, leather, VIP-style “cradle” seats with ecomfort™ foam support which lean back 45 degrees; and have adjustable leg rests. The, seats resemble very comfortable La-Z-boy™ recliners so if a traveler wants to, they may enjoy a nice nap onboard.

 Q.    How strenuous is this trip?

A.  It is as strenuous as you want it to be. One or two of our small daily touring groups are for “slower-walker” groups, who have the opportunity to see and do what everyone else does, only at a more relaxed pace. In addition, we have options for the “go-getter” group, that wants to hike to the top of the mountain and see and do everything. We create these trips for you, for you to customize in the style and manner in which you prefer.

Q.    I’m concerned about getting all of the necessary visas for this trip as I travel a lot. Can you help me with this?

A.    Yes! We use an excellent Washington, DC-based visa service, which provides a detailed visa kit complete with all forms, instructions, and even sample pages so all you have to do is “fill in the blanks.” The visa service can also obtain additional pages for your passport or procure a second passport for you if you are traveling close to the trip departure.

Q.   There are so many different countries on these trips, what about packing and vaccinations?

 A.    We will send you detailed instructions on everything you need to know about preparing for your journey, including vaccinations, expected weather, packing list, shopping suggestions, and a detailed reading list to help you learn about the adventure before departing.

We’re now accepting reservations for our Fall, 2011 and 2012 Private Jet tours. Click  for more.