• Iceland northern lights

    When They Aren’t Guiding: Kommi Tells Secrets to Seeing Aurora Borealis

    When solar winds collide into our atmosphere, layers of gases combine with particles carried in the winds to reveal a dance of chemistry that creates the Aurora Borealis, the <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/how-to-see-northern-lights-iceland/" target="_blank">northern lights</a>. Greens and pinks shimmer as layers of oxygen and nitrogen become illuminated in a way that only a natural phenomenon could display—until now.<br><br>Kormakur “Kommi” Hermannsson, a Classic Journeys guide in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/iceland-tours/" target="_blank">Iceland</a>, has engineered real-time displays of solar winds running headfirst into the same gases from our atmosphere. Contained in plasma tubes, Kommi has found a way to track and replicate the entire supernatural process and put it on display for the public. But this was not exactly his intention.<br><br>Kommi, 49, rearranged his life in 2011 when he devoted himself full-time to work as an outdoor guide in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/tag/iceland/" target="_blank">Iceland</a>, after already establishing himself as a top search and rescue person in the nation. Possessing an engineering background of more than 20 years (inventor of the <a href="https://noxmedical.com/" target="_blank">Nox Medical home sleep monitor device</a>), it didn’t take long for him to identify opportunities for improvement in his new industry. <br><br><img alt="Kommi and Classic Journeys founders Edward and Susie" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRyF" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>The most significant opportunity being improving the experience of witnessing the <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/wonders-of-iceland/" target="_blank">northern lights.</a> Kommi said that most guides during the winter are involved with the northern lights in some way. But the process to see them can take a combination of time and withstanding the elements of nature, something that can be difficult for travelers.<br><br>“The most surprising factor was how insecure people were in the dark,” observed Kommi. “A lot of people aren’t all that comfortable being cold and alone in the dark while in a strange country.”<br><br><img alt="Kommi and Classic Journeys founders Edward and Susie" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRyK" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>That became the goal and driving force behind the <a href="https://www.aurorabasecamp.is/" target="_blank">Aurora Basecamp Observatory</a> - to create the best possible experience of seeing the northern lights. In December 2019 it was in full swing and open to the public, and already in a few short months, they have delivered the visual masterpiece to approximately 2,000 people.<br><br>“We asked ourselves, ‘where would be the best place to take a guest?’ and that is basically where we started.” From there, Kommi explained, the difference was going to be in the education factor. “Nothing I have seen focuses on teaching people how to experience the northern lights.”<br><br>Three geodesic dome-shaped buildings sit off in the distance of an undeveloped lava field located 15-20 minutes south of Reykjavik. They form a small observatory campus, far away from any chance of urban light pollution. The experience visitors leave with is truly otherworldly.<br><br><img alt="Northern lights observatory Aurora Basecamp" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRyU" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>“I have seen the craziest displays myself, but what you see of the northern lights on time-lapse videos…that is not something that I want to show to people.” Kommi was adamant that he wanted to provide real experiences, not photoshopped versions. “The normal northern lights you see is a nice arc, and if you are lucky you will see the lights dance—that is usually what people are looking for.”<br><br>According to Viking lore, the way to Valhalla required death in battle. If chosen, fallen warriors were then escorted by Valkyries to the heavens, which would in effect create the northern lights.<br><br>According to Kommi, though, the lights are a matter of science. A science that he has managed to not only understand and recreate with plasma tubes, but track and showcase to the public in real-time.<br><br>The <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/how-to-see-northern-lights-iceland/" target="_blank">northern lights</a> are formed on the edge of the magnetic field associated with the North Pole. When solar winds cross that area, layers of nitrogen and oxygen mix with the charged particles in the solar winds to create a shimmer, or dancing, effect. <br><br><img alt="Northern lights aurora borealis" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRz8" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>This was the process that Kommi was able to reconstruct inside plasma tubes. After a curious two years of experimenting with conductors to mix various gases with charged particles, permits were filed and approved to build perfect, protected land. Today Kommi is replicating the magic of the cosmos in front of groups, exactly as he set out to do.<br><br>A brief understanding of the celestial experience begins when people first enter the Aurora Lounge. Around a wood stove, visitors take a seat and enjoy either hot chocolate or tea. This room allows everyone to truly ease their way into the eventually dark, harsh conditions. <br><br><img alt="Aurora Lounge Basecamp Observatory for the northern lights" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRyj" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>Next, you enter the Dark Park, which is a guided experience through various rooms, each set with different images and information. The tour begins with a photo of very weak northern lights, almost undetectable. This is to explain exactly how difficult they can be to spot on your own if you do not know what to look for. Light pollution is the topic of the following area, where you learn how light can either add to or take away from your viewing experience of the northern lights. <br><br>“We have to teach people how to look for it,” says Kommi. “We have to then teach people how to see it.”<br><br><img alt="Northern lights aurora borealis Iceland" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRzX" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>You continue to learn by unlearning everything you thought you knew about seeing the northern lights, with a compilation of the most popular disinformation or confusing information that leaves everyone making the same mistakes. Finally, you come to find six plasma tubes filled with gases and charged particles that artificially display the same show happening outdoors before you exit the building to witness it in nature.<br><br>At this point of the Aurora Basecamp Observatory experience, your eyes have fully adjusted to dark areas and low light. After you exit the dome, you are instructed on how to take the best pictures of what you are seeing. Then, it is up to you to just enjoy the night, with Kommi, and his return customers, which he says most become.<br><br><img alt="Northern lights observatory Aurora Basecamp" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lRyo" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br>“The northern lights are a natural phenomenon. Sometimes you have activity that produces crazy moments of really nice light,” explained Kommi, calmly, like he does. “That is what makes the northern lights exciting for me as a guide. I can never tell you exactly what is going to appear.”<br><br><i>Skyler Wilder is an award-winning journalist with a Sports Emmy in “Outstanding New Approaches” at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games; a digital producer for the International Surfing Association, Dew Tour, Toyota, Red Bull and NBC; and an independent photojournalist with stories published in Men’s Journal among many publications. Follow him @northwestwilder</i><br><br>Also written by Skyler: <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/vatnajokull-national-park/" target="_blank">Chaos theory explains trolls, French Revolution and Europe’s Largest Park</a><br><br><a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/tag/iceland/" target="_blank"><img alt="Iceland read more" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Fjir&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001lS14" style="height: 177px; width: 500px;"></img></a><br><i>Photo credit: Aurora Basecamp</i>

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  • Thailand mountain

    Travel trends for 3Q + 4Q 2020

    Maybe you’re already familiar with the quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,... Broad wholesome, charitable views of men cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth...”<br><br>If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you already agree with Mark Twain, at least as you live your own life. Now, let’s talk about the kids and grandkids.<br><br>Child psychologists and educators tell us that travel can be soundly beneficial in building a healthy foundation on which children view the world. It’s an organic lesson in history, culture, religion, politics and geography which, the experts tell us, dramatically boosts a child’s development. They learn that, outside the bubble we grow up in, people, cultures, food are different. They learn to respect the power and majesty of nature.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzW5" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> <br>Plus, it gives families quality time together, outside of the norm and beyond the hassles of work, school and home life. While birthday and Father’s Day presents may find themselves in the back of the garage after a few months, travel memories are shared over Thanksgiving dinners for decades.<br> <br>Without warning, we all faced 2020 with the prospect of no travel. Borders were closed, hotels shut down and flights cancelled. Families have been sheltering together at home, spending more time in one place than perhaps ever before (thank goodness for the tips <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/mel-robbins-interview/" target="_blank">Mel Robbins</a> passed on during the early stages of lockdown).<br> <br>But as borders begin to reopen, we now have hope of travel in 2020. Whether you’ve been spending too much time indoors with your immediate family, or haven’t seen your extended family since stay home orders were put in place, it’s finally time to enjoy quality time together and a much-craved change of scenery.<br> <br>Our Zoom calls have been with our local guides and hoteliers around the world, our guests around the country, and the editors of travel publications from AFAR and Fodor’s, to Travel + Leisure and the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a round up what the travel trends for the second half of 2020 are looking like.<br> <br><b>Virtual travel-inspired trips</b><br>We’ve been confined to our homes in an age where the internet and social media are everyday staples. It’s taught us you don’t have to step outdoors to experience flavors, masterpieces and landscapes thousands of miles away. We’ve been exploring museums, safari parks and natural phenomena—<a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/one-day-world-tour/" target="_blank">virtually</a>—from our couches. We’ve joined Instagram cooking classes live from Italy and attended real-time Zoom whiskey tastings from Scotland. Netflix has transported us to cities and countries never before visited.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzHF" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>Now those places are opening for visits and we have the chance of experiencing them IN REAL LIFE!<br> <br>“We have never been to <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/morocco-tours/" target="_blank">Morocco</a>, but <a href="http://classicjourneys.com/blog/tastes-of-morocco-chicken-tagine/" target="_blank">chicken tagine</a> has become an almost weekly family dinner during lockdown and everyone is keen to go there!”<br> <br>“We watch live <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/south-africa-family-adventure-tours/" target="_blank">safari</a> streams as part of the bedtime routines and their faces are in a constant state of amazement, I would love to see their reactions to seeing those animals in real life!”<br> <br><b>Trips down memory lane</b><br>Hands up if you’ve flicked through photos from previous trips and recalled happy travel memories with friends and family. Over the months, many of us have thought of places we wished we could return to, instead of being home.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzSS" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>“When I was in middle school, my parents took us on an incredible trip to <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/grandcanyonfamily" target="_blank">Zion</a>. I would love to give my kids the same experience.”<br> <br>“We had a wonderful time in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/costa-rica-tours/" target="_blank">Costa Rica</a> when my children were young, now they are teenagers I’m thinking of all the things they’d enjoy if we went back there.”<br> <br><b>Substitute Summer Camp</b><br>Social distancing guidelines may not allow for big group camps, but that doesn’t mean your kids can’t try new activities and benefit from new perspectives away from home.<br><a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/multisport-tours/" target="_blank"><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzGR" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img></a> <br>“I was always jealous of the fun activities the kids got to do on summer camp. Now we get to do them together.”<br> <br>“I feel like a well-connected local guide has to be ten times better than the best camp counselor ever!”<br> <br><b>Nurture global citizens</b><br>A lot has happened in a short time this year, and for many it’s got us thinking about family views and values. Raising responsible global citizens feel more important than ever.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzGb" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>“We’ve learned a lot about climate change with the kids doing their geography classes at home. In our future trips, I want to give them the chance to see the effects of global warming (like the glaciers in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/iceland-tours/" target="_blank">Iceland</a>) and over fishing (like the turtles in the <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/galapagos-tours/" target="_blank">Galapagos</a>).”<br> <br>“I want our kids to grow up understanding different cultures, to make friends with and learn from children from other countries and backgrounds. How amazing would it be to take them to lunch with a rainforest tribe in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/panama-tours/" target="_blank">Panama</a> or dinner with desert tribes in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/morocco-tours/" target="_blank">Morocco</a>.”<br> <br><b>Milestone trips</b><br>Cancelled events don’t mean you can’t mark milestones. Where families haven’t been able to gather for graduation ceremonies, anniversary celebrations or birthday parties, they are booking once-in-a-lifetime trips instead.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzHA" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>“My daughter and niece can’t walk across the stage to get their diplomas this year. But they can walk the Inca Trail to <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/peru-tours/" target="_blank">Machu Picchu</a>. And we can give them that.”<br> <br><b>Multigenerational vacations</b><br>We love family Zoom calls, but nothing beats spending quality time together in person. Families are wanting—aka needing—to get back together again and multigenerational vacations allow that without leaving any age-group at a loose end.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzGq" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>“I still can’t believe my 75-year-old, technology-hating mother mastered Zoom and Facetime. It’s been great for celebrating Mother’s Day, virtual bedtime stories and so on. But now I want everyone together properly on a vacation the grandparents will enjoy as much as the grandkids.”<br> <br><b>Private tours</b><br>Social distancing measures have changed the way we feel about group gatherings. With a private tour, you can leave your neighborhood but stay in the comfort zone of just your posse. You won’t have to be on high alert when it comes to other travelers and it also allows for ultimate flexibility.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzUi" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>“I want to travel but I don’t want to have to worry about social distancing with other guests all of the time, especially when the kids sometimes forget the 6-feet rule. So a private trip is perfect. Plus we can pick dates that suit our family and have the whole trip tailored to what works for us.”<br> <br><b>Land-based </b><br>Several cruise lines are cancelling their departures for the rest of the year, due to coronavirus concerns and &#39;no sail&#39; orders in the US and Canada. Destinations where the majority of visitors arrive by ship, will see a shift towards land travel. <br><img alt="USA Alaska Water Luxury Tour Classic Journeys" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001y4RF" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br>&quot;It makes me want to visit <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/alaska/" target="_blank">Alaska</a> even more. I know it&#39;s never crowded because the state is so huge, but without cruise ship passengers piling in, it will be an Alaska we haven&#39;t seen for years and years.&quot;<br><br><b>Domestic flights</b><br>Where a short, face-masked flight feels achievable, a whole lot of opportunity opens up. In this enormous and fabulously varied country, domestic flights can land you in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/bryce-tours/" target="_blank">desert</a>, <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/alaska-tours/" target="_blank">glacier</a>, <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/montana-tours/" target="_blank">mountain</a>, <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/puget-sound-tours/" target="_blank">island archipelago</a>, or <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/charleston/" target="_blank">historic city </a>within a few hours.<br> <img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzK9" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br>“I’ve always associated vacationing with going to a different country, but I am realizing that there is also so much to explore in the US. I’ve been at home every weekend thinking, wow, if only I could hop on a plane. In two hours, I could be somewhere totally different. Now that airlines are back in action, I want to take advantage of this!”<br> <br><b>Drive-to trips</b><br>To bypass flights completely and drive means no luggage weight limits, no wearing masks while traveling, less time constraints and not having to think about social distancing with other passengers.<br> <img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzVH" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br>“In our daily ‘outdoor exercise’ with the dog, we have discovered so many cool places in the neighborhood we didn’t know existed that are only a few minutes’ walk away. It makes me think of all the places we could explore with only a few hours on the road.”<br> <br><b>Drive yourself trips</b><br>You don’t need to be cooped up on a coach with dozens of strangers to get around destinations. The new norm is seeing a lot of tours where you—or a private driver—is behind the wheel.<br> <img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzIX" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br>“I don’t want to go somewhere like Iceland and only be constrained to places within walking distance. But I don’t feel comfortable sitting on a coach or bus either. There is something about being in control of my own car, containing just my household, that feels liberating and comforting at the same time.” (Editor’s note: For you, fellow adventurer, check out our <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/iceland-defender-tour" target="_blank">Special Edition Land Rover Defender tour</a>.)<br> <br><b>Bucket list destinations</b><br>We all have somewhere we always wanted to take our families, but didn’t get around to visiting before the decision was taken off our hands as countries shut their borders. Now destinations are opening, many of us are ready to make our dream trips reality.<br><img alt="User-added image" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002PxNu&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001xzK4" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br>“We spoke about this in an extended family Zoom happy hour recently. I always wanted to see the <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/iceland-tours/" target="_blank">northern lights</a>, my son wants to visit the <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/grandcanyonfamily/" target="_blank">Grand Canyon</a>, my mom said whale watching in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/alaska/" target="_blank">Alaska</a>, my sister chose a camel ride in <a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/morocco/" target="_blank">Morocco</a>… We ended the call agreeing to make at least one of those happen as soon as it was possible!’<br><br>And if you’d like to read a parent to parent retelling of how travel has impacted his sons who are now adults, take a look at the blogs below by Classic Journeys founder, Edward Piegza:<br><br><a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/mario-the-peruvian-shepherd-boy/" target="_blank">Mario the shepherd boy in Peru’s Sacred Valley.</a><br><a href="https://www.classicjourneys.com/blog/penguin-parenting-out-of-the-mouths-of-babes/" target="_blank">“No, Matthew, you are not a Fiordland crested penguin and mommy does not have to choose between you and Jack.”</a>

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  • Arshay Cooper

    Member of first all-black U.S. rowing team points way to diversity success

    Travel is the first love shared by the Piegza family, headed by our founders Edward and Susan, who took each of their two boys on their first international flights at 11 months old. But as the boys entered high school, rowing quickly became all-consuming so that the family even combines rowing into their travel plans. <br> <br>Jack, now 23, captained the Cornell University team and considers his fondest memories at school to be time spent with his teammates. Matthew, 21, is now a rising senior at University of Pennsylvania, where he is coached by two Olympic gold medalists who have become his closest mentors. The family has seen firsthand the significant benefits that rowing provides in kids’ lives. And yet, according to U.S. Rowing, in 2019, only 1.3% of its approximately 75,000 members (including high school and college athletes) reported that they were black or African-American.<br> <br>Enter Arshay Cooper, who was a member of the first all-black high school rowing program in the U.S. and who has written a memoir that is a sort of modern-day version of ‘Boys in the Boat’. The book, titled ‘A Most Beautiful Thing’, is an inspiring memoir of his decision to choose rowing against the backdrop of violent 90’s inner city Chicago, the mentors that he meets in his coaches, and the work ethic that he and teammates continue to draw from successfully even today.<br><br><b>(Click <a href="https://static.macmillan.com/static/fib/a-most-beautiful-thing/" target="_blank">here</a> to get your copy of the book.)</b><br> <br>The book goes on sale June 30 and is being followed by a movie that makes its debut nationally in July. Filmed before the protests spurred by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, they follow the journey of Arshay’s teammates, some of whom began as rival gang members and ended up as a closely-knit group. It also captures his high school, Manley Crew, reuniting for a race 20 years later and inviting the Chicago Police Department to row with them on their team.<br> <br>As the country and the sport look for ways to be more inclusive, Edward sat down recently to talk rowing, fatherhood, diversity and food with Arshay. What follows is an edited version of their sit-down talk.<br><img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAYE" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> <br><b>Edward: </b>‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ chronicles your experiences as a high schooler in a particularly violent area of the West Side of Chicago, where incentives to join gangs are real, the dropout rate is astronomical, and only about 10% of the senior class goes off to college. In this environment, you made the very unusual and socially risky choice to try rowing, ultimately becoming a part of America&#39;s first all-black high school rowing team. Can you describe what it was like growing up in your neighborhood, and what was it that drew you to the team and convinced you to stay on, given the risks?<br><b>Arshay:</b> Growing up on the West Side was scary most of the time. There were fistfights and shootings almost daily. The walk to the store sometimes included stepping over pools of blood, being chased by gang members you’d never seen before, running from the sound of gunshots, being asked to be a part of gangs, or work selling drugs. There was a different gang every few blocks, and the big question was not what college you were going to attend but what gang you would join. It was easier to join a gang than not to join a gang. They offered protection and they were everywhere. It was like hip hop… it was popular and the thing to do. When rowing came to Manley High School, it was so foreign that it caught my attention. I tried originally for the free pizza but met a group of coaches that was inspiring and full of hope. Their message about the sport was that you would travel throughout the year, practice outside the community, build a brotherhood, meet new people, learn to swim, have extra academic support, and compete. I think that spoke to all the young people who never made a sports team, who had never traveled, who were failing classes, and who had no friends. That was 100% me. It seemed safe, and that was enough to keep me interested.<br> <a href="https://static.macmillan.com/static/fib/a-most-beautiful-thing/" target="_blank"><img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper author first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAZg" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img></a><br><br><b>Edward: </b>In addition to describing the historical gravity of being a part of the first US all-black high school rowing team, it also explores the interpersonal challenges among your fellow teammates. Some of them were rival gang members, some of them had parents who disapproved of the decision to join the team due to the coaches being white. Given these challenges, how do you think everyone managed to get along and persevere in pursuit of a common goal?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Rowing is not a combat sport and has no room for conflict. You are just out there with classmates pulling together as one. You’re not talking, the water is calm, and every stroke is pure meditation. You don&#39;t hear the usual police sirens or gunshots, and there is no one to impress, so you are just locked into the moment. Nothing else matters. Not the clothes you wear, the neighborhood where you live, or who&#39;s the most popular. When we went to the boathouse or a race regatta, everyone was white; competitors, refs, volunteers, coaches, and then there was our team. So that helped us to bond, knowing that it&#39;s just us, and we are the only ones we have out there and that we must pull together.<br><img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAYJ" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> <br><b>Edward: </b>As the first black high school rowing team, you and your teammates thought you were going to change the sport, like Jackie Robinson changed baseball… but you say the sport changed you instead. Despite the adversity you faced as a team, how did the sport change your futures?<br><b>Arshay:</b> We weren’t even thinking we would get along with people who didn&#39;t look like us, because we didn’t even get along with each other at first. But the opportunity to share the boathouse with others, compete, and do college visits helped us to step out of our comfort zones and meet others. Rowing helped us to learn to trust and to take chances, which has carried on with us to this day. We got over the fear of water. Our rowing program also had a youth entrepreneurship component to it. Because of that program, my boatmates all have their own business.<br><br><b>(Join Arshay Cooper live for a conversation and virtual book signing at 8pm EDT / 5pm PDT June 30th on YouTube <a href="https://youtu.be/dmuEc1VL3Ls" target="_blank">here</a>.)</b><br><br><b>Edward: </b>Showing up at your first high school races, you describe how conspicuous you felt as an all-black team, being gawked at by teams of almost exclusively white rowers. To what extent do you think that experience is a microcosm for anyone attempting to break into a field, sport, or culture in which their demographic is different from the majority of its constituents?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Most of the discrimination happened in the community where the boathouse was; the grocery store, the parking lot, restaurants, or just walking to the boathouse. People didn&#39;t understand why we were there. We didn&#39;t dress like rowers and didn&#39;t wear uniforms until moments before race time. We experienced police stopping us, people staring, sarcastic jokes, and not being allowed in restaurants. But those things didn&#39;t move us. When you have a mission, your vision cannot be blocked. In hindsight it’s like history had its eyes on us. We remained focused. Just like we were prepared for race days, we were prepared for race issues.<br><br><b>Edward: </b>Looking back on this experience after more than 20 years, what do you wish the gawking crowds would have known about you and your teammates?<br><b>Arshay: </b>That even with fewer resources, we put in the same number of hours of practice, had the same calluses on our hands, and suffered injured backs just like any other rower.<br> <img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAaA" style="height: 261px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br><b>Edward: </b>A big theme in your memoir is living up to your potential, despite the adversity you and your teammates faced. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, calls your memoir &quot;a testament to the resilience and beauty of the human spirit,&quot; while Ron Stallworth, the author of ‘Black Klansman’, calls it &quot;a triumphant tale of overcoming odds.&quot; What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in order to achieve your dreams, and how did you accomplish that?<br><b>Arshay: </b>When there is a mass shooting nowadays, right away, schools bring in trauma counselors. It was typical for us to experience shootings and losses, and yet, there were no experts. The biggest challenges were getting past the trauma of growing up in a violent and impoverished community, and then dealing with racism. Rowing gave us mentors and provided us a form of therapy to face self-doubt and to conquer our fears.<br><br><b>Edward: </b>‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ is now a documentary by filmmaker Mary Mazzio, narrated by Common, and produced by Grant Hill, Dwayne Wade, and 9th Wonder. The documentary is much more focused on the present lives of the rowing team, while your memoir focuses on the team&#39;s origins and your life in high school on the West Side. Can you talk more about the documentary and what it was like getting back in the boat with your old teammates?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Twenty years after graduating high school, we were reunited after the passing of one of our coaches. The whole team met at one teammate&#39;s barbershop to reflect on our experiences of living on the West Side in the 90’s and then joining the first all-black high school rowing team. We noticed that some of the same obstacles in the community still exist. So, we thought if rowing can bring us together, then maybe it can unite our communities. We decided to do a reunion race to spread hope by inviting young people from the West Side, Manley alums, family members, cops, and the rowing community. I believe this documentary will bring hope to the world and can contribute to diversity in the sport of rowing.<br><br><img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAY4" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br> <br><b>Edward:</b> Can you tell us a bit about your life after high school and your efforts to start rowing programs for low-income youths across the country?<br><b>Arshay: </b>After high school, I spent two years fulltime with Americorps. Then I attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. It gave me an incredible opportunity to see the world as a young chef. First, I worked at the critically acclaimed restaurant Blackbird, and eventually as a personal chef on movie sets, and for professional athletes and affluent families. I then began reflecting on what&#39;s next for me and started a young chef program teaching public school kids the career path in the field of cooking in hospitality. The program consisted of learning different cuisines, cooking techniques, nutrition, kitchen safety, proper food handling, knife skills, food meditation, and hospitality. While working with these young chefs, a reoccurring question arose: how do I become successful in a community where very few dreams survive? This question sparked my passion to write about overcoming my childhood hardship.<br>  <br><b>Edward:</b> You graduated from cooking school in 2004 and took classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and London. Bryan Volpenheim, who won gold in 2004 and bronze in 2008 for the U.S. Olympic team, coaches my son, Matthew, at the University of Pennsylvania. Bryan is a trained chef too. Are there any similarities in being a chef and being a rower?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Yes, rowing and being a chef requires practice, teamwork, long hours, patience, and facing up to who you are. <br> <img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAaj" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br><b>Edward: </b>My son&#39;s coach at Cornell, Chris Kerber, often referred to ‘controlling the controllables’. Can you speak to specific values or skills that you and your teammates learned from rowing that you apply and that you teach your rowers?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Rowing taught that rather than trying to do the work of eight people, it’s better to find eight people to do the work together and I’ll get there much faster. 90% of my old boatmates are entrepreneurs and we apply this to our work teams even to this day.<br><br><b>Edward:</b> Penn Rower, Kenneth Alpert (class of 1988), started the non-profit Urban Options that eventually funded the inner-city rowing program that created your high school rowing team, Manley Crew. My boys are friends with the former captain of the University of Wisconsin men’s team, who has partnered with &#39;STEM to Stern&#39; to increase minority participation in rowing. Are there other programs that are doing this sort of work to introduce rowing to minority communities?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Yes, there are many doing great work, including Row New York, Chicago Training Center, Reach High Baltimore, Philadelphia City Rowing, and Row Boston to name a few.<br><img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAaU" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img> <br><br><b>Edward: </b>You’ve said that ‘rowing makes me feel the same way that I feel when I’m in church’. Can you elaborate on that for us?<br><b>Arshay: </b>While other sports like football and basketball are based around conflict, they didn&#39;t work for me. Rowing calmed the storm in me. It made me feel at peace like church. The water was healing.<br><br><b>Edward: </b>You have a baby daughter, Sasha Munroe, who was born in October 2019. Do you aspire for her to row in high school and college?<br><b>Arshay: </b>Yes, she will row at Penn, I just love the culture there!<br><img alt="Classic Journeys luxury travel blog Arshay Cooper first US all-black rowing team" src="/servlet/rtaImage?eid=a2Y1T000002Q0sC&amp;feoid=00N50000008QRzC&amp;refid=0EM1T000001yAZC" style="height: 355px; width: 500px;"></img><br><br><i>Arshay Cooper grew up in the all-black West Side of Chicago in the 1990’s, and has been awarded the Buoy Award for service in the sport of rowing in New York City and the U.S. Rowing Golden Oar Award for achieving measurable success in expanding diversity opportunities in the sport of rowing.<br> <br>Now 38, Arshay has founded the only New York City public school rowing team for black and Latino students (at East Side High School in Manhattan). A highly sought-after motivational speaker, his audiences have included corporations, universities, churches, juvenile centers, youth rallies, stop the violence marches, recovery homes, and over 200 charter and public schools. He now sits on the U.S. Rowing strategic planning committee for diversity and inclusion, while working at Row New York, the largest and most diverse rowing program in the country.<br> <br>While working closely with head coaches at universities to diversify the sport and prepare non-traditional rowers for the next few Olympics, he is also a consultant for rowing programs around the country. He has worked alongside coaches to help start rowing programs in Stockton and Oakland, CA; Minneapolis, MN; Rochester and New York, NY; Seattle, WA; Baltimore, MD; Dallas, TX; Chicago, IL and others. His athletes of color have gone on to row internationally in Germany, Spain and other countries, and at universities that include Drexel, Williams, Stanford and others. Follow Arshay <a href="https://www.instagram.com/arshaycooper/" target="_blank">@arshaycoopeer</a></i><br><br><b>(Get your copy of the book <a href="https://static.macmillan.com/static/fib/a-most-beautiful-thing/" target="_blank">here</a> and join Arshay Cooper for a live conversation and virtual book signing at 8pm EDT / 5pm PDT June 30th on YouTube <a href="https://youtu.be/dmuEc1VL3Ls" target="_blank">here</a>.)</b>

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