Saturday, June 17, 2017

Horses and a Hot Beach

One of my favorite aspects of being a Peace Corps Volunteer down here is helping my students have experiences they've never had before. Whether it is as simple as watching the Space Station pass overhead (and enjoying “magical” glow bracelets afterwards), sailing on a 40 foot yacht, seeing a real airplane close up, building a bamboo raft to float on the river, swimming in a real swimming pool, or countless other first time experiences (many of which—including the ones I just listed here—have been documented in this blog), I've loved every one of them. The excitement of doing something for the very first time is quite invigorating, even if you are just watching someone else go through something to which you're already accustomed.
This week I had the opportunity to enjoy the students' broad smiles as they got the chance to try something new—riding horses. Check out the pictures that I have interspersed in this story to see for yourself. There is a horse stable, the Brandy Manor Equestrian Center, that offers schools a program where for just $10 EC per student (less than $4 U.S. dollars), they get to go for a guided trail ride on a real horse. We arranged an afternoon outing for our 5th and 6th grade class, and caught a bus headed that direction after we ate lunch at school on Wednesday. [This is the same horse stable we encountered on our Belle Marche last year when we tried to go to Brandy Falls.]
The seven students all had a blast. Some had a few initial trepidations, but it was great to see them overcome their fears and end up sitting tall in the saddle. All who did it came back with huge smiles and the overwhelming desire to do it again someday.
I emphasized to all of them that the feeling they had of riding atop a large horse ambling along a trail was similar to what mankind around the world had experienced for countless generations when traveling distances until the growth of the automobile in just the last century. Hopefully they can remember that feeling and it will help some future secondary school history lesson come alive for them.
Afterward, we hiked back out to the main road, and walked along it until we caught a bus with enough room to take us all to Portsmouth. From there, we caught a bus taking us to the southern end of Picard, where we got out and walked to Coconut Beach. We finished the afternoon with some swimming and some cricket on the beach. We also ate the breadfruit and codfish the teacher brought along, as well as the can of Pringles I contributed.
[I made them do some mental math to figure out how many Pringle chips there were in the can based on the average serving size of 15 and with 6 servings per can. Then I made them divide into that total to decide how much each person should get (plus we figured out other totals to continue the lesson). It was a good opportunity to demonstrate math in action.]
I had been to Coconut Beach several times, but I learned something during this trip that I had not been aware of before. The students showed me how if you dug down in the sand, it was very hot. I knew there was a hot spring in nearby Glanvalia, but I did not realize that Coconut Beach was in a “hot zone.” You could dig your feet in the sand under the water and instantly feel the heat. The students liked smearing the hot wet sand on their faces and skin (I tried it as well). I tried digging with my hands in shallow water, and only got about 6-8 inches deep before it was too hot for my hands to go any deeper. It's hard to believe that the magma of the earth is so close to the surface on this island.
We ended the day by walking back into Picard to an ice cream store, where I purchased an ice cream cone for everyone (me buying ice cream on these special trips has become a tradition). It was a great way to end a great day! [Notice that you can see me in the background of the picture below.]
Finally, I just want to mention how busy my week has been, beyond just teaching school. Sunday was the Annual General Meeting of the National Cooperative Credit Union down in the capital city. Monday night was a committee meeting for the basketball court project. Tuesday night was the disaster management committee meeting. Wednesday night was the tourism committee. Thursday night was the Village Feast committee meeting. It isn't always this busy, but I'm glad to be actively involved in my community. It is a good place to be!


P.S. I just wanted to once again plead with my readers to donate towards building a playing court for my village, as part of the matching funds to the grant I won (described in this previous story) from an American charity. Time is running out because the charity will be transferring most of our money by the end of this month. I'm very grateful for the donations that have already been made, but I'd love to get more money to help out this wonderful community who has been so welcoming to me. Every U.S. dollar gets multiplied by about 2.67 when converting to Eastern Caribbean dollars, so a simple $38 donation from America becomes a triple figure ($100 EC) donation down here. It makes a difference!

For anyone leery of donating via a website using your credit card (the instructions for the electronic donation process can be found in the link above), it is also possible to donate the old fashioned way. You can mail a check to Courts for Kids, and just note “Thibaud, Dominica community court” in the memo line. Make the check out to “Courts for Kids” and mail it to:

Courts for Kids
PO Box 873786
Vancouver, WA 98687

Thank you for at least considering a donation, whether electronically or by check! It will make a big difference for my students and others in the village. The good folks here will surely appreciate your generosity!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Two Years; One Fear

These last few days have been important anniversaries for me. Two years ago on June 10, after retiring from my job, selling my house (and motorcycle), and giving my car to my daughter, I left West Virginia to overnight near the Pittsburgh airport. On June 11, 2015, I boarded a plane early that morning to join others in my group at our staging point in Miami. Two years ago today, on June 12, 2015, a total of 32 new Peace Corps recruits left a Miami hotel, boarded an international flight, and headed to the Caribbean. It was truly a leap into the unknown—the first steps on an incredible journey!
Fast forward two years to today, and I know I am a changed man. I've learned so many things about people, life, and myself. I've made lots of new friends (both Dominicans and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers). I have a comfortable life in a loving village that cares about me. I'm truly blessed to have been given this opportunity (that is my shirt shown below).
Serving in President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps is quite an honor. This is the centennial of JFK's birth in 1917 (it's virtually impossible to imagine him as 100 years old, since the assassin's bullet essentially froze him at age 46 in our memories), and many special events are being held to commemorate this centennial. I recently saw a video of Congressman Joe Kennedy III speaking about his great uncle and the Peace Corps. If you have the time and interest, it's worth watching by clicking here.
To commemorate the two year anniversary of the start of our Peace Corps careers, my colleagues and I went sailing on Saturday. The five of us from my class were joined by four of the other Peace Corps Volunteers. This was my third time on this boat (see my previous accounts here and here), but the first time for all the others. Everyone had a great time, as shown in these pictures! Plus, this time we got to see a huge sea turtle surface near the boat. It was a great way to celebrate this major milestone, and spend time together before we start heading our separate ways later this summer.
I have mixed emotions about my Peace Corps service coming to an end. I love the place where I was assigned. It will not be easy to leave the friends I have made here. The only thing that makes it palatable is knowing that I have already made arrangements to come back next winter for a vacation here, just to check up on everyone (and escape the cold weather). I will forever be connected to Dominica.

However, I need to go back to my West Virginia home. That point was hammered home to me once I got back to my house after the sailing trip on Saturday. My sister—my only sibling—who was one year behind me all through school, sent me a message that popped up on the small screen of my phone. All I could see was the first line: “Have some bad news to tell you.”

I immediately assumed she was referring to the death of Adam West, star of the “Batman” television show we both loved as children in the 1960s. My Facebook newsfeed was already full of this news from my contemporaries who had also been fans, so I thought I knew what she was going to tell me.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the bad news. She shared with me that she had been diagnosed with cancer on Friday. This shocking news hit me like a ton of bricks! Hopefully they caught it early enough and she will be able to beat it. She asked me to bring her back a Dominica souvenir bandana that she can wear to cover her head when her hair falls out from the chemo treatments. I purchased two bandanas today—one for her and one for me to wear in solidarity with her (shown in the photo at the top of this story).

This unexpected development shows why I need to get home in August. It also emphasized to me the fragility of life. You just never know when your life can be turned upside down. Thus, you should make the most of each and every day. I will leave you with one of my favorite photos of the two of us, in front of our 1970 Volkswagen when we were leaving home to head to the University of Charleston about 40 years ago.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

As Time Winds Down

During your service in the Peace Corps, there are three major training sessions. The first and longest (about ten weeks) is the Pre-Service Training (PST) where they prepare you for how to be a volunteer, for living alone in your assigned village, and for performing your designated job. Mine ran from my departure in June 2015 through August 2015. Upon completion of PST, you are finally sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).
After your first year as a PCV, everyone in your class reassembles for Mid-Service Training (MST). Our MST was held in October at the Abbey where we spent our very first weekend in the Caribbean. It was great to be with my colleagues once again (my group's MST picture is shown above).
The third major training session for each cohort class is the Close of Service Training, known to Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world as COS. The COS for my class was held a few weeks ago on the island of St. Lucia (where the Eastern Caribbean headquarters for Peace Corps is located). Instead of the austere Abbey, the COS training was held in a nice hotel (although not beachfront, so they were still trying to be frugal) with a swimming pool (see photo above). Even though we have several months left in our service, they needed to hold our training session before they can get ready for the Pre-Service Training for the incoming group of new volunteers now arriving. Plus, there is a lot we need to do before we return to the USA.
It was great to be reunited with the amazing group of people (pictured above, the night we were transported to the beach for a BBQ dinner) that comprised our group, the 87th group of volunteers trained for assignment in the Eastern Caribbean (thus our designation as EC87). We had persevered through the arduous Pre-Service Training in June and July of 2015 on St. Lucia, and then were scattered to our four different islands (Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, or St. Vincent and the Grenadines) on August 1 of that year. Our Mid-Service Training last fall was the only time since Pre-Service Training that we had been together as a group. It was wonderful to renew our friendships. There are truly some great people from across the USA who are in my class—and seemingly throughout the Peace Corps. As the time begins to dwindle for my 800 days as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I went down to the inlet by myself on the last night to view the sunset. While there, I watched the ship shown below returning to the harbor—just like I will be returning home in a few short months. However, I still have a lot to get done before I head home, especially the construction of a playing court in late July (I'm still seeking donations for this project).
As we celebrate the centennial of President Kennedy's birth, I feel honored to be serving in his Peace Corps. I hope this federal program will continue for many years to come—however, the current President's budget proposal makes big cuts in America's service programs such as the Peace Corps. I hope that Republicans in Congress will realize that the Peace Corps is spreading much goodwill on behalf of America and that it is worth continuing at its present size, if not larger. It will be a shame if it is cut.


One final point about my COS training—on the way back home from St. Lucia to Dominica, the ferry boat (which is cheaper than flying, and the Peace Corps tries to keep costs down) made its mid-way stop at the French island of Martinique. We were docked across the harbor from a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter. Some of you know that I almost went to the Coast Guard Academy after high school, so the Coast Guard has always been interesting to me. As we left, I could see the name on the stern was “Donald Horsley.” About a week after I was back home, I finally got around to do a web search on this ship.

It turns out that this ship had a busy week after I saw it. A few days later, it rescued six men from a disabled boat. Not long after this news story, there was another news story about this ship's arrival in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it offloaded over a million dollars worth of marijuana that it had seized. It was good to see this example of the American government performing visible work to help this area. It was also interesting to see that the commanding officer of this vessel is a woman. Finally, all this reminded me of the U.S. Navy hospital ship that was visiting Dominica when I first arrived. I feel it is important for the United States to help developing countries around the world, and the Peace Corps, the hospital ship, and the Coast Guard are good examples.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Marching Again

Some of you may remember the story I previously wrote about the “Diabetes March” that our school held. It was organized by the government Health Center (they have a form of universal health care here) which is located on the other side of the playing field from our school. We made signs and then the children marched through the village chanting slogans against diabetes. At the end, they were rewarded with juice and healthy snacks.
Recently, our village's Health Center organized another similar activity (the nurses who joined us are shown above). This time it was a “Vaccination March” through the village. It was part of an island-wide campaign to encourage parents to get their children immunized against diseases. The students enjoyed participating in this one as much as they had enjoyed the previous march, as these pictures attest.
I've been fortunate that I haven't had any major health problems down here. The Peace Corps has two doctors assigned to the Eastern Caribbean to take care of all of us, and I am impressed with all they do (I will miss this free service when I go home). However, I did get a splinter in my hand one day from the wooden frame around the chalkboard. The principal recommended that I go see the nurse at the nearby Health Center. It was a very nice building with basic equipment necessary for its simple function. I walked in and the nurse took quick care of me (no waiting!), and then I was on my way back to school. No paperwork, no billing, no administrative staff handling all the paperwork, nothing! Just pure healthcare! It was quite different from my experiences with American healthcare.
I'm not saying that healthcare is better here, but it does make me realize how much administrative overhead is required for the American system of healthcare. That's just one of the reasons why American healthcare costs are so high! I'm not looking forward to returning to the mess that the American healthcare system has become. It seems to me that Trumpcare is not the answer, because those losing health insurance will just cause the costs to go up for the rest of us. Plus, separating out those in high-risk pools may lower costs for the healthy, but will increase the costs for those who need help the most. Obamacare needed changes, but to totally trash his effort to impose the Massachusetts (Romney) model on the entire country is wrong. I am sad for the future of my country.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

4-H

Unfortunately, I wasn't much of a “joiner” in my youth. We lived “out in the country” so it wasn't as easy to get involved as it was for kids living in town. It wasn't until my college years on a small campus that I really got involved with organizations (thank you, UC, for bringing me out of my shell). In hindsight, I wish I would have belonged to the 4-H during my youth, because much to my surprise, I find myself involved with it down here on this tropical island.
Just like many schools in Dominica, our school has a 4-H club. It meets every couple of weeks during the last hour of the school day. As a formal organization, they learn about how meetings are run. Usually they do some sort of project, such as beautifying the school grounds. Plus, they learn some of the basics about agriculture (a major source of income in my area).
Recently, a man from the village helped us build some raised gardening beds so that vegetables for the school lunch program could be started from seeds. Growing the vegetables in the raised beds protects them from animals. As you can see in the picture below, the beds were built using PVC pipe, rebar, cement, and sheet metal.
These are all pictures from a recent work day.
One of the fifth graders is busy swinging a pickaxe to get some good dirt at the base of this cliff beside the school. He is digging out hardened dirt from an old drainage ditch.
A blue wastebasket from inside the school doubles as a container to carry fresh dirt to the raised beds.
In the Caribbean, nearly everyone has a cutlass (which Americans tend to call a machete, but no one calls them by that name down here). Even the older students use the school's cutlass to trim the bushes and other activities. The picture above demonstrates how a cutlass and a hammer can be used to cut a piece of galvanized (the term they use for the corrugated sheet metal often used here).
In the picture above, many hands are working to break up some fertilizer (as in dried animal manure). Notice that our beautiful kindergarten/1st grade teacher is on the left side of this picture. She is digging into the fertilizer and breaking it up, right alongside her kids, even though she has some fancy fingernails. I bet many women in America would not be willing to do what she is doing for her students!
The blue classroom wastebasket also doubles as a pail of water. The student is using his hand to flick water onto the newly planted seedlings (look close and you can see drops of water flying through the air).

Even though it is late in the school year to get this project going, I am glad to see it happen. I think it is important for us to grow some of our own food to supplement our fledgling school lunch program, which was new for this year (last year I pretty much just ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch each day). Hopefully the children will learn some responsibility as they work to keep the plants alive with water and attention. Indeed, the 4-H program is very good for children, regardless of the country in which you live.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Inside the Bat Cave!

When I arrived in my village nearly two years ago, I was fascinated by the nightly exodus of thousands of bats from a nearby bat cave isolated just up the coastline. Most of the locals were rather “ho-hum” about it, because they had seen it all their lives. It really wasn't much of a big thing to them. However, I enjoyed going down to the shore to wait for the bats to stream out (frequently joined by some of my students).

I wrote my initial blog story about the bats in my first few weeks here during August 2015. A few short weeks later, I wrote a second blog story telling how one of the local residents led me on a challenging journey to the opening of the bat cave. About a year ago, I wrote a third story about when I went up on L'islette to observe the exodus of the bats from a different angle.

Even though I have not written any additional bat cave blog stories, I never lost interest in it. I made several more visits around the rocky point to the cave entrance, but had never tried to make the difficult passage to actually get into the cave.

I did perform some Internet research and made contact with a group of scientists (including a bat research team) who will be coming to Dominica next month. They are from an international science group called Operation Wallacea. I have already talked to them about doing an educational presentation for our community about our bats. We need to better understand our neighbors (and fellow mammals).

However, the upcoming visit by scientists is not the big news about our bats. The big news is that a new trail has been blazed that makes access to our unique bat cave much easier (and safer) than it used to be. It is amazing to see the big ocean waves roll up the narrow inlet and into the gaping black hole at the bottom of the cliff that is the mouth of the cave. We hope it will help bring more tourists to our little community, where they might spend some money to help our economy. I've already taken a number of visitors over there to see it, and they have all loved it. The picture above shows me on the wooden bridge that was installed which lets people safely get over to the rocks that lead into the cave itself. Prior to the building of this bridge, it was extremely difficult to go inside the cave.
The pictures above and below this paragraph show the posts and cables that have been installed to help provide extra safety. The new path was carved out of the rock so that hikers stay above the waves of the ocean. For those daring enough, you can still climb up the rocks and steep cliff to get there as well, if you want to do it the hard way.
Using the new bridge, I was finally able to enter the cave itself. Bats hanging upside down were clustered thick on the ceiling of the cave roof. I tried to stay quiet and move slowly, but still my presence spooked a bunch of them. If you look close in the picture below, you can see some of the bats flying out and around mouth of the cave (you can also see one of my students who did not venture into the cave).
I certainly enjoyed the view looking out from the cave towards the Atlantic, but I didn't stay long enough to explore the entire cave. I decided I had already disturbed too many of the bats, so I still don't know how far back it goes. I could not see an “end” because it looked as if it curved further back. One would definitely need a flashlight if you wanted to explore the entire length of the cave.
I gave a lecture to our students (one of whom is pictured above running up the new steps on the trail) the next day during morning assembly, warning them that although it is now much easier to access the cave, we should all be respectful of the bats. In other words, don't make a lot of noise back there, avoid playing in the cave area, never throw rocks to stir the bats, etc. My biggest fear is that the bats may decide to vacate the cave because humans are disturbing them too much. However, even if the bats move away, the trail will still be an interesting hike to see an unusual oceanfront cave—but hopefully the bats will persevere with their newfound stardom and stay in their home.

[One of the local young adults made a 13 minute video (featuring Dominican music) that details the hike to the bat cave. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okMzSyqx7aM&feature=share.]


P.S. I just wanted to once again plead with my readers to donate towards building a playing court for my village, as part of the matching funds to the grant I won (described in this previous story) from an American charity.

For anyone leery of donating via a website using your credit card (the instructions for the electronic donation process can be found in the link above), it is also possible to donate the old fashioned way. You can mail a check to Courts for Kids, and just note “Thibaud, Dominica community court” in the memo line. Make the check out to “Courts for Kids” and mail it to:

Courts for Kids
PO Box 873786
Vancouver, WA 98687

Thank you for at least considering a donation, whether electronically or by check! It will make a big difference for my students and others in the village. The good folks here will surely appreciate your generosity!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Waterwheels, River Rafts, and Beautiful Beaches

This story is an attempt to wrap together some of the fun things I was able to do over the Easter break. I will start with something close to home. The picture below was taken by my friend's aerial drone while they were visiting earlier this month. It shows L'islette on the lower right side, our village in the upper right, our beach roughly in the middle, and Morne Rouge on the left. If you look close on the left side, you can see a cylindrical hole in the side of Morne Rouge, which I've learned is known locally as Secret Beach (not to be confused with Secret Bay on the Caribbean side of Dominica). It gets the name because it is impossible to see from the main beach.
I finally got around to exploring Secret Beach during Easter break. One should only go there at low tide and when the sea is calm. It is interesting to speculate as to how this hollow cavity was formed in the base of the seemingly solid rock. I climbed up the steep hillside to get a better angle on these pictures. Below are three shots I took—the first showing Secret Beach itself, the second looking at its little inlet, and the last one peering over towards the end of L'islette (the peninsula that juts out from our beach). I doubt this will be my last visit to Secret Beach, because I find it fascinating.


One day we took a bus to the Calabishie area. While there, we explored Hodges Bay Beach, near where my Kentucky friends stayed during their visit earlier this month. This isolated Hodges Bay has a river that empties into the ocean, some rocky offshore islands, and some interesting red rock formations to climb around. The first picture below shows an overview of this secluded beach from a hill above the bay (notice the river cutting through the beach). The second picture looks up the river from the beach. The third picture is as far south as I was able to go along the rocks. The last picture looks out towards some large rocks in the ocean just off the beach. I hope these four pictures convey the beauty of this little known beach--just one of many on "the Nature Island."

If the four pictures above aren't enough to convince you about how beautiful Hodges Bay really is, perhaps some aerial drone videos will convince you. [I'm amazed at how well drones perform these days--his had a lot of range and produced outstanding videos!] My friend put some of the videos he made with his drone on YouTube, and I think they are amazing. Click on this link to see my favorite 90 second video. If you want to see more, check out his other videos on that YouTube page, all of which show the wild beauty of Hodges Bay.


On another day, a group of us went to Batibou Beach. It is down the Atlantic coastline from our village. The first shot was taken from the access road rounding a curve on a cliff above the beach. That isn't another aerial drone picture--that's taken from the edge of the cliff. The other shot was taken on the beach itself (with the hillside cliff in the background).


Not far from Batibou Beach is the old Hampstead Estate, along the Hampstead River. We walked there after leaving Batibou. What makes this deteriorating remnant from colonial days interesting is that it was the site for the filming of a famous scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man's Chest.” A swordfight takes place at an old mill, whose waterwheel eventually breaks free. The combatants continue their swordfighting while maintaining their balance as the wheel rolls through the jungle. The first picture below shows the abandoned concrete roadway built solely for a waterwheel to roll on during the filming (I knew about this because my neighbor in the village had worked for the movie production company during the filming). The second photo is the old mill building itself. The last photo is original waterwheel at this old mill, which is still firmly attached (and not rolling through the jungle).


Finally, a group of students accompanied me out of our valley, across the ridge, and down into the Blenhim River valley, which we followed to where it empties into the sea. Before reaching the sea, the river widens and deepens prior to crossing the beach. Below is a picture of me on this isolated beach, which despite its proximity, none of my students had ever visited before. [This had been my intended destination the day we ended up walking to a hotel for an impromptu pool party, and the previous blog story about that day includes a nice picture looking down on this beach from the hillside.]

While there, we decided to see if we could build a raft from the bamboo that littered this wild beach. Some of the boys gathered some vines and started lashing together some similarly sized (about 6-8 feet) bamboo trunks. I admired their ingenuity, but I saw four very long pieces that I thought could be used without vines. My thought was the longer length would provide flotation, and the width of just four would allow the passengers to use their legs to hold the raft together. Below is a shot of this makeshift bamboo kayak on its successful maiden voyage (using a shorter piece of bamboo as a paddle).
Of course, with its success, everyone wanted to get their chance, so when it came back to shore, everyone wanted to climb on. Unfortunately, there was a limit as to how many it could take, as shown in the picture below.
However, everyone had a great time! We might need to hike there again someday with proper tools and materials to see if we can make a better bamboo boat. It is a beautiful location! I love Dominica!