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!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Brandy Falls

Last May, I wrote a blog story about our school's “Belle Marche,” a quixotic quest to find the fabled Brandy Falls. Unfortunately, we were not successful in locating the trail to see this waterfall, but we still had a good time, as my blog story described. However, not seeing Brandy Falls that day made me want to eventually find it. I finally got that chance over Easter break.

I called the Brandy Manor Horse Stables, which is just off the main road near the mountain where the falls are located. They had someone who could guide us to see the falls (for a reasonable fee). On the appointed day, we went with the guide (as well as another couple) up the mountain.

We followed the same small road up the hill that our school group had taken. At the top, where our teachers and parents had been searching for the trail, it became apparent that there no longer was a real trail. Our guide was using his cutlass (known in America as a machete) to hack his way through the vegetation. He told us that this was his first group to take to the falls since before Tropical Storm Erika devastated the island in August 2015. In the picture below, we are dropping down to cross a small creek.

He slowly hacked his way up the other side. During this period of slow progress, you had to be careful not to be standing on an ant nest, because there was a lot of rotting wood on the ground—probably remnants from Erika. Eventually, we got into some old growth forest and crossed a ridge into another valley. The photo below shows us heading down that hillside.
There was a larger stream running down this valley, and soon we were scrambling across the rocks strewn amidst the rushing waters. We could hear it before we could see it, as we worked our way upstream until I got this view of the waterfall through the trees.
Finally, we made it to the base of Brandy Falls. It is a bit unusual, because the water is never in a free fall for a long distance. There is a slight slope to the hillside, so the water bounces its way down the long drop. It is very interesting to see, as the mid-day sun shone brightly on the entire length of the waterfall.
According to the guide, officials from the Ministry of Tourism came to check out these falls once, but decided that since it didn't have a large pool at the bottom of it where visitors could swim, they weren't willing to develop a trail for easier access and then promote Brandy Falls as a destination. Perhaps the lack of a big pool at the base is because of the slight slope that prevents the water from freefalling to the bottom. However, I think it is still an interesting site to see, and there is a pool big enough to get inside and cool off if you desire. Plus, I love the variety of waterfall types that can be found in Dominica. Another example of an unusual waterfall is the Bwa Nef waterfall not far from my village, with its two large boulders straddling the top of its canyon. It is nice to have different types of waterfalls.
On the way back, our guide shared with us some local fruits, coconut water, and coconut jelly. Once we got back to the horse stables, he also gave us a local rum punch. It was a very enjoyable day, and the woman who owns the stables is very interesting to chat with. After we left the stables to head for the main road, we decided (in part because we were so dirty from the hike) to walk all the way back to the village, giving me the opposite perspective from last year's Belle Marche when we walked the entire way in the other direction.


A couple of days later, we returned to the same general area. This time we rode a bus to the village of Borne, which is located on the island's version of America's continental divide. On one side, water runs downhill into the Indian River which eventually empties into the Caribbean. On the other side of Borne, water runs into the Blenhim River, which empties into the Atlantic not far from my village.

Back on December 29, we had taken a bus to Borne to hike Segment 12 of the Waitukubuli Trail, which winds its way from one end of Dominica to the other (and is the longest hiking trail in the Caribbean). This time we started at the same point in Borne, but went the opposite direction, heading down the hill to explore a portion of Segment 11 of the Waitukubuli Trail.

The trail eventually crosses the main road and then follows the upper part of the Indian River. The photo above shows one of my students standing next to the historical marker regarding the railroad (whose bed the trail follows for a while) that was used between 1910 and 1913 to haul timber out of the Indian River watershed.
After crossing the river (by carefully picking a path among the rocks), you pass by the Brandy Manor Horse Stables before starting up the long hill. This time, we were nowhere near Brandy Falls, but still had an arduous climb up the mountain. As we neared the top, the humidity and shade meant we were in one of the clouds that sometimes hug the mountaintops here. It was an eerie feeling. After reaching the top and just starting down, we were rewarded with a lovely view of the city of Portsmouth, the boats in Prince Rupert Bay, and the twin hills of Cabrits National Park, as shown in the pictures above and below this paragraph.
We ended up exiting the official Segment 11 trail by taking a connector spur which leads into Portsmouth. There we re-fueled with ice cream from the same store that we had walked to during one of our other field trips last year. It was a great way to spend the day in Dominica!


P.S. I just wanted to urge 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).

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.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Four Falls Field Trip

In Dominica, the Monday following Easter is a holiday. Without any normal buses running that day, and on the heels (as well as the envy) of the successful trip for sixth graders (see my previous blog story), the sixth grade teacher and I quickly concocted a plan for an outing on Easter Monday for our fifth and sixth grade classes. As it turns out, not everyone could join us due to sickness or family plans that day, but we still had a great time. This day trip hit some of the tourist spots that my students who live in Dominica generally have not seen.

We started off this day trip by heading south, which took us past the airport. The first stop was not a typical tourist spot, but was educational nonetheless. I had the driver make a diversion to check out a bar on the other side of the river from the end of the runway. I had noticed that it had an old Cessna 172 parked beside it—it was very similar to the Cessna 150 that my dad used to fly, and that I had actually flown (except for takeoff and landing). I realized that this would be the best way for my students to get “up close and personal” with an airplane. Having talked a lot about aviation topics in their science classes (and having visited the control tower last year), it was good to let them actually touch a plane for the first time.

This particular plane had belonged to a German who was visiting the island when Tropical Storm Erika hit in August 2015 (see my report on this huge event). The nearby river had flooded the airport, and had carried this plane down the length of the runway, where it ultimately got snagged in the chain link fence near the sea. The insurance company considered the plane totaled (although it seemed fixable to me), so the owner let the bar owner have it for display purposes.
We then drove to beautiful Emerald Pool, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had visited Emerald Pool about a dozen years ago when we were on a cruise ship that stopped on Dominica—I never realized during that single previous visit that someday I would be living on this island and would return to Emerald Pool with the students I was teaching. After a beautiful walk through the forest, the trail descends into a depression where a waterfall fills a pristine pool (as shown above). It is a magical place! The photo below shows some of our crew nearly behind the waterfall.
We then hopped back in the van and drove to Jaco Falls (which is also sometimes referred to as Hibiscus Falls). It was very easily accessible from the roadway, with a concrete sidewalk and steps leading down to the pool. In the picture below, one of my students stands near the bottom of the waterfall.
The next falls we visited was actually a two-for-one deal. It wasn't very far from Jaco Falls, but on the other side of the road in a different watershed. We hiked along a dirt road and then through the forest to visit Spanny's Falls. It was beautifully situated in a natural alcove with bits of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy to highlight the multiple shades of green surrounding the falls. There was a nice wooden viewing platform, but I had to tilt my camera diagonally to get the full length of the waterfall.
We had been told that there was a second waterfall if you wanted to hike further. If you climb through the wooden railing that surrounds the viewing platform, there is a long rope that assists those willing to venture up the steep hillside. While their teacher stayed behind, I followed my students up the hill (as shown below) and through the forest to explore the next waterfall. While most of them left their shoes on that wooden viewing platform with their teacher so that they could climb barefoot, I chose to retain my shoes.
After an invigorating hike that included another steep, rocky hillside where two ropes were provided to help hikers go up or down, we arrived at a nice waterfall (apparently known as Penrice Falls) on a nearby creek (by the way, “creek” is an American term—in Dominica, every such body of moving water is a river). I had assumed that the trail shown above was going to lead to another falls on the same creek, but higher up. Instead, we had crossed a ridge to a different valley. Upon arrival, we were rewarded with this lovely view. On this one, the upper end of the waterfall was bathed in sunlight.
We then hiked our way out and back to the van. Our next stop was the capital city of Roseau to grab some food at one of the most popular restaurants on the island—KFC. My students love Kentucky Fried Chicken, so I bought a bucket for them to share (we had told them to bring a sack lunch and a drink, so the bucket of chicken was just icing on the cake to them). It is the only American restaurant on this island, which may add to its popularity (and I know it is also popular on St. Lucia, where I did my initial Peace Corps training). By the way, my students were amazed when I told them about the “all-you-can-eat” buffets at KFC restaurants back where I am from—they can't imagine being able to eat as much as you want to eat, especially if it is KFC chicken!

We then headed up the West Coast Highway, and stopped at a place known as Coconut Beach just south of Portsmouth. This is where a lot of the villagers headed to celebrate Easter Monday, so the students who went on my van trip still got to play in the Caribbean with their friends from the village. Four waterfalls, an airplane, KFC chicken, and a Caribbean beach—they had a great time!

It was also a memorable day for me, because I was invited to taste a specialty that I had never had before—iguana tail! Recently, a villager had invited me to see the initial preparations for cooking iguana. The first step is to roast the carcass over a fire (as shown above), so that the reptile's scales are easily removed by scraping with a knife.
I missed the actually cooking process, but when presented with a full styrofoam plate, back among the sea grape trees lining this remote Caribbean beach, I accepted the opportunity to taste iguana. After all, it was already dead and cooked, and if I didn't eat it, someone else would—so why not give it a try? It was pretty good! I remembered to take a picture before I finished it, as you can see above. Note that it is cooked with the “de-scaled” green skin still on it. It was accompanied by the long rolled dumplings (which are very dense as compared to the puffy West Virginia dumplings I am accustomed to eating) which are commonly served here, along with a brown gravy. It was a great way to end a great day in Dominica!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Mission Trip

True friendship is an amazing phenomenon that can span across decades! I am so fortunate that one of my fellow classmates from high school has been reading this blog and following my adventure. She was one of my classmates who contributed school supplies to the “Kurtz Kidz” collection at my high school reunion last summer. She and her husband decided to travel to Dominica during early April to spend her spring break from the school where she works. Their daughter came along, too.

On their first day, I gave them a quick tour of our village, including the beach, the bat cave, the views from the surrounding hills. We proceeded to drive around the north of the island, seeing various sights such as the location of the cliff-jumping scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. Then we went climbing up a long mountain before crossing the rim into the crater of an old volcano. We stopped in the middle to explore the sulfurous springs known as the Cold Soufriere—a remnant from when it was an active volcano. It was a good way to welcome them to the island.

On Monday, they came to visit my school and meet the students. The photo above shows my classmate with a couple of my students under the “Welcome” sign that I had painted on the bus stop. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college in three and a half years, had played soccer throughout her life. She had a good time playing “football” with our students on the playing field. I also took her across the road to climb the cliff and venture out on L'islette. The picture below shows me in my school clothes climbing up the rock wall, with her waiting on me at the top.
The fantastic thing about this vacation was that they made it a “mission trip” of sorts. They brought a lot of school supplies to help my students. Plus, they also brought me some great things, such as a Kentucky Derby souvenir t-shirt from their home state, as well as her fabulous home-made no bake cookies (in a nice plastic container that has already proven useful in my kitchen). The picture below shows my classmate and her daughter passing out some “goodies” to the students at our morning assembly.
Even more valuable than the school supplies was the soccer equipment they were able to donate. Because their children had long been involved with soccer, they had some connections that allowed them to get a good deal on new shoes, shorts, balls, and other items for our school's team. The boys were especially amazed at the fantastic (and colorful) shoes! These were absolutely amazing gifts for these children.
But that was not the end of their generosity. In fact, it was only the beginning. The next day, they paid to take our sixth graders, the sixth grade teacher, and a parent (along with me) on a chartered sailing trip. We used the same boat on which I took a cruise previously, and arranged to get all the necessary permissions. Sixth grade trips (or whatever your last year is in primary school) is a common practice in America, so it was nice to be able to do it here. It was quite a memorable day for our four sixth grade students. All their lives they have gazed at visiting yachts sitting in the bay or cruising at sea. On this day, they were able to see what the opposite view was like, sailing on the beautiful blue Caribbean and gazing back at the mountains of their verdant island home.
Just to give you an example of how new this experience was to my students (shown above), they had never swam off a boat or in deep water before. The only times they had ever been swimming was when they walked into the surf of the ocean (on our beach and on others). There had always been a gradual deepening as they walked into the water. However, when the sailboat dropped anchor in Toucarie Bay, the only was to swim was to jump off (or step off) the back of the boat, with absolutely no ability to “touch” the bottom. It required some adjustment for them to realize that swimming would mean never touching the bottom. Eventually, all of them entered the water and went swimming—just one of the many new experiences they enjoyed that day (they also got to taste the no bake cookies that had been brought down for me, as I shared mine that day so they could taste an American delicacy).
They also learned about sailing that day, and the boys especially enjoyed seeing how the sailboat worked, and actually got to “drive” it. The three girls spent a lot of “girl time” together (as shown above), which was very good for each of them. The adults all had a good time mingling around as well. It was a great chance to learn about each other, and to realize how much in common we all have, regardless of country. The picture below shows our teacher sitting with our benefactor as he holds the Dominican flag.
On Wednesday, I took the day off to accompany them on a whale watching tour from the capital. Only recently had I seen my first whales off the coastline of my village, but this adventure would be taking a large catamaran a good ways off the coast to see whales up close.
Before boarding the ship, there is a large display area explaining all about whales. It includes a complete skeleton of a sperm whale, the largest toothed whale and the most commonly found whale species here. While admiring the hanging skeleton, I discovered that it had come from my village! I had heard tales about the dead whale that had washed ashore in 2001, but didn't know that it had been the source for the skeleton that thousands of tourists view each year. They even had an original newspaper article about the dead whale, including quotes about the discovery from one of my friends in the village. Upon my return, I was able to tell him he is a celebrity with all the tourists who read that sign.
Once on board the ship, we motored a long way from shore before finally seeing some water spouts from surfacing whales. We focused on two of them who eventually came together, side by side, before the first one flipped up its tail to dive deep for food. The second one soon did the same. It was a rare sight that I will long treasure.
As we headed back to shore, dolphins would intermittently join with our ship, racing and jumping beside and ahead of us. It was quite fun to watch, and was a nice ending to our whale encounter.
Except, this wasn't the end. They took me out to lobster dinner on our back home. I had expected their generosity for my students, but I was overwhelmed by their generosity towards me. I am truly blessed, and it demonstrates that the more you give, the more you get. Thank you so much!

On Friday, they came back to our school for one more afternoon with the students. This time, the students got a little bit of an education about aerial drones. It was amazing to watch it fly above us. Below is a picture that it took, showing the school in the lower left corner.

The drone wasn't the only surprise that took pictures. Their daughter also brought along her Polaroid instant camera. The children were mesmerized to see it slowly printing and ejecting a completed picture shortly after it was snapped. It seemed almost magical to them!

All in all, their visit was an incredibly positive experience for my school. Many amazing memories (and indeed, friendships) were made that my children will long remember! Plus, it was one of my most memorable weeks on the island, as I enjoyed playing tour guide (and being the beneficiary of some great food and experiences). I hope it was as good a visit for them as it was for us. I'm glad they made it their “mission” to come see “the Nature Island” for themselves. Thank you, thank you, thank you!