Monday, January 22, 2018

Two weeks in Thibaud

When I was ending my two years in Thibaud (pronounced the same as Tim Tebow), I promised my students that I would return to see them in January. It made leaving them somewhat easier, and I knew that escaping winter's cold for a vacation in the Caribbean would be good. Little did I know in August what a different place I would return to in January!

One month--to the day--after I left Dominica, the island was destroyed by a Category 5 hurricane. Dozens of people lost their lives, but fortunately none were killed or injured in Thibaud. Initially I had been very worried about them (see the blog story immediately prior to this one), but slowly I started to hear reports and eventually regained communications with some of my friends there.

When I was sure that I would not be a burden on their food supply, I began making arrangements for a vacation. There was no electricity or running water yet in that part of the island, but I was prepared to deal with that. Besides, unlike many other villages, Thibaud is blessed with a great spring and plenty of river water!

There were only seven passengers on the flight from San Juan, and I was pleased to see someone I knew on the plane (a Dominican who had been on a visit to Florida, where he had been surprised by the cold temperatures the state had suffered recently). I could tell as soon as the plane landed that while the greenery was returning slowly, the damages were still readily apparent. The trees on the ridges surrounding the airport were ravaged. Roof damages at the airport were evident, and even the "Welcome to Dominica" sign facing the tarmac was still not fully repaired. But they were trying to return to normalcy.

Another immediate example of the damages from the hurricane was at the bar just outside the airport. After Tropical Storm Erika, a small Cessna 172 private plane had been ruined by the flooding, and was brought over as an outdoor decoration next to this bar. During a trip with some of my school children, I had made a stop there just so they could examine closely a real airplane--the first opportunity any of them had had to actually touch what they sometimes saw flying in the sky. Well, the plane was apparently anchored down well near the main wings and the cabin, but Maria had twisted off the tail, like a petulant child playing with a toy.

The drive from the airport to Thibaud was somewhat sad. Dominica had been such a lush, tropical island (nicknamed the Nature Island), full of majestic greenery nearly everywhere, often blocking the view because the vegetation was so thick. Now, you can see much further, because the trees were stripped of their branches. I'm glad I didn't see it immediately after the storm, when everything was gray and brown. It was probably like the hardwood filled hillsides of my native West Virginia during the winter, when you can see throughout the temporarily barren forests. However, they never had experienced such a view in their year-round paradise.

Now, driving from the airport allowed me to see much more than I had ever seen before. The ocean was often visible through the trees. In some ways, it was interesting to have the different perspective, but the cost to get it was too high. Another immediate change was seeing all the utility poles along the road. Few of them were still standing in their normal positions. Most were bent and many of the broken, resulting in the heavy black cables criss-crossing the road, with vehicles simply driving across the wires that now carry no current.

In America, when a powerful storm knocks out utilities, I've often seen caravans of utility trucks from other providers in other regions heading towards the affected areas to help out with restoring services. Being a large country helps to make recovery much easier as resources can be temporarily shifted to the area in need. However, life on an island is much more difficult. There are only so many "bucket trucks" in Dominica, and it isn't easy to ship more here. Thus, it takes months to restore services island-wide.

Upon arriving in the village on Saturday afternoon, I was greeted by a throng of my former school children, eager with hugs while insisting on helping to carry the heavy luggage up to my former home. They yelled so loud when they saw us that citizens living in the heights above the village wondered what all the commotion was about, until they looked down and saw that it was the kids screaming in excitement at my arrival. As someone who spent two years trying to improve their reading and writing skills, I was especially touched that many of them also wrote adorable “welcome back” notes for me.

My landlord had my old house fixed up and it is good to be in familiar surroundings again. My Peace Corps replacement who had moved in to the house on August 19 as I moved out has been relocated to another island to continue her service, thus my old house was available to rent for two weeks. [Only a few Peace Corps Volunteers were allowed to return to Dominica, primarily because they live near the capital where utilities have been restored.] There is no electricity or running water in Thibaud yet, but I brought with us the necessary equipment (solar lights, flashlights, solar rechargers, LifeStraws, etc.) and food (Ramen noodles, tuna fish, etc.) to get through the two weeks.

As a special treat on Saturday night, I had brought down three cannisters of the "glow bracelets" that I had sometimes given out to the children during my stay there. They had always been fascinated with the glow-in-the-dark light produced by the chemical reaction. As darkness arrived on the first night, it was quickly apparent that with no electric power, thus no streetlights, the village became really dark! However, that just made the kids enjoy the glow bracelets that much more! It was especially fun to watch them run up and down the streets with the bracelets around their ankles. I saved the remaining two cannisters to do one giveaway at the mid-way point of my visit, and also on my last night in the village. The children had a great time each night!

Sunday was special for me as I attended church, and they sang my favorite hymn (“Give thanks with a grateful heart”) for me. I got to sit in the same seat where I had sat for two years. It was beautiful to be back again and listen to their wonderful singing. Fortunately, the Catholic church in Thibaud suffered only minor damages compared to most other buildings.

After church, I was invited to a family home for dinner. It was an excellent meal, including dasheen (a local staple that grows underground), chicken, quiche, macaroni pie, and more. Here I was, less than 24 hours in the village, and the former school cook was sharing some of her families limited food supplies with me. They may not have much, but Dominicans are generous people! This was just one example of the good people there sharing stuff with us (e.g., my former host family provided me with dinner the second Sunday there).

Monday required a trip to the capital of Roseau, so I could deposit some American money into my credit union account and withdraw some local currency. I also purchased groceries at the one major store in town that has reopened, plus reactivated my local phone number.

The long trip to the capital let me see much more of the devastation from Hurricane Maria. The thick forests have been stripped bare. Once tall sturdy trees have lost their smaller branches, but they are beginning to come back to life, with patches of green re-emerging from the broken limbs. Sometimes the trees remind me of broccoli, because there are these thick, stout trunks, topped with a short crown of greenery.

The road conditions are horrible even on the main road on the west coast. I had not realized that the essential Layou River Bridge had been damaged in the storm. It was constructed as two separate but adjacent bridges (one north bound and one south bound), but now traffic must take turns using the single span that it still viable.

So many houses are covered with blue or gray tarps, having lost their roofs on the night of September 19. There is currently a shortage of roofing material to replace all the damaged ones, so it is hard to tell how long the island will be dotted with blue rooftops. Most of the tarps had the imprinted logos of UNICEF or Samaritan's Purse. Sometimes they need to be redone, as shown below.

Most of the roofs were constructed of corrugated galvanized sheet metal, known simply as "galvanized." At several places along the main road, there are collection points for the twisted, broken pieces of galvanized that were scattered around by the storm. Hopefully these sad and unsightly metal mounds will be collected some day and removed from the island, perhaps to somewhere with a smelter so that they can be recycled.

It was especially sad for me to see the two villages of Coulihaut and Coulibistrie, both on the Caribbean coast. These two villages were among the worst hit by flooding during Tropical Storm Erika, and I had gone with Thibaud church folks to serve them food shortly after that disaster (see the second half of my previous story about Erika's aftermath). This time, both villages were not just ravaged by the raging flood waters, but also devastated by the wind. It was sad to see the big Catholic church in Coulihaut with part of its roof missing.

One of the most remarkable changes is the view from my porch. I used to love sitting out there and enjoying the view. However, after Maria tore down or stripped most of the trees, now I have a much different view. Most of the houses in the village were hidden by vegetation, but now I can see virtually every house. I have a much wider view of the Atlantic Ocean as well. It was good to be back on my porch again!

As I was getting ready to leave back in August, one man in my village had thought I should buy his house, a very nice one on the hill along Back Street. It had all been just good natured bantering back and forth, but on my second day I walked up Back Street and he was in front of his house. I told him I had come to see what kind of discount price I could get on his damaged house now that it might be within my price range. In typical Dominica fashion, he was quick to reply that instead of going down, the price was instead going up. His house would soon have a new roof, making it even more valuable. Plus, after Maria stripped the trees, it now has an even more commanding view of the village and the ocean. I loved how he was making positives from a negative, which seems to be a typical trait in Thibaud.

I spent a lot of time just listening to the stories of the villagers about what the late-forming, Category 5 hurricane was like, as well as their lives in the aftermath. It must have been horrible to go through as it pounded this island in the dark that night.

Some of you may recall that I wrote a story when I first arrived here about Hurricane David. I was arriving in Washington, DC, for my senior semester as an intern for Congressman Rahall when the remnants of Hurricane David dumped lots of rain on the eastern seaboard. One of my “conversation starters” with older folks here was to ask them about their memories of Hurricane David. It had been the worst hurricane to ever strike Dominica, and they often had interesting recollections from that dreadful storm.

Just to show you how bad Hurricane Maria was, I asked one woman to compare the two storms. Her reply now was simply “David was not a hurricane!” Similar replies came from other elders in the village. As bad as they previously thought Hurricane David was, it paled in comparison to what a huge Category 5 storm unleashed on this island.

One man, his wife, and son hid under the bed when the roof started peeling off, and were fortunate when a big piece of galvanized crashed down next to (rather than on top of) where they were sheltering.

One man shared with me how he and his wife huddled in the small end of hallway inside their house during the storm. Hurricane David had passed through in a brief amount of time, perhaps an hour or two, during daylight. However, Maria had struck after dark, and lingered over the island for many hours. He recalled how he would check his watch, and give his wife the time on every hour and every half hour. As the storm continued that night, he kept thinking that surely it would end soon, but every 30 minutes that he kept announcing the time, it still seemed to continue. It was a long and harrowing night for all!

The people I talked with said the fact that the storm hit after dark probably helped to save some lives. Because of the darkness, people were more likely to hunker down and wait it out rather than try to make a run for other locations. Going outside was dangerous because of all the flying debris that was impossible to see at night.

During the storm, trees and other debris collected under the Church Street bridge in Thibaud, diverting the river into the village itself. Water rolled down the Main Street, flooding houses and causing other damages, such as pushing down the fence around the credit union. On the other side of the bridge, the carpenter's shop (and all his equipment inside) was totally destroyed. Indeed, his nearby house was flooded, and had to put a chair up on top of his bed to avoid the floodwater that half-filled his house.

One woman took me up to see her house in Uprising City. [This hill on one side of the village didn't get its name from some sort of civil insurrection. Rather, it is because of the spectacular view the homes on that hill have of the sun rising each morning.] Her house lost much of its roof, but she wanted me to see that she had had her Bible open on a nightstand in her bedroom, and although many other items were blown around when the roof flew off and the windows burst, her Bible had stayed right where she had left it. [Below is a view from her window.]

There were many other stories about pushing furniture up against doors, trying to keep the wind from blowing them open. Others spoke about watching their normally rigid glass windows bowing and bending during the wind--some of them breaking but others somehow staying intact. The wind itself was also scary to listen to--it made all sorts of dreadful noises. Maria was talking to them all through the night, and she wasn't saying nice things!
Perhaps the worst hit building was the Seventh Day Adventist Church, located at the very edge of the boundary for my village, way up on the hill along the road that loops around the north of the island. I explored the remains of this once beautiful church, which lost not only the roof but most of the side walls. As I walked around, I noticed a poignant reminder of the storm. Upside down and still wet from recent rains was a religious tract, whose story on the back page was entitled "After the Storm."

Another example of the power of this hurricane was a tree near the church. This large tree had been snapped in half, flipped over, and embedded onto an adjacent tree. Also near the SDA church is the cellular phone tower that collapsed during the storm. A temporary replacement tower on a trailer has already been installed, but the remains of the original tower are still up there; dismantled but awaiting eventual pickup. It was amazing to see the strong steel girders for the tower twisted up like spaghetti.
The children were eager to tell me about the two times that military helicopters (I'm not sure but the consensus seemed to be they were from the British military) had landed on the playing field. I can remember how unusual it was to even see a helicopter fly high overhead during my two years, so I can imagine how excited the boys must have been to see this somewhat alien craft hover around the village before coming to rest on their playing field and then deliver food supplies. It left a lasting impression on all of them (especially the small boy who was blown over by the wind blast from the chopper).

The children were also eager to show me the new basketball court that "Courts for Kids" built before I left. Based on the aerial photographs I had seen after Hurricane Maria, I had assumed that the storm surge had carried a shipping container that had been being used for storage between the road and the sea, and deposited it on the court next to the health center. As it turned out, the storm surge had not been that big. Instead, it was simply the strength of the 160 MPH winds that had blown this shipping container all the way across the large playing field and up onto the court, breaking one of the backboards in the process. The kids are still playing half-court with the remaining backboard. [Notice how all the black paint on the left side of the pole is sandblasted away by the strong winds from the hurricane.]

While I was there on our first Sunday afternoon, there was a distribution of boxes of supplies that had been gathered by a large group of former residents now living in Florida. They prepared enough boxes for each household living in the village, and shipped them in a large shipping container to the island. A large dump truck brought the boxes from the port to the center of the village, where the Village Council efficiently distributed them to everyone there.
Although there were intermittent outages, during most of my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thibaud I had electricity and water--although I chose to only use spring water for my drinking water. All drinking water had to be run though our official ceramic/charcoal water filters issued by the Peace Corps, so I opted to carry water down from the spring. During these two weeks, I was totally living without water or running water. Flushing the toilet required using buckets. Showering meant walking up to the spring and showering in your swim trunks. I brought some collapsible five gallon water bladders with spigots that were very useful, especially for washing dishes.

When it came time to do laundry towards the end, I couldn't do my typical bucket laundry that I had done nearly every Saturday morning on my front porch, using water from inside the house, while listening to the NPR news over my wifi. Instead, for the first time, I did my laundry in the river, in true, old-fashioned Dominica style. In hindsight, doing laundry in the river works pretty good! There are large stones for rubbing out the dirt, and the fast flowing water provides good rinsing action!

In some respects, my two weeks in Thibaud without the usual conveniences were what some Peace Corps Volunteers have to face on a regular basis. I had felt a bit guilty that I had it as good as I did during my two years. In my mind, the Peace Corps should be sending even more volunteers to Dominica during this time of need. The good people of Dominica are surviving without electricity and water, so Americans should be serving right along side them. I think the fact that we went down there for our vacation helped to show some solidarity with the people of my village, which they appreciated. [The picture below shows one of my kids next to a water tank installed at the Village Council office from yet another charitable organization--the International Medical Corps.]

Indeed, one of the things that this visit proved was just how STRONG and how RESILIENT the Dominican people truly are! If something knocks them down, they just get up, brush themselves off, and keep on going! I was amazed at how normal everything seemed to be in Thibaud. Indeed, walking up and down Main Street involved the same smiling faces, the same porch-side friendly conversations, the same "high fives" from my students as I had experienced during the previous two years. Of course, it was a bit different after dark, with no street lights. However, a few families and businesses had added small portable generators, which kept going through the night. Instead of just the tree frogs chirping throughout the night, the drone of generators was a new addition to the soundscape of the village.
One of the things I accomplished while there was rehabilitating the school library (not all of which is shown in the photo above). I removed all the books, discarded the ones that were not salvagable, repaired the ones whose damages were not severe, and gave them all a quick rub down with isopropyl alcohol to clean them up and hopefully get rid of the musty smell. We also cleaned the walls and the shelving units with Chlorox before restacking the books in the proper categories. I am hopeful that Hands Across the Sea will be sending our school another shipment of books to help get it going again. Perhaps the biggest loss was the encyclopedias and other resource books--they now only have about half the volumes of the 2011 World Book Encyclopedia that (perhaps unlike American schools where the Internet is so prevalent) had frequently been used for classes (look close and you can see the remaining volumes in the lower right corner).
I don't think I had ever previously wrote about "cab-aways," the toy trucks that are a tradition in Dominica. There had only been a few of them during my tenure in Thibaud, but I appreciated how they built these toy trucks pushed by a stick and steered with a wheel from the top of the stick. After the hurricane, with so much scrap wood suddenly available, cab-aways are making a big comeback. The children were often playing with them during our visit, as these photos of just two examples attest.
I did some exploring with the kids, checking out some of the trails in the neighborhood. The bat cave trail suffered a landslide and some other damages, but is still passable. I'm grateful that the bridge survived, even if its railings did not (see picture below). The challenging climb to get up on L'islet, the peninsula that juts out into the ocean, splitting the two beaches in Thibaud, is still passable, although is now more difficult due to fallen trees. The trail from the spring to the highest house in the village is even more incredible now that the view is opened up by the lack of vegetation on the trees.
The spring itself used to be such a remarkable place. It was in this narrow valley that was shaded by a large thick canopy of green. Indeed, it was like a cathedral of nature! Now, the greenery is trying to return, but it still has a long ways to go to be back where it was. In the meantime, I must admit I somewhat enjoyed the different view of looking up (while taking a shower under the cold, clear spring water) to see mainly beautiful blue sky, punctuated by the silver trunks of old banyan and palm trees, dotted with new greenery on the ends of stubby branches.

I swam in the ocean a few times with the kids, which they thoroughly enjoyed. While walking back to the village after one of these swims, I got to meet someone I didn't know during my two years, but got to know after the storm over Facebook. Emerline Anselm is a teacher at the Portsmouth Secondary School, who has become a "citizen journalist" during her free time after the storm with her "Emonews" Facebook page. Her early reports on the situation in various locations was very important to those of us familiar with the island but located elsewhere (see some examples in my previous blog story, including how she used pictures from her notebook to get the word out to friends and relatives). I was very happy to meet her and to personally thank her for all her efforts.

I also made a concerted effort to spend money in the village to help the local economy. I purchased something from every shop while there, spending a lot more money than I ever did on my limited Peace Corps budget. Food was generally available and I never had any problems during our stay. When I left, I even gave away some of the food I brought down, because I didn't need to use it.

I also gave away most of my clothing, shoes, equipment, etc. I had done the same thing when I left in August, but this time I had fewer things to give away. It was a major project to decide who would get what, and then try to deliver those goods the morning before leaving. It was fun to see guys wearing my old shirts and stuff--I just wish I could have given away more. The only shirt I returned with was a treasured gift from my time there--my NCCU Thibaud Building Committee shirt.

One of the major things I did while we were there was to distribute the "Toys for Thibaud." The church where my daughter and son-in-law attend in Uniontown, Pennsylvania (Asbury United Methodist), had decided to support my village by filling those large, ziplock, gallon sized plastic bags with toys and school supplies for the children of Thibaud. I purchased a large plastic shipping barrel from Grainger and arranged to send the barrel to Dominica. Once the church filled the barrel on Sunday, November 30, I transported it to a shipping company that sent it via truck to Miami. Then it was sent by airplane to the island of St. Martin. There, it was placed on a ship that eventually arrived at the port in Dominica.

The barrel arrived in Thibaud on my last day (it was good to see it again after all that time), and I arranged for the school to walk the children over to the credit union at the end of the school day where we could have a more controlled distribution of the toy bags. The students lined up from youngest to oldest and then went in to the building to pick up their toy bag. They were all excited and happy to receive the gifts! It really provided a lot of joy for children who have been through some rough times, and whose Christmas was not as big this year. I had enough to give to more than just the primary school students--I also had enough to give to every child in the village, even to the youngest babies. I'm very grateful to my daughter's church for doing this!
I should also mention that they included a bunch of mats that a woman in the church makes by crocheting plastic bags together. The principal and school teachers were happy to get these mats that will be used for a variety of purposes at the school.
My last evening in Thibaud was special, and not just because of the final cannister of glow bracelets that the children love so much. I had one final special treat to share with the village. A friend of mine from college had purchased some paper balloons and shipped to me last spring, but for some reason they got lost in the mail and didn't arrive before I left. They finally arrived in the post office after the hurricane, and I was able to pick them up during this visit. I waited until the final night, and it was absolutely mesmerizing to watch these lightweight paper balloons, glowing from the heat source inside, lift off and float over the village and out over the ocean. Obviously, no one there had ever seen such a visual spectacle, and they were amazed. The lack of street lights made the light of the balloons even more noticeable. Plus, it provided a final science lesson for my young students, as they got to see for themselves that the molecules of hot air were lighter than the surrounding air, allowing the balloon to fly. [Thank you, Cathy, for sending the paper balloons!]
There were some promising signs before I left. Domlec, the local electricity provider, finally began moving into our area. They dropped off some poles along the road,
cut down a tree leaning on the existing wires,
and began working to string new cable (notice the two workers high up on the pole in the picture below). At first, it will only be for street lighting, but eventual home electric service will return.
Besides restoring water and electric, there are many problems still facing Dominicans. Necessary supplies to rebuild roofs and houses are in short supply. Roadways need repairs, as well as bridges. Tourism is an important source of revenue for the island, but it is going to be awhile before it really gets going again.

Agriculture is another concern. Bananas, plantain, green figs, etc., all grow not on a hardwood tree, but on a plant stalk (a bit like a corn stalk), and were no match for 160 MPH winds. With the entire crop destroyed, farmers are cultivating new plants. However, throughout the island, all of the "banana trees" are approximately the same height, and just beginning to bear fruit. I worry about the economic market effects when all the farmers are trying to sell their first harvest from these trees. It might be hard for them if they all have trees getting harvested at the same time, resulting in a surplus in the marketplace and thus low prices for the sellers. In the old days, farmers would have different sized trees, with fruit becoming ready to harvest at different times. I'm no agricultural expert, but this is just one of the worries I have for Dominica as it struggles to recover.

The best thing the Dominicans have going for them is their indefatigable spirit. They know life on the island isn't easy, but it is their home, and they will make the best of it. I had a memorable conversation with a bus driver from the next village over. I remembered that he also owned a boat and did some fishing on the side. I asked him about if his boat had survived. He just smiled his big grin and said no. All the boats moored in his village had been destroyed by the storm. But he was still smiling about it! As I mentioned earlier, Dominicans are STRONG and RESILIENT!

It was hard to leave when the time came, because I had enjoyed myself so much living with the people of Thibaud. After running into someone I knew on the flight down, it turned out there was someone I knew on my return flight as well. Dominica's Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerritt, was on our flight, and I was able to speak briefly with him (we had met several times during my two years there). I told him that sometimes from great tragedies arise great opportunities, and to continue working towards leading the country out of the mess that Maria had left. I also let him know what a wonderful time I had as onw of the first "tourists" in Thibaud, and that the people there were so wonderful to me. He seemed to appreciate hearing that. They have lots of work to do to get back to normal, but they are making progress. I hope it turns out well! I'm eager to see how much better things are the next time I visit, because I will be returning. I have to see my friends and check up on my kids there!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


I left Dominica on Saturday afternoon, August 19, after an amazing 27 month term of service in the Peace Corps. I love the people in my village and the overall beauty of Dominica. I had survived Tropical Storm Erika, which had wrecked the island two years ago. Dominica was still recovering from that storm, with temporary Bailey Bridges and off-road detours still being used on the main road when I left.
Little did I know that less than a month later, my wonderful island would be pummeled by a Category 5 hurricane. What had started as Tropical Storm Maria quickly spun up to the highest level hurricane in about 24 hours, leaving little time to prepare (or evacuate). It hit last Monday, and I still have not been able to contact my friends in the village of Thibaud. It took five days for telecommunications to be re-established to our isolated location after Erika, so I'm not surprised that it is taking more than twice that long after Maria. The first aerial photo I found of my village is shown above. Since communications are so difficult, one reporter has been allowing Dominicans to write brief notes to friends in her notebook, which she then takes photos of and posts online (an example is shown below) in an effort to provide connections to loved ones. This demonstrates how bad it is there--using pen and paper to get the word out.
One of the conversation starters I used with older people in Dominica was to ask them their memories of Hurricane David in 1979 (as described in this previous story). It appears that Hurricane Maria is much worse than Hurricane David. Unfortunately, I'm sure there will be plenty of stories coming out of this tragic event.

So far, I've heard second hand stories that there were no deaths in Thibaud. However, aerial photos show lots of damage to buildings. The photo below is one example. The green circle at the left side shows the school. The blue circle shows my house. At the bottom right, you can see the dark hole in the rock cliff that is our bat cave.

Below is another photo showing a closer view of the middle of the village. The green arrow points to the Catholic church. I can see that there was roof damage on my host family's house, where I spent my first month in the village.
A couple of days ago, a boat from Guadeloupe made a delivery of supplies to the beach at Thibaud. Villagers waded out into the ocean to carry the supplies to shore, as shown in the picture below. That is the only outside help they have received (that I am aware of), and the villagers were obviously very grateful. Hopefully the village spring is providing enough clean water for everyone, as it did during the aftermath of Erika. I'm certain they lost most of their crops, except for root vegetables, but those will only last so long. I'm hoping they can work together and survive during these tough times. I have faith that they can, because Thibaud is a very special place. I can hardly wait to return someday.

Some of you might be interested in reading the account written below by the Peace Corps Director for the Eastern Caribbean. She is based in St.Lucia, and tells the story of rescuing my Peace Corps colleagues (including my replacement), who had been "consolidated" into the Flamboyant Hotel in downtown Roseau (as I had been during Tropical Storm Grace). Had the storm come just one month earlier, I would have been caught up in it as well. Rather than copying the photos she references below, just imagine some of the worst pictures the news has shown of this tragedy. Here is her story (shared with her permission):

These photos show Dominica - an island so beautiful, and then so destroyed when Hurricane Maria tore through on Monday, going from a Cat 1 to a Cat 5 in less than 24 hours, far outpacing any forecasts. The freakishly quick intensification of Maria that happened more rapidly than virtually any hurricane meant we could not get our Peace Corps Volunteers and visiting HQ staff off the island before the storm hit as no planes or boats were running, we could only watch in horror as the weather intensified so dramatically. We consolidated them in Roseau, and were able to be in touch with them through text and WhatsApp until 12:30 that night, along with two of our three Dominican staff, then the eye passed over and nothing. No communication coming out from anyone. Maria wiped out the island's communication system, leaving the rest of the world in the dark about the fate of Dominica.

Our Volunteers and the two visiting staff from DC worked together, and with one amazing Dominican who was the manager at the hotel, to make it through the hurricane and 3 1/2 days in a building that was heavily damaged - though much less so than the other hotels nearby that lost entire roofs, all windows and were partially collapsed. They did a phenomenal job of making the best of a very tough situation, all the while so concerned about the families in their home communities. Thankfully they had the PC SAT phone with them - it was our lifeline to them.

Peace Corps was determined to get our Volunteers out as soon as we could. We were able to contract private boats to take us to the island. My colleague and friend Christine S. and I arrived at the marina at 1AM on Thursday, boat captains searching for word on the seas between St. Lucia and Dominica, finally green light to go at 3:30AM, and we were on our way at 4:00.

Eight hours later we approached the southern tip of Dominica - and what we saw broke our hearts. Trees tossed like matchsticks, the ones left standing completely devoid of foliage. The "Nature Island" stripped of its beautiful, beautiful natural habitat. Motoring up into Roseau we saw debris everywhere, landslides, houses without roofs, the main waterfront street every building impacted, stacks of uprooted trees on the shorelines, the vibrant fishing boats piled on each other, cruise ship pier destroyed, ferry terminal compromised, and swells in the ocean preventing us going ashore.

Our Volunteers saw us come in to the area and immediately were in touch to ask for the plan. We had told them that would be devised once the boat captains could see firsthand the situation in Roseau. We told them what we were seeing - and they know the country so well, they steered us a bit further north to the main cargo port. Our local Associate Peace Corps Director came up huge for us - she was able to get to town and shuttle our Volunteers and their suitcases to the port. Meanwhile we were still searching for a way to find a place they could board the boat. And then came the news the gate to the port had been locked by police who had then left and told workers no one could get out to the port without going through Immigration - but no one was there from Immigration. What ensued was something out of a movie, with me demanding the boat to get up to the pier so I could climb on, running to see our Volunteers and local APCD and beginning to work with anyone on that pier to let them in, while Christine revved into fierce mode to stop the boat captains from leaving and heading back to St. Lucia without us. Eventually after SAT phones call with PC Washington and US Embassy Bridgetown - both so helpful in the crisis, especially the team in IAP PC HQ - and begging/cajoling/talking with finally someone who could make a difference, Christine pulling out all the stops to prevent the boat captains from leaving, and our Dominican APCD going to the police station - driving through checkpoints - talking to the Immigration guys, finally two of the kindest Immigration people I have ever met showed up at the port and treated us all like solid gold. We were able to get the Volunteers through by 3:45PM, shaving close to the 4PM curfew in place.

Our Volunteers headed on the 1/2 mile or so walk down to the pier with such joy to be getting on the boats, and such sadness to be leaving Dominica in a state of massive destruction. I don't think there was a dry eye on either boat as we motored down the shoreline and slowly slipped away from the battered Dominican coastline into the open sea. Five hours later we pulled into St. Lucia.

This experience is unlike any other in my life. The deep sadness to see a beloved place so changed by the force of nature, incredible gratitude to the Dominican hotel manager and local Peace Corps Associate Director for what they did in a time of natural disaster in their country for our Peace Corps Volunteers, fierce determination to get our Volunteers back to safety, deep respect for the resiliency of our PCVs in how they handled this unsettling to terrifying situation, thankfulness for "Thelma to my Louise" kick ass Christine, and a renewed faith in woman/mankind.

We are working with our evacuated PCVs into this week and so I'm limited on my FB and any other time to talk or respond to messages of concern, but I wanted to share this as many of you have asked how we are after Maria.

Holding Dominica in our hearts as they work to rebuild their beautiful country.

Finally, on a lighter note, I thought I'd share this little parody song that some of the Peace Corps Volunteers created to describe their experience during Hurricane Maria. I think it gives you an idea of what they went through, and also their strong desire to return. [The acronym "HOR" stands for Home of Record, where all these PCVs have been sent until a decision is made as to whether they can return to Dominica or be sent to other islands.]


"[Sing along to Toto's "Africa" to get a glimpse into surviving a Category 5 hurricane:]

I hear Maria echo in the night
and she is making a real hot mess of this island
Making landfall 6:30 tonight
Powers gone but Bananagrams keeps me from going crazy
I brought my bags down just in time
for the windows to blow out all over the Flamboyant
Megan turned to me as if to say, “I left all my laundry on the line…”

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hurricane or two could ever do
I’m going back to Dominica
First going back to HOR for 45 days

Car alarms cry out in the night
as we get restless lying on some tables in the basement
I know we’re in for a long night
as sure as Waitikubuli rises above the Caribbean Sea
I seek to find a dry pillow, frightened of this thing beneath my head

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hurricane or two could ever do
I’m going back to Dominica
First going back to HOR for 45 days


It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that hurricane or two could ever do
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
I’m going back to Dominica
First going back to HOR for 45 days

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One More Bat Chat

After the Courts for Kids project wrapped up, I was able to coordinate a visit to Thibaud by two bat scientists (one Canadian, one British). They had come to Dominica for the summer to work with a fascinating program for college students called Operation Wallacea (OpWall). The picture below shows them deftly using a net to capture one of the bats near the entrance to the cave. [By the way, new readers might want to see my previous articles about our bat cave by clicking here.]
After that first capture, they started working their way deeper into the cave. I should mention that bat caves aren't known for smelling good, due to the waste products that accumulate on the floor of their caves. [You can't see the face of the nearest scientist in the photo below due to the glare from her headlamp.]
In the picture below, taken after I had come part-way into the cave, you can see one of the scientists near the back of the cave. The light from the other scientist (who is hidden behind large rocks) can be seen on the ceiling further ahead.
They carefully handled the bats they captured for closer inspection.
Here they examined the wing structure.
In the photo below they were pointing out the nipple on the chest of this female, because bats are mammals just like humans.
The scientists quickly recognized that there were two varieties of bats in the cave, with smaller bats nearer the opening and larger ones occupying the back. They told me the names of the two species, but I waited until I received the email below so that I could share the information properly (along with the links that were included).

"There were two species in the cave.

The smaller one was Tadarida brasiliensis (commonly called the Brazilian Free-tailed Bat or the Mexican Free-tailed Bat), which eats mainly insects. They usually mate in March and it takes ~90 days to give birth.

The larger species was Brachyphylla cavernarum (Antillean Fruit-eating bat), which mainly eats fruit but also eats insects and pollen. The reproductive cycle is not well known but estimated to give birth between late May and early June and young cannot not fly until two months old.

The scientists were impressed with our bat cave, and with the new bat cave trail that was completed recently. However, they expressed hope that the easier access and resulting increase in human activity does not cause these two bat colonies to abandon this sea cave. They were particularly concerned with limiting access during the reproductive season, as mentioned in this part of the email message:

"As for recommendations, I would highly recommend blocking off the path to the cave around the last corner to the cave so that people can’t go in there. As I mentioned it could cause stress to the bats, and it is particularly important that no one goes in there during the reproductive season. If females become too stressed when they are pregnant they can abort their fetuses, and when the young are born they can abandon them. So, I would build a barricade just around the last bend and perhaps put up a sign explaining why the barricade is there, and that is especially important during the reproductive season. Some people will likely not follow the rules, but usually if people understand why it is blocked off and have a sign to read about it they will respect it. They can still stand back and watch them emerge, and that is how I would sell the tourist part of it, as an emergence viewing not a cave exploration. As the reproductive season is not well known in the Antillean Fruit-eating bat, I would give a range on the sign for that (April to July) to be safe.

I hope this helps and it was great to meet you and explore the cave. If I am back next year I will try to make it back to see how the colonies are doing."

I do hope they come back next summer (even if I'm not here), and perhaps bring their students to my village for the day!

Watching them explore the entire depths of the bat cave made me want to conquer it before my departure. Thus, I recently made my way into the cave (with some youngsters waiting outside for me), armed with headlamp and flashlight, and slowly worked my way to the back of the cave. There is a bit of a left hand turn near the back, so I had never known for sure how far back the cave went beyond what is visible from the front, but it turns out that it ends shortly after that turn. Here is a view towards the mouth of the cave from about half-way in.

Near that point, I took this picture to show how far the water enters the cave. There were logs and other flotsam that the waves had pushed far back inside the cave.
Here is a view looking back towards the mouth from the left turn just before the end of the cave.
I'm glad I made the trek inside the cave, but it was smelly, slippery, and difficult to traverse. One time was enough for me, and I don't really recommend it for others. Plus, I didn't like disturbing the bats, many of whom were flying closely all around me (some even brushed against me). However, I'm content that I have now explored the entire cave—in addition to most everywhere around my village. It's been a great two years here!

On an unrelated note, I thought I'd share this picture taken recently at the Dominican Broadcasting System, where I was part of a panel from the Peace Corps for a 90-minute radio show. From left to right is our Peace Corps Director for Dominica, the station manager and program host, a Peace Corps Volunteer from last year's class, a Peace Corps Trainee who will be sworn in soon, me, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who preceded me, but who extended for a third year. Thus, each of the four most recent classes of Peace Corps Volunteers on Dominica are represented in this picture.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Leaving Isn't Easy

In the famous final episode of the “M*A*S*H” television show, B.J. Hunnicutt has a hard time saying the word “goodbye” to his friends. Despite Hawkeye's urging to say the word, he refuses. However, as a final farewell to his best friend, he spells out the dreaded word in rocks near the helicopter pad, so that it can be read by Hawkeye as he flies away. [By the way, a friend from college recently visited the site where the M*A*S*H series was filmed, which is now Malibu Creek State Park—after seeing his pictures, I'd love to visit this site someday, too.]
Just like Dr. Hunnicutt, I'm finding it hard to say goodbye to my village—especially to the children, who have become my de facto grandchildren. Most of my age peer group have grandchildren, and frequently talk about them. Not having any grandchildren myself, I didn't fully understand their fascination. However, after spending two years working closely with the children of the village (including younger siblings who aren't yet in school), these children have won my heart. I now have a far greater appreciation for my peers who are constantly going on about their grandkids. I will miss their hugs!
This is just one of the many life lessons I have learned during my 27 month tour of duty with the Peace Corps. Below are nine more life lessons (in no particular order) that add up to my “Top Ten” list of what I learned while serving:

2.) The more you give, the more you get! I knew this basic tenet before I left the USA, and tried to practice it, but I saw it in action more than ever down here. Call it karma or God's blessings or whatever, I constantly found myself the recipient of someone else's generosity, often when I least expected it. I also have to thank all of my friends, some of whom I haven't seen in many years, who donated to the Courts for Kids project, or mailed “care packages” to me, or who donated school supplies at my class reunion, or supported me in other ways. Whether it was as simple as mailing a bunch of fancy address labels that I could give to the children as stickers, or as sophisticated as donating airline miles towards my flight to attend the high school reunion, I can't thank you enough for helping me (and my village)!

3.) I can't over-emphasize how welcome and appreciated I feel here. The folks in my village may not have much in comparison with Americans, but they have huge hearts. I am convinced that I am much safer living in my village than I will be when I return to America (with the growing drug-fueled crime wave). I feel in some ways as if I'm leaving Andy Griffith's Mayberry only to return to a divided, dysfunctional, and even dystopian America. As our president often tweets, “Sad.”

4.) A positive attitude makes life much easier. Again, this is another belief I held prior to my arrival here, but I believe it was a key ingredient to whatever success I had here, and thus I hope to continue holding onto it. There is a restaurant in a touristy village on the Atlantic side of the island ran by a Canadian man. His nickname, and the name of his restaurant, is “POZ.” He got the nickname because of his positive attitude, and I hope to continue carrying a POZ attitude throughout the remainder of my life.

5.) Americans tend to think they are the only ones who give foreign aid to needy countries around the world. Little do most Americans realize how much other countries (especially China) are providing. Besides China, I have seen signs around the island touting the involvement of Great Britain, France, Canada, Iceland, and others. Cuba provides many healthcare workers, and gives scholarships to Dominican students for higher education. Venezuela discounts oil to the islands. Heck, even the Mediterranean island of Malta, which is about half the size as Dominica (but Malta's population is more than six times greater that Dominica), donated the huge black plastic water tank on the roof of my school, so that when the public water system inexplicably cuts off, we can still flush the toilets and thus not need to cancel school. This list doesn't even include all the special assistance this island received after Tropical Storm Erika from countries like Argentina and Barbados.

6.) As a former WVU-P adjunct instructor (plus to a lesser extent my eight years on the Wood County School Board), I thought I had a little bit of an idea of what teaching was like. I will tell you that after two years here, I have a whole new appreciation for teachers of the early elementary grades, especially those trying to help children to learn to read. I found that personally, I much preferred teaching the older students than the younger ones. I love them all as my grandchildren, but there were times when they were quite a challenge in the classroom! [I forget where I copied the painting below of a Caribbean classroom, but I could certainly identify with the teacher on some days.]

7.) Humans are humans, regardless of the amount of melanin in our skins. Having just spent two years as the only white person around, I have a renewed vigor about the equality of all humans—color doesn't matter. I wrote a blog story to this effect, but given recent events in America, it can't be stressed enough. Also, along the same lines, I will admit that I have a new found respect for the beauty of black women. One of the amazing high school students who came down to help build the playing court had started a club in her school called YPB, for Young Pretty and Black. Its purpose was to promote self-confidence and provide support to black females at her school. I want to tell all her club members that they indeed are beautiful, and they shouldn't allow America's overstoked media machine to let them think otherwise.

8.) I'm surprised at how easy it has been for me to live here on the equivalent of $10,000 American dollars per year. I have a view of the ocean from my porch, and swim at the beach whenever I want, hike countless trails without worrying about snakes or ticks, and have plenty of good food to eat. Of course, there are many luxuries that I don't have (e.g., car, television, microwave, washer/dryer, dishwasher, blender) which many Americans could not live without. But for me, the simple life is the best life.

9.) As a follow-up to the last point, I've learned how despite the fact that Americans have so much more stuff, I would venture that they are not as happy with their lives as most of the folks in my village. Americans have a wealth of choices, lots of luxuries, and countless opportunities, but many of them choose to complain and overlook the bounty that has been bestowed upon them by virtue of where they were born. Unfortunately, even the smartest students in my village have very limited options for them to achieve the success they would have had if they had simply been born in the United States. Americans should realize how good they have it.

10.) One of the cultural traditions in the Caribbean is that everyone greets others with a “Good Morning” or a “Good Aftanoon” (as it tends to be pronounced here, where the “r” sound is often dropped) or “Good Night.” If you walk into a bakery, even if you don't know anyone in there, you proclaim “Good Morning” just to announce your presence. Likewise, if you are boarding a bus (van), you had best say “Good Morning” to your fellow passengers or you will be seen as someone without manners. It is a good habit that used to be done in rural areas like my beloved West Virginia, but it has evaporated over the years. I know some folks will think I am crazy, but I hope to try to continue this social practice when I return to the states.

The bottom line is that serving in the Peace Corps has been one of the most significant things I have done in my entire life! I feel like I successfully crafted the perfect escape from a career in the bureacracy. It has been a great way to transition into retirement. I'm not exactly sure what the next chapter of my life will be like, but it will not be easy to beat the joy the last two years have given me.

Plus, I was finally able to “repay” the Peace Corps for “having my back” during my law school years. If I had quit or flunked out of law school, I had planned to join the Peace Corps as a back-up plan (which I explained in the very first story on this blog). As it turned out, I didn't need to invoke that alternative plan, but I always appreciated the discussion I had held with a Peace Corps recruiter in the Mountainlair (WVU's Student Union). They were ready to pick me up if I had fallen down, so it felt good to finally help them out after all these years.

Also, I trust that by serving 800 days in “his” Peace Corps, I've finally paid a personal debt to the late President Kennedy. As I explained in the second article I wrote for this blog, one of my vivid memories of the aftermath of his assassination was that I wasn't able to watch the cartoons I enjoyed at that age. Perhaps now I don't need to feel bad about that anymore.

Thus, in closing, I'm glad I took the plunge (click here to read the story of the picture above), and feel blessed that I was assigned to Dominica. I'm able to depart from this beautiful place content with the feeling that I am leaving it in a better situation than it was in when I first arrived. It has been a wonderful experience and I will be returning over the years—I need to come back to check up on my grandchildren!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

New School!

In my waning days in Dominica, I'm feeling good about closing various “chapters in the book” of my service here. I'm thrilled with how the Courts for Kids project went, as the court (and the new soccer goals) are getting used a lot each day (thanks especially to those of you who donated towards this project).
The annual Village Feast (which requires a lot of hard work to produce) ended Monday night. This year's celebration saw us go from an emotional high of a very successful Saturday night, to an emotional low with the tragic deaths of five young men when their car plunged over a 400 foot cliff. No one was in the mood to celebrate the final two nights, so the decision was made to not charge admission (thus negating my job selling tickets from behind the burglar bars at the school). Indeed, the sadness still lingers on in this tight-knit community. Hopefully the final numbers will at least allow the Village Council to break even on the finances of this year's event. [The nearby village of Penville, home of the five who died, made the decision to completely cancel their upcoming village feast out of respect to the deceased.]
Yesterday, I was able to participate in a meeting that hopefully will lead to the closure of another chapter of my experience here. Eight years ago, the decrepit old school building in my village was closed and demolished, and a nearby community building (originally built primarily as locker rooms for sports teams competing on the adjacent playing field) was temporarily converted into a makeshift school building. When this decision was originally made, it was thought to be a one-year, temporary quarters until the new replacement school could be constructed. No one dreamed that we would still be crammed into this little building eight years later! However, various competing government needs (including Tropical Storm Erika recovery) kept pushing our project onto the back burner. Nonetheless, the staff of our school has worked hard to overcome these difficult conditions.
Now, with less than two weeks remaining, I was able to get a glimpse of the future school planned for my village. A public presentation was made at the current school yesterday afternoon. It included the Minister of Education and about half a dozen top officials from the Ministry of Education. It also included a couple of architects from the Ministry of Public Works. They laid out the plans they have developed for the new, two story, reinforced concrete school that will built upon the site of the original school (located at the base of a hill adjacent to our beautiful playing field).
The new classrooms on the upper floor will be double the size of the current classrooms. As with other new schools the government has been building in recent years, an early childhood learning facility (pre-school) will be added on the lower floor. An indoor cafeteria is included, along with a modern kitchen. A library and a technology lab, which potentially can house as many as 20 computers, will also be built. It all looks beautiful!
I've interspersed in this story some of the architectural drawings that were shown yesterday. There were a few “tweaks” that were discussed in yesterday's dialog between the officials and the locals. Personally, I am interested in seeing how the retaining wall around the edge of the playing field might be used for spectator seating at sporting events held there. I also hope that the clear water spring that emerges on the hillside between the school and the health center might be enhanced for usage during water outages.
The officials will take the feedback they received yesterday and make some minor changes. Then they will work on getting the project tender ready to go out for bidding. That will take several months, and once the project is announced, the procurement process will take several more months. Hopefully before the end of the upcoming school year, construction will finally begin on this long overdue school. It will be an important component to the overall health and vitality of our village.
I'm looking forward to someday coming back and roaming the rooms that I first visualized in these drawings. It makes it easier for me to leave knowing that good things are happening for my school and my village!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Tragic Feast

I'm usually not a “night owl” type of person. However, this past Saturday night/Sunday morning, I didn't get home until after 4:00 AM (nearly as late as the previous night). The only reason I'm staying up to such late hours in the night is because this is our annual “Village Feast.”

Months of planning and hard work culminates in a massive holiday weekend party on the beach. I'm in charge of selling wrist band tickets from the safety of our school building, with its burglar bars protecting the front porch. A couple of us lock ourselves in, accept the admission money through the bars, and affix the designated color wristband for that evening. Dominican parties such as the village feast continue long into the night.

So after falling asleep at around 4:30, I was awakened this morning by an incoming text from the school principal. She was alerting us to the tragic deaths of five young men, including a sports teacher who often came to our school. My Facebook feed was soon filled with my Dominican friends expressing shock and sadness over this tragedy.

It wasn't just Facebook where this sadness was evident. One of my students stopped by my house to tell me about this graphic details. The car had hurdled off one of the most precarious cliffs along the main road around the north of the island, crashing into the edge of the ocean far below.

Many pictures from the crash site were appearing on social media. [I got the pictures above and below this paragraph from Dominica News Online.] With the prevalence of cell phone cameras, that seems to be a common happening down here (even on St. Lucia when I was there for training). Apparently some of the grisly crash scene pictures were also circulating, but thankfully none of my friends had posted them—only their written reactions to those horrifying pictures.
I have written about this particular cliff (and overlook) where the wreck occurred in the past. In fact, just two weeks ago, it had been included as a stop for the tour bus carrying the 23 American volunteers who had come to Dominica with the Courts for kids project. I couldn't help but remember how these Americans had marveled at the view from that overlook, which now had claimed five promising young lives.

Indeed, all five of these men had attended our village feast that night—I may have sold them their tickets to enter. I may not have really known them, but I probably had crossed paths with all of them during my years here. For example, one was a government health inspector, and I had attended the food handler training session he had given prior to the village feast for the vendors who sell food at the event.

More importantly, although none lived in my village, there is such a small population here that it seems that everyone is somehow related to everyone else. Many of the good folks living in my village lost friends or relatives in this deadly crash. Five new holes will be dug by hand in the uneven ground of the cemetery. Today there was a pall hanging over the village. You knew that this sad news was on everybody's mind. But the feast will go on tonight. Life goes on.

Life is so tenuous; you never know when it might end—and life can be hard living on this volcanic rock jutting up from the ocean. All that one can do is to try to make the most of the time we are given. That is one reason why I joined the Peace Corps, and it has paid off for me. As my term of service comes to an end, I am grateful that I undertook this life-changing experience.

P.S. I'm happy to report that the half-court line and the foul lines were painted on the court today (look close and you might be able to make out the green lines on the new court). The concrete has had time to cure, so I'm glad that at least these minimally required lines were completed. I'm indebted to a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who came to help with the village feast and to give me a hand with the final touches on the Courts for Kids project.