Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Model School Memories

I arrived in St. Lucia nearly seven weeks ago with limited experience as a teacher. For seven years, I had regularly taught college classes on American Government and Constitutional Law as an adjunct instructor. However, changes in my Treasury Department job (my primary paycheck) in 2011 required me to travel to Washington more frequently, resulting in my stepping down from this part-time teaching role.

Thus, I had not taught in a classroom in over four years, and what experience I had before was limited to college students. There is a huge difference between teaching political science classes to adults versus teaching reading to children. I needed all the training that I could get to prepare for two years in an elementary classroom.

The Peace Corps set up Model School to give us the experience we would need. Actually, it was advertised to the local students as a summer reading camp—a fun activity for their first week of summer break. Hopefully, we helped some young readers improve, but the real purpose of this week was to make us better teachers.

The students were divided into groups so that a master teacher and four Peace Corps trainees would spend the week with them. There was a set schedule for when we would solo teach the main segment (one day), team-teach the second segment (two trainees pairing up to give a lesson—there were two instances of this during the week for each of us), and daily work with the students in small groups. The children would not be graded, but the performances of the Peace Corps trainees were closely scrutinized. Of course, the biggest “exam” was when it came our turn for solo teaching.

For my solo teaching day, the letter “L” was the letter of the day (we had previously identified the five letters that had caused the most problems for our students on the assessment test). I decided that I would also talk about poetry as part of my day of teaching. I wanted to let the students see how changing the “onset” (the initial phonetic sound) can often result in a rhyming word that can then be used in poetry. I knew that there were a lot of “L” words that could be altered by merely changing the onset, and that these could be used for the vocabulary list we were building. I quickly began to compile rhyming “L” words.

Rather than creating the typical “word wall” vocabulary cards that my colleagues were making, I needed to utilize a different design. Initially, I thought about writing the rhyming word on the back of the vocabulary word card and flipping it over. However, it dawned on me that I could create a “hinged door” vocabulary card to enhance my lesson.

First, I completed my vocabulary list of appropriate words that began with the letter “L” but had another word that could be created by changing the onset. I pared the list down to my 22 favorites. Then, I acquired some of the seldom used legal size paper from the supply room, and cut it in half longways. Towards the right side of this narrowed, blank sheet of paper, I would write a vocabulary word that started with the letter “L” (note that I always used a curved tail on the bottom of my lower-case “L” letters, to emphasize this St. Lucian tradition that looks a bit like a backwards “J”—which I explained as part of my introduction of the “Letter of the Day” at the start of class).

With the under-utilized left side of this slip of paper, I folded it over so that the letter “L” would be covered, but the rest of the word could easily be seen. On this “hinged door” I wrote the onset that would create a rhyme with the “L” word underneath. Whether the door was open or shut, it was easy to read the both of the words (for example, lap-map, list-mist, loot-boot).

When finished, all 22 vocabulary word cards were stored with the doors closed. This allowed me to introduce a word for them to sound and blend, and then open the door so that they could then read and pronounce the rhyming “L” version of the word. The students seemed to be genuinely intrigued at the “reveal” process (as the door swung open) of creating a second, different word from the first.

This also produced 44 rhyming words (half of them beginning with the letter “L”) that could be used in the poetry worksheet that I also produced for this lesson. It included a four-line poem I wrote about Caribbean pirates with a blank at the end of each line, for them to fill in with words from our word wall. It also included four blank lines that we used to create our own ending to the story.

Although I've only touched on the highlights, I believe my solo teaching day about the letter “L” went well (did you notice that “L” and “well” rhyme?). My two days of team teaching in pairs also seemed to be successful. Even though the preparation as well as the implementation were both intense and strenuous, I feel that the experience I gained during Pre-Service Training has prepared me to work in a classroom when school resumes in September.

Prior to this training, I probably would have guessed that teaching college students would be more difficult than teaching children, because of the higher level thinking skills of college students—and I had accomplished that successfully. With children, the teacher is so much more advanced than his or her students that I thought it would make the job less demanding. After all, it should be easier to teach a simple topic like phonics rather than a complex and often nuanced topic such as Marbury v. Madison—or so I thought.

I quickly realized that I had underestimated how challenging it is to teach a child to read! I have a whole new appreciation for my college friends who majored in elementary education, as well as all the other elementary teachers whom I have met over the years.

Learning to read is so vital, especially in today's technology driven world! It is truly the gateway to a successful and satisfying adulthood. Without reading skills, it is virtually impossible to advance in life, especially on an economically challenged island. Helping children transition from non-readers to beginning readers to proficient readers is SO IMPORTANT!

A side benefit of this training was that it made me aware of a few talents that I had underestimated, such as my calligraphy skills. I have always been able to write legibly, and incorporate different “fonts” into things I needed to decorate. For example, during my years in Student Government at college, I often was in charge of making posters for various events (back in the dark ages before computers). My master teacher was amazed at the neat handwriting I used on the chalk board that week. I can now see how this ability will work well in an elementary school classroom, especially in a region with limited resources for their schools.

I think I also demonstrated my creativity with several products I made during model school week. Whether it was the hinged door vocabulary words, the “pirate poem” worksheet, the accordion-folded poem (designed to pop down from the top of the chalk board), the paper airplane idea (utilizing the six “sides” of the airplane to write their name and five vocabulary words—in order to get “clearance for take-off” during our flight contests, they had to come up with a sentence using one of the words on their airplane), or the giant flip-chart book that I wrote and illustrated, I think I proved that I have some creative design skills that will be useful in the classroom.

Finally, model school week (as well as our previous school visits) made me aware of how many students think I look like Santa Claus. Back home I never had many people equate me with Santa Claus (more often it was Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, or sometimes actor Richard Dreyfuss). However down here, with few white folks and fewer still with a full white beard and a bit of a paunch, it happens frequently with school children. I hope I can use this to my advantage in the classrooms here (“You better behave or you'll get a bad mark on Santa's list!”).

[By the way, this will likely be my last blog post written on St. Lucia. This is a beautiful island filled with wonderful people who have been very welcoming to all of us. I am grateful to have spent these seven weeks in training here, but I am headed to my new island home of Dominica soon. I will especially miss my host family, who treated me great!]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

My Fate Revealed

The last few days have been a whirlwind! After training on Friday afternoon (the end of our sixth week of Pre-Service Training in St. Lucia), we were told the island on which we would serve our next two years. Eight of the 32 would stay on St. Lucia, while the remainder would be evenly divided among Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent.

Last year's class started a tradition of treating assignment day as something from the Harry Potter movie—bringing the class members up one by one to learn their fate. This year, we enhanced that Harry Potter theme by creating a red, white, and blue wizard's sorting hat, and adding special signs that matched the different “houses” from Hogwarts to the different islands. The twenty-somethings in our class who are big Harry Potter fans really enjoyed the sorting hat ceremony.

I was enlisted to do the calligraphy.

She is better at modeling hats than I am.

When it came my turn, the sorting hat decided to send me to Dominica—which is nicknamed “the nature isle.” Of the four islands that Peace Corps supports, it is the largest in land mass (290 square miles), but the smallest in population (~75,000). It has a lot of land that is set aside as nature preserves. In addition, it also has one of the only “reservations” for the original Carib tribes that lived on the island prior to Columbus (who named the island Dominica because he discovered it on a Sunday). By the way, it is important to pronounce it DominEEka, because this helps to avoid confusion with the Dominican Republic, a Spanish speaking Caribbean country which shares the island of Hispanola with Haiti.

I will be working in a school on the north-northeast section of the coastline, in a small fishing and farming village. It will be a long bus ride to the capital (and cruise ship port) of Roseau, which is on the southwest coast. I don't know much else yet at this point, but my assignment sheet also mentions that they want me to coach the football team (so if any of my friends have tips for coaching an elementary soccer team, let me know).

On Friday night, my Peace Corps class had an awards party, where “class superlatives” were given. I won the “Best Dad” award (for providing advice as well as a watchful eye), and got my picture taken with all my “daughters.” I was proud to receive this award! I will miss seeing three-quarters of them once we get split up among the islands.

This picture was taken before some of the girls got into the picture, but it came out better than the entire group picture.

Speaking of splitting up, we will finish our seventh and final week of training in Babonneau this coming week. Then on Saturday, August 1, we will be transported to our assigned locations (even those staying on St. Lucia will be moved to their new villages). While training on our individual islands for three more weeks, we will be living with a new host family to acclimate to our new location. At the end of our ten total weeks of Pre-Service Training, we will be sworn in as full-fledged volunteers. At that point we will be able to move into our own housing which the Peace Corps has selected for us. I'm looking forward to that.

Last night (Saturday, July 25), the Peace Corps staff organized a cultural appreciation night. There was a local band, a folk dance group, and steel drum performers. In addition, our Peace Corps class was encouraged to dress in traditional St. Lucian costumes and participate in some fashion. Some of us danced, read poetry, and even hosted a cooking show.

Without much talent of my own (but with a habit of watching the local news), I did a tribute to a newscaster (Alex Bousquet) who specializes in man-on-the-street interviews (which are often insightful and/or entertaining). Usually he asks for opinions on important topics, but on Fridays he asks a riddle. I shared my favorite “Street Vibes” riddle, first in the Kweyol language and then in English. My “Street Vibes” riddle was: “How do you make Holy Water? You boil the hell out of it!”

In order to be properly attired for the cultural program last night, my host mom and I rode the bus to Castries on Saturday morning. We went to purchase a traditional madras shirt for me from one of our neighbors, who has a small shop inside the marketplace. She had some shirts that she had made, in addition to some that were imported from India. I was fortunate to find a shirt she had handmade, plus it featured the colors of the Dominican flag—green, red, yellow, and black. I'm glad I had just found out where I was going to serve, because this shirt will be put to good use in Dominica as well. Plus, knowing that it was made in the little St. Lucian community I lived in for seven weeks, by a woman I've met thanks to my host mom, makes this traditional shirt even more special.

This was taken on the front porch of my host home.

I must say that this last week will be bittersweet. Not only will I be saying goodbye to three-quarters of my new friends (who I had never met until June 11 in Miami), but I will also be saying goodbye to my wonderful host family here. I have had a fantastic time living with them, and received a lot of good advice along the way. Working with the Peace Corps is an intense experience, and the relationships you forge are the type that will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. I look forward to keeping in touch with my St. Lucian host family after I move on to Dominica.

A new chapter of my life begins next Saturday!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


One of the biggest events on the St. Lucian calendar is their annual celebration of Carnival, which took place yesterday and today in the capital of Castries. This was originally held just prior to Lent, meaning it is somewhat like Mardi Gras in New Orleans (without the beads). However, they realized back in the 1990s that if they moved it to a different date, they could get more tourists. Several Caribbean island nations have done likewise, so now it is possible to hopscotch your way around the Caribbean and see a number of Carnival festivals.

There are a number of different activities that take place leading up to the big parade on Monday and Tuesday, including a beauty pageant, a steel drum competition, and other popular entertainment events. I was fortunate that my host family wanted to attend the parade, so I got to experience one of the biggest parts of carnival yesterday (they actually conduct the same parade on both days).

There is a major four-lane road between Choc and the capital of Castries. Parade participants line up at Choc and then dance their way a few miles into the capital (using one side of this divided highway). Large trucks with their own generators and huge speaker systems provide plenty of music (some with live bands, but most seemed to be deejays using recorded music plus their own commentary). Also included are support trucks providing food and drinks for the revelers.

Besides the booming music, the parade is a cavalcade of bright colors. Elaborate costumes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are lots of feathers, ribbons, spray-on glitter, and sparkly things. This isn't just for the most beautiful women—there were lots of people of all ages and body types. It is more about taking part than it is about some sort of beauty pageant. Synchronized dancing is not even important along the way—just that you are out there doing something. Participating in the parade (also known as “jumping”) is a long tradition here.

Different groups organize their own music truck and food/drink support, generally with the help of sponsoring businesses. If you want to participate, you pay a fee to join that group. The fee covers your group costume and some souvenirs, as well as the food and drinks you consume along the way on both days. From what I understand, the participation fee can run as high as a $1000 (in U.S. dollars, this would be between $300 and $400 dollars).

We watched from a grassy knoll that was close to the shopping center where the Peace Corps office is located, which is nearer to the starting point than to the finish in the city of Castries. Although those of us who are currently in Pre-Service Training were not allowed to participate in the parade, I did see a couple of Peace Corps Volunteers I know from last year's class who decided to "jump" in this year's parade.

I'm glad I got to experience Carnival, and I enjoyed the rainbow of colors as well as the local music. However, my lack of dancing skills and my overall sense of thriftiness (okay, go ahead and call me cheap) will likely keep me on the sidelines during the years I am down here. I'll let the younger Peace Corps folks work on integrating into this island tradition. I'm fine just watching the show go by (especially when I can sit there watching the parade and still see the breeze blowing in the palm trees and the blue Caribbean in the distance).

Sunday, July 19, 2015

All Ah We Is One Family

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of going to a family reunion with my host family. It was held under beautiful skies on the historic grounds of the Pigeon Island National Park (click here to see my previous story about this park ), surrounded by palm trees and remnants of 200-year-old buildings and fortifications. The Peace Corps expects us to integrate into our families and communities, and it seems to me that I accomplished that by being the only white person at this huge St. Lucian family reunion today.

The back of my host mom's shirt.

There were over a hundred people in attendance. Just like many big reunions back in the USA, customized shirts were created for the event, with different colors to indicate the different generations (gold was the oldest, then purple, green, and blue for the newest—guests like myself were expected to wear white). The “theme” for this event was printed on the back of each shirt (hence the title for this story). Proper English would rewrite the theme as “All of us are one family” but it is more fun to add a bit of a rhyme and say it in the patois/kweyole language used by many down here.

A view of a couple dancing on the stage with the band.

Big tents were set up, along with a projection system for genealogy presentations as well as a nice sound system. A St. Lucian quadrille band (local folk music) performed, and I was even given a lesson in dancing the quadrille. Later, the same stage was used for karaoke. An inflatable bounce house was set up for the younger children, and a few tables were dedicated to spirited domino games.

There was plenty of food served buffet style. Breakfast was served in the morning, then a hefty lunch ensued in the afternoon (including my first taste of calliloo soup, a local delicacy). A dessert buffet followed that, and a wide variety of drinks were available at that tent all day long. I'm convinced that no one left hungry, and everything tasted great.

An official photographer was present, who orchestrated group pictures of each colored shirt group, including my white shirted “outsider” group (luckily I had brought a white UC shirt with me). Despite my suggestions that I was fine without being in the picture, they dragged me into it. Then, everyone jammed together for one large family reunion portrait. [I'm sure there are going to be some folks trying to figure out who the white guy was in the family portrait.]

I was informed afterward that many of the younger children were excited to find out that Santa Claus is a distant cousin to their family! Back home I never had many people equate me with Santa Claus (more often it was Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, or sometimes actor Richard Dreyfuss). However down here, with few white folks and fewer still with a full white beard and a bit of a paunch, it happens frequently. I already knew from my interactions at elementary schools that the young students think I look like Santa Claus. Apparently some of the reunion children are going to be disappointed this coming December 25 when they don't get the “family bonus” from their cousin Mr. Claus.

The best part of the day was just seeing all the love generated at this family reunion. It didn't matter if you knew anyone here or not, everyone was in a gracious, welcoming mood. As a Peace Corps trainee, I enjoy living with my host mom, my host brother and sister, and we are frequently visited by the oldest sister who is married and has a three year old who often stays at his grandmother's house. My host family has made me feel a part of their family over the past five weeks, so it was easy to go along to their extended family reunion today. All of their relatives made me feel welcome today, too. The sense of community and acceptance was overwhelming. I wish I could bottle those positive vibes and share them whenever someone needs cheered up.

Speaking of love, acceptance, and positive vibes, I spent Saturday in a totally different environment. Our class of 32 Peace Corps trainees have been going through an intense “boot camp” to make us into Reading Literacy Co-Teachers in elementary classrooms in the Eastern Caribbean when school resumes in September. We just finished our big week of “model school” where we taught school children who signed up for a summer reading camp.

From the first time we met in Miami on June 11, we have bonded together and are now close friends. It is an amazing group of Americans who have been brought together to serve in the Eastern Caribbean, and I love all of them. The pressure we have been through has brought us close—but we knew that after our initial training on St. Lucia, the 32 of us would eventually be split up among the four island countries that Peace Corps serves (St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

This coming Friday, we find out which country we are destined to serve (or if you stay in St. Lucia, the particular village where you will be assigned). On August 1, all of us will be moving out of our current host families home, and be transported to a new host family for the final three weeks of our training program. Instead of one cohesive 32 member family, we will be uprooted and split up into four groups of eight volunteers on each island.

So this past Saturday, about 25 of us went on an all-day catamaran sailing adventure down the western side of the island, from Rodney Bay down to the Gros Piton we hiked last Sunday. Trips like this are primarily done by tourists, and the Peace Corps would prefer that we live like “host country nationals” rather than tourists. However, we needed to celebrate the end of model school and socialize before artificial groupings divide us into four different islands. We needed a day just for us.

Look close to see Flipper.

We had a pod of dolphins play around our boat on the way down, along with beautiful views of the island from the Caribbean Sea. After getting various views of both Petit and Gros Piton, the captain brought us back up to the town of Soufriere (where we had eaten after our Piton hike ). I headed into the town square in the heart of the city to get a picture of the old Cathedral.

Then we headed north to a secluded beach, where we swam and hung out for awhile. This was my first opportunity to use the snorkel and mask I brought with me. As a child, I loved the periodic “Jacques Cousteau” specials that showed a West Virginia kid what life was like under the ocean. Snorkeling isn't diving, but getting a clear picture of all that is going on beneath the surface still fascinates me.

After resuming our return trip north, the captain took our catamaran into Marigot Bay. This was where the movie “Dr. Doolittle” was filmed—it is beautiful! Eventually, we headed north again, stopping only when a deckhand who was fishing from the back of the boat caught a barracuda and reeled it aboard.

Heading back out to sea from beautiful Marigot Bay.

The best part of Saturday was the feeling of togetherness that our Peace Corps class enjoys. We genuinely care about each other, and it feels good. It was somewhat similar to the togetherness demonstrated at the family reunion today.

Just a portion of our class that was on the trip.

In both situations, I look through the pupils of my own eyes and don't realize that I am not exactly the same as most of the people I am with at the time. Whether it was not seeing my own white skin while attending a black family reunion, or not seeing my aging face, gray hair, and receding hairline amidst a group of predominantly 20-something-year-old Peace Corps trainees, I tend to think of myself as a member of both groups. I feel like I fit in, even if I may not look the part.

I think this is a good trait to have as a Peace Corps volunteer (if you'll permit me to say so myself). I see less divisions amongst people and more commonalities. To have peace on earth, we need to realize that we are all in this together. That is one reason why I am spending 26 months away from my beloved home state—to do my part to continue President Kennedy's dream of having Americans promote peace and mutual understanding in Third World countries. In reality, we are all brethren, and we share this one planet amidst the vast universe. Just like the back of the reunion shirt says, “All Ah We Is One Family.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A day at the farm

On Saturday, I had a delightful day with my host family as they took me to their “farm” in the interior of the island. It was a long drive to get there, but with lots of interesting things to see along the way. At one point, we even had to ford a stream, because flooding from a hurricane several years ago had wiped out the bridge.

Once we arrived, I enjoyed seeing all the different types of trees. The terrain was rugged like West Virginia, but there were no trees similar to what we have back home. The exotic palms, bananas, and other trees made it clear I wasn't in West Virginia despite the beautiful hills.

One of my favorite fruits down here is called “soursop” (also known as sweetsop on some islands). It is a green fruit with prickles on the skin, but the inside is white and hard to describe—perhaps a bit like melted cotton candy. Here is a picture of a soursop hanging in the tree.

Other fruit trees included grapefruit,

oranges (both of these citrus fruits were still green at this time of the season),

plantain (similar to banana),

and pomegranate.

Here is a picture of my host mom using a machete to dig up tumeric roots.

Another interesting tree was the cocoa tree.

These big seedpods are split open, and the cocoa seeds are covered in a tasty gelatinous coating (similar to soursop).

You dig the seeds out and suck on them, but carefully preserve the seeds when you are done so that they can be dried to make chocolate.

There were also several types of coconut trees. The top is first chopped off with a machete...

so that you can drink the water inside.

Once you have consumed the water, the shell is split open, so that you dig the soft lining of the coconut out with a spoon. They refer to it as coconut jelly.

For lunch that day, my host mom used an old clay pot over an open fire to make a “one pot” soup.

It included chicken, pig's tail, plantain, dumplings, yams, and more. Here is a picture of the plantain preparation.

Here is the cook checking on the progress of her soup.

Here is a picture of me enjoying the final product.

Note that it was served in a calabash bowl. The calabash tree produces a large fruit that apparently isn't edible, but the thick outer skin is dried and used to make bowls and water jugs.

Later in the day, it was time to harvest some items to bring back to town. Here are green, yellow, and orange coconuts.

This picture includes a round bowl of wax apples; a crate containing mangoes, pomegranates, papaya, guava, nutmeg, and a green pumpkin; as well as bunches of plantain.

Finally, one of the highlights of the day was seeing the wild St. Lucian parrots, which are only found in the jungle. The male and female parrot partners generally stay close together, so I ended up seeing four different pairs fly by. They were generally squawking as they flew overhead, so because I heard them first, I was actually able to snap a few pictures.

I'm glad I got to see these birds, even if they wouldn't allow you to get very close to them. It helped to make this simple but enjoyable day on the island complete.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mountaineering--the Island Version

The iconic feature that Saint Lucia is known for is the twin peaks of the Pitons. Rising a half-mile above the sea, these two steep, conical towers are impressive. Since our group will be split up to the four islands of Eastern Caribbean that Peace Corps supports (St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) later this month, we wanted to hike Gros Piton before some of us leave St. Lucia on August 1.

I knew this would be a physically demanding hike, and I am not in peak condition at the moment. However, I counted on the stubborn attitude I have about "finishing what I start" that has served me well in the various long-distance bicyling trips as well as 5Ks, 10Ks, and half-marathons that I have completed. Besides, I'm from West Virginia--the Mountain State. I've done a lot of hikes at places such as Seneca Rocks, Nelson Rocks, and other places. I knew that I didn't want to pass up this opportunity for this unique St. Lucian experience.

So most all of us filled a tour bus and headed to the southeastern edge of the island. It was a beautiful (albeit long) trip, but finally the town of Soufriere came into view, with the peaks of Gros and Petite Piton visible just beyond.

Soon we were beginning our climb up Gros Piton. It started off as part hike and part "rock scramble," but eventually we made it to the overlook that is quarter-way up the mountain.

We kept working our way upward in the Caribbean heat. Soon we made it to the half-way point, with a beautiful view of the other Piton as it stands above the sea.

Between the half and the three-quarter marks, the trail became steeper. Sometimes there were make-shift hand-rails, but most of the time it was like a demon-possessed stair-climber machine in a gym. Undaunted, our Peace Corps group continued skyward.

The higher we went, the more our group got strung out. I realized that I could not keep up the pace of the young folks at the front of the group. During this phase, I was getting more fatigued, and began to have some self-doubts. I was thinking maybe I should just give up when we arrive at the three-quarter point, and just say I gave it a good try. I was really getting tired of the unrelenting steep climb (that is me in the picture below with my Peace Corps backpack).

Fortunately, we arrived at the benches that mark the three-quarter point, and some of us took a rest under a huge mango tree that was reported to be over 200 years old. I had only been drinking water up to this point, but I realized I needed the quart of home-made guava juice that my host mom had frozen the night before. I don't think I've ever tasted anything better than that now melting guava juice. The well-deserved rest as well as the cold juice gave me the impetus to fight that voice in my head that had suggested quitting. I couldn't get that close to the end and give up! This was probably my one chance to go all the way to the peak. Besides, I had to uphold my Mountain State dignity. Even if I am an alum, how could I consider myself a WVU Mountaineer if I gave up?

So I started trudging further up the mountain. Between the steepness and my fatigue, I found myself bending over more and using my hands as well as my feet. Besides, by being bent over, I'd have less momentum if I happened to fall. So I was climbing by hand and foot, clinging to whatever tree root or rock presented itself to gain elevation. I told myself to take it one step at a time, over and over again.

Although I had my head down choosing my handholds and footholds, I could sense that the circumference of this cone-shaped mountain was getting smaller, which meant that we were getting closer to the top. That gave me the adrenaline I needed for the final phase, which included a lot of rock scrambling.

Finally, we arrived at the top! I was beat, but at least I accomplished something incredible. The views from the top were majestic. Although it hurts this West Virginia native to say it, I must admit that the view was even more impressive than Seneca or Nelson Rocks. It was as if we were flying in an airplane, looking out at the combination of the island and the Caribbean Sea.

After resting at the top for awhile, it was time to begin the journey back down. Let me tell you that the downhill "climb" was no picnic! The steep nature of the trail makes it very difficult regardless of which direction you are going. I was glad when we finally made it to the bottom! [Actually, it might be more accurate to say I was "elated" but I was too tired by that point to show much emotion, regardless of how I felt inside.]

Once we all made it back to the bus, we ventured back to the nearby town of Soufriere, where we stopped at the beachfront and enjoyed a meal. It really is an interesting town. I walked along the waterfront and saw lots of fish, and even a sea snake! I pointed it out to a local who explained that it wasn't an eel and that it is not venomous.

It was a heckuva long day, and I am going to sleep very well tonight! I snapped this picture of the Soufriere waterfront with the Piton overlooking it--a nice way to end a memorable day!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Leaning on my Lifeline

The popular TV gameshow, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” had opportunities for contestants to "use a lifeline" to get assistance. I found myself in a similar situation this week.

My Peace Corps journey started one month ago today, when Anna and I traveled to Pittsburgh to spend the night at a hotel close to the airport, because of my early departure in the wee hours of the morning on June 11. In the past month, I left the USA, moved in with a host family on St. Lucia, and bonded with the other 31 Peace Corps members of my class.

Our Pre-Service Training has been intense. In addition to teaching about health, safety, and cultural issues, the primary goal is to convert us into Reading Literacy Co-Teachers in just a few short weeks. I feel like I'm back in college—this time majoring in elementary education. This past week has been especially stressful, as we were expected to come up with a curriculum and lesson plans (amidst all of our other training activities) for next week's “Model School.” Actual students from the area are coming to spend the week with us to give us experience teaching. I've already decided that teaching elementary children is harder than teaching college students.

We were divided into small groups of four and given a “master teacher” to lead us. We analyzed the test results from the dozen students who were assigned to our classroom, and decided what our emphasis will be. I will be teaching the main lesson on Wednesday, and my topic will be the letter “L.” I also had decided to incorporate poetry into my lesson (each of us had to pick a different theme).

As I worried about what I would do as the lone teacher that morning, I pulled out my phone during our lunch break and typed “teaching the letter L” into Google. A huge number of results came flooding back into the little window of my phone. It was like trying to drink water from a fire hose.

Already a bit apprehensive of my assignment, I panicked a bit—“How am I going to sift through all these ideas and arrive at a good plan to turn in?” Then it dawned on me! I have a lot of Facebook friends who are teachers (or are retired teachers)--maybe they could provide some guidance. It was sort of like calling a lifeline on the game show. So I quickly posted this on my Facebook page:

Dear teacher friends (or other interested parties),

The Peace Corps is training me to be an elementary teacher during my first weeks on this island. Next Wednesday, I am responsible for a summer school session with real students, focusing on the letter "L."

I'd be interested in adding a short children's poem to my session (rhyming words is part of my session). It needs to rhyme and it would be great if it had a lot of "L" words. If I have extra time, I might even expose them to a limerick (since it begins with "L"). I realized that many of my friends have more expertise in this area, and some of you have offered to help me, so I thought I'd throw this out and see what comes out of it.

So if you have any easy poems that fit this criteria (or even a limerick--but nothing about that guy from Nantucket), please let me know.


Fortunately for me, quite a few of my friends responded—even those who had not been teachers, but merely parents. Many of them offered some good ideas (including some I bookmarked to use later), either as replies on my postings or through private messages. To each who acknowledged my plea, I say “thank you!”

As a result, I am now better prepared for my lesson on Wednesday morning. More importantly, I know that I can count on my friends if I ever get in a pinch down here—if not with good ideas, at least just with supporting words (which are always welcome). I probably could have figured it out on my own, and been just fine, but that momentary uncertainty led to “using a lifeline.” Thankfully, the internet is widely available in the Caribbean—and my friends were “widely available” as well.

It makes me realize just how hard it must have been to serve in the Peace Corps in the days before the internet! A letter would never have arrived in time, but the internet is instantaneous.

I am a lucky guy!

A picture taken by one of my classmates of me reading from a large picture book during a team teaching exercise at a nearby elementary school last week

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The wheels on the bus go round and round...

A common situation for many Peace Corps volunteers serving in countries around the world is learning to deal with the local transportation system. In part for our own safety (as well as to live a modest lifestyle), we are not allowed to drive cars (or ride motorcycles)--we must depend on the irregular local transportation system that most “host country nationals” use.

The roads here are not “engineered” like the ones in America—they are tight, twisty, and steep, with a deep cement ditch on the edges to channel off the periodic heavy rains. These deep ditches are easily wide enough to “swallow” a tire, so if anyone ventures off the edge of the road, heavy damages are incurred. You must be a careful driver here!

Notice how deep and wide the ditches are here.

To complicate things further for us, they also drive on the opposite side of the road from what we are accustomed to seeing. Plus, you never know when you might round a curve and discover a cow in the road (as happened to a bus I was riding on recently).

By the way, when I say bus, I don't mean the public transportation systems you may be familiar with in America. Down here, the bus system is simply driver-owned minivans that have been outfitted with several rows of tightly packed seats. These drivers must have a specific license plate (with an “M” on it) and follow a prescribed route. You wave to indicate you want picked up, and then open the sliding side door and carefully climb into a vacant seat.

A woman is boarding the bus--note the deep ditch, too.

If all the tightly-spaced bench seats are full, there is often a fold-up “jump seat” on the end of the benches that can be used (although it then blocks the small aisle-way to the back seats). If someone behind you wants out, then you must fold up the seat and get out of the van to allow them out, before climbing back in for the rest of your ride. Another option is to sit next to the driver in the front seat—two people can usually fit together up there and still allow the driver to shift the manual transmission.

I don't think I've never ridden on a new bus—they are usually beat up old vans in a variety of models and colors (although the Toyota Hiace seems to be a favorite). Every bus I have seen has been a cab-forward van design, with the front doors opening ahead of the front wheels, and the engine underneath the driver's row of seats. In addition to the “M” license plate, there is usually a yellow sign on the windshield that indicates the bus route (such as “1B Cast-Bneau” which indicates that it is Route 1B from Castries to Babonneau). Sometimes the drivers personalize their minibuses with an additional nickname sticker on the windshield.

There is a standard fare rate based on distances, and you pay the driver when you ask him to stop (by yelling “Stop please” or something to that effect). Sometimes, the buses are full and you just have to wait to get on until another one goes by on their irregular schedule. Dealing with the minibuses is just part of life in the Caribbean (and is a contributing factor to what some call “island time”--a lack of firm time commitments).

Notice the special green license plate that begins with "M" that is required for buses.

We've noticed that the buses are fewer and far between lately. It seems that the government subsidizes these independent drivers during the school year, but when school ends at the end of June, they cut back on the number of drivers they support (there is no “yellow school bus” transportation system for schools here—the students take the same minibuses that everyone else takes). As a result, the wait times for buses have increased, and when they finally show up, they sometimes drive right by us because they are already full. So you just wait for the next bus (or decide to walk all the way home up the mountain).

The government controls the price of gasoline, which currently is at $13.17 a gallon (one US dollar equals about 2.7 Eastern Caribbean dollars, so I think that converts to $4.87 per gallon). Because the government sets the gas price (and resets it periodically), there are no prices posted at any of the gas stations here—it is the same at all stations. Thus, there is no competition on price between the Rubis stations and the Sol stations, which are the two major brands on St. Lucia.

Buses have always been interesting to me, whether it was the yellow school buses I rode throughout my school days, or the Metrobuses I rode while working in Washington, DC, or even the Easy Rider bus system I often used in Parkersburg, WV. It is appropriate that I am once again riding on buses, because our reliance on the local bus system helps us to integrate into the local lifestyle. We are not rich tourists, but instead we are Peace Corps volunteers, living and working in local communities (away from the resorts) to help make lives better in some small way.

School girls under a palm tree flag down a bus to pick them up (note the cathedral in the background).