Monday, August 31, 2015

Putting up with Erika

Last week, Hurricane Danny commanded a lot of attention, as my island of Dominica was potentially in its path. Thankfully, it weakened to just a tropical storm and veered northward by the time it went by last Sunday night (August 23). We got some rain and wind, but nothing major happened. My 90 minute bus ride early Monday morning was interesting because my driver had to contend with some unexpected minor rock slides in the road (there's nothing like coming around a blind corner to discover the roadway littered with rocks), but he successfully dodged each of these surprise additions to the route and I made it to the capital city for training at about my normal time.

Lurking behind Danny was another tropical depression named Erika. I have a friend from my old job named Erika, and I sent her a note after Danny had passed asking that her namesake storm might go easy on us. Apparently she didn't get the message.

This is the view of the raging river from the bridge where I have posted calmer pictures of in the past.

While Erika's winds didn't rise to hurricane status, it did drop a lot of rain on Dominica. I would not have considered it a torrential rainfall, but there was a lot, along with thunder and lightning. It began overnight on Wednesday, and by dawn on Thursday, we realized we had a problem. Villagers were all abuzz in the early morning light because the river was flooding, with water covering the primary road along the north coast as well as the entrance to Main Street. [Note that they don't define a river the same way we do—it is only about a mile long and would be called a creek back home, fed by several small brooks that are often nearly dry.] I was told that it had been about a dozen years since they had suffered flooding like this in my village.

The junction where Main Street joins the road around the north coast. The creek leading to the river should go under that small bridge, not over top of it.

After preparing for Hurricane Danny, but not being impacted by it, there were even less warnings and preparation for this storm, especially since it had not acquired hurricane status. I think it caught the island somewhat by surprise. I'm not a geologist, and have only lived here for less than a month, but the steep mountainsides and the volcanic soil seem to make it prone to landslides, especially along the cuts made for the roads. It didn't take long for the combination of flooding, landslides, and other problems to cripple the island. Infrastructure here is not as resilient as it is in the United States.

Looking upstream from a footbridge—ordinarily the flow in this little tributary is just a trickle.

The Peace Corps Security Manager called to check on me early on Thursday morning, and while we were chatting the call got cut off. From that point on, the cellular phone coverage in my area was gone. The Internet was down in the village as well. With the roads blocked, I had no way to communicate with anyone. Later in the day, the Peace Corps had one of the radio stations announce that Peace Corps Volunteers should try to contact the office, but there wasn't any way for me to do so. No one in my village has one of those “new-fangled” satellite phones.

Speaking of radios, I had a small transistor radio, but all I could pick up was a French music station on the nearby island of Guadeloupe. Neighbors with better radios—capable of picking up one of the stations on Dominica which was still broadcasting—kept us apprised of the news (and the continuing Peace Corps requests for us to call in). Apparently there were a few deaths on our island from flooding and landslides, but at this point I don't know the specifics.

The view down the river channel from the Church Street Bridge.

There were some animals that died, too. Some folks from our village and other nearby villages walked over the ridge to the next river, and found some goats and a cow that had drowned. In many Third World countries, livestock is not penned, but often merely tied to a tree, or perhaps merely to a stake in the ground. The owner will move the location of the tethered animal around the land so that different areas of grass can be eaten. Unfortunately, this flash flooding apparently caught some of the livestock owners by surprise, and their animals were unable to get to higher ground.

The villagers who had hiked to the next river (which was still out of its banks with the bridge under water) realized that these animals had just recently died. Apparently the decision was made that this meat should not go to waste, so with their ever-present machetes (known locally as cutlasses), the carcasses were butchered along the roadway and divided up. That was the explanation I got after seeing the back half of a goat being carried up Main Street. Such is life in the Third World.

By afternoon, the rain had died down and the clean up began. This is when I got to see the real spirit of my new community. Lots of folks pitched in to clean out the debris, rocks, and silt that had filled the concrete open culvert for the creek coming down from Back Street. It was great to see the cooperation as so many pitched in to help out, while others watched and encouraged them.

At first, I watched with my host sister, taking it all in as if I were a journalist or sociologist, studying my new community. Eventually, I realized that perhaps I should join in and help. I wish I had thought of it sooner than I did, but at least I got to shovel up some of the muck leftover from the flooding. It felt good to contribute to the community clean up!

Clearing the culvert under the bridge on Main Street.

Later in the evening, I decided to try the only barber shop in my village, to get a hair and beard trim before my swearing-in ceremony. I think I may have been his first white customer, but he did a meticulous job. My host sister also ironed my shirt and jacket and helped me pick a tie to wear. We were still clinging to hope that the Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony might somehow still take place as planned on Friday.

I am writing this early on Friday morning, and we still are without phone, Internet, or water, but we are hopeful to be reconnected soon. At 10:00 AM today, I was scheduled to be sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer at a ceremony marking the end of my pre-service training. However, we heard the Prime Minister on the radio last night calling for everyone to stay home from work and focus on cleaning up after the storm, so I am assuming that our ceremony is going to be rescheduled. There are bridges that were damaged between here and the capital, so I have no way to get there (plus I could use a shower before getting dressed up for a big event). It seems strange to be so isolated, especially when one is accustomed to having the world at your fingertips with cell phones and the Internet.

So instead of getting dressed up and sworn in at a fancy ceremony, I will spend the day in my village. I've already spent much of my time off the past two days reading an excellent book about the Peace Corps, entitled “The Bold Experiment” (look for a book report about it in a future blog posting). In the meantime, neighbors have just reported that another announcement was made on the radio for Peace Corps Volunteers to call in to the office to report on their situation. As soon as I get either cell service or an Internet connection, I will do so (everyone seems hopeful that at least cell service will resume today). Until then, my island is now comprised of just my village—it is a small world, but the inhabitants are good people. I feel safe here.

Rivlets of water running off the corrugated metal roofs which are common in my village (this was taken during Thursday's rains).

NOTE: The story above was written early Friday morning, and was ready to be posted as soon as the Internet was accessible again, which we had hoped would happen at any moment. Unfortunately, I spent another day without phone (cellular or landline), Internet, television, or running water. I was able to get a ride to the closest larger city (past numerous landslides) in the hopes of obtaining cellular phone coverage there, but had no luck getting a signal. The road beyond that city to the next town was completely blocked. After my return trip, I walked to the top of a major hill overlooking my village in an effort to pick up a cell signal, but to no avail.
My host sister took this picture during our walk up the hill seeking cell service.

This was also the day that I was scheduled to move into my own house further up the hill. I did get to take a tour of it again, and it has now been outfitted with some basic furniture and kitchen items. However, given the current disaster situation (plus the fact that my water filtration unit is down at the Peace Corps headquarters, from where I had planned to bring it home with me after the ceremony), I've decided to continue living with my host family a few days longer (there is strength in numbers). Hopefully I will be able to move in by September 1st.

We also saw the helicopter go by that was providing the Prime Minister with an overflight of the island so he could see the problem areas. There are rumors that the electricity will be cut off soon because fuel trucks can't make it to the diesel powered generation plant (Dominica is unique in the Caribbean because it gets nearly half of its electricity from a hydroelectric plant, but that method can't supply the entire island). Plus, the weather reports are calling for more rain from another system this weekend.

This evening, after the nightly ritual of watching the bats leave their cave, we sat on the porch talking as we marveled at the beautiful (nearly) full moon—just as the natives had probably done centuries before white men came to this island. I also knew that friends back in the states were looking up at the same wondrous moon, yet I had no way to make contact with them. Hopefully things will get back to normal soon. If you are reading this story, that means the Internet is finally available and that I am safe.

Today is Saturday, August 29—the anniversary of Hurricane David, the only disaster that impacted Dominica more than Tropical Storm Erika. Thankfully, Erika didn't have the 150 MPH winds that David carried, but the large amount of rain has cut communications and roadways, effectively dividing the island into regions. No one is sure when we might get back to normal.

The rain we experienced on Thursday morning was the type where flash flood warnings would have been made by weathermen back in West Virginia. For the most part, unless you live in low-lying areas, one isn't impacted by such forecasts back home. That is a big difference between life in Dominica and life in the USA. As I stated earlier, the infrastructure is not very resilient here. The landslides and bridge outages, along with the loss of Internet access and cell coverage, have resulted in problems for everyone. The mountainous terrain makes it difficult to build roads, so there are not very many of them, and the few that exist are very important “lifelines” that unfortunately are easily cut off.

I awoke this morning, put on my bathing trunks, and walked up the hill to “La Source” (the spring in the forest that feeds one of the brooks leading into the river). Plastic pipe has been installed there to create a shower, so I was able to wash my hair and clean up for the first time since Wednesday. It was fun to be taking a shower outside in the middle of the jungle.

After I came back and dressed, I went down to the road and caught a bus to the second largest city on the island. There were many landslides that had been cleaned up along the way, as well as trees that had fallen down and been cut up. It took longer than usual to get there, but I made it to Portsmouth.

First, I went to the Saturday morning marketplace to pick up a few things requested by my host family (cabbage and tomatoes). Then I walked up the hill to the house where my Peace Corps classmate lives. I had a nice visit with her and her host mom. They have no water, cable, internet, or cell phone either, but they are surviving alright. Her host brother had been able to get a ride down the coast yesterday, and then hiked for hours to get to the top of a large hill. From there he was able to get a weak cell signal, and was able to send out a message to the Peace Corps office that my classmate was safe. However, he wasn't available to guide me, and it just wasn't feasible for me to make the same attempt today. At least my classmate can let them know I'm safe, because being in Portsmouth, there is a good chance she will get connected quicker than my little village will.

After my visit at her house, I went to a store that her host mom recommended as the best bet for me to be able to buy some bottled water to take home. Unfortunately, they were out of big bottles, but I went ahead and purchased half a dozen smaller bottles (about half of what was left). I thought I would buy more at a couple of small stores on my way back to the bus stop, but they were completely out of bottled water. At least we can boil spring water to use.

On my way back to the village, we took a detour to drop some folks off in a different village way up on the mountain. There were significant landslides up there—one in particular threatens to cut off the main road entirely. The protective railing that had been along the roadway above the steep hillside has fallen down the cliff, and has been replaced for the time being with a fence made from bamboo. Needless to say, I held my breath while our bus passed this precarious part of the narrow road.

Once I was home, I did some roaming around with my host sisters, watching folks doing laundry in the creek as well as watching the men with machetes and a single chainsaw tackle the debris clogging the creek behind the church. Plus, just like the last few days, we have sat on the front porch listening to our neighbor's radio. The local station is providing continuing news coverage of the disaster, as well as open phone lines where people call in seeking the condition and/or whereabouts of friends and family members. Dominica's population is only about 70,000 people, so the national radio station is really like a local station in America—I can remember our hometown radio station carrying similar news and call-ins during the aftermath of major storms that knocked out electricity.

I also walked down to the seashore this afternoon to check out some of the new tidal pool areas created by all the new rocks carried down the river to the sea. While I was down near the shore, another helicopter flew over. I wish I would have had time to organize the trash on the playing field so that it would read not “Send Food” or “Send H2O,” but instead “Send Internet!” We have enough local food and water in our village to survive for a long time—it is just that it is not as convenient as you might want it to be. However, the inability to communicate with friends and relatives who are probably concerned about our well-being is what is most frustrating to me at the moment.

Day 4: I woke up and once again walked up the hill to La Source (pronounced “La Soose”) to take my shower in the clear spring water. Then I went to the 8:00 AM service at the Catholic church (there is also a Pentecostal Church in our village and a Seventh-Day Adventist church on the outskirts of town). After church, community members had planned to meet on Back Street to dig out the landslide blocking the road there.

The work to clear the slide would have gone quickly if there was an end loader or Bobcat available, but it might be a long time before we could get one. So instead, men from the village shoveled for hours to clear the roadway. Rather than waiting for help, my village prefers to help itself, even if it means doing it the old-fashioned way.

I was doing my part shoveling again, when suddenly to my surprise, in the middle of the afternoon a familiar voice called my name. It was the Peace Corps staffer in charge of our security. Because I had not been able to contact them (ironically, I had been talking with her on Thursday when the phone system went down), she had to come out and check on me—all the way from St. Lucia. Our Peace Corps Director for Dominica was also with her. They had taken a boat from Roseau to Portsmouth, and then hired a van to bring them to my village. They told me that my sister back home had contacted the Peace Corps office because my family members were worried about me. I appreciate their concern, but my sister should never complain about paying her taxes again after causing a civil servant to track me down on a Sunday (if you know both of us, you know we like to tease each other). The Peace Corps just needed proof that I was okay.

They also came up with a plan for me to travel to Portsmouth on Thursday and spend the night at the home of my Peace Corps classmate. On Friday morning, we will take a boat from Portsmouth to Roseau, and hopefully our swearing-in could take place that day. However, I should pack to potentially stay for the weekend in Roseau if necessary. Then they had to quickly leave in their van to convey the plan to my Portsmouth colleague, before catching the last boat back to Roseau.

While here, they also asked me if I wanted the Peace Corps to pull me out of my village until the situation improves. I quickly declined, reassuring them that I was doing fine. In fact, I am getting to know the residents better by helping out during this crisis, as the two of them witnessed today. The community spirit in this little village is very impressive!

The “search party” that came looking for me on Sunday from the Peace Corps.

After we were finished, I helped my host sister with the clean-up from the luncheon that had been served at the worksite. Then I went by myself down to the river near the Church Street Bridge, to wash the mud out of my Teva sandals, and off my legs. Sitting on a rock in the rapids, it reminded me of similar locations back home in West Virginia—yet I realize, especially during this major disruption, that I am truly a long way from home.

Monday, August 31: I walked up to “La Source” to take my morning shower under the 3-inch PVC pipe that forcefully pours cold water down upon one's head in the middle of the forest. This time, I also filled up a two-liter Coke bottle I had with the fresh spring water. For Christmas, my sister had given me a “Life Straw” water filtration unit, so I am experimenting with drinking untreated water because our supply of bottled water is diminishing rapidly. Hopefully my gastro-intestinal system will survive (if not, I'm blaming my sister!). It seems a bit funny to be drinking water through this foot-long, about one-inch in diameter straw.

The good news is that our land line started working this morning, which allowed me to contact the Peace Corps office in the capital for the first time since this crisis began.

More good news! My local cell phone started working at about 10:00 AM. My first call was from the acting director of the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean. She was very glad to regain contact with me, and let me know that even the U.S. Ambassador for the Eastern Caribbean at our embassy in Barbados was aware of my “Missing In Action” situation. We still don't have our Internet connection yet, but I am writing quickly so that I can post this on my blog as soon as it is available.

Well, needless to say, it is going to take longer to fix the fiber-optic cables that were broken when one (or more) of the bridges collapsed. It is hard to tell when I might get the Internet access I need to post this story. If I get to Roseau on Friday, I should be able to post it there.

I walked over to the school today to see if anyone was there. To my good fortune, the principal was there doing some preliminary work of her own. I spent several hours working in the school library, separating the three book cases so that one contains beginning reader books, one contains intermediate level books, and one contains books for more proficient readers.

After my library work, I walked up the hill to the end of Main Street (a section of the village known as Green City). The older woman who lives in the highest house suffered some landslides, so the men of the community worked to clear the heavy dirt and rocks with shovels, pick-axes, and wheelbarrows. Some of the women cooked a nice dinner. It was another day of community cooperation.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Killer Trees in Cabrits

This past week, I got a one-day reprieve from my daily trip to the capital of Roseau for training (our pre-service training ends this coming week, and I get sworn in as a full-fledge Peace Corps Volunteer on Friday). Instead of spending three hours (round trip) on a minivan, I only had to ride a bus for about half an hour (one-way) to the city of Portsmouth on the north of the island. I then walked through the city, past Purple Turtle Beach, and out on the peninsula to the Cabrits National Park, a very interesting place.

Spending the day at Cabrits was a great way to get some training about the history of Dominica, while sitting in the beautifully restored building that had served as the officer's quarters at Fort Shirley over two centuries ago. However, it somehow seemed a bit ironic to watch modern Powerpoint presentations inside this historic building.

This fort was typical of those built in the Caribbean during the wars between the French and the English centuries ago. It protected the town of Portsmouth (the second largest city in Dominica) and overlooks lovely Prince Rupert Bay. After our morning training session, we hiked to the top of the mountain (a remnant of a former volcano), where a rust-covered lone cannon remains as a silent sentinel keeping watch for enemy ships.

On my way back down the mountain trail, I stopped for a moment and leaned my hand against a large but innocent looking tree. OUCH! Much to my surprise, the large trunk of this tree was covered with sharp thorns that stick straight out. Looking straight onto the tree (as shown above), these “nails” just look like spots—it is only when you look close (and from a side view) that you appreciate the danger. Fortunately, I only received a couple of minor punctures. However, it was a good reminder that these woods are much different than those I grew up with in West Virginia! [Thankfully, there are no copperheads or any venomous snakes in Dominica—maybe a few boa constrictors, but they don't get very big here.]

After being attacked by that one tree near the end of our hike, I finally got to see another tree that really is dangerous. We had initially heard stories about this “killer tree” during our first weekend of training at the Abbey on St. Lucia. I didn't know whether to believe what I was hearing or to assume that it was just a trumped up legend. However, the Cabrits National Park has one of these Manchineel trees—they are indeed deadly. I didn't spend very long reading this sign that was posted underneath it.

The Caribbean never ceases to amaze me!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Coalwood—the Caribbean Version

In 1998, a glorious book came out that combined my loves of West Virginia, the space program, and inspiring teachers. Written by Homer Hickam and entitled “Rocket Boys,” it would later become the Hollywood movie “October Sky.” Hickam eventually produced two more books about coming of age in his little hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia. I have read all three books of the “Coalwood Trilogy” and thoroughly enjoyed them. Furthermore, I've had the pleasure of meeting my fellow NASA alumnus Homer Hickam a number of times over the years, and have made several visits to Coalwood.
That's me inside the space shuttle trainer in Houston during my NASA days.

Little did I know that the Peace Corps would end up placing me in a Caribbean version of Coalwood. According to Peace Corps policy, I am not allowed to post on my public blog the name of my village, but it is a wonderful place on the island of Dominica. Given the similarities I see between this village and rural West Virginia, I think I shall consider my village to be my Caribbean Coalwood.

Just like Coalwood, there is one main road through my village—the folks here refer to it as Main Street. There are a couple of small offshoot roads (just like Snakeroot Road in the real Coalwood), but Main Street is the heart of the village. As happened in Coalwood, there are a couple of nicknames for different parts of this village, such as Green City (up at the highest elevation) and Uprising City (which has nothing to do with civil insurrection, but instead gets its name because it is on the eastern side of the hill so that it gets a good view of the rising sun).

Looking down on the heart of my village from the heights of Green City.

One section of Main Street is also known as “Lovers Lane,” apparently because at one time in the past there was a bevy of beautiful young women who lived along that stretch of the road and received a lot of attention from the boys. Likewise, another road acquired the name “Sportsmen Avenue” because there were quite a few soccer and cricket athletes who grew up together in that neighborhood. Even though the beautiful girls and the athletic young men have long since grown old, the nicknames continue.

Main Street parallels the creek that comes down off the mountain and empties into the ocean. There are several small footbridges leading to houses located on the other side of the creek from the road, just as one would see in rural West Virginia. Further up the hill, there is a trail leading off Main Street back into the woods, where a spring comes out of a rock. The village has built a small park in the woods to celebrate “La Source” (the spring). If not for the different trees (some with buttressed roots), the trail to the spring makes me feel like I'm in a West Virginia forest, under a thick green canopy, hiking back along a small creek. Just as I have seen in various places in West Virginia, some folks bring their jugs to get the fresh spring water that emerges from the hillside at the village spring.

There is a genuine sense of community here; the same as described in the Coalwood Trilogy books (Rocket Boys, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone). Folks tend to look out for each other here. Everybody seems to know everybody. The local elementary school, with its large playground, is an important part of the community. The good folks here appreciate their history. There is poverty here (lots of corrugated sheet metal and several immobile cars rusting away, both of which can be found in my home state), but there is still pride—much like true West Virginians.

However, just like most of rural West Virginia, there is a sense of change in the air. At one time, everyone was pretty much self-sufficient here. There was hardly any need to leave this isolated seaside village. Food from the fertile volcanic soil was plentiful, and many worked as farmers. More food grew wild in the nearby forests.

Although there is no coal here, fishing provided another opportunity to make a living off a local natural resource. However, the number of fishing boats that operate out of my village has dwindled down to just one fisherman. His ancestors were fishermen, and he vows to continue the family tradition. One reason for the decline in local fishermen (besides less fish, more competition, etc.) was a tragic incident that saw several residents drown when their boat sank. The effect was somewhat like a deadly mining disaster back home.

Just like in West Virginia, improved roads have made it easier for residents to commute further to bigger towns for jobs. Eventually, many of them ended up moving to the bigger cities, or even to other islands, or in some cases, to the United States. Many of those who left still maintain their houses here, and return to the village because they love it here, even though they chose to leave.

Lots of the young people would rather have a job in the city rather than the hard outside work required on a farm or a fishing boat. They have also been influenced by American television, and some prefer eating KFC or Pizza Hut that are available in the capital city, rather than cooking their own or eating the “bakes” and other home prepared foods that neighborhood women sometimes offer for sale from their porches along Main Street.

Just like in West Virginia, not only is the population slowly dwindling, but it is increasing in age as well as more young people leave. As a result, there are a lot more funerals than weddings here. Plus, the number of students in the elementary school has declined precipitously. Even some parents who live here choose to take their children with them while commuting to work, and enroll them in the fancier city schools.

Older citizens are bewildered at the way young people are attached to their smart phones—texting away to each other, surfing the web, or watching some video. Despite being in a rural community on a small island, technology is definitely impacting my village. Socializing on-line is becoming more common here, instead of casually strolling along Main Street to visit neighbors sitting on their porches, as was done more commonly in the past. American cable television (another advanced technology) gives them a distorted view of what life is like in the United States—I remind them that not all of us live in New York or California.

All of these observations from my first two weeks or so in my village could easily be made about rural West Virginia. It helps me feel at home here, even though I worry about what the future holds for my beloved village. Hopefully it has enough of a residual population and a healthy community spirit that will allow it to survive. Perhaps Dominica's restraint from over-development will help in the long run—much of the island has been designated as national park areas and the government is trying to focus on eco-tourism for what is nicknamed “the Nature Isle.” I am afraid that the option for that sort of tourism strategy has long since passed in my beloved home state, with all the mountain-top removal mining, industrial waste sites, acid mine drainage, etc. [Had coal not been underneath our mountains, West Virginia might be a lot more like Vermont.]

Unfortunately, I've seen some rural communities in West Virginia who have not been able to sustain themselves, and are now just a wisp of the vibrant places they once were—including the once beautiful town of Coalwood. I will be doing what I can to help sustain this Caribbean version of Coalwood. I may even try to launch some rockets with my students from the huge flat playground beside the school (and encourage them to read “Rocket Boys”). Wonder if I can bring some model rockets back in my suitcase when I visit home next summer? That would make this a real Caribbean Coalwood!

Finally, one of the important characters in the “Rocket Boys” book was the inspiring teacher, Miss Riley (played by Laura Dern in the movie). I will try to do my best to encourage my students to push themselves and study harder, just like she was able to do with her students.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Namesake

The year was 1979, and I was leaving West Virginia to live in the big city of Washington, DC. For the fall semester of my senior year as a political science major at the University of Charleston, I would be working as a Congressional intern. Although internships are quite common today, they were relatively new at that time. My college was an early affiliate with the Washington Center (, and my faculty advisor (and career mentor) Dr. Evelyn Harris had strongly urged me to leave the safe confines of our college campus located across the river from the West Virginia State Capitol, and instead venture off to spread my wings on Capitol Hill in Washington. I'm very glad I listened to her advice!

1979 was also the first year that the weather service started using male names to label hurricanes, instead of always using female names. I remember being interested to see that the fourth hurricane of that year was to be named “David”—I knew that I would watch it with interest because of it being my name. Unfortunately, it turned out that David was a devastating hurricane, wreaking havoc in the Caribbean in late August before steering northeast and (although in a weakened state by then) up the eastern seaboard of America.

In early September, my father drove me (and the possessions I would need for the semester) to Washington. The remnants of Hurricane David had passed over the parts of Maryland and Washington that we were driving through early that morning. Although it had weakened to merely strong storms, I remember seeing branches still down in the streets and traffic lights not working because of power outages. This “David” had arrived in the Washington area directly on the heels of Hurricane David. My first evening in Washington I watched the local news coverage of “my” storm's aftermath. I knew that while most Americans have long since forgotten about Hurricane David, I would always remember that I had arrived in Washington on the same day as my namesake hurricane.

Now, 36 years later, I find my myself with the Peace Corps on the Caribbean island of Dominica, and being reminded of Hurricane David once again. Dominica had been fortunate—it had only been hit with two bad hurricanes, which occurred all the way back in 1806 and 1834. But the one that everyone remembers here was Hurricane David, which ranked as a top-of-the-scale, Category 5 storm. It had originally been predicted to hit Barbados, but changed direction at the last minute and instead pummeled Dominica. The entire island was devastated that day by six hours of 150 mile per hour winds, with over ten inches of rain.

My host family can still recall that harrowing day. My host father was with another relative in the village, helping to make his famous dumplings for a family feast planned for later that day (after all, the storm was supposed to bypass them) and he did not get back to his house before the brunt of the storm hit. He still remembers the scary whooshing sound the winds made.

Back at their home, my host mom made the decision to move from their house which had a gabled roof to another nearby relative's home which had a flat roof. Carrying her youngest daughter in her arms, she and her two older children braved the strong winds and pelting rain to cross Main Street and ride out the storm with her relatives. She can still remember the wind blowing her children around as they made their way to the other house.

Once the storm had passed, the damage to our little village was quickly apparent. A large tree had fallen across the front of my host family's house, allowing much of the rain to enter the building. However, for the most part, their house had withstood the storm—the same could not be said for many of the other small houses in the village. Most of the wooden houses had been obliterated.

It was a miracle that only 56 Dominicans died, with thousands of others injured. The strong winds destroyed or damaged 80 percent of the homes on the island. Those who lost their homes found themselves sleeping outside or huddled into the homes of more fortunate friends for weeks and months after the storm.

The aftermath took more than a year to clean up. The playing field near the school where I will be teaching became a helicopter landing zone as food and supplies were brought in to my village. Recovery and clean-up activities were required across the island. Food rationing was instituted for the entire country.

Many residents ended up leaving the island; for some it started as a temporary relocation until Dominica's infrastructure was rebuilt, but for many it became a permanent emigration. Dominica lost a quarter of its meager population following this disaster. It took years for its economy and infrastructure to recover. In some respects, one might say Dominica is still dealing with this significant setback even decades later.

So, I met my school principal for the first time a few days ago. She told me she would be able to easily remember my name because she remembers Hurricane David. I'm not so sure that is a good thing! I guess I will have to prove that not all Davids are bad.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Bat Cave

One of the many interesting things I have learned about my village in the first two weeks is the bat cave. Each night, around 6:30 or so (I've seen them as early as 6:15 or as late as 6:37), thousands upon thousands of bats fly out of a cave along the rocky shoreline. They form an undulating stream against the sky, as they head down the coast to their feeding grounds. I've been told they are fruit bats that prefer to eat in the forests along the coast. [Look close and you can see them in the pictures below.]
It is an amazing sight to see as they all head out at once in a long, swirling, flittering line over the ocean. Unfortunately, my camera just can't seem to adequately pick up their small bodies against the vastness of the sky, even though human eyes are able to detect the moving masses. Last weekend we were even at the top of the hill overlooking the village one evening and were able to watch them fly across the horizon.
The steep cliffs and rocky shoreline make it difficult to get close to the bat cave, but there is at least one intrepid adventurer living in the village who has offered to take me there someday. He said it is amazing to shine your flashlight towards the ceiling and see thousands of them hanging upside down. I hope to check it out in the future.
He also claims to have one of the best gardens in the village, because he will collect the guano from the bat cave and bring back to use as fertilizer. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to that part of the trip.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Distant Cousins

I have only been here for one week, so it may be rather presumptuous of me to attempt any sort of description or analysis of my new hometown. I'm sure I will have much sounder insights after I am further along in my two year term of service here. However, I will proceed with sharing my initial observations, at the risk of needing to readjust these thoughts as they become clearer. By the way, the Peace Corps prefers that we not mention on the Internet our exact location, so I will refrain from using the actual name of my village.

I've taken a major step in my life recently, by retiring after 30 years in the federal government and immediately joining the Peace Corps. Aside from three years in Washington, DC, I've spent my entire life within the Mountain State of West Virginia. Now I find myself far away, on a roughly 30 mile by 15 mile island in the Caribbean, known as the Commonwealth of Dominica.

Despite my long journey to get to Dominica, it seems that I am not all that far from home. The Internet makes life so much easier for Peace Corps folks nowadays, compared to what it was like for volunteers for most of its 54 year history. I am even able to videoconference with those close to me.

What has surprised me the most is the similarities to my home state. West Virginia is one of the most rural states, and (whether we like it or not) one of the poorest—two traits that also fit Dominica. West Virginians are used to the twisty roads in our hilly state, and Dominica faces pretty much the same challenges with their roads.

For many years, bananas were the lifeblood of the economy in Dominica, but recent international free trade agreements have erased the favored nation trading status they once had with some countries. Small island countries have a hard time competing with the big banana corporations that have focused on Latin America. [I don't claim to be an expert on this yet, but I wonder if NAFTA made it easier to ship bananas by truck from Central America rather than by ship from the Caribbean?]

To avoid getting too political, I won't delve too much into the politics of absentee landownership and the historical similarities on this topic between colonial islands and West Virginia. Suffice it to say that both places know what it is like to have their natural resources plundered to enrich strangers from afar.

Just like Dominica is going through a painful transition from a predominantly banana based economy, my home state of West Virginia is also going through a painful transition after decades of being a coal based economy. Between safer environmental regulations as well as the depletion of most of the easily accessed coal reserves, coal mining is a dying empire, just like bananas are here. Both Dominica and West Virginia are struggling to find replacements for what had been the anchors of their economies.

My small town here is like many small towns in West Virginia—except of course for the adjacent ocean and the different vegetation. Like many coal mining towns, the houses are crowded together along the main road. Narrow footbridges cross the little brooks that join into the larger stream. Just as in rural West Virginia, everyone seems to know everybody else (although I still have a lot of names and faces to memorize). Going to church on Sunday is an important community event.

As we have seen in West Virginia, many residents have decided to leave this small town in search of better job opportunities in larger cities, or different islands, or—if they have a way—in the bright, shining city on the hill known as the United States of America. Some of these emigrants still return to their ancestral homes when they can, because this village is still deep in their hearts—even if they did have to leave (which sounds like many West Virginia natives who were forced to leave “almost heaven”).

At one time, this was a traditional fishing village. However, there is just one single fishing boat that is based here now. The fleet decreased in size as a result of more intense competition, both on the seas as well as on land, as transportation improved (both the improved roads as well as the increased number of personal vehicles) and other food sources became available (just like on St. Lucia, KFC is very popular here). Also, there was a tragic incident in which one of the boats sank and several residents drowned (a bit similar to a mining disaster in West Virginia).

Another common problem is that the young folks don't seem interested in pursuing a career as a fisherman or a farmer. They want easier jobs like they see on American television. The rich, volcanic soil here is very fertile, and it is easy to grow food, but some would rather have an indoor, air conditioned job (not that there is much experience with air conditioning here). The bottom line is that "jobs" is a major issue here as well.

Yet another commonality between small town West Virginia and my village is the importance of the local school. Despite declining enrollment, no one wants to lose their local school, and my village feels the same way. They once had a larger school, but it was in poor condition, and eventually was torn down. What formerly was a separate “resource center” built adjacent to the old school now serves as the replacement. I'm eager for school to begin in September so that I can get a better handle on the education situation.

My village is built on the hillsides above the coastline, resulting in several incredible vistas from the heights. Native West Virginians don't always appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds them, and the same is generally true here as well. Because you live in a beautiful place, you get accustomed to the scenery and don't always appreciate that a visitor would gawk in amazement at the phenomenal views. I am so glad that I am on an island that is still rather “wild” instead of developed and commercialized.

So despite the hours of air travel (as well as the hours spent on the ferry boat), I find myself not nearly as far from home as one might think. “Almost Heaven West Virginia” and “the Nature Isle” of Dominica are a bit like distant cousins, and so far the good people here have made me feel quite at home.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Remembering Patty/Tania

1974 was a pivotal year for me. It was my first year at high school, and (like many) I was struggling to find my spot in the complicated social strata that permeates a large high school. Perhaps more importantly, I was also paying more attention to the news, and thus broadening my world view.

In the midst of this turbulent time for me, a major story hit the news and commanded the country's attention for weeks--and I was fascinated as well. Patty Hearst, the beautiful young heiress to the Hearst publishing fortune, had been kidnapped by a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Rather than seeking a ransom for themselves, they wanted her rich family to donate food to low-income families. It started off as sort of a modern day Robin Hood story, and I can still remember the details to this day.

As I recall (my Internet access is non-existent as I write this), the family complied with the SLA's demands by organizing a large food giveaway. However, rather than handing over the kidnap victim to her family as previously agreed, the SLA announced that Patty had decided she didn't want to return to her rich family, but instead was changing her name to Tania and joining the SLA. To prove it, she toted a gun during a bank robbery the group made. This story kept getting more and more sensational!

Eventually, the California police thought they had located the group's hideout and surrounded it, demanding a surrender. However, the SLA refused, and fired back when police moved forward. The battle that raged as most of the SLA fought to their deaths was broadcast live on the news, becoming one of the first instances of the kind of "you are there" news coverage we would later become accustomed to from CNN and other round-the-clock news channels. [This highly visible battle also encouraged the development of what became known as police "Special Weapons and Attack Teams" (SWAT).]

While most of the SLA died in that house, Patty and a few others had been out on an errand. She stayed on the run for months before she was finally captured. It was during this ordeal that I learned of "Stockholm Syndrome," which is a term used to describe an irrational bonding between captive and captors. This was a big part of Patty's bank robbery defense, based on the brainwashing that she went through after being kidnapped.

Now, you may be wondering what connection this history lesson about a once huge but now obscure news story from the mid-1970s might have with my service in the Peace Corps? Well, in my first week with my new host family on the island of Dominica, I have quickly bonded with them, just as I had done with my host family on St. Lucia during my previous seven weeks in training there. I feel very blessed to have landed in such gracious host families.

Both of my host moms are only about seven years older than I am. Both have three adult children--two girls and one boy. In both families, two of the three children still live in the household and contribute towards it. My host "siblings" on both islands have proven to be very helpful to my adjustment.

This is not to say that my experience has been exactly the same in both situations. There are some aspects that are a bit different between the two, but they definitely complement each other and combine to give me a very solid base on which to eventually live on my own in my own house later this month. I think the Peace Corps did a great job of screening and selecting my hosts!

I am especially pleased that my new host family on Dominica seems so well respected in this small community. Just like in small town West Virginia, good connections can help to speed up your acceptance in the community. This will be important for me as I try to help out this village that--minus the ocean, palm trees, and other differences--reminds me so much of rural towns in the Mountain State of West Virginia.

I just hope that my quick bonding with both of my home stay families does not mean that I have proclivity towards "Stockholm Syndrome." Unlike real "Stockholm Syndrome" victims who were initially terrorized, I have been treated with nothing but hospitality in both places. Just in case, though, I will do my best to avoid being kidnapped (and no, Mom, I was just joking--there is no reason for anyone to worry about kidnappings here).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Peace and Comfort

On Saturday, August 1, the latest class of trainees were sent to the four island nations that Peace Corps supports in the eastern Caribbean. Eight of us were dispatched from St. Lucia--where we had spent our first seven weeks of training--via a catamaran passenger ferry to Dominica (pronounced "DomiNEEka" which helps avoid confusion with the Dominican Republic).

The ferry boat "Liberty" at its dock in Roseau.

As our ferry approached the capital city of Roseau, we could see in the port a huge white ship bedecked with red crosses. I watched in fascination as a helicopter circled and landed on the ship, just as we came into our dock. Once off the ferry (and through the gauntlet of international immigration and customs), I was able to confirm that the gigantic white ship was a U.S. Naval Hospital Ship named "Comfort."

I considered it to be a good omen to see this example of America's humanitarian efforts just as I started my own two year altruistic mission. I hoped the residents of Dominica and other Third World countries were as impressed with this giant floating hospital as I was.

Little did I know that first day on the island that I would later get the opportunity to take an inside tour of "Comfort." Although I was immediately moved in with my host family on the northern coast of the island, our pre-service training continues for the rest of August at the Peace Corps office in the capital. On Wednesday, our training schedule was juggled so that we could take the tour.

The pilots were constantly flying in and away from the ship, sometimes delivering supplies.

The JAG officer (what attorneys are called in the military--the acronym stands for Judge Advocate General) on the hospital ship is a former Peace Corps volunteer. After completing his service in Albania, he came back and went to law school. Because of his interest in international law that began with his Peace Corps experience, he decided to join the Navy's JAG program. He handles all sorts of legal issues in the ports they visit. In addition, he reached out to the Dominican Peace Corps office and offered the opportunity for a special tour.

The walk up was no problem for me, having done the New River Gorge BridgeWalk and the Nelson Rocks Via Ferrata. The picture below was a sign telling the various roles played by staff wearing different hats.

The Comfort is a former oil tanker that was converted in the 1970s into the largest U.S. floating hospital. It is currently on a six month tour of the Caribbean region, and was stopped in Dominica from July 28 to August 6. The ship itself can perform all sorts of medical services. However, most of the work is done on the island itself, where two examination sites were set up in a couple of the larger schools. Any patients who needed services not available at the examination sites were brought to the ship. All services were free of cost, and thousands of residents took advantage of this unique opportunity.

This CAT Scanner was in the Radiology Department. The beds below were in the main hospital area.

The ship is outfitted with the latest medical equipment, including high-tech operating rooms. It also is proud to possess the largest blood bank in the world (the staff of the ship donate regularly). In addition to the medical services, many of the sailors and non-medical staff spend their time in port performing charitable work, such as painting schools. It is quite an operation!

The black beds were in the recovery room area outside of the surgery area. In the picture below, I'm standing next to center of the ship.

The world often hears (quickly and loudly) about the negative things that sometimes involve the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, the good works done by the U.S. Naval Hospital Ship "Comfort" (or for that matter, the efforts of the Peace Corps) are rarely covered in the mainstream media. However, we are both hard at work in this little corner of the Third World, trying to do what we can to make things better (more peaceful and more comfortable). I'm sure the thousands who benefited from medical and dental care this week appreciate what American taxpayers provided to them. Given the religious nature of the people here, I bet there were many Dominicans who exclaimed "God bless the U.S.A.!" (even if they don't know the Lee Greenwood song).

A panoramic view of the port in the Dominican capital of Roseau, taken from the top of the ship.