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.