Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cheers to the Space Station

The first few years of my federal career were spent at NASA Headquarters working for the Business Management Division of the newly initiated Space Station Office. During those early “design phase” days, I looked forward to the day when the Space Station would actually be up in orbit, with astronauts on board carrying out interesting science experiments in zero gravity.

Little did I know that someday I would be a Peace Corps Volunteer on a tropical island, watching the Space Station go over my head, along with more than a dozen screaming youngsters from my village. I had previously compared my village to Coalwood, so tonight was their version of watching Sputnik fly by.

This has been a good week for astronomical events in my village. Sunday night was a beautiful lunar eclipse, Monday night had a big, bright, nearly full moon, and tonight was the first time since my arrival that the Space Station—now large enough to be the second brightest object in the night sky (after the moon, of course)—passed over top of Dominica. There have been a few passes overhead in the early morning hours, but I was waiting for an evening transit to invite my students to watch with me. It worked out well!

Anyone can go to the NASA web page (http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/) and sign up to receive email notifications for whenever the Space Station will be passing over your location. I had often used this service back home in West Virginia to watch the Space Station go by. After I arrived on Dominica, I was pleased to find out that this NASA service was not just limited to locations in the USA, but also international locations. The only city listed for Dominica was the capital of Roseau, but I figured my village was close enough so that the timing and location information that NASA provides would be nearly the same.

I announced at school today that I would be down at the playing field tonight, and anyone who wanted to join me would be welcome. The station was scheduled to pass overhead between 6:51 and 6:55 PM. Some students said they would watch from their own homes, but others said they would join me. I also encouraged them to come around 5:30 to wait and watch the bats leave the bat cave.

The bats streamed out of their cave at about 5:50 PM tonight, and a handful of youngsters watched them with me down by the shoreline. Then we started getting more youngsters as it grew darker. At first, we counted stars as they appeared, and talked about the Space Station and what they could expect (“No, the astronauts will not be able to look down and see you waving at them”). We were all eagerly counting down the minutes until 6:51. I was a bit worried when it did not immediately appear, but I should have realized that the mountains behind us would make its arrival a bit later.

Eventually, one of the students noticed it moving up from behind the mountain. All the students started screaming with glee as this big, bright “star” slowly and silently moved across the night sky. It turns out that many folks in the village heard their screams from the playing field (I think the students were yelling so loud because they wanted the astronauts to hear them!), which alerted them that the special event I had described to them was now taking place.

While we were waiting for the designated time to come, I tried taking a picture of my “Space Station crew” (a few more came after the picture below was taken). The picture didn't come out all that well in the darkness, but I loved seeing so many youngsters who were interested enough to join me tonight. Although it hurt my ears at the time, I also enjoyed hearing their enthusiastic cheering as it flew overhead. It was good to capture their imaginations about the vastness of space, and the universe beyond the confines of our little village. Hopefully we can do this again someday, but eventually the novelty will wear off. The first time is usually the best time, and tonight was a wonderful experience!

I think you can sense the excitement in these 14 youngsters!

Monday, September 28, 2015

My Internet Eclipse

After living with my wonderful host family during the entire month of August, I moved into my own little cottage up the hill on September 1. It is a very nice, with two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, and a main room (I'll do a story about it someday).

However, it doesn't have Internet or TV. I think I can live without TV. In fact, I'm looking forward to missing all the distorted political ads that cater to our lowest intellectual levels, as well as all the "talking heads" offering their oft-biased "two cents" on the 2016 elections.

Not having my own Internet connection is a bit harder, though. Some folks have suggested in my previous life that I spent too much time on the Internet. To me, this criticism was unfounded, since I don't watch typically movies or other videos. I just like to surf from one topic to another, from one source to another, and learn by reading webpages. The Internet is the great repository of human knowledge--it is the present day form of the great Alexandria library.

When I moved in at the start of September, I told myself I would try going without an Internet connection at my home for a month, and then decide whether to pay to get a cable connection. After all, my host family said I could still use their wifi password (and it is great reason to stop and visit with them), and my landlord shared their wifi password (but it isn't turned on all the time). Plus, the school was supposed to have Internet.

The school's Internet during the first 10 days has been spotty and intermittent (but supposedly it is going to get fixed). However, it did prove handy during a recent 3rd grade science lesson about vertebrates and invertebrates. After guessing correctly that a worm was an invertebrate, the students fell "into a trap" and assumed that since it moves in a similar fashion, a snake would also be an invertebrate. I was able to quickly pull up pictures of snake skeletons on my wifi-connected smart phone to let them see that snakes are indeed different, and that they have backbones. This is one of the great things about the Internet.

With no TV or Internet at my house (and because of the high mountains behind my village, the only radio station I can receive is a French speaking station from the nearby island of Guadeloupe), watching the night sky has become an important form of entertainment (along with my iTunes and podcasts I download). Last night was a great example. Just like many of my fellow villagers, I enjoyed watching the lunar eclipse.

Initially I spent a couple of hours on my host family's wide front porch, talking and watching the progression of the shadow across the moon's face until it reached its peak, when I decided to head up the hill for my home. As I walked home up the main street, many residents were outside socializing while frequently gazing upward. It was great to see so many people enjoying this astronomy show.

I just wish my cell phone camera could take clearer pictures of the moon because this example below doesn't begin to convey the beauty I saw in this natural phenomenon. But I also saw a different form of natural beauty in the way this phenomenon was shared by the residents of my village.

There is something to be said for living a simpler life, and not being cloistered inside your house with electronic entertainment. I think I will try to go another month before I decide whether to pay for an Internet connection.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Trafalgar Falls

On Saturday, Peace Corps Volunteers from across the island of Dominica met in the capital city of Roseau for an outing to Trafalgar Falls. Actually, these are two separate but nearby waterfalls, the tallest being over 200 feet high and the other over 100 feet high. It was my first "touristy" activity since arriving here on August 1. The members of last year's class had previously visited Trafalgar, but the torrential downpours from Tropical Storm Erika had drastically changed the landscape at these twin waterfalls, so it made an interesting destination for our first joint outing.
You can see the shorter of the two waterfalls behind me.
Once our driver met us, we left the downtown area by way of the Botanical Garden. He was pointing out some interesting sights as we drove along, but then pulled off next to a half-flattened school bus. A huge tree had been blown over during Hurricane David in 1979 (see my previous story about "my storm") crushing the bus, which has been preserved and is now an iconic memorial to all that was lost in that tragic storm.

Our driver/tour guide was very entertaining, and told us to hold off taking any pictures because something was missing. He quickly hopped out of our van, ran over to the crushed bus, and jumped through the glass-less window of the driver's seat so we could take our bus pictures with our bus driver.

Our tour guide pretending he just got his bus crushed.
Soon we were heading eastward out of the city and into the nearby mountains. I enjoyed seeing this new territory--just like on my normal route to the capital, it was easy to see the landslides that had occurred during Erika, because they are still being cleaned up. The road twisted and turned, passing one of their hydroelectric power stations fed by a long pipe from a lake higher in the mountains.

We arrived at the parking area for Trafalgar and took the trail back through the woods. It was somewhat reminiscent to me of Blackwater Falls in my home state of West Virginia, especially when we arrived at a wooden viewing platform. However, instead of just a single waterfall to view, two long beautiful ones cascaded over their precipices and splashed on the rocks below, producing a melodious sound in this otherwise quiet valley.

In this shot, you can see both of the falls, as well as the boulder field.
In the old days, there used to be designated hiking trails leading to both of the falls. Unfortunately, during Erika the rocky hillside on the upstream side gave way, filling the valley with a boulder field. What had been an easy hike under a canopy of trees is now an adventure sport as one tries to navigate up, down, and around all the rocks, ranging from football-sized rocks to car size boulders.

We decided to head towards the smaller waterfall first, and our group worked our way down from the viewing platform. It didn't take long for us to start experimenting with our own desired paths, because it seemed that all the rocks were about the same. However, as some of my colleagues tended to follow the firs stream downhill to where it joined the stream coming from our target waterfall, I decided I did not want to lose elevation and then need to regain it. Thus I took a more lateral path across the boulder field.

In this view looking down the valley, Chris (from last year's class) is resting beside a pool, plus a few others can be seen on the opposite side.
I enjoyed the challenge of picking your path across the rocks. It was a bit of a mental chess game, as you tried to visualize your best path based on what you could see, and then tried to predict what might be the best path through the parts ahead that you couldn't see. A few times I had to back out of one option in order to try another, but it was all fun. [I'm sure the Peace Corps staff is glad to read that there were a few times when I used some discretion and avoided taking any risky chances! Sometimes I think they question my sanity!]
This is “Pepper,” our tour guide/bus driver, who did an excellent job.
Eventually we all arrived at a crystal clear pool at the base of the first waterfall. After scrambling across the boulder field, we had a great time frolicking in the cool water. I enjoyed backing into the pounding shower where the water fell into the pool--it was like nature's version of a shower message.

After conquering the first fall, we headed up towards the second one. Once again, we had to pick and choose our path to this higher waterfall. Personally, I thought the pool at the shorter waterfall was better (and easier to access). However, the interesting thing about the second waterfall was that a hot water spring joined it as it drained down the hillside. There is something about knowing that this water had been heated by the magma under the earth's crust that made me want to touch it. However, it was already a hot day, so I chose not to spend much time playing in the hot water.

The hot water seeped in on the left side of this waterfall, leaving an orange sulfurous mud on the rocks.
We ended our excursion with an impromptu lunch at the viewing platform before heading back to town. Everyone seemed to have a great time! While I love my village and its surroundings, I'm looking forward to visiting more tourist attractions on "the nature island" of Dominica over my two year stint. Plus, spending time with my Peace Corps colleagues is always nice!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

To the Bat Cave!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the bat cave near my village (if you don't remember the story, read it here). This weekend I was able to coordinate a trip with my local guide to let me finally see it for myself.

It turns out that the hidden bat cave is located in a small cove further along the coast line from the beach in my village. Because of a sheer vertical wall, a person must wade through the surf to reach the rocky outcroppings that can be used to hike around to the cove where the bat cave is located. Or, there is another option—keep your feet and legs dry by going overland, and dropping down on the rocky outcroppings from above.

My guide prefers the latter option, so we hiked up the road, cut through a backyard, and into the forest. Soon, we were at the edge of the steep hillside leading down to the ocean. My guide took me down a route that featured plenty of natural footholds, and soon we were at sea level (see picture below). We hiked around various tidal pools and large rocks as we worked our way around the point and into the secluded cove. I wanted to explore the tidal pools for aquatic life, but felt it was more important to pay attention to my guide's feet as I attempted to follow his exact path across this bizarre landscape.

The guide is further down the hill on the left of this picture. He was stopping part-way down the hill to make sure I didn't fall and go splat on the rocks below.
Eventually, we rounded a point and the bat cave came into view at the end of this hidden cove. It has a large, roughly semi-circular entrance, approximately 25 feet in diameter (I'm not an expert at judging such measurements, but that is my best guess at this point). We stopped on the edge of the hillside, where I had a good view. Apparently there are two options for entering the cave from that point—either drop down the hillside into the surf and walk along the wet rocks (which my guide thought was too risky—he prefers a calmer sea for that method), or to crouch down low and take a narrow pathway under a slight overhang along the edge of the hillside. He decided that I should probably just watch from my safe vantage point and not take either of these two risky options. Instead, he carefully worked his way across the edge of the hillside and went into the cave alone.
The guide as he enters the mouth of the cave. Notice how the waves come right up to the entrance of the cave.
Once inside, he made a commotion that caused the bats near the entrance to wake up from their daily slumber and fly out of the cave. I was able to take a few pictures as they flew around the area just outside the entrance, waiting for him to leave so that they could go back to sleep (hanging upside down from the ceiling). It was quite a sight to see, with probably a hundred or so bats (not the entire colony, because the cave apparently goes much further inside) agitatedly fluttering around in the mid-day sun.
As Robin might say, "Holy bat swarm, Batman!"
You can see them flying against the blue sky.
Some of them flew relatively close to me and I happened to catch this one with a picture showing it in full silhouette. On the lower right side, there is one heading directly towards me.
Eventually, my guide worked his way back up to my perch. He brought with him a young dead bat he had found, in order to give me a close up view. They are fascinating creatures!
Rest in peace, my fellow mammal.
Finally, it was time for us to head back. I assumed we were going to retrace our steps and thus I would be able to check out the tidal pools in the rocks. However, my guide had a different plan. He wanted to go straight up the hill from where I had been standing. There was no path, and there was thick, bushy vegetation growing on the steep hillside. I wasn't sure how this was going to work out.

Once we started up through the vegetation, it reminded me a bit of working through a rhododendron thicket back home in West Virginia. The branches were hard to cross at first, but eventually we ended up underneath the bushes, which formed a canopy over our heads. Using the exposed roots and branches of these bushes, we were able to climb up the steep hillside. We stopped temporarily at an overlook above (and a bit to the side) of the cave's mouth.

This is the view looking down on the cove that ends at the mouth of the cave (which is below and to the left).
From the overlook, the going was a bit easier as we continued to work our way up the hillside. Eventually, we ended up on the road above the village, and walked back home. It was a grand adventure, but best of all, it leaves me with another adventure to take in the future, when I might get the opportunity to actually explore the depths of the bat cave. Just as the 1960s TV series that I loved used to conclude: “Tune in next week—same bat time, same bat channel!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Back-to-School Book Report

My school finally opened its doors to students on Wednesday this week, and thus I have been very busy at work. In the spirit of the new academic year, I thought I'd share this “book report” I wrote recently.

JFK's Children

In May 1979, the commencement speaker at the University of Charleston was West Virginia native Charles Peters. I attended the ceremony because I was student body president during my junior year, and not because I was graduating that day. I'm glad I went, though, because I enjoyed Mr. Peters' address. I ended up subscribing to his magazine, “The Washington Monthly,” and liked reading his “Tilting at Windmills” monthly column for many years. I learned a lot from him. However, he was much more than just an editor of an influential government-oriented magazine.

Charles Peters had been a member of the West Virginia Legislature from Kanawha County, and worked with the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960. After impressing the JFK folks during West Virginia's pivotal primary election in 1960, he went on to perform more campaign work for them that year. Following the inauguration, Sargent Shriver (JFK's brother-in-law and the first Peace Corps director) invited Peters to come to Washington and help establish the Peace Corps in early 1961. Peters played a key role during the first five years as head of the division that did internal evaluations—one of several organizational innovations that the Peace Corps started.

Sargent Shriver is another fascinating person who I first took notice of in 1972 when George McGovern tabbed him as his vice-presidential running mate (after Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton stepped down). Younger people today might know of him because he was Maria Shriver's father, but he was so much more than that. I plan on reading his biography (which I saw in our Peace Corps library at our office) soon. [The Peace Corps has a long tradition of providing lending libraries for its volunteers, thus I didn't need to pack a lot of books to bring with me.]

Yet another person who I have always admired is Bill Moyers. I knew that Moyers had worked for the Peace Corps, and had been an important advisor to fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson. I can remember watching my first episode of his public television show “Bill Moyers Journal” when he interviewed a black woman with a charming voice who I had been unfamiliar with until that time—her name was Maya Angelou (I was fortunate to attend her speech at Marietta College some years ago).

Knowing that three men whom I had long revered were all involved in setting up the Peace Corps, the first book I took from our Peace Corps library at our office in the capital of Roseau was “The Bold Experiment—JFK's Peace Corps.” Written by Gerard Rice, it provides an exciting look at what it took to build the Peace Corps as a completely new and different federal agency in only a few short months.

Besides giving me insights into the important roles played by Shriver, Moyers, and Peters, I learned that there was another person from my past who was also somewhat involved. During my college years at UC and later at WVU, I always enjoyed going to hear special speakers that frequently visited college campuses. One night at UC, I went to an interesting lecture by Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It turns out that the former Yale chaplain, minister, activist, and author had also been involved in the early years of the Peace Corps.

I also learned that Hubert Humphrey was also a key player in establishing the Peace Corps. In fact, he had proposed similar legislation prior to the election of 1960. He served as the lead sponsor for the Peace Corps bill in the Senate.

I'm very glad that I read this book (but not so glad that Tropical Storm Erika gave me lots of extra time to finish it). I'd recommend it for anyone interested in joining the Peace Corps, and especially for my fellow volunteers currently serving. I feel it is important to have some background on the heritage of our agency to understand why we do some of the things we are doing more than half a century later.

For example, unlike other federal agencies, the Peace Corps was set up with the concept of the “Five Year Flush”—that employees (preferably former Volunteers) would only stay in the agency for no more than five years. Some institutional knowledge is surely lost, but the constant flow of fresh perspectives (especially from former Volunteers who had worked on the front lines) keeps the Peace Corps more attuned to its needs. Although not perfect, the Peace Corps tries to be different than most government bureaucracies. [It seems a lot better to me than the agency where I worked the past few decades.]

This book was also important to me because I can barely remember the Kennedy administration from my childhood. Yet knowing more about those years is even more crucial to me now that I am working as a teacher in a small Third World village, just as Kennedy and others at that time had envisioned. A big reason for my desire to serve in the Peace Corps comes from my admiration for JFK. Joining the Peace Corps is how I can respond to his famous inaugural challenge of “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” [Below is one of those souvenir "squished pennies" I got in Washington many years ago. I brought it along with me on this journey because it has the inaugural quote.]

I wasn't even in school yet when JFK was assassinated, but I remember that scary day. One of the few decorative items I brought with me was the crude American flag that I drew with my crayons to send to Parkland Memorial Hospital when we heard that JFK had been shot (and before it was announced that he had died). My mom had worked as a nurse, and had often encouraged me to draw pictures to send to folks in the hospital. Fortunately, she had saved that drawing and I found it while cleaning out my house early this year in preparation for selling it. Although the quality of the artwork is lacking, the sentiment behind it was the important part. I'm glad to have it here with me.
The last chapter talks about the poignant reactions to Kennedy's death overseas, and mentions that some countries referred to their Peace Corps Volunteers as “Kennedy's children.” The closing paragraph of this book states: “Kennedy said that he got particular satisfaction from the Peace Corps because he felt it was 'the most immediate response that the country has seen to the whole spirit which I tried to suggest in my inaugural.' In the sense that all Volunteers since 1961 have responded to the challenge to 'ask not,' they are all Kennedy's children.” As a Peace Corps Volunteer (as well as a child of the '60s), I like that thought!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bridge Adventures

I'm enjoying my service in the Peace Corps—it has certainly been an adventure! Thankfully, my experiences in West Virginia helped to prepare me for my latest adventure.

Following the devastation left by Tropical Storm Erika, Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington made the decision that the volunteers in Dominica should all consolidate in the capital city of Roseau on Thursday while the remnants of former Tropical Storm Grace passed by our island. By consolidating, they had us all in one place in case the fragile infrastructure (roads, telecommunications, etc.) that Dominica has been trying to rebuild would get damaged by this storm. Personally, I would have preferred to have spent Thursday and Friday at my school getting the library ready to open on Monday, but Headquarters wanted to be extra cautious. So all 14 of us (eight from my class and the six from last year's class) spent Thursday night at a hotel.

We did get some storms overnight as most of what was left of Grace rolled through, but they ultimately did not amount to much, and the sun was shining on Friday morning. By noon, the previous flash flood warning had expired and the decision was made that we didn't need to spend a second night at the hotel. After getting the chance on Thursday and Friday to do some shopping in the capital, as well as the opportunity to bond closer with the other class, we were allowed to go home.

Although I am now living in my own house, I will forever be indebted to my host family with whom I lived for a month after arriving in my village. They are wonderful folks who did a great job getting me acclimated to my new hometown. Thus, I considered it an honor when they asked if I would bring home two fancy cakes from a bakery in the capital for my host-sister's birthday on Saturday. I figured it was the least I could do, given all they have done for me. So in addition to taking a 90-minute bus ride with a small suitcase, I would also be carrying two cake boxes.

By the time I could pick up the cakes and get to the bus stop, the afternoon skies were darkening. The first rain drops started falling just before I boarded the bus. After what Dominicans went through just over two weeks ago, I'm sure I wasn't the only one on the bus who was hoping that the rain would not impact our bus ride home.

One result of the rain was that I got to see dozens of beautiful Dominican waterfalls, similar to those shown in the tourism brochures—unfortunately, these waterfalls were temporarily coming down along the roadway hillside cuts as we drove through. Thankfully, we didn't experience any landslides. Best of all, we made it through all the temporary detours—except for the last one.

A view across the chasm taken when we were stopped yesterday.
The bridge failure below Picard had been remedied by laying big pipes across the river bed, and filling them in with earth and stone to create a bypass road. Unfortunately, by the time our bus arrived, traffic was already backed up as the river was rushing across top of the makeshift roadway. No vehicle was allowed to cross until the water went down and the road could be filled in again.
The river was flowing swiftly, and vehicles could be swept away.
Except there was another way to get across that people were beginning to use. At some point after the original bridge collapsed into the river, a 12-inch wide steel I-beam was laid across the river just upstream from the bridge. This provided a “footbridge” that could be used by those brave enough to walk across, where perhaps alternative transportation options could be used to make your way home.
This picture of the bridge was taken a week ago when the river was calm.
There were a few folks from my village on this bus, and one of them was a young man I had got to know during our local landslide cleanups. He had called his father (whom I had also met), who was going to drive down from Portsmouth to pick him up as well as anybody else if we could cross to the opposite side. Others were already making their way across the river, very carefully and one at a time, so we (the young man, two women, and myself) agreed to join the line for our turn to cross.
That is one of the women from my village crossing the river.
To me, it was a relatively narrow gap to cross, especially after my experience on the catwalk at the New River Gorge bridge. However, the West Virginia experience that gave me the most confidence in accomplishing this small feat was the fact that I had crossed the incredible footbridge at Nelson Rocks. I had conquered my fear of heights on those two bridges, and this strong I-beam was wide enough for both feet, so I decided it was worth the risk. Who knew how long it might take before the bus could get across and get me home? I certainly didn't want to be the only one spending the night sleeping in the van with the driver. Besides, I had birthday cakes to deliver!

I knew I would have to leave my suitcase in the back of the van, but my bus driver was willing to deliver it to my host family's house once the river went down and he could drive across the detour. With that arrangement made, I decided to join my fellow village residents and “go for it.” Soon it was my turn to cross the I-beam, and I had no problems whatsoever—even while carrying the two big cake boxes in front of me! All I had to do was concentrate, just as I had done at Nelson Rocks or the New River Gorge. It was “a piece of cake” (so to speak).

Once on the other side, we jumped into his dad's SUV and enjoyed a boring, uneventful trip back to the village. All of us felt good that we had taken a bit of a chance, but had succeeded. In addition, I was very glad that I had helped with the landslide cleanups in the village, which had allowed me to get to know the young man and his father better. It had enabled me to get home earlier and deliver those precious birthday cakes.

By the way, much to my surprise, my luggage arrived on the van about an hour or so after I got home. Of course, had I chosen not to take a slight risk and wait it out, I probably would have ended up spending the night in the van. It is hard to predict these things, but I'm comfortable with the decision I made. Plus, it gave me one more adventure in the Peace Corps!

I think crossing on the I-beam may have been safer than the previous Sunday, when we had to cross the wobbly rocks of this hastily built dam in order to catch a bus on the other side (prior to the completion of the detour).

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Election Observer

Yesterday I witnessed democracy in action here in Dominica. A member of the village council resigned some weeks ago, so there had to be a special election to select a new council member. Three people "threw their hat in the ring," so an election was set for Wednesday, September 9.

Notices were posted on utility poles and at the bus stop alerting everyone about the election, as well as the names of the candidates. The Village Council Office served as the single polling place for Election Day. The poll opened at 8:00 AM and voting took place until 5:00 PM.

After working at the school yesterday (we are prepping to reopen--hopefully schools on Dominica will officially start on Monday), I walked back to my house, put on my swim trunks, and went to the spring. Following a hot day at school, it has become my afternoon ritual to ditch my sweaty work clothes (no shorts and t-shirts for us--we must dress as professionals in long pants and button down shirts), and then I head up the trail through the forest to "La Source." This is a bountiful spring coming out from some rocks on the side of the hill. My village has set up a small park area there, including a three-inch shower pipe that pours cold spring water down on your body. It is a refreshing way to beat the mid-afternoon heat!

Once back at my home, I changed and walked down to the Village Council Office, where voting was still taking place. I asked the Council Clerk if it would be okay to have an "election observer" watch her and the two other election officials perform their duties.

They let me stay (quietly and out of the way) as the final hour ticked away. Citizens would come into the office where first it would be confirmed that their names were indeed on the official listing of registered voters (the list was printed on the wide green and white computer paper with the tractor feed holes that I had with my first desktop computer while working at NASA 30 years ago).

Upon confirmation that the citizen was duly registered, the clerk explained the balloting procedure. Then the voter went inside a small adjoining room and marked their ballot, folded it up according to her instructions, and returned to the main room, where they dropped their ballot through the slot of a big wooden ballot box. The paper ballots were printed by the Elections Office in the capital, and were like tear-off coupons.

After the poll was declared closed at 5:00 PM, the counting process began. First, all three election officials confirmed that they had recorded the same number of overall voters. Being a special election for just one seat, turnout was only 103 voters out of 495 on the list (however, this is a better turnout for a special election than many places in the U.S.).

Then the hand count of the paper ballots began. The candidates were also allowed inside to observe the official count. However, a handful of interested villagers quietly clustered outside the louvered window to unofficially track each announced ballot. The ballot box was unlocked and the contents dumped on the table.

Watching the clerk carefully unfold each of the 103 ballots reminded me of my student government experiences many years ago. The political science geek within me really enjoyed getting this inside look at how government works here. Except for the paper ballots, the whole process reminded me of the various elections I observed and participated in back in the U.S. It brought back good memories of my election victories, but also some bittersweet memories of my defeat.

The election itself had no drama, as there was a clear favorite among the village residents. In fact, with nearly 90% of the votes cast, one could call it a "landslide" victory--if not for the fact that we suffered too many landslides recently.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Post-Erika Post

The remnants of Tropical Storm Erika hit Dominica in the early hours of Thursday, August 27. Instead of passing over our island, it instead decided to linger, emptying its clouds upon us. Nearly an inch of rain per hour was recorded in some areas. Rivers flooded, landslides fell, roads were cut off, bridges washed out, and eventually all communications were lost. [See my previous blog post for how I “weathered the storm.”]

The newest members of the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean were to officially take our oath of office during the last week of August, with the island of Dominica scheduled for the final event on Friday, August 28. Separate ceremonies the previous days were held on St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines where all of them were sworn in. Needless to say, with our island in a state of emergency, plus with roads and communications cut off, we did not meet the U.S. Ambassador in the capital city that Friday for our ceremony.

However, one week later, detours around the broken bridges had reopened the main highway to some intrepid vehicles (but not our usual buses). The Peace Corps arranged for a driver with a four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser to bring the four of us (two from last year's class who are midway through their two-year service, and the two rookies—myself and a woman from Athens, Ohio) from the northern part of the island to Roseau. Bringing us all together with Peace Corps staffers allowed for a major discussion about the storm and its aftermath. Plus, it allowed us to finally get sworn in (albeit without the usual pomp and circumstance).

The trip along the Roseau/Portsmouth highway usually takes about an hour, but it was more like 90 minutes on Friday. Here is a picture of the first bridge we saw that had been destroyed, not far below Portsmouth. The picture below was taken as our vehicle forded the now docile but once raging stream.

The picture above is another bridge that had collapsed, and this was where a river emptied into the Caribbean. This river seemed nearly three feet deep where the quickly built detour crossed. I wish I had taken one more picture following the one below to show how deep this small Suzuki SUV ahead of us went down into the water. Obviously I would not have driven my Prius through that river crossing!
We witnessed a lot of devastation on the way to Roseau on Friday. However, most of the pictures I tried to take from the moving vehicle cannot truly express the overall situation. It was sad to see how hard some villages had been hit (as well as businesses that were destroyed, such as the Colgate Palmolive coconut oil plant), and knowing that my beloved village got off relatively easy this time. It is going to take Dominica a long time (and lots of resources) to fully recover from the impact of Erika.
Once safely in the capital (where the picture above was taken), we met with our colleagues and staffers for a post storm debriefing. Hindsight is always 20/20, but there really is very little that we might have done differently than what we did. Some outsiders have questioned why we weren't evacuated prior to Erika's arrival, but no one was predicting that this weakened storm would “pack the punch” that it did. Armchair quarterbacks are always greater in their own minds than the real quarterbacks who actually take the field, but I'm glad that we were not evacuated, because it was important for me to stay and help in my village.

It appears that schools will open on September 21, rather than on Monday, September 7 as originally planned. Our discussions indicated that all of us have plenty to keep us busy during this two-week delay before school starts. Finally, at the end of the day on Friday, we were given the oath of office and provided with our official Peace Corps identification cards. Later in the evening, I took this picture of a Venezuelan naval ship at the same wharf where the gigantic U.S. Naval Hospital ship had been docked one month ago (I was impressed that this ship played the Dominican national anthem at sundown).

We gathered again on Saturday morning for more discussions. Finally in the afternoon, the four of us from the northern side of the island met our driver for the return trip to Portsmouth (from where I would then need to catch a bus to get home to my village).
As we passed the small airport (which is now the only airport, since the other larger airport was destroyed by flooding), a Coast Guard helicopter was landing. Our driver thought it was the Barbados Coast Guard (without the orange stripes, it was clearly not from the U.S. Coast Guard). I also got a picture of a used car lot that had been flooded, with cars stacked up on top of each other and half-covered in silt.
This time I was able to get a picture of the Layou River landslide, which now has a detour that goes further up the hill to get around it. I wish I could have got a picture of the huge crane that was half submerged in the river. This is the same river which I went on an innertube adventure many years ago when I visited Dominica on a cruise ship.
Soon we were stuck in traffic at one of the other major detours—a long one that avoids two gaps in the roadway where the floodwaters knocked down the bridges. The traffic tie-up was because a big truck with a flatbed trailer (carrying a heavy Dynapak roller) had become stuck, blocking the detour for everyone.

Our driver decided to get out of his vehicle and research the situation. He walked across a path he thought would allow us to get around the obstacles. He came back and told those of us who had waited in the Land Cruiser that he was going to try his “detour around the detour.” We were willing to give it a try—it was his vehicle after all. [Below is a picture showing the reason for this detour—look close and you can see the second chasm in the distance (yes, I walked up to the precipice to take this shot).]

Unfortunately, the swath of dirt that we had to cross, which seemed sturdy when our driver walked across it by himself, could not bear the weight of the Land Cruiser (along with a driver and four Peace Corps Volunteers inside). The hot sun had baked the top of this silt leftover from the floodwaters, but further down it was a soft mud. Just a few feet from successfully getting across this dirt, we bogged down and got stuck.

He tried several times to get unstuck, but to no avail. Our brave attempt to remedy the traffic backup had failed. The driver went off to seek assistance, while some of us tried to dig out the Land Cruiser. I found a length of 2”x6” to use as a shovel, a log to use as a fulcrum when necessary, and a dilapidated piece of corrugated metal to stand on (because the more I dug, the more I was sinking into the mud as well). The driver later came back and gave it one more try, but we just weren't able to make much headway.

The solution to the original traffic tie-up was a Caterpillar 966 Excavator, which helped to smooth the path and then push the trailer across the river ford. Fortunately for us, our driver convinced the Cat operator to help get us out next. He maneuvered the big piece of equipment over to our vehicle, and successfully pulled out the Land Cruiser. The big Cat nearly got stuck itself from its attempt to free us, but eventually he was able to wrestle the rig out of the silt field.
Soon we were back on the road again. We may have lost an hour or more, but it left us with yet another unexpected adventure in the Peace Corps. One of the most important things about serving in the Peace Corps is to be flexible and adaptable, because your service is not well scripted. If you want a predictable 9-to-5 job, don't apply for the Peace Corps, because you never know how things are going to go, whether it is tropical storms or getting stuck while detouring around a detour. However, I enjoyed today's excitement—especially now that I am safely back home at my new house.

To conclude this memorable weekend, my Sunday was devoted to a charitable endeavor. My village prepared massive amounts of food and delivered it to two other villages that were heavily damaged by Erika. It started early in the morning with food preparation. I performed some minor tasks before I was assigned to dumpling duty (rolling balls of flour paste into round dumplings that were added to the two huge pots of soup we cooked outdoors over fires). [This was a much safer activity for me compared to when I tried my hand at trimming coconuts with a machete—fortunately, I still have all my fingers.]

Once the food was ready (which included the aforementioned pots of soup—one made with chicken and one with pig snouts, as well as salt fish, rice, cucumber salad, roasted breadfruit, green figs, coconuts, fresh lime juice and cherry juice, plus probably other items I've left out), we headed over to Portsmouth and then down the same major highway described above. At the first bridge outage, those of us who couldn't fit in the 4-wheel drive vehicle carrying the food had to get off one bus and transfer to a different bus on the other side. This requires passengers to carefully balance their way across the rocks set up at the ford below the bridge.
After resuming our southward journey on the other side of the river, we only went about half-way to the capital on this day, stopping first at the village of Coulibistrie. This village is located where a steep-sided valley empties its river into the sea, and it was flooded heavily during Erika. I experienced the devastation first hand, with a 360 degree view of everything around me. That is what make it so disappointing when I look at my pictures once I am back. The pictures I took simply can't adequately convey what these people must have went through. For my fellow West Virginians, it looked like the archival news footage of the Buffalo Creek flood, or any number of other major floods through small towns in our state.

Just as one example, here is a sad picture I took at the Coulibistrie Primary School, which would normally be set to open tomorrow. Unfortunately, the ruined desks, books, computer equipment, etc., sit in muddy piles around the school grounds.

Later in the afternoon, we headed back north to stop in Colihaut, which was similarly destroyed by its raging river. Just like at our previous stop, the air was permeated with the extra fine dust from the flood silt, along with the occasional smoke from burning debris piles. I saw lots of destroyed vehicles and houses, but none of my pictures were more poignant than this house, which is now toppled and buried partway in the silt. It is very sad to see what these villages have suffered.
There is a large British navy ship just off the coast from another village along our route. The Brits are doing a lot of work in that area. Although I didn't get the opportunity for a good picture of the ship, I did take the shot below of one of their military vehicles. I also saw a team from Columbia today. It is nice to see so many other foreign countries coming here to help.
I'm glad I got to see first-hand the destruction that Erika unleashed on this side of the island. I'm also glad that my village was motivated to help out other Dominicans in need. It was the third straight interesting day for me as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The only bad part about this weekend was my wardrobe choices. You see, I would have been a lot better off to have saved my new Peace Corps Volunteer t-shirt to wear today. It would have looked nice as we delivered meals or when I was serving beverages. Unfortunately, I chose to wear it yesterday, when many cars drove by our hopelessly stuck vehicle (after our hired driver tried to create a detour around the detour). Some of them probably snickered at “those Peace Corps folks” as they drove by our predicament. Oh well!