Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Minor Victory

One aspect that I have heard about Peace Corps life is that you must appreciate the small successes. I was fortunate to have one of those small success stories recently (aside from the fact that my Space Station story was recently featured on the official Peace Corps blog). Here is the latest small success that I am celebrating. It is minor, but still it feels good.

I've always been interested in history. As a youngster, I eagerly read a book about the history of my hometown of Parkersburg, WV. It included the scary story of when the city's two huge water tanks, situated high atop Quincy Hill at the time, collapsed in the middle of the night. This sent a wall of water surging down the hillside, destroying several houses and killing two of the occupants. The thought of peacefully sleeping in bed, only to be killed by an unexpected raging flood rushing down the hillside, stuck with me over the years—and revived itself here on Dominica.

I'm typically an early riser, and to get some exercise, I enjoy taking a quick walk up the hill to the highest point in our village at daybreak. I get some great views of the Atlantic and the surrounding mountains. This walk also takes me past the big concrete tank that supplies water to our village. Not very many villagers bother to climb all the way to the top, so I am one of the few who actually sees the water tank.

On some mornings, the tank is completely full because few people are using water overnight, yet the new water is always flowing into the tank. There is an overflow pipe at the top to allow any surplus to escape, but it was not working as intended. I talked to a couple of villagers about what I saw, and then I spoke with the head of the Village Council about it. He encouraged me to send a letter with pictures to the Dominican Water and Sewerage Company (DOWASCO) explaining the situation. Here is what I wrote (with the name of my village as well as the council president's name removed, per Peace Corps policy):


I would like to bring a potential problem to your attention. I talked to Mr. _____, the president of the ____ Village Council, and he encouraged me to contact you about this issue.

I am attaching some pictures which help to show the problem. The overflow from the ____ water tank does not hit the catchment basin and instead flows under the concrete tank, potentially undermining the tank's foundation (currently the water disappears directly under the tank and reappears through a hole in the dirt several yards down the hill). This undermining might lead to a catastrophic tank failure.

I am the Peace Corps Volunteer living in _____ and working at the school. I have an interest in this topic because a water storage tank on top of a hill in my hometown back in America collapsed, resulting in the deaths of two people. I would hate to see a similar tragedy in my new hometown.

I realize that this post-Erika timeframe is very busy for you, and certainly there are still lots of issues you face that might be more important right now. However, the good news is that this problem can be easily fixed, either by expanding the catch basin or simply lengthening the overflow pipe (or perhaps through some other alternative).

I hope that something can be done soon to alleviate the current situation. Thank you very much for your consideration!


David Kurtz

To my surprise, it didn't take all that long before DOWASCO fixed the problem, as shown in these pictures. They decided to run an extension to the overflow pipe with a 90 degree elbow taking the overflow all the way down to the catch basin.

It is a small victory, but it is nice to know that they read my message and agreed that something needed to be done. Best of all, it may have averted a potential catastrophe in my new hometown!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hands Across The Sea

Some of you have asked about how you might be able to financially support what I'm doing down here. One way is to support a charity that is instrumental to the success of my school's library (and most other libraries in the Eastern Caribbean). Although I had never heard of “Hands Across The Sea” until I arrived here, I've become quite impressed with their operation. They work very closely with the Peace Corps here.

My principal last week brought in a big box containing dozens of colorful new books for our library. We put many of them out on display, but did not allow the students to immediately check them out (we needed to get them stamped and labeled first). The delay helped to build up interest among the students.

Today was the first day that the children were allowed to check out the new books, and they were very excited. They came to the library in descending order, meaning that our most senior class—the fifth graders—were allowed to choose first, then fourth grade, then third grade, etc. Some of the younger students were disappointed to find the books they had wanted were immediately grabbed by older students, but they will get their turn in due time.

Hands Across The Sea does more than just send us brand new books. They provide a great guide book for running a school library, that has served me well in setting up our little library. Rather than trying to use the Dewey Decimal System and gluing library card pockets to the inside of each book, we use a simpler system. Yellow dots on the spines of books for beginner readers, blue dots for intermediate readers, and green dots for advanced readers (with red dots for reference books). Plus, I keep a log book of what the students have checked out.

Because of my strong interest in promoting non-fiction books, I made a slight deviation to this recommended method. By cutting up the white area around each of this stick-on dots, I was able to create a white stripe across the colored dots to distinguish all the non-fiction books (without requiring any new materials). It makes it easier to keep them separate on the shelves and thus helps encourage students to consider reading non-fiction. [Besides, my nature is to do things differently!]

This shows how I cut up the white margin that is leftover (and normally discarded) after removing the dots to create a white stripe distinguishing the non-fiction books (notice that most of these were hand-me-down books that were formerly in someone else's library, hence the Dewey Decimal labels still visible behind the green dots--obviously, these were not the new books we get from Hands Across The Sea).
There is a new movement to counter the materialisting shopping madness on Black Friday and Cyber Monday with “Giving Tuesday” this coming December 1. If you are inclined to make a donation, please consider Hands Across The Sea. On December 1, all donations will be quadruple matched, so that a $25 donation will actually become a $100 donation. Their donation page is an “https” secure page, plus they got a five-star rating from the Great Nonprofits website, so I consider it a safe place to send your money.

The bottom line is that my students went home today excited about reading their brand new library books. These kids need to read more, and donations from the good folks at Hands Across The Sea help to fuel that interest in reading. It does make a difference here, and your dollars (especially after being quadrupled) will insure that this vital pipeline continues.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Back in the Saddle Again!

My dad had motorcycles most of his life, and he bought me my first one in 1971. Over the years, I've really enjoyed riding, and made a point to always wear the proper gear and be as safe as possible. It was not easy to sell my motorcycle this past spring in preparation for this Peace Corps adventure (but at least it went to a good home!).
Unfortunately, the Peace Corps has strict rules governing our behavior with vehicles. As I wrote previously, we are not allowed to operate any type of motor vehicle, nor are even allowed to ride as a passenger on a motorcycle. It is because of their concern for our safety, as well as the desire to see us live as most other villagers do—the majority get by without a vehicle.
However, it sure felt good today when Officer Jackson visited our school today, and he let me sit on his police bike. I could hear the famous cowboy song playing in my head—“I'm back in the saddle again!” Let me assure the Peace Corps staff that the wheels never moved from this stationary position—but it felt real natural to once again be holding onto handlebars and balancing this two-wheeled machine underneath me.
This particular brand is not available in the USA. It is a single cylinder 600cc police model produced by a company called JiaLing in China. Note that China has a very active presence on this island, as in many third world countries. Perhaps that might be a topic for another blog posting some day.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Talking to Strangers

I heard it was supposed to be 39 degrees at the kickoff for the Texas Longhorns vs. the West Virginia Mountaineers football game today (which WVU won, by the way). That is where I would have been today had I not joined the Peace Corps. Instead of bundling up for the game in Morgantown, I went to the beach this afternoon for a swim with some of the youngsters from our village.

As we arrived at the beach area, I noticed a rent-a-car and four white folks. It was the first time I had encountered what appeared to be tourists at our little beach. However, when I arrived it was apparent that they were enjoying a peaceful rest in the shade of our coconut grove, and they didn't seem to react to the Peace Corps shirt that I just happened to be wearing, which most Americans seem to notice. Had they obviously been Americans, I might have struck up a conversation to see where they were from, but I decided they must be foreign tourists who were not from America, so I joined my students in the ocean.

Eventually, I wandered back to shore and headed for the shade and soft short grass under the beachside palm trees. By now, these guests were stirring about, and a couple of them walked past me down to the edge of the water. As the last one returned past me, I decided to strike up a conversation—and I'm grateful I did!

I found out that they were on vacation from Lyon, France. This guy I spoke with and his friends had stayed last night in Portsmouth, and had not been watching the news. Then he got a crazy phone call from his sister in Paris assuring him that she was okay. That is how they find out about the terrible tragedy in their homeland.

It seems his sister had tickets to one of the big events that the terrorists had targeted. However, she had not been able to get away from work as early as she had planned on Friday, thus making her late arriving at the venue. As she approached with her ticket, she heard the gunshots, and was able to get to safety before getting inside. Unfortunately, one of her friends whom she was getting ready to meet inside was wounded in the shoulder. Who knows what might have happened had his sister been able to get away from work earlier and had been standing beside her friend?

Needless to say, after the unexpected phone call and a night of following the news (with very little sleep), they just wanted a quiet little beach where they could relax, listen to the ocean, and recuperate. Somehow, they ended up driving to my little village, which is definitely off the beaten path for most tourists. However, it certainly fit the bill for what they needed today. I'm glad my village could assist them!

Children especially are often cautioned about the dangers of talking with strangers, but as adults, we should not be as afraid. As someone who is more of an introvert than an extravert, it would have been real easy for me to avoid interacting with these people. However, after passing up several earlier opportunities, I finally took a chance as he walked back by me for the last time before they had to leave.

I'm so glad I made the effort, because it was a very interesting conversation. I definitely let him know how much my friends all were reacting to the Paris news on social media, and expressed my own sympathies and support for France. It blows my mind to realize that I was talking to someone whose own sister was there at the attacks.

One thing I've learned in the Peace Corps is that it is indeed a small world! Vive la France!

Since I don't take my phone when I'm going swimming, I don't have a group picture of my French friends to share. However, here is a photo with a new angle of our beach, showing “L'Islet” jutting out on the far side, the shed used by our local fisherman, and the edge of the palm trees mentioned in the story above. I took this shot after climbing up the rocky hillside recently.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

“Into the Wild”

I recently finished an interesting book that I had wanted to read for a long time, entitled “Into the Wild” by John Krakauer. I had watched the movie when it came out about ten years ago, but had never read the book that it was based upon. It was nice to read the entire story while remembering what my eyes had seen in the movie theater.

It is the true story of young Chris McCandless. After a successful four years of college, he set off on a journey to find himself, while rejecting traditional societal values (and purposefully separating himself from his family). He gave away his $25,000 savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, and took up life as a vagabond, even using a new name for himself—Alexander Supertramp (I always liked “The Logical Song”—it is one of the 100 iTunes songs I brought with me).

He enjoyed many adventures out west, including canoeing down the Colorado River and into the Gulf of California. However, his ultimate goal was Alaska. He eventually made it to the Alaskan wilderness, where he lived for about four months. Unfortunately, he got sick and died alone in the isolation he had so doggedly sought.

It is a bit ironic that I finally read this book while in a slightly similar journey of self-discovery at the conclusion of my traditional career and before I become truly retired. My journey of self-discovery is not nearly as drastic as Alexander Supertramp's was, but I do find myself questioning some of our typical American societal conventions while working here in a small, rural village on the under-developed Caribbean island of Dominica.

I'm finding out that I'm doing okay without having a car, microwave, washer/dryer, or other typical American luxuries. I don't miss the materialistic gluttony of some Americans, nor do I miss the overall media focus on sports and celebrities. Nor am I missing television—especially as the American political campaign season heats up.

I especially don't miss the unabashed deceptions (pandering to our lowest intellectual elements) that are tolerated—indeed, promoted—on both sides of the political aisle. I used to be an idealistic political science major, but lately politics just makes me feel sad. I had much higher hopes for where we would be as a civilization by this time, but instead I feel like I'm living through a repeat of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It makes me worry about the future of our country as well as our planet.

I'm not ready to change my identity and become a hobo, nor do I intend to hold Alexander Supertramp on a pedestal, because I disagree with the way he did things (especially towards his family). But there are some things to be learned by such journeys of self-discovery, whether it is from this book, or other similar stories such as Henry David Thoreau's “Walden.” In fact, I can still remember reading a captivating book while in elementary school entitled “My Side of the Mountain” about a boy who ran away and lived on his own in a hollow tree. Maybe that is where my interest in escapist literature started.

In some respects, space (another interest of mine which I enjoy contemplating) is the greatest escape—the final frontier. Concurrent with my service in the Peace Corps, astronaut Scott Kelly is spending an entire year living on the International Space Station on a different journey of discovery. [You may recall that my students hollered at him when he passed overhead recently.]

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut. I even cloistered myself in the floor of my tiny bedroom closet and pretended that I was isolated in a space capsule when those early astronauts flew in the 1960s. While I was working at NASA in the 1980s, I filled out all the paperwork to officially apply for the position of astronaut although I knew my “political science” degree did not count as a science degree (but the Chief Scientist for the Space Station still wrote me a heckuva recommendation letter).

In some respects, my Peace Corps service is my moonshot. Just like an astronaut in space, I'm a long way from home and communications with my friends and family are extremely limited. It was “one giant leap” to step into the unknown, to challenge myself in a new and different environment, where I am learning something new every day. So far, I'm glad I took this leap.

This experience is also my summer in the Alaskan wilderness, my stint on the other side of the mountain, or my time on Walden Pond. I'm still trying to sort out a lot of things in my own life (such as “what do I do after concluding my federal career?”), and this mission of service (teaching in my village) has already become one of the most eye-opening experiences of my entire lifetime. I know that my life will forever be impacted by my experience here in Dominica, no matter what the next chapter of my life holds.

Besides remaining in contact with my parents, there is another big difference between me and Alexander Supertramp. Thankfully, I have a very supportive village whose good people will make sure I don't die alone in the wilderness. In some respects, it takes a village to raise a Peace Corps Volunteer. [Please do not read that as any sort of political endorsement.] We will see at the end of my service what I have truly learned about life. In the meantime, I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to contemplate it all while living in this tropical paradise.

During one of my trips to the Johnson Space Center, I was able to visit the space shuttle mock-up that the astronauts used for training (only available by appointment to NASA employees when the astronauts were at lunch). I'm by the payload bay window with the joystick that controls the robotic arm in my hand. It was definitely a highlight of my life to get to do this.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

World Wise School Questions #2

Here is the second installment of answers to questions posed to me by a school in my hometown, which I have been paired with through the Peace Corps' World Wise Schools program. The original comments are shown below in italics, and then I broke out the questions individually further below.

Hi from us. The breadfruit tree sounds neat, but what does it taste like? Do you like it? Are all the gas-stations triangle-shaped? Do you have Wayside School books in your library? What is your favorite book to read? Grade 3A

Hello! What’s the craziest thing you have ever done in Dominica? Do you have any sailboats? Do you have storm shelters? Do you ever miss Parkersburg? What were you eating when you saw the rainbow bridge? You said you were eating something then, and we wondered what it was. The food looks pretty cool. Also, do you know how long it has been since one of the volcanoes erupted? Grade 4A

Hi! It is unbelievably beautiful there. Bet that spiky tree just wanted a hug. Have you seen any sharks or weird sea creatures? What was at the carnival? Are there any legends or myths there? There is a legend of a ghost at our school. Grade 5A

Have you seen any sharks or weird sea creatures? No sharks, and I hope I don't see any near our beach. The times I've taken my snorkel to our beach, I haven't really seen anything other than some small fish. Perhaps if I ventured over closer to the rocks I might see more underwater life, but I've mostly stayed in the middle of the beach area when snorkeling—I don't want the waves to push me against the rocks.

Hopefully I will get to do some snorkeling in better locations for seeing interesting sea life and will report on it at a later date. Some of last year's Peace Corps volunteers have seen some beautiful fish and other stuff when they have snorkeled at other locations.

I do know that our beach area is also a turtle nesting area, but I have not seen any turtles myself yet. Someone found an eggshell and it looks very much like a ping-pong ball. I have seen lots of crabs in the area, and I also enjoy watching the pelicans “dive-bomb” for fish. Plus, I enjoy checking out whatever fish our local fisherman catches when he gets back home from his fishing trips.

What was at the carnival? The carnival I wrote about that I saw on the island of St. Lucia certainly wasn't like the carnival at City Park on the 4th of July. In the Caribbean, “Carnival” is essentially a long parade of people who dress up in fancy costumes and dance their way into the middle of town. It comes from the same tradition that New Orleans has each year, but they call it Mardi Gras and hold it just before Ash Wednesday. However, in the Caribbean, different islands decided to space out their Carnival celebrations so that they would not all be held at the same time (thus potentially garnering more tourists).

Are there any legends or myths there? There is a legend of a ghost at our school. Yes, I have heard about the ghost at your school, because I remember that someone did a project for either the social studies or science fair about it last year. One myth I've heard down here is that if you take an Easter egg and keep it under your armpit for some period of time (a month?), it will hatch into some sort of little genie that can grant wishes for you. [Personally, I think it would be hard to keep an Easter egg in my armpit for that long, so I won't be testing this myth.]

The breadfruit tree sounds neat, but what does it taste like? Do you like it? Yes, I enjoy eating breadfruit. It is very common down here, and is used in a lot of dishes. It grows on trees and looks sort of like a green cantaloupe (but weighs less than a cantaloupe). You cut the skin off of it and then slice it up. The taste is somewhat bland, but it has an interesting, light texture.

My favorite way to have breadfruit is when it has been roasted on an open fire. They basically just build a small campfire and put the green breadfruit on top to burn. The blackened outer peel is cut away (see picture below), leaving a smokey flavored form of breadfruit to eat.

Are all the gas-stations triangle-shaped? No, that is the only one I've seen like that. Here is another picture of it. I think it is pretty neat.
Do you have Wayside School books in your library? What is your favorite book to read? I'm not sure about Wayside School books, but I will check and get back to you on that. My favorite books to read are non-fiction books. I enjoy learning while I read. I firmly believe that my interest in reading non-fiction as a youngster was key to my academic success. I still find myself sometimes using facts that I know I first learned from reading non-fiction books in elementary school and beyond.

I especially enjoy reading biographies (and autobiographies) because I can learn tips for living my life by understanding how someone else lived their life. I read a lot of books about explorers and presidents, as well as other famous people, many of them from a series for young readers called “Landmark Books.”

I also enjoy history (especially about the Civil War) and science books. I can remember reading a fantastic book about helicopters that essentially taught me how to fly one. I have never had the opportunity to test my helicopter flying skills, but whenever I've seen one at an airshow or something, I've been able to quickly identify the basic control mechanisms in the cockpit that would enable me to give it a try.

Back in the 1990s, I was a Read Aloud volunteer at your school. I can remember that I enjoyed reading biographies for children written by Robert Quackenbush, and also excerpts from Paul Harvey books. If you haven't discovered the joy of non-fiction, I would encourage you to give it a try. By the way, I re-organized our school's library to emphasize the non-fiction books that we have available.

What’s the craziest thing you have ever done in Dominica? Well, I've eaten a lot of crazy new foods that I had never eaten before. For example, I've eaten pigs feet, pig snout, and pig tail (pig tail is probably the best, although I also like the smoked pigs feet in a clear broth that is considered a delicacy down here). I've also eaten sea snails (known locally as bwego) which were good. They also make a fried bread patty that is stuffed with minnows about an inch long. It is spiced up and reminds me just a bit of eating a crabcake (but try not to look at the minnows when you are eating it).

Do you have any sailboats? There are sailboats that I have seen down here, especially on the calmer Caribbean Sea on our western coast. No one in my village has one, and I have not seen many sailing near my village along the Atlantic.

Do you have storm shelters? There are no formal storm shelters that I am aware of, but I've certainly taken shelter from sudden rainstorms on porches and under overhanging roofs along the road. The cottage I live in is made of concrete, so it should be safe from any hurricanes.

Do you ever miss Parkersburg? I certainly miss seeing my family members, but the good news is that with today's technology, we are able to have videoconference calls to stay in touch via the Internet. However, I'm having a very good time down here. It seems that every day I learn something new, and I've always enjoyed learning new things.

I told the local newspaper reporter that I miss JR's Donut Castle and Pizza Place, too. Plus you can't get pepperoni rolls anywhere down here! I'm hoping to be able to return for a vacation next summer in conjunction with my high school reunion, and I will definitely be eating some local foods while I am there.

Finally, I miss stopping by your school each week for the Homework Helpers program in the cafeteria!

What were you eating when you saw the rainbow bridge? You said you were eating something then, and we wondered what it was. The food looks pretty cool. I don't recall exactly what I was eating that day. I am fortunate that my host family, my landlord, and others often share their food with me. If I'm cooking for myself, it is often just macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles. I've also discovered that ketchup goes with everything (especially if it is ketchup with your name on it--see beiow).

Stoves here use gas bottles such as camping trailers use. In order to stretch my gas as long as I can, I've been cooking two things at once. For example, if I making hard-boiled eggs, I put a metal strainer on top of the pot and heat up some leftovers or something. The steam from the boiling water goes up through the strainer and heats up the leftovers, allowing me to accomplish two tasks with half of the gas. Sometimes I've spooned out the boiled eggs, and then reused the same hot water to make ramen noodles, which saves even more gas.

Here is an example of my kitchen skills (or lack thereof). A former teacher (and grandmother to one of my current students) recently gave me some avocados, which they call pears. I have nothing against avocados, but they were starting to get soft and slimy, which is how I least enjoy them. I had recently been exposed by my host family to a dish where avocados are mixed with farina (a grain cereal sort of like Cream of Wheat) to form green balls that are eaten by hand. I couldn't find farina at the Sav-A-Lot grocery store in the capital, but I did find some finely ground whole oats from a mill in England that has been in business since 1675. I thought that might also work. Well, it was okay, but too paste-like to roll into balls. I ended up just eating it plain or using it as a sandwich spread.

Also, do you know how long it has been since one of the volcanoes erupted? There has not been a volcanic eruption here since it was first visited by Christopher Columbus. We do have a number of hot springs and other signs of volcanic activity below the surface of the earth here. Also, please see my answer to the first set of questions about the nearby island of Montserrat.

While I was on St. Lucia, there were warnings issued because an underwater volcano just north of Grenada named “Kick'em Jenny” was becoming active again. It is building under the water, but has not reached the surface yet. However, it is releasing lots of hot gases as it expands, which form a tremendous amount of bubbles. The warnings were for boats to stay out of that area of the sea. The danger is that seawater with lots of bubbles is not as buoyant as regular seawater. Thus, boats tend to ride lower in the water and the danger is that they might take on water and then sink. I certainly would not want to sink above an underwater volcano!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Replies to my first questions from my World Wise School

Here is the first set of questions that I received from 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at my partner school through the Peace Corps' World Wise School program. I regrouped the questions and provided answers further below.

Hello. That is an awesome road in September’s post. We thought bats were nocturnal and were confused why they were out in the day. Can you take a picture inside the bat cave? We thought your pictures were nice. Also, can you look in the sea to find a shark or take a picture of a volcano? Thank you. Grade 3B

Hello! We have lots of questions. How fun is it to be a librarian? Was finding the killer tree your favorite adventure- are there a lot of them? Does it rain and flood there a lot? We like your waterfalls. The “Day at the Farm” was really awesome. Do you like their football and do you play it? We like the picture of all the bats swirling in the air. Are there any sharks or dolphins that you've seen? Grade 4B

Hi! There is so much to look at! Cool cave. Awesome bats! They are really cool. How big is the bat? How dangerous was it to climb to the bat cave? Did you see any other wildlife on your way to the bat cave? What language do they commonly speak there? How many floods have you seen since you’ve been there? Also, the spiky trees are awesome! Grade 5B

How big is the bat? How dangerous was it to climb to the bat cave? Did you see any other wildlife on your way to the bat cave? We thought bats were nocturnal and were confused why they were out in the day. Can you take a picture inside the bat cave? As far as the size goes, they are about the size of your two hands (take a look at the picture in “To the Bat Cave”). I have not personally gone inside the bat cave yet, but I hope to do so on a future trip (and I will definitely write a story about it—with pictures). I did hike to the entrance area, but my guide felt the tide was too high for me to safely enter. As with all caves, I suppose there is always some danger of roof falls, etc. However, I'm probably more worried about slipping and falling in the guano (bat poop). I've been in several caves in West Virginia (e.g., Seneca Caverns) and Kentucky (e.g., Mammoth Cave), so I'm comfortable with them.

One time I even got the opportunity to go into a working coal mine in central West Virginia. We were issued all the safety equipment that miners have to take with them when they go underground. I even had to carry a round brass token in my pocket—it had a number on it so that they could identify my body if there were to have been a mine disaster. If I survived all my other underground experiences, I think I can handle the bat cave.

You are correct that bats are nocturnal animals. They fly out of their cave each night at dusk here. On this particular occasion, my local guide left me near the entrance of the cave while he went inside and provoked them into flying outside for awhile. I'm sure they were not happy to have their daytime sleep disturbed!

By the way, I have heard that some folks down here actually eat bat meat. Personally, I prefer to watch them fly rather than to kill them for a small amount of breast meat.

Finally, you asked about other wildlife—I will need to do another future story on the animals around here. For example, there are foot-long ground lizards here that look like miniature dinosaurs (see picture below). I also enjoy watching pelicans dive-bomb for fish.

This is a ground lizard. There are also smaller gecko-type lizards (which can often be seen climbing up the wall during church services, among other places).

Are there any sharks or dolphins that you've seen? Also, can you look in the sea to find a shark or take a picture of a volcano? Thankfully I have not seen any sharks, and hope to avoid seeing them (at least while I'm swimming on our beach). I did get to see dolphins while riding on a catamaran during our last weekend on St. Lucia. They played in front of and along side our boat for a good while. I've added some arrows to the picture below to help you see them.

I added some arrows to point out the four dolphins swimming alongside our catamaran.
There are no active volcanoes on the island of Dominica, but the nearby island of Montserrat has one. In fact, their capital city of Plymouth became a modern-day version of Pompeii (look it up, because it is a fascinating story) when it was destroyed about twenty years ago. I've been told that a lot of the volcanic ashes from Montserrat fell on my village during that eruption.

While Dominica's volcanoes are now dormant, we still have a lot of geothermal activity. There are hot springs around the island. The story I wrote about Trafalgar Falls mentions that the larger waterfall had hot water flowing in it, which felt very unusual.

How many floods have you seen since you’ve been there? Does it rain and flood there a lot? Hurricane season generally runs from July through October. There have been no hurricanes but we did have two tropical storms since I've been here—Erika and Grace (see my previous stories on them at,, and Other than that, the weather has been pretty tame. Most days are sunny with temperatures in the 80s, often with a chance of brief passing showers. Usually it only rains for a short while and then the sun comes out again.

When it does rain hard, the steep hillsides here are prone to landslides. The pictures I posted of the damages from Tropical Storm Erika were primarily from the western side (the Caribbean side) of the island, where the land is a bit different than the Atlantic side. It is dryer on that side—so much so that cactus grows in some areas. Thus when they do get a hard rain, there is generally more runoff and flooding than on our side of the island.

The eastern side gets the prevailing winds and weather, thus we typically get more rain coming off the ocean. The mountains in the interior of the island encourage the clouds to “dump their loads” on this side before crossing to the western side of the island. We have more forest growth (some might say jungle) with leaf litter and loose soil that can absorb the rain. So I am glad that I am on the Atlantic side (plus I prefer swimming in the waves of the Atlantic rather than the calm and placid waters of the Caribbean Sea).

Ironically, these questions were posted on Thursday, November 5. We had a lot of heavy rain that morning, so school was cancelled for that day. After what happened with Tropical Storm Erika (and to a lesser extent, Tropical Storm Grace), everyone seems to be more “jittery” about flooding and landslides. It continued to rain on Friday, so we were sent home after just half a day (giving me time to get this posted on my blog). So far though, it has not been nearly as bad as those two prior storms.

Was finding the killer tree your favorite adventure- are there a lot of them? While it was interesting to see this rare tree, I've had lots of other adventures that I would rate higher (that statement is not a complaint, because I still had a great time that day at Cabrits). We had been told about the Manchineel tree, but had been told that very few of them still exist. I'm glad it was very clearly marked! While I appreciate its unusual characteristics and historical background, it would be fine with me if I don't see another one.

What language do they commonly speak there? English is the official language of Dominica, and it is all that is taught in schools. However, many people (especially older folks) can also speak kweyol (also known as creole or patois). It is a variation of French and African languages. We were given some training in kweyol, but I must admit that I'm not very good at it. Thankfully I am able to get by just knowing English.

Do you like their football and do you play it? I will need to do a future story about sports down here. I have played a little bit of their football (soccer), as well as some cricket and netball. There is also a board game called “Drafts” that I have learned (it is a bit like an advanced form of checkers). Rounders is a popular team sport for women. Dominoes is a serious sport down here. I'm enjoying everything because it is all new to me and I very much enjoy learning about new things.

How fun is it to be a librarian? I think your librarian knows the answer to this one—being around books is always a fun thing! However, since our school is so small (only 31 students), I am glad that I get to do lots of other functions—even filling in as a substitute teacher from time to time.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Celebrating Independence!

Dominica became independent from Great Britain on November 3, 1978. In conjunction with their Independence holiday, several other interesting events take place. Here is a brief summary of what I've experienced in the past week.

Creole Day: On Friday, everyone wore their best traditional outfits to school for a fun day (instead of an academic day). Generally, traditional outfits mean some sort of madras plaid outfit. Fortunately, I had purchased a madras shirt for our Peace Corps multi-cultural night before I left St. Lucia. The classroom walls were folded back to create a large space and a local man gave a speech about Creole Day. Some of the students performed some traditional dances, and everyone had a good time.

These are a few of our students who arrived early that day.
Prior to Creole Day, students had been encouraged to have their parents donate some type of food for the big luncheon on Friday. The PTA and the staff fixed traditional foods for everyone to eat. There were a number of interesting traditional dishes, but I chose the Sancoche, which is saltfish and roasted breadfruit with a coconut milk-based sauce.

The other menu choice was Crab Callilou, but I still got to eat it because there was enough left over so they gave me some to take home for dinner. They don't use fancy utensils such as those little forks or those crab cracking. Here, you just use your teeth to break the crab shell and dig with the tine of your regular fork.

This is a large takeout box of Crab Callilou. As you can see, the crabs here are big. Callilou is a bit like spinach, hence the dark green bits and the broth.
That evening at dusk, as I was struggling to finish my crab (because since they gave this special free food, you know I was bound and determined to finish every last bit of it) while eating on my porch, I noticed the lights from a cruise ship pass between us and Marie Galland island (a small French island that is part of Gaudeloupe). As many of you know, I enjoyed Caribbean cruises in the past, and this was the first time I had noticed a cruise ship in our waters. I wondered if some of the guests were eating crab in an elegant dining room that night, with all the fancy utensils, while I was spitting out small pieces of crab shell I had cracked in my mouth. Those on that passing ship may be enjoying their cruise vacation, but at this point, I wouldn't trade places with any of them. I'm loving my time here!

Youth Rally Day: Monday was the big day for which we had been practicing for weeks. All the schools on Dominica are invited to send a drill marching team to the big sports stadium in the capital. The highlight is the parade as every school marches across the grounds and right in front of the Prime Minister for his review. It is very colorful as every school in this country has its own distinctive colors and uniforms. There are also some award presentations and speeches by some dignitaries, but everyone is there to see the big parade.

Here is a shot from the previous week of our rag-tag bunch practicing on our field (with the ocean in the background).
Never having experienced this event before, I was a bit worried as to how our little school would look—our marching practices had been far from perfect, and our leader ended up losing his voice in the days preceding the event. However, two things happened—first, not all the other schools were perfect at marching, so we didn't stand out in that perspective; and second, our students picked an excellent time to have their best performance. They did pretty good for themselves! Unfortunately, I was watching so intently that I forgot to take any pictures of them marching past the Prime Minister.

Independence Day: Another early bus run took me back to the sports stadium in the capital on Tuesday. This time, there were more awards and speeches. Instead of schools marching, there were a couple of bands and several precision marching units from the police units, the Coast Guard, and others. They gave a remarkable performance, but I must admit that I think I enjoyed more watching the colorful school students who marched the day before.

These marching units at the stadium were much more coordinated than our school children!
I also must admit that I missed celebrating Independence Day with fireworks. I suppose that fireworks are more appropriate for an independence won by a revolution against the British, rather than an independence won by a stroke of a pen, merely because the British finally realized it was the right thing to do.

National Day of Service: I think this is a fantastic tradition! Dominicans gather in their communities to perform some sort of civic improvement. In my village, we had a major beach clean-up as well as a fix-up effort at “The Spring”—which is sort of like the “city park pool” of my village (I promise to write a future story on the spring). I spent most of my time working at the beach, as we picked up driftwood, coconuts, the unburnt remnants of campfires, and trash. Some of the women brought a delicious lunch to both work sites that I enjoyed eating while watching the waves.

I think Jed Clampett might refer to “The Spring” as a “cement fishin' pond.”
I should point out that normally there is a big Creole Festival on the weekend before Independence Day, but because we are still dealing with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Erika, it was decided to cancel this year's festival and keep things more low key. Some of the other major events were also somewhat curtailed for the same reason. So I can't say that this was a typical year for Dominica's Independence celebration. But everyone still had a good time.
Even my students turned out to help clean up the beach.
I enjoyed all these special days, but I think my favorite day was the National Day of Service. It was great seeing so many villagers come out to do things for the common good of the community. Such joint efforts show the importance of getting along and working together. In America, a similar push has been made to do this on Martin Luther King day—to consider it a “day on” rather than a “day off” (although few Americans actually do any community service on that holiday). I am proud that Dominica does this and I think it is a wonderful tradition!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Up the Hill & Up the Creek

It started on Sunday just after church. I was talking with one of my students and his grandmother (with whom he lives) when I mentioned that someday I would enjoy seeing the view of the village from high atop a neighboring ridge. Since they live near there, they invited me to come up that afternoon. Thus a memorable day of hiking began.

After changing and grabbing a bite to eat, I headed down the main street of the village. One parent struck up a conversation with me about my plans for the day, and suggested his son should come along, too (this was secretly beneficial to me, because I had only a vague idea of where the house I was heading for was located). So the two of us walked down the village street, turned left, and headed up the steep hill on the main road.

Two of my guides, with part of the village visible to the right of them.
We were warmly greeted at the house high above the village. Then my two 4th grade tour guides took me further up the hill to the clearing where you can look down on the village. It was a new and interesting point of view for me. They beckoned me further up the ridge line, past several interesting trees, and then over to the home of another student, who ended up joining our adventure.
They don't have these trees in West Virginia (also note the apex of the ridge).
My three young tour guides then led me further up the main road along the other side of the ridge, past the new construction which repaired the road from a landslide. We went a long ways along the road. Suddenly, the boys darted ahead to a gap in the embankment beside the road. To my shock and amazement, the short trail led to a spot overlooking a sheer cliff, with the ocean hundreds of feet below. No fence, no warning signs, just a steep drop-off to what must be a certain death. However, I couldn't help but stare in absolute wonder of this incredible view. There appeared to be large rocks (or coral reefs?) visible while gazing down on the clear blue water. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned about our safety on the edge of this precipice. But it was an amazing sight to look downward (as much as you dared) at what must be an impossible-to-reach cove along the coast.
This picture cannot capture the adrenaline from this view (the tree grows out and then up). Notice that I didn't go out far enough to see where the ocean ends and the hillside begins.
We walked further, turning in the road for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. We talked with some folks up there whom the boys knew, and then went out on a point beyond their house. From there we got a good view of the next major town, with its large Catholic church prominently visible. The beach area near this town was also within view. Even more interesting to me was the view we had of the French island of Guadeloupe, which can't be seen from our village.
My three young guides—the church is the large building near the top of the next town, which stretches from the ocean up the hill.
As we turned around and headed back the couple of miles we had walked, the boys decided that they would also take me to the baths in the forest above our village. They let me stop at my place and change into my bathing suit, before heading up the creek (without a paddle—or a camera, hence no pictures from this part of the hike).

In the days before the water system came to my village, people would often bathe (and do laundry) in the nearby creeks and river. They would create what West Virginians might refer to as “swimming holes” by digging out a deeper part of the creek, and piling up the rocks on the downstream side to create a dam for additional depth. Although the flooding from Tropical Storm Erika damaged some of these, a few of them survived.

Despite my warnings, the boys enjoyed showing me their skills at jumping from large nearby rocks into these shallow pools. Thankfully, they knew what they were doing and everyone ended up fine. Obviously, I refrained from cannonballing into these pint-sized pools.

It ended up being a great day hike—from the spectacular views at the top of the ridge above the village, to the simple hike through the forest along the creek to several of their favorite swimming holes. Even though I've lived in this village for nearly a hundred days, I'm still discovering new and wonderful things to see and do here.

Our beach can be seen between the palm trees, and our school is just to the right of the right-most palm tree (one of my guides can also be seen relocating his tethered goat to a grassier spot).