Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The End of the Island

I had never been south of the capital city of Roseau until recently, when I took a trip that went all the way to the southwest end of our island. There, a narrow peninsula of land separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea. It is a very picturesque setting.
Yes, that is me trekking across the “land bridge.”
You can walk across the peninsula and then scale the heights of the rocky peak known as Scotts Head that marks the end of the island. The nearby French island of Martinique can be seen in the distance towards the south. I was surprised to discover that you could also see Roseau—it turns out that the offshore rock that I had noticed down the coast when I was in Roseau was actually Scotts Head itself. I had not realized how close the capital was to the southern end of the island.
The pounding surf of the Atlantic crashes into the beach on one side, while tourists snorkel in the calm, crystal clear, blue-green waters of the Caribbean on the other side. Back across the Caribbean side where the village of Scott's Head is located, brightly colored wooden fishing boats bob at anchor in the gentle waters of this protected bay.
There are remnants of centuries old fortifications built on this strategic point, back when European powers were fighting for control of these islands. There is at least one stone rampart still remaining with a rusty old cannon keeping watch over Scotts Head Bay. With grass and weeds growing up around it, I felt a bit like an archeologist making a new discovery.
After leaving Scott's Head, we drove a short distance to the north to visit the larger town of Soufriere. On the outskirts of this town, there are some hot springs that are located in a small park, where baths have been built for folks to relax in the supposedly therapeutic waters. The temperature is similar to very warm, but not uncomfortably hot, bath water. However, iron deposits in the mineral water give it a reddish-brown hue. We enjoyed this natural version of a hotel hot tub in the middle of the jungle, before making the long trek back to my home on the opposite corner of this island.
I'm sticking my arm into the pipe where the water enters the pool to see how hot it is when it first arrives.
If you ever visit Dominica as a tourist, I would highly recommend visiting these locations. Finally, as calendar year 2015 nears its end, I would like to thank you for reading my blog and following my adventures in the Peace Corps. There will be lots more to come on this beautiful island in 2016!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Indian River

A popular tourist attraction in Dominica is to take a cruise up the Indian River from its mouth at Portsmouth. Part of its popularity is that it was used in one (or more?) of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies (several important scenes from two Pirates of the Caribbean movies—Dead Man's Chest and At World's End—were filmed in Dominica). [In fact, the famous fight scene on the huge water wheel was filmed just a few miles from my village.]
[Picture “borrowed” from]
The only way to tour this beautiful river is by guided boats, without engines. The guides generally row with two oars set in the gunwales, but a few guides (including ours) prefer to stand and maneuver one long oar off the stern. I was able to take a picture of one of the other boats that we passed.
This allows for a leisurely cruise up this small river, with plenty of opportunities to observe the natural flora (such as mangrove and bwa mang trees) and fauna (fish, crabs, greenback herons, yellow crowned night herons, etc.). It can be eerily quiet at times, but that makes it easier to see the wildlife.
This river's first tributary that we encountered (but did not go up) actually originates at a hot spring in the Glanvillia suburb of Portsmouth (there are many volcanic hot springs on this island). A second tributary which we did travel up is where the shack that was built for the movie is located. It was left intact after the filming.
Another fascinating aspect was the concrete abutments and other twisted steel remnants of a railroad bridge that had been destroyed by Hurricane David in 1979 (see my previous story about my namesake storm).
At the farthest point possible upstream, there is a small “bush bar” where the boats dock. You can then hang out at the bar or hike the nearby trails. We saw huge termite nests, a black and green hummingbird, beautiful flowers, and other interesting sights. Then it was back into the boat to head downstream.
I enjoyed this little adventure and would recommend it to anyone visiting the area (especially since Dominica has no alligators, piranha, venomous snakes, etc.). I'll leave you with one last view of the swamp shack from the movie.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Some of you may have noticed in recent pictures how long my beard has grown. I usually keep it trimmed short, but I had decided to let it grow long for a purpose. The village council had asked if I would play the role of Santa Claus at the annual village Christmas party.

During my parenting days, I had tried to steer clear of the Santa Claus myth. I had mixed emotions about perpetuating a story that isn't true. All children eventually learn that their parents and others had misled them. I can remember how I felt when children at my elementary school were saying that Santa Claus wasn't real. I was a bit precocious for my age, so I decided to look it up in the encyclopedia, where I discovered that what those other children were saying was indeed true.

However, when you are in the Peace Corps, you must be flexible and try to conform to the culture in which you reside. Thus, it made sense for me to be Santa this year (last year, a woman on the village council had played the role). After all, not only am I the only white guy in village, but I also have a big belly and a white beard—how could I refuse? Plus, I enjoy the children of my village immensely, so I knew it would be a good thing to do. In fact, I had a great time!

The Santa Claus outfit included a fake beard and wig. I decided that I could get by with not putting a fake beard over top of my real beard—I would just go “au naturale.” This would also ease my conscience about the Santa myth, because my students would not need to try to guess if that was me playing Santa Claus—it would clearly be me inside Santa's clothing. They had already been commenting at school about my similarities to Santa, so hiding behind a wig and fake beard would have been pointless.

The only thing that went slightly wrong was that the Santa outfit was designed to be worn with black shoes—of which I had none. The idea was that you would wear black shoes, and the costume included some black, calf-length leggings that would make it appear as if you were wearing black boots. Since this was a last minute discovery, I opted to be a “Caribbean Claus” and just wear my sandals. Because of the boot leggings, the pants were trimmed just below the knee. However, that just made it seem as if Santa was wearing “beachcombers,” the three-quarter length pants that were around when I was young. It all worked out.

We took pictures with Santa for many of the youngsters that attended (along with several who were just “young at heart”). You can see all the pictures by clicking here.

Eventually, I took my black plastic trash bag full of candy and allowed each child to grab a handful. They were excited to reach into the bag and get their goodies. A good time was had by all!

By the way, the very next morning I trimmed my beard back. I'll have plenty of time to grow it back if I need to reprise my role at next year's party.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Christmas Banquet

As the fall term of the school year came to a close this week, my little school celebrated with a “banquet” for our students on the last day.
I'm with the contents for our gift bags after the box arrived a few weeks ago.
The teachers and principal cooked lots of good food, and we tried to decorate the classrooms to make it a fancy occasion. My primary job that day was keeping the kids occupied outside until the staff was ready for them.
Two of the teachers serving students at one of the food tables.
Students waiting patiently for their table to be called.
Some of our younger students enjoying their feast.
Believe me, this sweet little girl has every reason to be casting a suspicious glance at my mischievous little friend sitting next to her!
After the food was finished and cleaned up, it was time for the gift bags to be distributed. Thanks to a friend of mine from my college days, there was something to give to everyone. She put together and mailed these gift bags along with toothbrush kits, Christmas stickers, candy, and a nice pencil box, filled with a variety of pencils, erasers, and a small notebook. She also sent special gift bags for the teachers and principal. All I had to do was to pack them all. I can't adequately express how appreciative the students and staff were for her generosity.
Two friends pose with their gift bags
A fourth grader happily inspects his new pencil box.
Best of all, each child received one of those green glow-in-the-dark bracelets. This little gift (often found in discount stores) turned out to be a big hit with the students. Once it got dark, I witnessed about a dozen children running around Main Street, fascinated with their mysterious glowing bracelets (although most had decided to place them around their ankles, which made it more dramatic when their feet moved rapidly as they ran). I wish I had been able to take a decent picture of that unusual scene. I'm sure a lot of villagers will remember the night of the green glowing ankles!
A nice picture of our combined 2nd grade/3rd grade class with me and their teacher in front of the school.
Finally, I'd like to wish Happy Holidays to each of my blog readers. Thanks for following my Peace Corps adventure!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A "Hot" Shower

My family and close friends know that I have a tendency to be frugal, especially with energy costs. For example, the two cars I owned during the past decade and a half (a 2001 VW Jetta diesel and a 2009 Toyota Prius) both averaged nearly 50 miles per gallon.

My home electric bills were also notoriously low, in part because of my avoidance of whole house air conditioning. However, it was my gas bill that was perhaps the most surprising.

Besides keeping the thermostat ridiculously low in the winter (I didn't mind wearing layers inside my house, and I enjoyed sleeping under heavy blankets), I also made a point of not lighting my furnace until the first of December—and then turning it off as early in the spring as I dared.

Life in the Caribbean is a lot different for me this winter. As we near Christmas, the high temperatures continue to reach the mid- to upper-80s. However, there does seem to be a bit of a chill in the air at night, as the low temperatures overnight are nearing the 60s. The villagers are wearing long sleeves, sweaters, and other clothing to keep warm, although it doesn't seem to be quite that cold to me.

There is no such thing here as furnaces, clothes dryers, or hot water heaters as we know them. You only have one option at most water outlets, rather than both hot or cold options. During warm weather, there is no problem with a tepid shower. As the morning temperatures dipped lower, I started dreading that cold morning shower (but at least we have showers because of the good water supply on Dominica from all the fresh water lakes here, rather than the bucket baths I had to use in St. Lucia). However, I decided I wanted to wait until that same December 1st date I always targeted in previous winters before I dared to take a chance with the electric water heater in my little cottage. This heater is located in the shower head itself.

It wasn't just the impact on my electricity bill that made me put off using this option. There is something disconcerting to me to see electric wires running into my shower head. In the USA, we have been warned for generations about the danger of electrical appliances around water. There was even a James Bond movie I remember where he electrocuted a bad guy in a bathtub in this manner.

What makes it even worse down here is that the electric grid here is based on 220 volts (as in Europe and other locations), rather than the 110 volts that you find in the USA. There are efficiency advantages to the higher voltage, but it is also more lethal. That is one reason why these showerhead water heaters get a grisly (but apparently undeserved) nickname—suicide showers.

Everyone uses them, however, and the folks I talked with about them told me not to worry. Seeing that there were three wires running to my shower head made me feel a bit better, because that meant it had a ground wire. Hopefully the 220 volt electricity would not run through my wet body to get to the ground.

I held off as long as I could, but eventually I decided to give it a try. Since the start of December, I've been flipping the wall switch and heating my shower water on cooler mornings. So far, I haven't had any problems. There may even be some good arguments for using on-demand electrical water heaters, rather than trying to keep a 40 gallon hot water tank constantly heated in your basement.

Needless to say, though, I make sure that I keep my hands down and away from that strange shower head when it is turned on. But even here in the tropics, that extra warmth in the morning is pretty nice!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Credit Unions, plus the Prime Minister

When I began my federal career back in 1985, I immediately joined the NASA Federal Credit Union. It just made sense to me to join a credit union, especially when they operated in the same building where I worked. The variety of financial services they offered (including the excellent customer service) was just as important as the convenience. For these same reasons, I joined the credit union at my workplace in Parkersburg when I transferred there, and still maintain an account there to this day.

Credit unions are also an essential part of the history of the Peace Corps. I learned from reading a few books about the Peace Corps that starting credit unions was an early emphasis for the new agency as they got started in various Third World countries. It was an important way of helping poor people to be able to save money and get loans that big banks would not make.

Thus, I was pleased when I moved to Dominica and discovered that my host mom and my host sister both worked for Dominica's National Co-operative Credit Union (NCCU). More importantly, there is a sub-branch of this credit union in our village, which is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as a branch in the capital city of Roseau. That is important because the Peace Corps requires us to open a bank account at a certain international bank in the capital. This is because this particular international bank has offices on all four islands where we serve, so the Peace Corps can electronically distribute money to all volunteers with one transaction.

Thus, I simply withdraw my monthly Peace Corps allowance from the big international bank (located in the capital which is an hour and a half bus ride away from my village), walk up the street, and deposit it in the NCCU's Roseau branch. Once it is in my account, I can easily get it out over the month from the sub-branch in my village. Not very many other Peace Corps Volunteers have branches in their villages, so I feel very lucky.

Some of you might notice that this arrangement still requires a long bus trip once a month to the capital city. Yes, indeed it does, but Dominica's education system is set up with a day off near the end of each month. This day off is known as "salary day," because it was the day that teachers from all over the island came to the capital to get their money. Life in the Third World is not the same as in America, where electronic banking, countless ATMs, and other conveniences abound.

One noble aspect of a credit union is that members have a voice in how they operate. Yesterday, there was a special general meeting of the NCCU to consider a resolution allowing two other independent credit unions to join our national network. It was held at the school in Vieille Case, a town not far from my village. Buses don't run on Sundays, but the NCCU made arrangements to provide transportation from all the villages they serve to get to this afternoon meeting. They also provided a box lunch and drinks for those who came.

A couple hundred people were there (enough to meet the regulations for a quorum). Upon registering, attendees were given an official ballot. After the meeting was convened, questions about the merger were answered, and eventually the time came for voting. It was “democracy in action” as everyone deposited their marked ballots into the ballot box. Once everyone had voted, the ballots were counted one-by-one for all to see. The resolution was approved with about 90% in favor.

Today (Monday), I returned to the exact same location. The massive tent and folding chairs on the Vieille Case school's front lawn had been left in place for a special occasion. A Dominica native who now resides in England had recently been elected to be the head of the Commonwealth Nations—the grouping of all former countries of the British Empire. The Prime Minister of Dominica had arranged to honor her ascension by changing the name of the primary school he had attended to the Baroness Patricia Scotland Primary School.

This was a big political event, and in addition to the Vieille Case school children, two other nearby schools (including the one where I work) were invited to bring their students along in their colorful uniforms to mark the occasion. After all the speeches were over, everyone was treated to free refreshments (similar to what had been served at the NCCU function the previous afternoon).

At the conclusion, I had the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, on the school grounds (as shown above in a picture taken by one of my students). It was quite an honor to shake his hand and talk briefly with the head of my host country. All in all, it was an interesting couple of days spent in the city down the road. But then again, virtually every day in the Peace Corps is an interesting day!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Van Tour

As I've previously written, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) around the world are not allowed to operate a motor vehicle. We must “make do” with the local transportation system, which in my case means various vans that operate on routes Monday through Friday, with lesser coverage on Saturday, and virtually none on Sunday.

However, some of my colleagues came up with a way for us to take a driving tour of parts of the island last Saturday. The local boyfriend of one of the PCVs rented a van and drove it, so we could do our own little tour. It was fun to ride around with a van full of your friends, rather than sharing a bus ride with total strangers.

That's me with four of my colleagues sitting under a rock overhang near the crashing surf during our visit to L'Escalier Tete Chien, described further below.
We got off to a late start (as typically happens with so many folks involved, all coming from different directions). Our first stop was for a snack at this beach.
Then we headed into the Kalinago Territory, which is a 3700 acre area that the British reserved for the Carib natives who had originally inhabited Dominica (Kalinago is now the preferred term for this indigenous tribe). It has a population of about 3,000 descendents of Dominica's original inhabitants, ruled by a chief, and the land is owned communally. They don't like the term “Indian reservation,” but there is a similarity. It is one of the only—and the largest (by far)—community of natives in the Caribbean. The rugged, mountainous lands in this isolated area allowed them to maintain their culture.

Our destination was the L'Escalier Tete Chien, which roughly translates into the stairway of the dog's head. This name has nothing to do with dogs, but instead with snakes. While Dominica does not have any poisonous snakes, there are a few boa constrictors. Someone thought that these snakes appeared to have a head shaped similarly to a dog's head, thus their name became Tete Chien (head, dog). [By the way, I get the impression that there are very few boa constrictors on this island, and those that are here are likely deep in the interior and not around my little coastal village—besides, I'd rather take my chances with a boa any day, compared to the copperheads we have back home.]

The L'Escalier Tete Chien is a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, which was formed by a lava flow. There is a native legend that a giant boa constrictor swam from South America and came ashore at this point, continuing up the hill to a cave near the top of the mountain. The lava flow where it entered the sea, and where the serpent supposedly emerged, reminds some folks of a staircase, hence the name (below shows some of us working our way down to the ocean).

Regardless of the accuracy of this legend, there are plenty of beautiful views here (including a view of a major landslide which likely occurred during Tropical Storm Erika—see the picture below). I especially enjoyed watching the powerful waves crashing against the rocky shoreline from underneath the rock overhang shown in the first picture in this story.
After our hike, we headed down to Castle Bruce, where we enjoyed a picnic at this beach.
We then left the Atlantic side and crossed the interior of the island to the capital of Roseau on the Caribbean side. Unfortunately, we did not have time to stop at Emerald Falls even though we drove by it. We wanted to get to the Caribbean side so that we could watch the sun setting into the sea.

Upon arrival, we drove to the top of a nearby hill known as Jack's Bluff. It provided an impressive view of Dominica's capital city. A huge Carnival cruise ship was docked downtown that day. You can see it in the lower left corner of the picture below, as well as the cricket stadium in the upper right corner. In the foreground below our perch on the hill is the Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, clouds prevented a nice sunset picture.

We topped off our driving tour with a quick little night time swim at Mero Beach (too dark for pictures) on the way home. All in all, it was a fun day exploring my island with my Peace Corps friends.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Space Station Sees Us!

I'm not a "tweeter." I've avoided Twitter because I'm too long-winded to be confined to just 140 characters. Those who do conform with this space limitation often resort to terrible grammar and spelling shortcuts, which I loathe. I'm also too security conscious to be clicking on mysterious URLs—shortening the address makes it harder to figure out exactly where it is going to take you. Besides, I already waste too much time on social media (I need to finish reading that 684 page Sargent Shriver biography!).

Thus, I don't “follow” the official Peace Corps Twitter account, and did not know that they tweeted a link to the my Space Station story that was published on their blog recently ( However, in an e-mail exchange yesterday, the woman at Peace Corps Headquarters who works on their blog told me this: “I'm excited to tell you that the International Space Station retweeted our tweet promoting your blog...”

Wow! That is big news to me. The International Space Station Twitter account was used for the first tweet from space back in 2009. I'm not positive that the six astronauts aboard the Space Station actually read my story, but at least someone in an official capacity at NASA felt it was worthy of a tweet from the orbiting station's account.

The official @Space_Station Twitter account has over 353,000 followers. When combined with the 662,000 people who follow the official @PeaceCorps account, that means that a million “twits” were notified about my story. Plus, other folks also retweeted it to their followers. Of course, not everyone bothered to read it, but it still boggles my mind!

Best of all, though, was the short but encouraging words that were used in the Space Station tweet (see both tweets in the picture below). In response to the Peace Corps talking about my kids watching them fly overhead for the first time, they replied “Awesome! Thanks for looking up!” [I bet it would have been even more inspirational if Twitter didn't limit you to only 140 characters!]

Of course, when I told the combined 2nd & 3rd grade class about this news today, some of them thought that it meant the astronauts had seen us looking up at them as they passed overhead. I had to explain yet again that while we could see the Space Station, they could not see the people gathered at dusk on the playground 250 miles below them. At least it got them thinking about the wonders of space!