Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Tale of Two Birthdays

First, I should explain that I try not to publicly announce my birthday. When you get to be my age, birthdays are not nearly the exciting event they were during my youth. After you hit the quarter of a century mark, you start realizing that birthdays are only acknowledging how old you are getting, and bringing you nearer to your ultimate demise.

Plus, with all the identity thieves and other ne'er-do-wells, I avoid posting my birthday as much as possible, including on Facebook. I realize lots of you enjoy getting a flood of birthday wishes from your Facebook friends, but ever since I joined Facebook about a decade ago, I kept my birth date hidden for security reasons. I choose not to acknowledge the birthdays of my friends, because I just think everyone would be safer if we kept that essential identifier hidden.

Thus, it is with some trepidation that I embark on this story. By discussing birthdays in this blog post, I am acknowledging that I had one recently—but I won't state how recently. Hopefully that will provide enough cover (although a determined hacker can find out just about anything on all of us). I just request that my friends refrain from plastering my Facebook wall with belated birthday wishes. I appreciate your good intentions, but the less said about how old I'm getting, the better.

I bring up the topic of birthdays to discuss my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and how things progress from the first year to the second year. Last year, I pretty much kept my birthday a secret, but I wanted to do something special to celebrate my birthday. I decided that if I left school as soon as it was dismissed, I could probably catch a bus to take me to Portsmouth, Dominica's second largest city. Once there, I could go to the pizza shop in town and get a large carry-out pizza to bring home and enjoy. A large pizza would be something that I had not had since leaving the states, and could provide me with a couple of meals. It would be a way to do something special to privately observe my birthday.

It took awhile, but I was able to catch a bus to town that day. Then I waited in the pizza shop for my delicious pizza to be baked. I paid the $45 (Eastern Caribbean dollars), even though it was a bit of a “sticker shock” for someone accustomed to using coupons to buy take-out pizza for less than $10. I carried that aromatic big flat box home with me on another bus, and walked through my village before finally getting to my house. I opened it up and enjoyed a grand birthday meal right out of the box (and enjoyed leftovers for a couple of days).

I still have that pizza box in my kitchen over a year later. One doesn't throw something like that away here, because you never know when you might need a good flat cardboard box for some other purpose. However, it is a reminder that in one full year, I've only had one pizza box, whereas in America I might have had one per month.

During my second year here, I've got to know a lot of the people here better. I'm much more ensconced in my school and my community. I wanted to do something different to celebrate my latest birthday rather than making another hectic pizza run at the end of the day.

This year, our school started a fledgling lunch program. The children are encouraged (but it isn't an ironclad requirement, because we don't want a child to go hungry) to bring a dollar a day (or to bring some sort of in-kind food donation). Two of our parents cook a lunch for the whole school each day. The menu varies depending on what food is brought in, but usually a satisfying meal is produced. However, there is never any desserts with our “barely break even” lunch program.

I decided that this year, I would celebrate my birthday at school, by arranging for a huge birthday cake to share with the staff and children. I paid our cook $60 to make a nice large cake. Given the upcoming Christmas holiday, she chose to bake a fruitcake (which tasted to me not so much like one of those Claxton fruitcakes, but more like an applesauce cake with raisins and maraschino cherries). She also covered it with delicious frosting.

Needless to say, this was a HUGE hit with all our students. They eagerly finished their cheese bakes (fried dough with cheese slices placed inside, a popular lunch item) that day so that they could have dessert. Everyone gathered around as the cake was cut into 40 pieces. There had been talk of birthday candles, but no one down here had any, so I was spared from trying to blow out all those candles.

The children were so excited to get birthday cake at school! It was the most satisfying present I could have received, to see them enjoying this rare treat. Even though I spent more money, and got less food, it was well worth it! I got lots of birthday hugs from all the children, and they enjoyed singing happy birthday to me.

At the end of the school day, we had a special assembly, where a student came forward to present me with a gift bag (as shown above). Some of the teachers had purchased a Dominica hat, Dominica coffee cup, and a Dominica key chain for me. While they didn't need to give my any presents at all, I was grateful for the sentiment that these small Dominican gifts represented.

However, the best birthday gift this year was seeing the kids enjoy their dessert. It is part of a life lesson that I am learning during my Peace Corps experience—it is truly better to give than to receive. Unlike last year's birthday, I will long remember this birthday!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Santa Under Arrest?

Tis the season—the season for anyone with a long white beard and a bit of heft to get asked to play Santa Claus. After my debut as Santa last year at my village's Christmas party, I got my first invitation this year to take my act on the road. Actually, about five and a half miles up the crooked road that runs up the Atlantic coast. One of the members of the newest class of Peace Corps Volunteers works at a school north of me, and he and his principal conspired to have me play Santa Claus for their school's Christmas party on Sunday evening.

The Santa Claus outfit I used last year was not available, but I was able to borrow a hat. Wearing a red shirt and a pair of white shorts, it was decided that I would be “Santa on a last minute vacation in the Caribbean.” After all, that heavy outfit he wears on Christmas Eve is way too hot to put on down here.

Best of all, they arranged for the local police officer to pick me up in my village and deliver me to the school party in the police car (which is actually a truck here). The policeman even turned on the flashing lights to impress the school children, as shown in the photo below when I arrived.

Immediately the children gathered around me, and I tried to talk to each of them. Some of them wanted to touch my beard, which of course I allowed. You can see the front of the primary school (painted dark green) in the background of the photo below. The event took place at dusk along the road out front.
I was encouraged to take a seat off to the side while some of the school classes made there way up front to sing the Christmas songs that each class had rehearsed. This one small boy came over and just wanted to stand with me during the singing.
Then, they had me sit in a chair next to their Christmas tree. Prior to the event, all the student's parents had been asked to bring a gift labeled for their child for Santa to give out at the school Christmas party. A teacher would read the name for each gift into the microphone (visible behind me in the picture below), and then the students would come up front to get their gift (and to get their picture taken with Santa Claus).
All in all, it was a fun evening! Since I was not well known in this village, I think the children were surprised to see a Santa appear who looked somewhat similar to pictures they have seen. Hopefully, I helped to spread a little joy that evening. Best of all, I had a fun time riding in the police vehicle. However, I hope it is the only manner in which I am ever picked up by the police!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Godspeed, John Glenn!

As I watch another year come to an end, I have lost another one of my childhood heroes—John Glenn. Serving in the Peace Corps has made me even more nostalgic for the early 1960s Kennedy era that I can just barely remember. The NASA and the Peace Corps were two of President Kennedy's most important programs.

I'm not sure if I specifically remember Glenn's Atlas-Mercury flight in the Friendship 7, the first American flight to orbit the Earth. However, I do remember at least some of the Mercury space flights. I think I also remember the ticker-tape parades that some of these Cold War heroes received upon their return.

That is why when Senator John Glenn took a ride on the Space Shuttle in 1998, I wanted to show my appreciation. I drove an hour or so north from my home in West Virginia to the small Ohio town of New Concord. In 1962, he had received a huge welcome home parade in his little hometown, and they were going to try and recreate it in December 1998. I don't have any photographs from that day, but I did find this neat NASA photograph of Glenn with his beloved wife Annie in the 1962 parade in New Concord.

Because space flight had become routine, and most Americans were rather nonchalant about it, there was not an overwhelming crowd this time. However, New Concord put its best foot forward and those like myself who made the trek got a good taste of his hometown's hospitality. I especially remember some homemade versions of the Space Shuttle and his Mercury capsule that were pulled on floats, interspersed among marching bands, in the parade.

I also remember running into Niki Wenger, the West Virginia Teacher in Space finalist who had worked at NASA when I was there in the 1980s. We had an enjoyable conversation as we awaited Senator Glenn's remarks in the gymnasium of his alma mater, Muskingum University.

All in all, it was a very good day, and it is enjoyable to remember it on this otherwise sad occasion. I'm glad I made the effort to pay tribute to this admirable American. It is disappointing to know that all the original Mercury astronauts are now gone. I guess it is a sign that I'm getting old. At least I'm doing what I can to pass along an interest in space to the students here in my village.

As backup astronaut Scott Carpenter famously wished him during the launch, “Godspeed, John Glenn!” Thanks for the memories!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The QM2

Yesterday I had to make the hour-and-a-half trip to Roseau, Dominica's capital city. As the weather gets cold further north, it becomes cruise ship season here, and some days there are big ships in port. Seeing these ships docked allows me to reminisce about the time I first set foot on Dominica while on a cruise about ten years ago (never dreaming that someday I'd live here).
While this country needs the dollars brought in through tourism, it is a mixed blessing for residents, since the town becomes more crowded and traffic gets tied up. This is a conundrum faced by locals at tourist destinations everywhere. Overall, I think it is worth the hassles. Personally, I hope the visitors get to see what a fantastic island this truly is.
On this particular day, the ship in port was something special. I got to see the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Queen Mary 2. I can remember when I was young and watching Walter Cronkite every night (and maybe it was in those Weekly Readers at school) the stories about how the original RMS Queen Mary was being retired and anchored at Long Beach, California, to become a floating hotel and museum.
The Queen Mary 2 (QM2) is from the old breed of passenger ships, and was built for transatlantic cruises between Europe and America. Constructed in 2003, she is largest ocean liner ever built—1132 feet long and over 236 feet tall (just squeezing under New York's Verazzano Narrows Bridge). Her top speed is about 35 MPH, with a typical cruising speed of 30 MPH (much faster than a contemporary cruise ship). It boasts fifteen restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a casino, a ballroom, a theatre, and the first planetarium at sea.
The QM2 can carry more than 3000 passengers, with a crew of about 1250. Usually it runs back and forth between New York City and Southampton, England. It is currently in the middle of a 27 day cruise to the Caribbean, having departed from England on November 19, with an initial stop in New York (which will also be the final stop before heading back). Dominica is the southernmost island it is visiting on this trip, with stops already made at St. Maarten and St. Kitts, and with remaining stops in both the British as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While visiting town this day, I happened to run into one of my students. He took the picture of me at the top of this story, and then I took a couple of him shown above and below. It was fun to see him in the capital city. I also took him up to see our Peace Corps office.
As I was leaving town, I made one more pass along the waterfront. I met one of the other Peace Corps Volunteers who was admiring this nautical masterpiece. He later sent me the beautiful picture below that he took from a spot south of town (thanks, Lew!).
All in all, it was a good day. I left with a backpack full of much needed groceries, as well as the memory of seeing this famous ship.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Fidel Castro's death is a significant event, whether you like him or loathe him. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer on a Caribbean island, I am experiencing the reaction in a much different way that I would have experienced it had I been at home in the USA. The government here has ordered all flags to be flown at half staff until after the weekend in his honor. There has been a lot of coverage on the local news here (I don't have a television, but I regularly listen to the news on the radio, which is how most of the folks in my village get their news). There has been some sort of local story about Castro every day since his death.

I'm too young to remember the Batista regime, the revolution that put Castro in power, the Bay of Pigs, or even the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear devastation. Growing up, I would have known Castro as a terrible Communist dictator. Once I was in college, I learned that this situation was like so many other things—rather than a simple black and white dichotomy, there was a lot of gray area. Everyone wants things to be simple, but things are almost always more complicated than most people realize.

This does not mean that I think Castro was a hero—he has many flaws. Like most autocrats, he came into office with many promises, but failed to deliver on them. However, for many small countries such as Dominica, he is admired because he made his island country well known throughout the world. He survived countless assassination attempts (including by our CIA), and basically thumbed his nose at the West. Heck, I even have a student in my school named Fidel—I doubt that would happen in American schools (when I hear the word “Fidel” now, I think of my little buddy rather than a dictator).

The healthcare system in Cuba is much better than most small countries, and Cuba has regularly supplied other countries with doctors and nurses—including Dominica. I remember seeing some white people in Portsmouth last year who were not in a touristy area, so they caught my eye. I wondered what their story was, and I found out they were Cubans who were sent here to work in the hospital. The Cuban government also provides a lot of college scholarships for Dominicans to come to Cuba to study medicine, engineering, architecture, etc. Dominicans need and appreciate the assistance Cuba provides.

Personally, I'd be interested in visiting Cuba, if for nothing else than to see all the American cars from the 1950s that they have managed to keep running. The five-decade American embargo never got the desired result of fomenting a revolt against Castro. I'm glad that some moves have been made by the current administration in the last couple of years to ease these restrictions. It seems to me that one way to help Cubans would be to allow people to travel and mingle freely. Now that Fidel Castro is gone, maybe it will be easier to re-examine the USA's overall relationship with this island country, located a mere 90 miles from Florida. However, it is hard to tell what the next administration will do on this topic (as well as many others).

In the meantime, I'll just enjoy my school days with my little friend Fidel, who will forevermore be the person I think about when I hear that particular iconic name.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

What's SUP?

I finally got the chance to try a stand-up paddleboard, also known by the acronym SUP. They have become a very hot trend in outdoor recreation. The first time I ever saw a SUP in action was at Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania (not far from Morgantown, WV) about half a dozen years ago. There is a 20 foot waterfall there on the Youghiogheny River where, for one day each summer, they allow kayakers to go over the falls. It is amazing to watch the kayakers paddle over the cliff and then bob up in the pool below. But even more amazing was watching a guy, standing on his paddleboard, go over the falls and come out of the mist still standing on his board. Incredible!
Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Dominica, so the Peace Corps Volunteers here celebrated by gathering at Toucarie Bay on Saturday. We had a great time socializing, and ate an incredible pot luck dinner, which included barbecued turkey wings and pumpkin pie (although not the lobster that the chef let me hold in the picture below). But one of the best things is that the beach bar where our event was held also has stand-up paddleboards and kayaks for rent. I visited there for the first time about two months ago and rented a kayak (see that previous story here). However, I decided that I wanted to try the SUP if I came back.
Thanks to the Internet, I contacted a friend of mine from high school who started SUPping this summer, and she gave me some great tips for a rookie. I got the SUP into the water, and was able to get up on my hands and knees with no problem. I worried a bit about the next step—going from a crouch into a full standing position. Fortunately, I was able to do it on my first try.
Once I was up, I realized how much a person uses their leg muscles to maintain your balance. Even though your legs aren't moving, you are constantly tensing one leg or the other to react to the wind or the waves. Toucarie is on the Caribbean side, so the waves aren't big, but they are a factor. The bigger problem for me was that as you get further away from the shore, the sea breeze would intermittently kick up (and then disappear with no warning), making things extra challenging.
As I worked my way around the bay, I discovered that I was not making much progress when I was paddling into the wind. Not only was it buffeting me, requiring more focus on balance and less on power, but for every stroke forward it would blow me backwards about half a stroke. I worked hard to get back to the beach bar. I was almost back to the beach when I goofed up and fell off backward, ruining my perfect debut.
I am thrilled that I tried the SUP, and that I was able to do it (that had been a big question mark in my mind). However, I decided to trade it in for a kayak, whose lower profile would not be affected as much by the wind. I had a great time exploring the area around Toucarie Bay in the kayak. I'm looking forward to returning there someday to snorkle, which I didn't end up doing because Saturday was a day to converse with my fellow Peace Corps friends. It is rare for us to gather together in a tourist location rather than the office. Trying the SUP and kayaking was fun, but the best part was spending time with friends. It is truly something to be thankful for during this Thanksgiving season.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Book Fair!

My primary responsibility as a Peace Corps Volunteer here is to improve the literacy of school children. As such, one of my tasks is running our school library. During my first year, I had a nice, albeit small, room upstairs that became our library. Each of the three classes downstairs (kindergarten/1st grade, 2nd/3rd grade, and 4th/5th grade—we had no 6th graders last year) had a specific day and time scheduled each week to come up to the library for books.

This year, our children advanced one grade, meaning that we now had 6th graders. The Ministry of Education alloted us a new teacher, but we also needed a new classroom. Thus, the little room that served as my library last year was converted into a classroom. The library shelves were relocated to the hallway area outside the principal's office—a smaller, tighter area, but it was the best we could do given the particular circumstances. In an effort to push academics harder, the weekly designated 10-minute library periods for each class were removed from the class schedules. Instead, students would simply check out and return library books during their lunch and morning breaks (assuming I was around at the time to log the transaction).

I was supportive of all these administrative decisions. However, I noticed that the circulation rate for my little library had declined this year compared with last year. Yet I knew I had "an ace up my sleeve" that would improve the situation and spark the joy of reading for my students. Brand new books were on their way!

There is a great American charity that supports school libraries in the Eastern Caribbean region called Hands Across The Sea. They had sent a shipment of new books last fall that really jump-started my tenure as school librarian. The children get very excited about new books to read! Because at least one of my friends had made a donation to them last November (during their special 3:1 matching grant period), I knew I would also get another new shipment of incredible books this fall (for example, the World Book science set pictured above). [By the way, the 3:1 match is underway again until November 29. It is a great way for even a small donation to make a big difference. Plus, by designating it for my school, you will get a personalized thank you card (with picture) from one of my students. Please click on this page for more details before this special deal expires.]
Because of customs hassles, it took a little longer for the shipment to arrive this year. However, it was certainly worth the wait. It was like Christmas morning as the principal and I opened the boxes this week (that is the two of us in the picture above). I'm so impressed with the fantastic new books they sent, especially the non-fiction books that I had requested (I feel that I benefited immensely from reading non-fiction books, and so I'm trying to pass along that love of non-fiction to my students). Heck, I wanted to read many of the 200+ books they sent for myself, such as some of the following examples.

Since the Road Runner cartoon show was one of my favorites as a child, this well-written non-fiction book gets my personal prize as the best of the new books. It teaches them simple physics by analyzing Wile E. Coyote's mistakes. The picture below shows both the front and back covers.

Similarly, below is a book that teaches science based on Batman.
They also sent some beautiful National Geographic books.
The books in the pictures above are just a mere fraction of the fantastic books they sent to us. After opening the boxes, I had to inscribe the inside cover to show the donor, the date, and our school. I then had to record each book into a log book of donations that we keep. Then, each book gets a green, blue, or yellow dot taped on the spine, to designate them as being for advanced, intermediate, or beginning readers. I always add a white stripe (cut from the extra paper surrounding each dot) to easily sort the non-fiction from the fiction (see my previous blog post with pictures about this process). Between all my other duties at school, it took several days to process hundreds of books.

It dawned on me that we needed to hold a book fair to showcase all these new books. Book fairs are a common occurrence in American elementary schools, but are rarely held in Dominica. This was the perfect time to introduce my school and village to the concept.

Just stuffing them on our limited shelving space would make it hard for the children to really see all these great new books. By inviting the children to come to the school on a Saturday afternoon, we could place all the books face up on tables where they could easily examine them. We could also sell some of older books that we need to remove from our shelves to make room for all these new ones. Plus, we could sell some snacks and drinks to raise some much needed money for the school. The staff agreed with this idea, so in just a couple of days, we threw together our first book fair. The children were informed, signs were put up around the community, and an announcement was made on our school's Facebook page. We weren't sure what to expect in terms of participation, but we figured it was worth a try.

On Saturday morning, another teacher and myself arrived early. The folding walls between the three classes were swung back, and desks were pushed together (plus covered with cloth) to form six tables. Signs were made denoting the six tables for the fiction and non-fiction versions of the three Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced book categories. The books were then arrayed on each table to optimize viewing of their covers. It was the best way for the children to peruse all these great new books.

We started the afternoon with a “celebrity” Read Aloud session led by a member of the Village Council, who used one of the new extra large picture books that were included in this shipment (a student holds one of these oversized books in the picture above). [I can remember performing several celebrity Read Aloud sessions at book fairs when I served on our county school board.] Finally, the students were allowed to enter the ground floor of our school building to peruse the books.
We sold quite a few of our used books at a dollar apiece, as well as sandwiches, cookies (known as “bisquits” here), and juice drinks. Children could also pay a dollar for a chance to reach into a big box and pull out a prize (this is called a “Prize Dip” or just a “Dip”). I'm not sure how much money we made, but the total doesn't matter—every little bit counts here.
One of my joys (after I explained the premise to them) was seeing how much fun they had searching for Waldo in their very first “Where's Waldo” book. The photo above shows eight boys huddled around the Waldo book collectively searching for the elusive fellow in the red and white striped shirt. Many of the students were not just picking their favorite book that they would choose later in the afternoon, but were also planning which subsequent books they would check out from the library--Where's Waldo is probably on several lists.
Towards the end of the day, we allowed the students to choose a book from the tables to take home (in other words, rather than waiting until the books get relocated to the library shelves upstairs, we opened the library log book and let them get a new library book on a Saturday). This was done in seniority (6th graders first, kindergarten last) order. Seeing the excitement about their new books on their faces made all the hard work setting everything up worthwhile!

We finished the afternoon with a prize drawing. I had five kites (which the children love flying on our playing field) that I had brought back with me, which I had decided to donate for this event. With one of them, I also added a few of those glowsticks that can be curled into bracelets. I explained that this kite was a “night kite” because you could bend the glowsticks, attach to the kite, and fly your kite after dark. The boys especially were excited about this prospect. It will be interesting to see if this idea works out successfully.

As I write this on Saturday night, I look back on this first Book Fair with mixed emotions. I had hoped to have more people turn out on a Saturday afternoon (we had about two dozen of our nearly three dozen students, plus various community members). I would have liked to have sold all the used books we had, and made more money for the school. However, one of the things I am learning in Peace Corps is that you cannot control everything, and that I should feel good that we pulled off this event in a relatively short timespan of just a few days. The good news is that I am sure this will “jump start” the excitement about reading at our school, and will have an immediate impact on the circulation rate problem that I had noted earlier.

One more interesting thing happened this day. Just like when I left the school after Community Service Day, our local fisherman had returned with an unusual catch. On that day, I had purchased my first shark to cook. On this day, I purchased my first lion fish (see a picture below). This invasive species is from the Indo-Pacific area, but has been proliferating in the Atlantic where it has no natural predators. It is believed that humans caused this invasion by dumping unwanted lion fish from home aquariums. To combat this invader, people are being encouraged to eat this fish. It is very healthy and quite tasty! I certainly enjoyed my fried lion fish, and will buy it again whenever I can. It was a good way to end a productive day.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Diabetes March

The nurses from our village health center visited the school last week. They wanted us to do a parade through the village on Friday morning as part of a diabetes awareness initiative. Dominica is known for having an inordinate amount of people who live beyond age 100, but the island also has a growing problem with diabetes. So on Thursday afternoon, we worked on creating signs to carry as part of our street march.

I helped make many of these signs (I started running out of alliterative slogans after “Defeat Diabetes,” “Deter Diabetes,” “Defend Against Diabetes,” “Don't Die From Diabetes,” etc.) while demonstrating different font styles (they seemed to really like my overlapping big block letters that look as if they were mashed together). It was a fun art experience during school hours for children who, unlike American students, don't get much art time (or have a lot of art resources with which to create art). Below is one of the signs I hurriedly created that afternoon before we all went home at the end of the day.

On Friday morning, all the staff wore their green shirts I brought back from Morgantown, while the students wore their green shirts I got at the Shirt Factory in Parkersburg. Our bright green apparel matches the bright green shirts that comprise our school's uniform which are worn on most days. Below is a picture taken by one of our staff members using her “selfie stick”—complete with a “photo bomb” by one of our students.
The next photo shows the start of our march, as the students left their classrooms in single file, with the Atlantic Ocean visible beyond the road.
I ran ahead to get a photo from the bridge as they marched adjacent to the playing field.
We gathered at the bus stop for an informative talk with the nurses about the symptoms and causes of diabetes. In the background, the Atlantic is visible through the palm trees.
Then we proceeded to march up through the village. These pictures will give you a sense of our little village.
We turned around just before the hill steepens leading to the upper part of the village, known as Green City. Here the nurse gets them organized again before we head back down through the main part of the village.
In the background of the picture below, you can see some of the houses up in Green City. All the while, the nurse was leading the children in various diabetes related chants and cheers.
Here the students come down past the heart of our downtown. The local branch of the credit union is the blue and gold building surrounded by fencing—it is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
We then stopped again at the bus stop for some refreshments. Here is another selfie stick photo (taken further up the road) showing me with two of the teachers.
Then we headed back to school. This photo shows the students making the turn into our school driveway. It had been a fun (and educational) morning!
Finally, I thought it was interesting that some of the rulers our school possesses were donated by the National Wild Turkey Federation (there are plenty of wild turkeys in my home state of West Virginia). These wooden rulers are leftovers from their JAKES (Juniors Acquiring Knowledge Ethics and Sportsmanship) Day events. Not only do we use them for measurements and straight line drawing, they also were perfect for taping signs onto for our march. Thank you, NWTF!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Soap on a Rope

Sometimes it is the little things that count. Friday was a big day for me, as I recounted in my previous blog story about the National Day of Community Service. However, today saw a minor victory, too. While some of you might question whether this is worthy of a blog post, I'd still like to share it with you.

This year, we have an official school lunch program. Two of our parents (both of whom got their food handler certifications) come upstairs each morning to work in our small kitchen, preparing a lunch for students and staff. Students are encouraged to bring lunch money each day, or bring in-kind donations of food. Thus it is not all that unusual to see students arriving in the morning with plantains, breadfruit, dasheen, cucumbers, seasoning peppers, etc. I know I do my part to keep this program going! The food I eat at school is probably my best meal of the day, and certainly beats the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I used to bring.

For the first two months this school year, students would take their plates and find a seat wherever they could around the outside of the school. We have two benches near the school, but there wasn't enough room for everyone to eat on them. It wasn't uncommon for them to simply sit on the ground.

Thankfully, the National Co-operative Credit Union gave us a donation to purchase four wooden picnic tables. A big project on National Day of Community Service was to install anchoring hardware on the legs, dig holes, level up the tables, and pour concrete to set the tables permanently. The assistance from the visiting Seamester college students on this particular work project was greatly appreciated.

Over the weekend, I got thinking about our new lunch tables. They are near the end of the school where we have an exterior water spigot. However, there is no soap there, so students wishing to wash their hands before eating need to go to our bathrooms to clean up. It would be more convenient (and perhaps encourage more to wash their hands) if they could just go over to the nearby "pipe" (as it is called here).

So, I asked our cook if I could have a leftover mesh bag which had held some garlic. I cut some yellow cord that I had brought with me (part of my “MacGyver stuff”). I dug out a big plastic bin that had contained some mints that had been mailed to me (because down here I've learned to save everything—you never know when a cardboard tube or a plastic container might come in handy).

Once I had my supplies, I used my multi-tool to “drill” a small hole in the bottom of the bin. I then threaded the yellow cord through the hole, dropped a white bar of soap into the mesh net, tied that bag to the cord, and carried it to school this morning. Once there, I tied it to the vent pipe that runs next to the water pipe.

The upside-down clear plastic bin provides coverage so that the rain showers we get here periodically won't cause the soap to wear down prematurely. The students can now wet their hands, reach up into the large plastic bin, rub their hands on the soap surrounded by netting, and then rinse the soap off their hands.

The staff and students seemed pleased with my little invention. It worked perfectly today. The principal wondered if I could make more of them as a fundraiser to sell to other schools (I think she was joking, but it is hard to tell down here). I hope it continues to work well and helps to avoid the sharing of germs at school.

Now that you can tell how excited I can get over something as simple as my “soap-on-a-rope,” you might better understand why Friday was such a special day.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Best Day (So Far)

It was nearly 9:00 PM last night as I walked up the rocky path in the darkness of the jungle with only my little LED flashlight. After a long, hot, work filled day, I just had to take a shower before getting my tired body into bed. However, I had come home to discover there was no running water (Americans should never take the ability to turn on your spigot and get water for granted!). It seems that while cutting down a nearby tree, a limb had crashed down and broke the waterline to my cottage. Thus, I had to trudge up the hill in the dark to shower at the spring. Despite this setback, it was still (as the youngsters today seem to punctuate it) “The. Best. Day. Ever!”

It all started a few weeks ago when I learned that a sailing ship with about a dozen American college students would be stopping in Portsmouth on November 4, and were interested in visiting a school while they were here. They are part of a fantastic program called “Seamester” which provides them with an education while exploring the Caribbean in a two-masted schooner called the Ocean Star. [If you know anyone who might be interested, check out]

I had explained to my contact person with Seamester that there was no school on November 4 because it is a national holiday here. In Dominica, they celebrate Independence Day on November 3, and then immediately hold a second holiday called National Day of Community Service. Everyone is expected to participate in volunteer efforts in their village (although apparently participation rates vary depending on the community spirit). My village enthusiastically embraces this holiday. I invited them to come and help volunteer with the school improvement projects we would be working on that day. Fortunately, they thought this was a great idea, since community service is one of Seamester's points of emphasis. Since buses don't run on holidays, I arranged with a driver from my village to take his bus over to Portsmouth to pick them up that morning at 9:30 AM, and then return them at 1:30 PM.

Having a large group of American college students come to visit our village and help with school improvement projects was a big thing! We looked forward to hosting them. However, there was another major event that helped make this “The. Best. Day. Ever.”

I learned the U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of the Eastern Caribbean, the Honorable Linda Taglialatela, was in Dominica for Independence Day. I invited her to come to my village to see Dominica's unique National Day of Community Service (which is a wonderful concept) in action. I was thrilled when I received word that she would indeed be interested in attending that morning, along with one of her staffers as well as a friend of theirs from the Canadian embassy (I guess that means we hosted a multi-national diplomatic delegation!). [Below is a picture taken in front of our school (with the black SUV carrying an American flag on the fender) before they left.]

Because of the Ambassador arriving at 9:30 AM, I could not ride on the bus to pick up the college students as I had planned. Fortunately, my Peace Corps colleague who teaches in Portsmouth (and who hails from Athens, Ohio which is near my hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia) agreed to come to my village that day on the bus and coordinate the transportation of the Seamester students. Her willingness to help out was greatly appreciated!

I woke up early for this big day, and headed for the school before 7:00 AM to help get things in order. Upon the Ambassador's arrival, we decided to explore the village first and then come back to the school (which worked well since the American students would not be arriving until about 10:00 AM). Our village council had three major projects underway (four if you count all the women preparing food for the workers).

The first stop was near the end of the main road at the top of the village. The last house up the hill belongs to a beloved octogenarian, and the roadway and the drainage alongside it needed repaired. Men from the village had started at dawn on this project to replace some of the concrete sections of the road, using only shovels, wheelbarrows, and bagged concrete—a far cry from roadbuilding in America.

While up there, she visited with those preparing the food, and got to see breadfruit being roasted on an open fire. She expressed interest in it, so a knife was produced, the black scorched skin was removed as well as the center section, chunks were cut, and they all got to savor the smokey taste of warm breadfruit fresh from the flames. It all took place on a gorgeous vantage point overlooking the village and the Atlantic Ocean, as shown below in this picture with the village council president, the Ambassador, and myself.

Then we went partway down the hill to check out the second project—improvements at the spring. The Ambassador hiked up the rocky path to see this community park of sorts, which includes a “cement pond,” a shower pipe, and a long pipe leading down to the road, so that those seeking fresh spring water can fill up their jugs at the road rather than walking up to the spring itself. I'm not sure if the Ambassador realized that she would be crossing a creek and hiking through the jungle when she agreed to come, but she did it all in good spirits.

There is a cacao tree near the spring, and lo and behold it had one ripe yellow pod hanging from it. One of the village kids offered to get it down, and then the village council president opened the fruit to expose the cacao beans, which are surrounded in a moist white gelatinous coating which is sucked on until the dark bean is left. These beans are then dried, roasted, and turned into chocolate (check out this previous blog story for more information on how cacao beans are processed).

As the diplomatic delegation was sampling the early stage of chocolate, here came my Peace Corps colleague up the trail, with 13 young Americans following her. Everyone got to try a cacao bean while we were up at the spring (a beautiful place that everyone seemed to appreciate)!

I then accompanied the Ambassador to the bottom of our village to see the work going on at the village council's fundraising center/bus stop along the main road. As with the previous stops, she was very friendly to everyone she met. We also got to point out and express gratitude for the bridge that was built many years ago for our main street with help from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Below is a picture with a red box added around "USAID" to see it on this fading sign.

From there, we decided to walk past the playing field back to the school. She was given a tour of our small school building, and spent time talking with the principal and staff members. Before she left, one of our students, dressed in her official school uniform, presented the Ambassador with a gift basket of Dominican products in appreciation for her visit (with the principal looking on below in her traditional madras dress). I think the Ambassador and the staff members all enjoyed getting away from the capital and seeing what life in a small Dominican village is really like.
After the Ambassador left, the focus shifted to the Seamester students. They got involved in numerous projects. My Peace Corps colleague led a group of them on a beach clean-up effort.
Some of them helped to dig holes, attach anchoring hardware, mix concrete, and level up the new picnic tables which had arrived that day. These tables will be a big improvement for the new school lunch program we began this year!
Another effort was to scrub down the concrete and the drains surrounding the school building, as these college students were doing.
A couple of the students assisted me in painting “sight words” (simple words that students should recognize on sight rather than taking the time to decode phonetically) on the wall outside the classrooms. I had the easy part of drawing the words with chalk, which they then painted over.
Part of our beautification effort included some donated used tires. The inner edge was removed and slits were then cut into the sidewall, enabling the tire to be turned inside out. It then resembles a flower blossom, and it considered classier than simply planting flowers inside an old tire. The picture below shows one of the Seamester girls working with two local residents who were helping out, while a couple of our students watch.
As the time for their 1:30 departure approached, the folks from Seamester were having such a good time that they wanted to stay longer. They received permission from their ship captain, and I arranged with the bus driver to delay picking them up until 3:30, giving them another two hours to assist us. It wasn't all work—some of them spent time playing and interacting with our students and the locals. Some of my students even gave the Seamester students a quick tour of L'islet. They enjoyed climbing the cliff and seeing the beautiful views from this peninsula that juts out into the bay.

Before they left, the school staff treated them with a nice lunch featuring a traditional Dominican meal of roasted breadfruit, saltfish, cucumbers, and oranges. They also got to enjoy a dessert they rarely get—ice cream. Some of you will recally from previous blog stories that I have often purchased ice cream cones for our students when are on a school trip. However, on our way back from the National Youth Rally on Wednesday, one of the teachers and myself decided to do something different. Rather than stop in Portsmouth for ice cream cones to be eaten before getting back on the bus, we stopped at the supermarket and purchased a few gallon tubs of ice cream. We thought it would be good to offer it as a special reward to our students on National Day of Community Service (thus ensuring they would be there to help with the work). As it turns out, the Seamester students rarely get ice cream while living on the ship, so this was quite a treat for them, too!

As their time in our village came to an end, it was obvious that it had been a good outing for the Seamester crew. They told me they want to come back in the spring as well as next fall. I'm glad they saw what a wonderful place this is, and that they want to return to help us again. Another one of their students asked for my contact information because he told me that he is graduating in December, and wants to travel back to Dominica. When he comes back, he wants to come help out again. We will welcome any and all of them back with open arms!
It had been a really great day, but it wasn't over yet. While doing some final clean-up chores at the school, I noticed that our village fisherman had returned with his boat to the beach across the road from the school. There was more excitement than usual, because he had caught a shark that was about six feet long. Thus, as I left to head home, I purchased a couple of pounds of shark meat (to make it easier for me to cook, he trimmed the sandpaper-ish skin off the meat).
I took it home, excited to cook and eat shark for the first time, only to discover the water problem mentioned at the start of this story. I decided to go ahead and prepare my dinner using bottled water to clean off the meat, and hopefully they would have the line fixed before I needed to do dishes afterward. I heated the coconut oil (made by a woman in our village), cut the shark meat into chunks, rolled it around in corn meal, and fried it in the pan. Once it was done, I squeezed fresh lime juice over all of it. It was good! Plus, I went out into the village later (hoping that they might finish fixing the water line) and purchased a roasted plantain for dessert. Plantains are like bananas, but by heating them over an open fire, the skin dries out but the inside gets softer and sweeter—a bit like a roasted marshmallow.

However, the water never came back on last night—thus my hike in the dark to shower at the spring before going to bed. In spite of the water problem, it was still “The. Best. Day. Ever” of my Peace Corps service! [Luckily, the line was back in service today, and I was able to do my dirty dishes and other chores before posting this story.]