Sunday, February 28, 2016

Back to Where it Started

Early in the morning on August 1, I boarded a passenger ferry boat leaving from St. Lucia, headed to my new home on Dominica. I wasn't sure what I was getting into, but when you are in the Peace Corps, you just go with it and roll with the punches. I was leaving an island (and a host family) where I had become quite comfortable during our initial training, only to start all over again with a new host family in a new location. I hoped it would all work out okay.

While I didn't get sea sick, I certainly got queasy as the lumbering ferry boat rocked and rolled with the sea swells. I was very grateful that our four hour journey was nearing an end when the southeastern tip of Dominica came into view. The stunning green mountains of my new home made quite the first impression. Plus, there was that unusual peak seemingly just off the coast of the bottom corner of the island.

Later, I learned the peak was called Scotts Head, and that it is actually attached to the island by a narrow isthmus. It is quite the geological oddity, as it separates the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean from the docile waters of the Caribbean Sea. During Christmas break, I was able to visit this area for the first time and climbed to the top of the peak (see my previous blog story). It is a fascinating spot!

Today I got to see Scotts Head from an entirely different angle, both in terms of my vantage point and in terms of why I was there. This time I was invited by a family in my village to accompany them to a birthday party at a relative's house in the village of Scotts Head. When we finally arrived, the van we were riding in turned off the main road and slowly worked its way up a labyrinth of side streets to reach the house near the top of the village. Once we got there, the view from the back porch was incredible!
The view from the porch. The boy on the right is one of my students.
It was a beautiful day, and I loved simply gazing from this new perspective at the turquoise shallow waters surrounded by the darker indigo blue of the deeper areas. Dozens of sailboats made their way around this corner of the island over the course of the day. Judging by the angle of their masts, some of them were really tilted over as they rode the strong wind. Tourists with a snorkeling excursion group from the big cruise ship docked at the capital fanned out across the water with their neon yellow or neon orange air vests. We even watched fishermen in a small boat lay out a net in the bay and then pull their catch back into their boat.
Look close and you can see three sailboats plus a motorboat just north of Scotts Head.
I also enjoyed watching one of my favorite birds down here—the frigate bird. Its dark black color, sharply angled wings, and long pitchfork tail make it quite easy to recognize (to put it into WWII terminology, I like to think of them as a combination of the F-4 Corsair wings and the P-38 Lightning tail). They would slowly glide across the sky, slightly twitching their wings or tails to react to the wind changes. I also watched them riding thermals (rising columns of air), as they tightly circled in a vertical corkscrew motion to gain altitude. In addition, a few pelicans were also part of this bird parade, including a “squadron” of four of them, seemingly flying in formation as they passed in front of us.
This panorama shot provides a different view (although it makes Scotts Head seem more distant), including a glimpse of the garden area below the porch.
Besides the socialization, music, food, and drink, we also spent some time swimming in the sea next to Scotts Head. The water was crystal clear! It is pretty nice to be able to go swimming in the sea during the month of February when it is so cold back home. We were right in the inside corner of Scotts Head that was visible from the back porch, because it has a sandy bottom that is easier on your feet.
Not long before we left for the long return trip to the opposite corner of the island, I noticed the ferry boat making its northerly run, and took the shot above as it passed through the sun-glinted waters. I wondered if there might be a passenger on board looking over this way as he prepared to land on Dominica for the first time. It made me think about how much I've grown since I was on that ferry boat on August 1, looking over at the exterior portion of Scotts Head and my new island country. At that time, I didn't know anyone on this island, but here I am now, having been invited to a family get-together with people who were not even my host family.

I realized how well things have gone for me here in Dominica. Not only had my vantage point on Scotts Head changed, but my viewpoint on “home” has been modified. West Virginia will always be home, but Dominica has won a special place in my heart as my current home. It was a great ending to a memorable day.

As the sun set over the Caribbean, I took this final shot before we left for “home.”

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Color Blindness

February is recognized in the United States as Black History Month. I felt this would be an appropriate time to comment on the incredible experience I have had living as part of a distinct minority population on this very black island. Indeed, I am the only white person in my village (except for the occasional white tourists who somehow drive by on our little back road and discover our beach—my students always encourage me to go talk with them because “they might be relatives”).
It seems to me that I have become quite color blind since arriving here. Looking out through the pupils of my own eyes, I don't really notice my whiteness (especially since I've acquired a deep tan). All humans I see and interact with on a daily basis are black, so that has become the new normal to me. Everyone here is simply a human—what a wonderful thought! Most of the time, I don't even realize that I am different than them—except when the young children at school want to marvel at my white skin or play with my straight hair (if I had not have donated my long hair prior to my departure, they would have had a great time “platting” my hair). [The picture below was taken just after our school Christmas party on the last day of school—I love my students and fellow staff members!]
Because of how close I have become to my friends here, it troubles me to think that their ancestors were brought here as slaves, and probably suffered mightily under the master's whip. I am so glad that the era of slavery is over, in Dominica as well as America. I'm proud that my ancestors fought for the Union Army in the Civil War (although their main motivation may not have been to free the slaves, but simply to win West Virginia's independence from the rich and powerful eastern Virginians, who treated the poor mountain folks living in the western counties unfairly).
The Peace Corps office in the capital is located near the old marketplace (pictured above, where the blue tarps are showing). Today, vendors sell tourist souvenirs there, but it was formerly the site of the slave market. To think that ancestors of my friends here were herded like cattle and auctioned off troubles me greatly. It was also used for public punishment and execution of slaves. I walked over there one day and pensively took a picture of my shadow while standing upon the same cobblestones where white men bid on slaves—or watched their murder (see the picture at the beginning of this story). The sadness I can feel while standing there is terrible.
Just up the street from the marketplace is a very nice statue, showing an escaped slave, still with wrist and leg irons, blowing on a conch shell. This powerful sculpture (pictured above) is dedicated to the runaway slaves who set up camps deep in the jungle after escaping the plantations. The term for these brave men is “Maroons” and it is derived from the Spanish word for fugitive or runaway—Neg Mawon is the Creole version of the word. Pictured below is the plaque that accompanies this statue.
I'm sure the years I spend in the Peace Corps will profoundly impact the rest of my life. I had already considered myself to be racially unbiased before this journey, but I hope to keep the same sense of color blindness I have experienced down here whenever I return to the USA. It would be good for all of us to look upon each other not as different races, but simply as human beings—because that is what we truly are.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

My Humble Abode

The Peace Corps tries to put us in a secure and comfortable, but not luxurious, house. Let me take you on a tour of my little cottage, which was built next door to my landlord's house. I took some pictures using a “fisheye” lens, which provides a wider angle, allowing you to see more of a room in the picture. I was so eager to use this lens that I didn't stop to clean house before snapping pictures—so please overlook my “less than pristine” housekeeping. First, before we go in the front door, I will share a picture showing my view of the Atlantic Ocean from my front porch.
The next picture shows the main room. You can see the camping hammock I purchased from Sears about 25 years ago which I brought with me. I don't have a couch or an armchair, but I get to hang out in a hammock on a tropical island. My hammock is connected diagonally to the built-in “burglar bars” on the windows. It isn't that we have much crime in my village—it is just that these protective bars are common in the Caribbean (and required by the Peace Corps).
The chair in the left corner holds the Internet router I got back in November. The other corner has a small two-shelf table. The round table in the center is where I work and eat (unless I'm sitting outside on my porch). My daughter sent me the Mountaineer flag, which provides a nice backdrop for videoconferencing. You can also see a small, green Dominican flag between the two doors leading to the bedrooms on the right side.

The picture below shows the spare bedroom, which I treat as a walk-in closet. There were a few hooks on the left side wall, but I tied a rope between the burglar bars in this room to let me hang up more clothes. The bed itself provides lots of storage room.

The next picture shows my room, with the mosquito net over the bed and a nice rug the landlord provided. I have a small dresser with a wooden cabinet placed on top of it on the right side. There are a few hooks on the left side wall, where I hang some jeans and the light windbreaker that I have never had to wear yet. If you look close below the hanging clothes, you can see the large fan at the foot of the bed which made summer nights bearable (because I tilted the camera to match the bed, the fan is actually at the bottom edge of this picture). I'm lucky that my landlord got me a fan with a remote control, so that as summer turned into winter, I could turn off the fan in the middle of the night without getting out of bed. It is very convenient.
The picture below shows my little bathroom. Look close and you can see the electric wiring that leads to the showerhead water heater. Also note that I strung a rope across the curved shower curtain rod so that I could hang stuff to dry (like the washcloth shown). The small window has horizontal louvers (which are closed) and vertical burglar bars on the inside.
The next picture shows my little kitchen. On the left side is the refrigerator, with a WVU basketball magnetic schedule on the freezer door and a loaf of bread on the top. When I moved in, there was a black trashbag over the stove top, so I have continued covering it when I'm not using it. If you look close, you might be able to see the blue gas bottle to the right of the stove (it has an empty pizza box on top of it, from the only pizza I have had down here—you must retain such “trash” because you never know when you might need a cardboard box for something). When your gas runs out (which can happen at any time without notice), you must detach the tank and carry it down to the store at the main road to get another one (assuming it is open so you can quickly resume cooking).
Also note that lower left quarter of the window above the sink is covered with black plastic. The tall, round, white tank in front of that plastic is my Peace Corps water filter apparatus. I fill the top part with water from our spring, and it drips through ceramic/charcoal filter into the lower chamber. There is a black spigot near the bottom (towards the sink) where I get my filtered water. I put up the black plastic on the window to block the direct sunlight, which was causing algae growth in my upper tank.

My cottage is not a large place, and the furnishings are rather spartan, but it works well for me. I especially enjoy my front porch, where I can see the ocean. To finish this story, here is a panoramic view from my front porch. I feel blessed to live here.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bucket Laundry

Saturday morning is often laundry day for me. I start early in the morning so that the clothes have plenty of time to dry on the clotheslines of my front porch. This provides protections from any sudden tropical rains, but it also means that my clothes don't get the extra drying power from direct sunlight.

After moving into my cottage last September, I purchased two plastic buckets so I could do my own laundry. I didn't buy them at a store in the capital, which would have required transporting the bulky items on the long bus ride home. Instead, on Friday nights, there is a guy who drives up main street through our village selling various plastic items and other stuff from his van. This “department store on wheels” has a limited selection, but works out nice for purchases such as laundry buckets. I bought an orange one and a yellow one.

Part of our pre-service training on St. Lucia last summer was for our host families to teach us skills such as hand washing our clothes. My host mom there showed me how she does it. Everyone realizes the importance of scrubbing under the arms, but she encouraged me to also scrub the collar area and the inside seams. You don't just rub the soap against the fabric—you must grab different portions of the fabric and vigorously scrub them against each other.

I use this blue laundry soap that is popular down here. This picture shows a partial used bar sitting on top of its wrapper, with an unopened bar just below it.

After working in the first bucket (the soapy one), you wring out the water and then dip the clothing into the rinse bucket, going up and down several times. If necessary, the rinse water can be replaced with clean water depending on how soapy it gets. When thoroughly rinsed, the water is wrung out of the clothing so that it falls back into the washing bucket. Then, I lean over the edge of my porch and—as in the '80s Devo song—I “whip it, whip it good.”

Finally, I hang the item with clothes pins on the two clothes lines my landlord installed on my porch for drying my laundry. One lesson I learned “the hard way” was that it is important to take a rag and clean the dust off the lines prior to hanging up clean laundry.

Fortunately, my host family here has a washing machine at their house, so once a month I take my clothes down the road to their house for a “real washing.” My local host family takes good care of me, even after I moved into my own place.

I hope those of you back in the USA appreciate your automatic laundry machines after reading this story!

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Yes, there are mosquitoes here in Dominica—just as there are at home in West Virginia during the summer months. I don't think that there are more of them here, but for various reasons (nice weather, no television, etc.) I am outside a lot more down here, and thus I do get bit from time to time. So far they have not been that much of a bother to me, but there is a new concern that I'm sure has some of you worried about me—a rapidly spreading virus called “Zika.” Fortunately, it has not been detected on our island yet, but with many other Caribbean islands infected, it is probably just a matter of time before it shows up here, too.

The biggest problem with this virus is its links to brain deformities in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. I will not be impacted by this, but I certainly hope nothing unfortunate happens to anyone in our village.

So none of you should worry yourself about my chances of getting Zika. From what I've learned, to most people its symptoms are not as bad as the Dengue and Chikungunya viruses spread by the same species of mosquito. Hopefully I will not get any of these three maladies.

The Peace Corps does try to keep us safe. We had training about this topic before arriving here. They also provide us with free access to insect repellants (some of mine are shown below). I don't always spray myself when going out, because I just don't like having the stuff on me. However, I have been trying to be more conscious about this problem, and have been at least taking the little bottle with me.

I am burning more mosquito coils when sitting on my ocean-view front porch. I realize that the smoke may be just as bad for me as spraying the chemicals on my skin, but there is just something more appealing to me about the mosquito coils—maybe it is because the pyromaniac inside me gets to play with matches.
Recently, an informational session was held down at the main road by the Ministry of Health. They came in a van with a bullhorn speaker in the back (shown above), gave a presentation, and took questions from the crowd. Below are the signs that were posted in the bus stop announcing this special meeting. The Ministry of Health is also running lots of announcements on the local radio stations about Zika.
Another way the Peace Corps tries to keep us safe is by providing us with mosquito nets. Below is a picture of my bed that I crawl into each night. [Yes, Mom, I realize that I didn't make my bed before taking this picture, but there is rarely a night down here when it is cold enough to even pull a sheet over top of me—plus it is more difficult to make your bed when you are dealing with a mosquito net.]
Finally, after letting you get a glimpse of my mosquito net, I thought it was worth sharing this special Valentine greeting on this holiday. Happy Valentine's Day everybody!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Community Carnival

I feel so fortunate to have been assigned by the Peace Corps to this particular village on the beautiful island of Dominica! This is Carnival season, which is a big deal in the Caribbean. Carnival is similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans—a big celebration prior to Lent (although some islands have chosen to move the date of their Carnival celebrations to garner more tourists—see my story about Carnival on St. Lucia, which occurred while I was on that island during my Pre-Service Training).

Events kicked off a couple of weeks ago with a big parade in the capital, which I enjoyed attending (see my story here). Since then, there have been musical competitions, beauty pageants, and other festivities, all leading up to the big celebrations on Monday and Tuesday. There was no school on the first two days this week, plus Friday was a “fun day” rather than an academic day (see my story about Freaky Friday).

The biggest Carnival celebration was held Monday in the capital city. I've heard stories of the terrible traffic jams getting into Roseau, the difficulty in getting bus rides home afterward, and the recent news about some crime problems there (honestly, crime is not a big problem here on Dominica, especially when compared to other islands or the U.S.—I feel especially safe in my village). Plus, we are hoping that the influx of visitors from other infected islands does not result in the introduction of the Zika virus to our island, because so far we have avoided this new and growing problem.

I'm glad that I didn't have to make the long trip to Roseau to enjoy Carnival, thanks to the fact that some other Dominican cities also hold their own celebrations—including my own little village. It is an example of the strong community spirit that we are fortunate to have here in my village.

Our local Carnival celebrations started on Sunday afternoon with a rounders game with a visiting team from Guadeloupe (rounders is a bit like baseball, but played by women with a ball similar to a tennis ball and an over-sized ping pong paddle). The home team got beat by this traveling team, but it was still fun time down at the playing field, with the ocean and palm trees in the background. [The British tourists who I mentioned in the Freaky Friday story (linked above) happened to come back to swim at our beach, so I had a good time visiting with them again and showing them some more sights.]

I am not an expert on all the intricacies of the culture and traditions of Carnival, but I will try to describe what the past two days have been like for me. Sometimes it is easier not to question why things happen, but to just go along with the flow. It is just a given that Carnival is a big party time, and folks here celebrate it with reckless abandon.

I had been warned that Monday would start very early—at 4:00 AM. It is called J'ouvert (a contraction of the French term "jour ouvert," or dawn/day break.), and involves dancing in a street parade, often with some sort of costume. I had little to work with as far as costumes go, but I dressed in black and wore a long sleeve shirt tied around my head (peeking through the neck hole), with sunglasses (even though it was still a few hours before dawn). Despite my efforts, everyone knew who I was.

A short-sided dumptruck had been outfitted with a generator and music equipment (and a roof to protect it all from any rain). The speakers (on both ends) were huge! From about 4:00 AM to about 10:00 AM, this truck moved at a snail's pace up and down Main Street, turning around at the Church Street bridge on one end, and out on the main road at the other end. Behind and in front of it, the villagers walked, danced, jumped, bounced, twerked, or whatever, and sometimes they would take a break to just sit and watch others. There were a few times when some of them would run short sprints back and forth as a group. The loud calypso music was constant, with a relentless bass beat. Some were singing, some were laughing, but nearly everyone was smiling and having a good time together.

At the end of the parade time, a water hose was connected to one of the outdoor pipes, so that we could have ourselves a “wet fete.” This is a Caribbean tradition that in bigger locations might include fancy stuff like foam bubbles, a variety of different sprinklers, etc. However, a simple rubber garden hose created a lot of fun for our villagers.

Then, nearly everyone went back home to take a nap and whatever else, before the same street parade started again just before dusk on Monday. The unhurried parading up and down Main Street continued until 10:00 PM, but the partying continued well into the night. On Tuesday afternoon, it all started up again for one final time. It seemed that Tuesday there were more folks from neighboring villages who came to Thibaud for our parade (they had likely gone to Roseau or Portsmouth the day before).

I am not much of a dancer, but I had fun carrying young children on my shoulders, bouncing to the incessant beat of the music as we slowly made our way behind the truck that was creeping along the parade route. It felt good to be with a hundred or so of my neighbors and friends. Although I haven't memorized every name with every face so far, I think they all know who I am, and everyone seems to have accepted me.

Yes, our parade was perhaps a bit amateurish compared to what could be seen in Roseau. It didn't have a lot of glitz and glamour like I saw in St. Lucia or at the parade in Roseau a few weeks ago. However, had I gone to Roseau (or even Portsmouth), as a white person I would have been automatically assumed to be a tourist (and would always have been watching out of the corner of my eye for pick-pockets or any other problems). Here, I was one of them—simply another member of our village. Everyone was having a good time and festive attitudes were pervasive. It is this feeling of community spirit and acceptance that makes me so grateful to have been assigned here. I'm looking forward to next year! In the meantime, it is back to work tomorrow.

Here are a few Carnival pictures, all taken at J'ouvert yesterday.

Later in the morning with some of my friends (including the red-shirted Things 1, 2, and 3).
Here is what it looked like in the pre-dawn hours.
That's me in my “costume” with one of my kindergarten dance partners.
This is where our Main Street joins the main road. The sound truck is trying to loop around to start back up the hill. Notice that we even had a police motorcycle escort.
This remarkable woman is on the village council, is active with church and the choir, is a caring parent to a couple of our students, and has a great time celebrating Carnival.
With my phone out of commission, I only took a few pictures with my iPad. This was an attempt to show one of the times when groups of folks were simply running back and forth as a group, first one direction and then the other (most of them had already passed).
One dog was even dressed up in a costume for the event. This family takes great care of their dog.
Because of not wanting to get my iPad ruined, I stayed a safe distance away from the wet fete, but I think you can tell that the water is spraying up from the right side of the picture.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Freaky Friday

It is Carnival season here on Dominica—there is no school on Monday and Tuesday, and today was a non-academic day referred to as Freaky Friday. I was told that the idea was to come up with some sort of outlandish costume to wear to school today. Some choose to cross-dress, or wear Halloween costumes, or just come up with some sort of mismatched craziness.

Given my limited wardrobe here, the best idea I could come up with was to wear my swim trunks, a sport coat, my snorkle and mask, and a dress shoe on one foot and a sandal on the other. I felt like a fool walking down Main Street on my way to school today, but thankfully not too many villagers saw me in this crazy get-up.

The students had a great time with this “play day” as school. We only have five girls (out of 31 total students), and all but the two kindergarten girls dressed up as boys (in the picture above, my arms are around the two fifth grade girls who tried to dress as if they were boys today). We had half-a-dozen or so boys dress up as girls—some of them, as shown below, rather convincingly!
The teachers and the PTA cooked a great meal for lunch (chicken, rice, lentils, macaroni and cheese, and slaw), plus they offered my favorite dessert down here called coconut tablet. There was also potato pudding for dessert, too.
I brought my two kites and let the kids take turns flying them (they only got caught on the utility lines less than half-a-dozen times). I also played some “football” with them and had a lot of fun, until a ball kicked hard in my proximity hit me in the face, causing the nose pad of my glasses to draw blood from the side of my nose. Oh well, that is just part of football down here!

After school, there were a couple of white tourists that stopped along the road. As usual, my students urged me to talk to them “in case they might be relatives.” It turns out that this couple was from Great Britain, and she had even done a stint working as a teacher in a British school in Kenya. They were familiar with the Peace Corps, and given her background of serving in Africa, were very interested in my assignment here. I ended up taking them for a walk (along with several students) through the village, all the way up to “the spring.” They enjoyed seeing this beautiful place, and the students even climbed one of the cacao trees to let them taste the seeds from which chocolate is eventually made.

I also showed them my quaint little cottage before walking them back down to the beach area. About that time, our local fisherman arrived in his boat, and I helped to haul it ashore as the British tourists headed back to their hotel in Calabishie. As I left the beach area, I purchased some barbecued chicken that was being cooked there as a fundraiser for our local preschool. It had been an enjoyable day!

Eventually, I made it back to my home, only to discover the freakiest part of my Friday. There was a dead snake on my sidewalk—the first snake I've seen since leaving West Virginia. It was probably a little less than a foot-and-a-half long, and wasn't anything to be scared about. The scientific name for this non-venomous grass snake is Liophis Juliae, locally known as “Kou wes.” I'm guessing that one of the neighborhood cats killed it this afternoon and left it on the sidewalk—thankfully waiting until after my British guests had left. By the way, there are no poisonous snakes at all on this island, which makes hiking even more enjoyable than back home. [This picture below includes my flip-flop as a size reference.]

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Soccer in Paradise

Today was the final day of the primary school regional soccer—or football as it is known here—tournament. Last Thursday as well as today, we only had a half day of academics, because our school was chosen as the host site for six schools to gather to see who would be advancing to the next round of the playoffs in the capital city of Roseau in March.

After losing the first game (0-5) and winning our second game (4-2) last week, our team had to play three games today. They lost the first game (0-5) today, but won the second game (2-0). Whether they advanced depended on the outcome of the last game this afternoon. Fortunately, they won (4-2) and will continue to practice after school until the next round in March.

Football is a popular sport here, and nearly every evening there is a crowd of boys (and young men) playing on our beautiful field near the ocean. It really is an incredible setting, with palm trees lazily swaying in the sea breeze as the Atlantic crashes to shore on the other side of the road. I'm not surprised that the Ministry of Sports (yes, it is an official bureacracy in the Dominican government) chose our scenic location to host the tournament.

Sports officials came to our field before last Thursday, to cut the grass, lay out the boundaries, and paint the white lines. They also brought their own official goals to use. There was an elaborate opening ceremonies, featuring comments from our village council president, as well as recognition of the officials attending from the National Bank of Dominica, the primary sponsor for this tournament. Here is a picture of all six teams lined up during those opening ceremonies—our team is nearest to the camera in the red and yellow jerseys (notice the ocean breaking against the rocks in the distance—that is the tidal pool area that I described in my previous blog story).

Our boys are relatively small (some of them very small), and our tiny school has no sixth graders (indeed, we are playing with a couple of second graders). They worked hard to get their victories in this tournament and extend their season. I'm not sure how well they will do at the next level, but it is nice that they made it this far. However, on the bright side, the fact that we have no sixth graders means that we will return our whole team intact for next year's competition.

Below is a sampling of some of the pictures I snapped during the tournament. If you want to see more, I put together an album that you can peruse at this link. I hope these pictures convey the natural beauty of my village, with our school and its playing field located so close to the beachfront. I am truly blessed to have been assigned here!

Note the size difference in the photo above between our second grader
with the ball and the defender in the red shirt behind him.
One of our best players is one of our smallest
(although he is a fourth grader)--note the size difference above.
On the horizon in both the picture above and the two pictures below, if you look closely you can make out the nearby island called Marie-Galante, which is part of Guadeloupe. The picture directly below is from a corner kick (see the ball floating above the horizon), while the one above shows one of our goals today being scored.
Notice the political billboard for the current Prime Minister in the background.
The photo above shows another of our goals today.