Thursday, April 28, 2016

Not Nuts

In America, it is easy to go to the store and buy almonds or cashews. Here in Dominica, I've been able to observe these nuts right off the tree, long before they might be processed and placed in containers to be sold on store shelves.

There are a number of almond trees around my village, including directly in front of the school (see the picture below, where I'm talking to some students under the shade of the almond tree, with our school in the background) as well as a larger one by the bay. Once the almonds started appearing on our tree, students at lunch or break would pick (or knock down) the green almonds. The ones that managed to evade the students later turn reddish before falling off and turning brown as the leathery outer coating dried out.

Whether they were green, red, or brown, the larger nut must be cracked and removed (generally by pounding with a stone) to get to the little almond on the inside. The photo directly below shows the result after a youngster was bashing the brown, dried almond with a big rock. If you look close near his fingertips, you can see a small white circle—the “meat” of the actual almond—which had inadvertently been broken during this attempt to remove the hull. The second photo below shows an example where the almond split lengthwise.
In the photo below, you can compare the size of the actual almond (which survived the rock-bashing process without breaking) with an adjacent larger version still retaining its hull. The taste is similar to what I remember getting in stores at home, but it is a lot more labor intensive to enjoy an almond off the tree.

Recently, I was invited to get a see a cashew tree growing in our village. Cashews and almonds are both technically seeds rather than nuts. The almond seed is encased in its hard, leather-like hull, but the cashew has a separate fruit—called the cashew apple—directly above the seed hull as shown below.

The fruit is very juicy, with a nice taste (although mine had a bit of a fibrous, stringy texture). The picture below shows a small one as I was halfway through eating it. The skin is somewhat fragile, which makes them difficult to transport—unlike the hard seeds that most Americans think of when they hear the word “cashew.”
I was told that after eating the fruit, the kidney-shaped seed needed to be sun-dried, and then roasted to remove the outer hull and get to the real cashew. I thought it might be similar to roasting the cacao seeds when we were making cocoa tea, and that I might try it on my gas stove. However, after reading the following passage from Wikipedia, I have decided not to experiment with my leftover seeds.
The seed is surrounded by a double shell containing an allergenic phenolic resin, anacardic acid, a potent skin irritant chemically related to the better-known allergenic oil urushiol which is also a toxin found in the related poison ivy. Properly roasting cashews destroys the toxin, but it must be done outdoors as the smoke (not unlike that from burning poison ivy) contains urushiol droplets which can cause severe, sometimes life-threatening, reactions by irritating the lungs.”
I'd rather not voluntarily deal with any toxins if I don't really need to do so. Not having poison ivy on this island was as welcome to me as not having venomous snakes, because I've suffered with itching from poison ivy on various occasions. Plus I remember warnings about phenol from my college summers working at BorgWarner Chemicals. Thus, I will stick to eating almonds occasionally and just the fruit of the cashew tree, but I'm not going to deal with the cashews themselves.

Those are the only the only nuts I am aware of in my area—unless you count coconuts, which (just like almonds and cashews) are not really true nuts (such as acorns) according to scientific definitions. However, I have learned so much down here about coconuts that they are a topic worthy of a future blog story.

In the meantime, try not to go nuts! And don't worry about me going nuts down here, because I'm having a great time! The students even convinced me that I'm not too old to also climb up the almond tree.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

One Mile

Today, twenty students from our two oldest classrooms (a combined class of second and third graders as well as a combined class of fourth and fifth graders) went on a field trip, accompanied by their two teachers, the principal, and myself. We arranged for transportation via a tourist bus, which is known here as a “coaster” (don't ask me why—I just need to know not to call it a bus). I've written previously about how vans are called “buses” (or transports) here, so these buses that are larger than a van get a distinctive name.
Our destination was the agricultural station at One Mile (I do know the origin of this name—it is simply one mile from the town of Portsmouth). After an initial orientation talk in a conference room, the group headed outside to the first of many greenhouses. They learned how seeds are started in trays of potting soil, and steadily cared for as they grow bigger. Other things they learned included the process of grafting two plants together, how to do “air layering” (stripping the bark and then wrapping soil around the wound to stimulate roots to grow, after which the branch can be cut and planted), and how to start new plants from cuttings.
This facility is a joint effort between Dominica and China—one of many ways that China provides foreign assistance to this island. Many Americans seem to mistakenly think that we are the only country that provides foreign aid, but that is not true. Besides China, I've seen signs proclaiming joint projects with Canada as well as various European countries. Another example is that Morocco helped to fund a tourist hotel. Plus, Cuba provides many doctors and healthcare workers on the island.
Although the emphasis on this trip was to supplement their science classes about plants, we also got to see their pigs—and as Charlotte (from the book “Charlotte's Web”) would write in her web about Wilbur, that was “some pig!” I got this picture of a brother and sister with one of the huge pigs in the background between them (which reminds me of my sister--not the pig, but the sibling picture itself). Speaking of spiders, I also saw this large one (about four inches long) on the screen of one of the greenhouses. Notice how it holds its legs together, so that it appears to only have four rather than eight legs.
Here are a couple of shots from our walk outside in the gardens. By the way, our guide for the day (shown pointing in the bottom photo) is employed there, but is from our village.
I like this shot showing the 2nd/3rd grade teacher walking on the other side of the grape arbor from me.
Here are a few interior shots from some of the greenhouses. The top one shows that they grow flowers as well as vegetables here. The bottom one shows water lilies growing.
After touring the facility, we gathered at the gate for a group picture.
However, our field trip wasn't over yet. I arranged to pay for ice cream for everyone, so we hiked the mile into Portsmouth for a treat to make the day even more special for them. We had to walk along what is the main road between our village and Portsmouth. These students have been riding on this road all their lives, but now they can remember the day they walked this section of the road. Below our group walks two-by-two past a “Keep Dominica Beautiful” sign.
When we reached the large sporting complex, we got off the main road and cut through the cricket field and then across the netball court (netball is a bit like basketball, but with no dribbling and no backboards), shown below.
We finally reached the ice cream shop, which was very popular with these students from our small village, as evidenced in these last two pictures.
It was a great day, which I trust they will long remember! Hopefully, they learned some things that might help them on a test some day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Thurible Day

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I had only attended one Catholic service—but it was an unforgettable one. In the fall of 1979, I was doing a senior semester working as a Congressional intern in Washington, DC. John Paul II, in his first year as the new pope, came to town to meet with President Carter and to hold mass on the mall in front of the Smithsonian castle.

Early that fall morning, I rode my bicycle down to the mall and got a spot under a tree across from where the service would take place. By the time the service started, there was a huge crowd. I was able to see better than most because I leaned my bike up against the tree and then stood on the bike while hugging the tree to get an elevated view. It was a memorable event even if I wasn't Catholic.

Since arriving in the Caribbean, I'm learning a lot more about Catholicism. In my village, there are three churches—a Catholic church, a Pentecostal church (both in the heart of our village), and a Seventh Day Adventist church (up on a high hill halfway between our village and the next one). I decided to attend the Catholic church, which is the largest congregation. It is not some grandiose cathedral, but instead just a very modest concrete block building (with some of the blocks set so that the normally hidden holes provide extra ventilation).

Peace Corps volunteers are not required to get involved with religious activities, as it is a very personal decision, and I respect whatever choices my cohorts might have made in their assigned villages. However, it was the right choice for me to go to a church in my village on Sunday mornings, if for nothing else than to spend some quiet time contemplating my life and my current situation.

Since I am not officially of the Catholic faith, I don't cross myself, touch the holy water, or take part in the communion mass, but I find just being there is a good thing. Having something regular to do each Sunday has been helpful as I sort out a new life for myself here. More importantly, I think it has helped me to better integrate into my community. I am getting to know some of the village residents better, and I enjoy seeing some of my students there as well. It is also an interesting exposure to a different culture for me.

This past Sunday, there wasn't a service at our church. Instead, buses carried myself and many of our members to the capital for a huge gathering at the sports stadium. The purpose was to celebrate 60 years of priestly service by His Eminence Kelvin Cardinal Felix. He is 83 years old, and retired from his position as Archbishop in 2008, returning to his native Dominica at that time. However, Cardinal Felix was too active to retire, and now serves as a parish priest in the town of Soufriere. So if there is a need to pick a new pope, he would go to the Vatican to participate as a Cardinal, but he is now far down the management chain as a mere priest in a small local congregation. He sounds like a humble man who loves his job. Below is a picture as he walked into the stadium.

Although I've never met the Cardinal, I'm impressed with anyone who has continued their chosen vocation for 6o years, and is still going strong! It was quite a celebration for him, with perhaps thousands of Dominica Catholics at the sports stadium (see the panorama above), and lots of "pomp and circumstance." The Prime Minister, the President, and a multitude of bishops, priests, and other dignitaries were present. Several talented and colorful groups also performed, as shown in the pictures below.
However, perhaps the most interesting thing I saw was something that I had not seen or thought about since I was standing on the frame of my bicycle leaning against a tree on the Washington mall nearly 37 years ago. That is where I first saw what I have since learned is called a thurible, the metal incense burner that is suspended on chains and swung back and forth. I was fascinated when I first saw it with Pope John Paul II, and watching it in action again on Sunday unleashed all my memories from seeing the Pope all those years ago. Look close in the next two pictures and you can see it in action, rhythmically swinging back and forth, leaving an undulating smoke trail behind.
I'm glad I got up early for the hour-and-a-half bus ride to the capital for this event. It was not a typical Sunday! I was able to learn more about catholicism, Dominica, Roseau, and my fellow villagers—plus learn about an unpretentious “man of the cloth” who has had an amazing career that has lasted longer than my entire lifetime. Bravo, Cardinal Felix!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Neighborhood Explorations

I've already posted several stories recently about the adventures I was able to take during the week off from school following Easter. I thought I'd write this posting to cover a few of the other hikes in my neighborhood from that week, and share more of my pictures. For example, here is a picture of me at a point southeast of our village that overlooks a small offshore island.
The next picture also shows that same small island. However, notice the steep drop-off to the water nearly straight below. It is a long way down!
The Blenhim River empties into a bay not far from our village. No one lives in this area, probably because of the potential for flooding. However, it is still a beautiful sight. Notice the river water flowing into the sea from the lower left corner of the picture, with its current affecting the waves as it enters.
Just down the coast is another small village. However, their bay has some shoals offshore where the waves break, leaving calm waters next to the coastline. This allows houses to be built right next to the shore, and palm trees to grow close to the water. An example of both can be seen in this picture of the Sea Breeze bar.
I've always been interested in old cemeteries, and so I hiked to check one out. The view looking up the coast was beautiful. The large cross is about 20 feet tall.
Besides this hike down the coast shown in the pictures above, I finally got to explore the tidal flats along the south side of L'islet. It required wading through the surf at low tide to get around the vertical wall, but it was worth it. To give you an idea of the territory, below is a view of the south side of L'islet from the top of Mont Rouge, followed by a look towards Mont Rouge taken that day from those same tidal flats.
Next are a couple of pictures looking down the coast from different spots on these tidal flats behind L'islet. In both of these pictures, you can see the gray rocky point in the distance on the right side that we refer to as the “lion's back,” because it appears to be the back of a sitting lion, with the green trees forming his mane. I love watching the waves crash upon the rocks and then drain off back to the ocean.
I liked this picture of a lone tree precariously clinging onto the side of the cliff (I don't consider it to be a metaphor for my Peace Corps service). You can also see one of my students directly below the tree.
There was a rock wall where erosion had created a “window” hole. This picture was taken through that hole looking north.
This picture is a bit out of focus, but it gives you an example of how every now and then, larger waves roll in and can surprise you (this is how I ruined my first phone). You can see the unexpected wave crashing behind us in this picture (just prior to me getting splashed), reminding us of Neptune's power.
To finish this post, I'll share this picture taken as the sun was going down on yet a different hike that week which went up the hill north of our village. In this picture, you can see the school (and its playing field) on the left side, along with many other buildings in our village. I also think that conical hill which dominates the skyline just south of our village is interesting. Perhaps I need to hike to the pinnacle of it someday.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Sprats and Cocoa Tea

For this story, I'm combining two different experiences (which normally don't go together) that I had the opportunity to enjoy recently—one involved eating and the other involved drinking. The eating experience occurred today at the end of the school day.
While painting some playground activities on our school driveway (sort of a fancy version of hopscotch), our local fisherman came over with a gift for me—freshly roasted sprats. These are small fish (similar to sardines) that are caught with nets. Today some locals were catching them and immediately roasting them over a fire on the beach across from our school.
He showed me how to pinch in the lower area behind the gills to remove the guts from the fish. Then it is easy to just eat the meat from both sides of the body of the fish. Usually sprats are caught and taken home, where they are seasoned with spices and cooked on a stove. However, today they came straight out of the saltwater (retaining a nice salty flavor) onto the fire, and then delivered to me on a big sea grape leaf. They were very good!

Cocoa tea is a delightful departure from traditional hot chocolate. My host mom on St. Lucia introduced me to this Caribbean staple, but it is also very popular on Dominica. Cacao trees are quite common on these islands, and I've mentioned this in previous blog stories. These trees produce large pods, which turn yellow when ripe, as shown below.
Inside the pods, the individual seeds are surrounded by a thick, gelatinous coating that can be eaten (sucked on would be a better description) as can be seen in the photo below. The dark seeds inside need to be washed and then sun-dried. Once they have been dried, they can be used for making cocoa tea.
I was invited to assist one of my friends in the village one night when she was making the cocoa tea sticks (in some respects, it was a bit like folks in West Virginia getting together to string beans or make apple butter). She had purchased a large bag of the dried seeds. Her first step was to roast the seeds in a large pot on her gas stove. This heating process helps to separate the outer seed coating. As it gets hot, the individual seeds often create a loud popping noise.
Once the seeds have been roasted, we gathered around the dining room table to “shell” the seeds, pulling off the outer skin (as shown above) and just dropping the hull on the table to be cleaned off later. The uncovered seeds are then placed in a large bowl, prior to running them through a hand-turned grinder clamped to a wooden table (see below).
The resulting chocolate “sludge” is then placed into a container and mixed with a secret combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices. This mixing is done by hand as shown below.
This mixture is then rolled between the palms of your hands to create “logs.” These are finally placed on a banana leaf (commonly used here in place of wax paper) to dry.
After they are dry, these logs can then be grated (or some choose to chop off slices, but my host mom says that grating is the best way). It is then mixed with water and/or milk and heated on the stove. Even though spices have already been added, most cooks here will doctor it up with additional spices, a bay leaf, or something to make it unique. Sugar can be added to sweeten it according to your taste.

Don't expect cocoa tea to taste like hot chocolate or like tea—it has its own unique flavor. In some ways, it is similar to coffee, except with roasted cocoa beans instead of roasted coffee beans (it also has the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee). Some tout it as a health food (especially if it is not overly sweetened), because it has lots of anti-oxidants. I enjoy it! Just like the sprats at the top of this story, it is another wonderful food experience that I never would have had if I had not joined the Peace Corps!

P.S. A friend from America, who visited me and took some cocoa tea sticks back home with her, made a funny request to me. If she unexpectedly dies, and her brothers come to clear out her home, I'm supposed to inform them that the plastic bag in the refrigerator containing what might appear to be dog turds is really cocoa tea sticks!