Monday, May 30, 2016

Sports Day!

Friday was Sports Day at our school, which I understand is a common tradition in Dominican schools. Rather than academic classes, the day was spent in a wide variety of athletic competitions. It also included a fundraiser aspect with a variety of food sold that day to benefit the school. For example, there were hot dogs, which are often referred to as sausages here. However, they were not served West Virginia style with sauce and slaw on hot dog buns. Here, they are typically served here on a wooden skewer and slathered in ketchup. Hot dog buns are not unheard of, but they are not easily obtained on this island. Most bread here is in the form of a narrow baguette.
Ice pops are popular snack items down here. People will pour juice into a baggie, add extra sugar, maybe some powdered custard, flavoring essences, and other ingredients (villagers seem to have various secret recipes), tie it off in a knot, and then freeze it. After it is frozen hard, you can bite a hole in the bottom corner of the plastic baggie, and start sucking out the frozen slush. The kids here really love them, and I had one of my students take a picture of me (shown above) holding my half-finished ice pop. [The picture below shows one of our teachers giving instructions at the starting line of an event--notice the ocean in the distance.]
We also had homemade fried chicken, popcorn, and palau (a chicken and rice dish) available, as well as a variety of pre-packaged cookies (referred to as biscuits here) such as generic Oreos. Delicious passion fruit juice was provided as a drink.
The contests included a cross country race, sack races (a fall was caught in the picture above), relay races, etc. One race required students to hop on one foot the entire distance (shown below). Another required them to balance a lime on a spoon while moving as fast as possible (the start of which is shown in the picture below the next paragraph). The little ones did a duck walk race (waddling with your butt held low to the ground) and a crab race (walking on your hands and feet with your back towards the ground).
There was one race that was a bit like a school day. The starting line was similar to a wake-up alarm, from which they ran partially down the playing field to a table to drink a glass of water (sort of like a quick breakfast). Then they ran further down the field where their school uniforms were in a pile on the ground. They had to put on their school shirt and button it, as well as their slacks or skirt. After getting dressed, they ran the rest of the way across the field to my location, where I had various multiplication questions that I gave to them in the order they arrived. As soon as they answered the question correctly, they could run all the way back across the field to the finish line.
Another race required them to remove the laces from their shoes, which were placed on the other side of the field. They started by running barefooted and carrying their laces across the field. Upon arrival at their shoes, they had to properly lace five eyelets and tie a knot before running back to the finish.
There was a competition for the younger children where they were blindfolded and then placed atop a table, where they were to try and guess where the eye of a duck was located that I had I drawn on the whiteboard. It was similar to pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
One of the most popular contests involved running to a little inflatable pool of water. You then had to fill a glass bottle that was about ten feet away from the pool by carrying water in your hands. Needless to say, it required numerous trips to fill a bottle. However, the kids seemed to enjoy getting wet and playing in the water.
Perhaps my favorite was the cross-country race. It was a long race across the playing field, across the bridge and up Back Street. Then they had to follow a path through the bush that led down the hill and eventually over to Main Street. A right turn across the Church Street bridge and then behind the church building took them back onto a path into the bush. It led to a creek crossing (which had several large but unstable stepping stones) and then up a steep hillside. A dirt road then led back to the upper edge of the playing field, and a final sprint across the length of the field to the finish line at the school.
After the start (pictured above), I headed over to the water crossing (see below) to take pictures (I was ready just in case it happened, but no one made a big splash in the creek!). When the last place student arrived, I decided to jog back with him to keep his spirits up. As we rounded the Health Center at the far edge of the playing field, we picked up the pace to race to the finish line. Everyone was cheering for us as we raced side by side to the finish.
Like many schools here, our students are divided into two arbitrary teams—the Yellow House and the Green House—for school competitions. The scores for the day were recorded on our outdoor chalkboard. It was formerly used in the classroom for our oldest students, but they now have a whiteboard glued to the wall, so the old chalkboard was moved outside under the stairwell. I often use it for my after school “Math Club.” As the picture below shows, half of the students were elated while the other half were less than thrilled.
That wasn't the end of the fun on Friday. I let all the students know that the Space Station would be flying over our heads at 6:58 PM that night. I invited them to join me next to the ocean to watch the thousands of bats fly out around 6:30 (click here to read a previous story about our bat cave ), and then watch the Space Station go over (see previous story here). Anyone who came would get a glow-in-the-dark bracelets. After these bracelets proved to be immensely popular as Christmas presents, a friend recently brought me a cardboard tube with 100 of these chemiluminescent bracelets that are fascinating to my students—they love running around in the dark with their wrists or ankles glowing. [I highly recommend these bracelets to Peace Corps Volunteers everywhere!]
My night time pictures didn't turn out well, so I took a picture of the big container while it sat on my porch rail, which also shows the pathway leading up to my cottage. Although some clouds blew in and obscured our view of the Space Station that night, everyone still had a great time. Best of all, I still have enough LumiSticks left for a future Space Station party. Maybe I will have some better pictures of the kids playing in the dark in a future story.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Petite Savanne

I was quite fortunate when Tropical Storm Erika struck this island last August, as I wrote about in this blog post (plus this follow-up story). Aside from losing communication with the outside world for a few days, no one in my village was ever in any real danger. However, one of the hardest hit areas in Dominica was the village of Petite Savanne in the southeastern portion of the island. The landslides and flooding there destroyed about 60% of the housing in that area, and most of the thirty or so deaths in Dominica from Tropical Storm Erika occurred in Petite Savanne.

The steep, rugged terrain and unstable soils in that area has led the government to declare Petite Savanne uninhabitable, and the surviving residents were forced to evacuate. Thus the government is providing a relocation and resettlement program for Petite Savanne's survivors. The government is officially abandoning rather than rebuilding the infrastructure for this remote village, which at one time had nearly 1000 residents. I'm sure it was a difficult and controversial decision for the government to make.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Petite Savanne for the first time. It was a long trip over winding roads to get there. Not having seen this village in its prime made it difficult to fully appreciate the devastation that Tropical Storm Erika had imposed. However, it was still easy to see—even nine months later—much of the destruction. The picture below shows the village in the distance from a hill above. Look closely and you can see evidence of multiple landslides on the far hillside.

Just getting to this place required passing by numerous landslides from the high, steep hills that at one time had cut off the roadway. As we neared the village, our vehicle had to pass over a makeshift bridge constructed from wooden logs—I was a bit nervous but we made it across with no problems.

Upon our arrival, we got out from the vehicle to explore on foot. There were a couple of Dominican Army soldiers there (wearing pistols—the first guns I've seen down here) to guard against looters, but they had no qualms against sight-seers. Below is a picture of the Petite Savanne Health Center, which appeared to still be in good shape, but has been abandoned in place, never to operate again.

We walked down to one of the several small streams that converge in this village before heading on to the Atlantic Ocean. The one pictured below is an example of how meek and docile streams can be here most of the time. However, if you look close, you can see at the bottom of the picture the edge of the street that was swept away. Across on the other side, the street picks up again, but a wide expanse of the street, and whatever small bridge had previously crossed this creek, were gone. There were likely a lot of houses—potentially on both sides of the creek—which have totally disappeared. It is obvious that during Erika, this little creek was a raging torrent, carrying numerous boulders and debris. Who knows how many residents of this area were among the dead?
Some of the abandoned houses were already succumbing to Mother Nature. This house has a thick growth of green vines in the backyard encroaching on the corrugated metal shed—perhaps the entire house will be covered in vines if I come back again later.
It reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, entitled "The World Without Us." It is a non-fiction book written by Alan Weisman, which tells what would happen to our current environment if humans suddenly disappeared--how nature would take over what we left behind. In a sense, that is what is happening in Petite Savanne. Below is another picture which was taken behind a church where a bell tower stood next to what I assume to be a bathroom facility. Green vines are already “consuming” the large metal bell and its tower, as well as the iron gate to the small building. Nature is reclaiming what man has left behind. Man can overcome nature for a while, but nature is relentless, just as that book predicts.
However, not everyone is willing to let nature win this battle. Despite the government resettlement program, some residents of Petite Savanne are determined to return to this location. The government has made it clear that Petite Savanne is a dangerous locale for any storms, and they don't want to invest Dominica's limited dollars into an area that has such great potential for future disasters. Thus, there will be no public infrastructure rebuilt to support any residents here. That means no public water system, no electric, no cell phone towers, no trash service, no government health center, no road repairs, etc.

Yet on the day that I visited, there were about a dozen men who were rebuilding a small bridge over one of the other creeks (the smoke in the picture below is from the used cement bags they were burning). As you can tell, this is another normally small creek that ended up carrying massive boulders and debris down its path, clearing a wide swath of whatever was in its way.

These men were hard at work to create this crossing so that they could drive their vehicles over to the streets on the other side. They were not doing it for pay, but were banding together to work for their own interests.

One must really love a specific location to consider moving back to a place without any public infrastructure whatsoever—especially when the government has tried to set up an attractive resettlement program. Apparently, Petite Savanne is considered by some residents to be their home, regardless of the dangers or the inconveniences of choosing to live there.

Whether you call it determination or just plain stubbornness, I am impressed with their tenacity. Just organizing a dozen or so folks to help design and build a creek crossing is not easy. Their eventual goal of living once again in Petite Savanne, albeit this time with no government support or infrastructure, is even more difficult. Yet still these Dominicans persist—just like those green vines!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Love Letters in the Sand

I have written before about Mont Rouge, the imposing hillside above our beach. I have climbed on it several times, but it is very steep, with few handholds. Most of my young students can climb it quite easily, but one needs to be very careful and pick your paths wisely. There was one path that I had not explored yet, but I finally crossed that off my list recently.

In the past, I had followed my students up to the big bare rocky spot that looms well above our beach. However, while at the beach one day several weeks ago, I watched one of my students climb even higher on the hillside, through some of the “scrub brush” above the bare rock. It turns out that there is a bit of a path (perhaps it was originally a cleft in the rock) that leads diagonally to a higher point, which ends with a sharp dropoff on the back side.

I knew I wanted to give it a try someday. I like to push myself, albeit in a responsible manner, to test my own boundaries. Could I safely make my way up to this higher vantage point? Recently, another Peace Corps Volunteer had visited my village and attempted to merely get up to the bare rock above the sea (which I've done numerous times), but backed out after seeing how difficult the climb really was without the right shoes. It is a bit challenging!

I had walked down to the beach area on Sunday afternoon, originally intending to just watch and listen to the waves, before seeing if I could find some folks interested in taking a hike somewhere. Thus I had good hiking shoes on, and not simply a swimsuit. While enjoying the beachside serenity, that high spot on the hill beckoned to me. It seemed to be saying that today would be a perfect day to scale its heights. With hardly anybody around the beach at this time, it wouldn't be a big deal if I made it part way up and then changed my mind.
The picture above shows the hillside in question, and the red line I added shows (approximately) the path one must take to climb up to that higher point, which is more than twice as high on this oceanfront side as I had previously been on the front of Mont Rouge (there is another path on the back side that allows you to climb to the top, which is covered in this previous story).
It is always interesting to try a new path, especially when climbing on a steep hillside. It becomes a bit like a chess game, where one has to plan your foot placements, and look for handholds not just in your current spot, but in spots further ahead. All the while, a stiff sea breeze buffets your body. I should also mention that the bushes are quite prickly, and can scratch you up if you aren't careful. Above is a picture I snapped when I made it over the bushes to the diagonal pathway that leads further up the hillside. The mountaintop above the village that I scaled about six weeks ago can be seen in the distance when looking up as I began the final portion of this hike. Below is the opposite view, looking down the diagonal pathway once I reached the top. It is quite a feeling of accomplishment (and a bit of an adrenaline rush) once you overcome the adversities and reach your goal.
At the top, the view was beautiful (which is why I placed the panoramic picture I took there as the first photo near the beginning of this article). I love watching the waves roll in from this overhead angle. It is also cool to see the rocks and other features in the water below (I hoped to perhaps catch a glimpse of a sea turtle swimming in the bay, but I was not as lucky as I've been on a couple of previous occasions). I spent a good bit of time by myself observing my world and contemplating my situation from this high vantage point (plus carefully gazing over the back edge of the precipice, down the cliff and onto the tops of palm trees behind the beach, as shown in the picture below). I enjoyed it very much—but then something even better happened.
During my extended time up there, one of my students showed up on the beach. She noticed me way up on the hillside. I was too high up to talk with her, especially with the sound of the surf crashing on the beach where she was standing. She picked up a stick and decided to send me a message, using what was probably the best way for us to communicate. To my surprise, she slowly started spelling out large letters in the sand on the beach.
I - l - o - v - e - y - o - u
M - r. - K - u - r - t - z
She finished it off with a heart at the end, just as I was able to snap the picture shown below. Awwww! How sweet! As I stood on that pinnacle, I realized once again how blessed I am to be here!
It isn't that a ten year old girl has any romantic intentions towards me. I think it is just a measure of how I've been able to connect with most of the students in the village. There is a great movie from the late 1960s (with an equally great theme song) starring Sidney Poitier as a school teacher entitled “To Sir, With Love.” Because of the British influence in the school system here, the students often address me as “Sir,” which makes me sometimes think of that theme song. So rather than a romantic sentiment, I consider her sand message to be the same sort of general admiration for a teacher who has inspired her—To Mr. Kurtz, With Love.

By the time I had slowly and carefully worked my way back down the steep and treacherous hillside, she had created another smaller one to greet me at the bottom, as shown below. I think these expressions of appreciation are not just for what I've done by myself, but in some respects it is a cumulative result of all the hard-working Peace Corps Volunteers who have served on this little island in the past. Dominicans realize that the Peace Corps (or “Pisko” in the local kweyol dialect) has been coming here to help for many years. Those previous volunteers collectively played a part in creating the appreciation that greets each of us new volunteers when we arrive to help Dominicans.

I feel honored that by serving in the Peace Corps, I help to represent my home country to the residents of Dominica. The Peace Corps is perhaps the best form of foreign aid that the United States can provide to struggling countries. This small agency, started by President Kennedy 55 years ago, uses just a minuscule fraction of a tax dollar but it spreads a lot of good will. Thank you to all my fellow Americans back home for giving me the opportunity to represent you! Just as my students seem to love me, I love all of you back home for supporting me.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Belle Marche

Yesterday, our school conducted what is apparently a Dominican tradition. Rather than attend classes on Friday, our students (accompanied by some parents and staff) set forth on a long hike from the school, which is known as a “Belle Marche” (or perhaps Bel Mache in kweyol). It seems to be part exercise, part bonding experience, and part exploration of their nearby world.
To beat the heat, students came to school two hours early—7:00 AM rather than the normal starting time of 9:00 AM. From the school, we hiked on our road up the initial hill (pictured above), where at the top we took a smaller back road along a ridge to the next little town. Then we dropped down to the main road and walked along it, until we finally reached the high point that separates the watershed that drains into the Atlantic from the watershed that drains into the Caribbean. At the steps of the Seventh Day Adventist Church there, we took a group picture.
We then continued down the hill, past the old, giant palm trees that line the road near what must have once been a plantation estate house. [This section of the main road with these majestic trees reminds me of a jungle version of Beverly Hills.]
The students were real troopers as we hiked along the main road (see below). They have often traveled on this road, primarily inside the vans (called transports) that comprise the public transportation system here. Hopefully, in the future when they gaze out a van window, they will remember the day that their feet marched step by step along this roadway.
We walked about five miles before turning off the main road, just short of the Agricultural Station at One Mile, which we had visited a few weeks ago. Because we had hiked the one mile from the Ag Station to get ice cream in Portsmouth (as described in this previous story), the children have basically now covered every step of the road from our village to Portsmouth.
Once off the main road and on a small dirt road, we enjoyed a couple of river crossings (as shown above and below). The sound of the water tumbling through the rocks and rapids reminded so much of my native West Virginia, even if the plants and trees were different than back home (notice the roots on the tree in the picture above).
We marched higher and higher up the old dirt road, which might be compared to an old abandoned logging road back home. There is supposedly a waterfall somewhere up there, but we were not able to find the proper pathway from the road (in the past, some of the adults had remembered a sign, but it was no longer there). However, I still had a good time observing the beautiful views, plus seeing things growing like pineapples, oranges, sugar cane, and other crops.
Although we didn't make it to the elusive waterfall, it was not a disappointing trip. The students got to visit the Brandy Manor Riding Center and see the horses there. Plus any day spent hiking in this beautiful country—even a road hike that didn't find its intended target—is still better than spending the day in a hot classroom doing normal school work.
After marching about seven miles, it was decided that we would catch transports to get back to our village, rather than march all the way home. Once we were back, I joined some of the kids for a swim in the Atlantic. After we were done in the salt water, we headed up through the village to shower off in the cold natural spring water of La Soose. It was a nice way to end the afternoon.

Although I didn't know about it at the time, in some respects the Belle Marche tradition is similar to an activity I have been doing with my students for some time. I enjoy exploring our neighborhood through group hikes, and will continue to do so through the rest of my service here. My only suggestion for next year's Belle Marche is that we should avoid scheduling it for Friday the Thirteenth—perhaps that is the reason why they had bad luck finding the waterfall!

P.S. The previous Friday, I led my own unofficial Belle Marche that eventually resulted in a pool party at a nice hotel (see that story here). I wrote about my “stupid tax” of forgetting to get my $25 of change back before I left the hotel. The good news is that the hotel arranged with a resident of my village to deliver my money to me. That was really nice of them! The people of Dominica have been wonderful to me!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Today is primary election day in my home state of West Virginia.

I've been interested in government since childhood, when my grandmother went to Washington and brought back some publications from our congressman's office. In ninth grade, my civics teacher took some of his top students to attend the governor's inauguration ceremony in the capital. I majored in Political Science at the University of Charleston, and then went on to WVU to get both a law degree and a master's in public administration. I worked for the federal government for thirty years before retiring nearly one year ago. I've always believed it was our civic duty to support our government.

In addition, I experienced democracy first-hand when I put my name on the ballot during four different elections. I was proud to be elected to the non-partisan Wood County Board of Education, especially after trudging through countless neighborhoods going door-to-door (the old-fashioned way) explaining my positions and seeking support.

Following my terms on the school board, I undertook another part-time job as an adjunct faculty member at WVU-Parkersburg, teaching American Government and Constitutional Law. I tried to impress on my students the importance of participating in our democracy. I also tried to stress the need for bipartisanship rather than polarization.

So it probably isn't surprising that a political junkie like me never missed voting in an election throughout my adult years. Even when I was a student in Charleston or Morgantown, I always filled out my absentee ballot and mailed it back. When I lived in various locations around the Washington, DC area, I would make a point to find my way to an unfamiliar local school and cast my ballot.

However, my unbroken streak of voting in every election since 1976 ended today. Oh sure, I could have made arrangements to have an absentee ballot sent to me so that I could have participated from thousands of miles away during my Peace Corps service. I plan on doing that for the general election this fall.

But I just couldn't get excited about the choices that I was facing in American presidential politics as well as in state and local races. I'm not advocating for others to avoid voting, but given my unusual circumstances I decided to end my streak. In some respects, I am purposely breaking my record as a small personal protest over how politics has devolved back home. The hyper-partisanship, impact of big money, lack of compromise, and willingness to make inaccurate statements for political gain are not how I think things are supposed to work. It makes me sad for the future of my state and of my country.

Even though the process is complicated, I will be sure to vote in the fall, because I want to be able to preserve my right to complain when things inevitably go wrong, regardless of who wins the election. But if there was ever a year to sit out an election, I think this is it. I'm grateful to be serving in the Peace Corps on this beautiful island, and not being subjected to all the negative campaign ads during 2016.

For someone who had always been optimistic about the future of America, I'm turning into a pessimist. We owe it to our future generations to do better than we are doing now. In the meantime, I'm hoping to be proven wrong and for things to turn out better than I currently think they will. Please!

A pensive picture from my days as an elected official.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Priceless Pool Party

On Thursday afternoon, a nurse from the local health center came over to the school to tell us to keep the students off the large playing field in front of our school. This field is used for community football (soccer), cricket, and rounders games, as well as a playground for our school. The lush green grass had been turning brown lately, and it was discovered there was some sort of larvae that was eating the grass roots. Officials were going to spray the field with a pesticide to stop the infestation.
As I arrived on Friday morning around 8:00 AM (before any students or other teachers), there were about four men on the field wearing masks and backpack sprayers roaming around the field. Unfortunately, the wind direction was carrying the noxious pesticide fumes towards the school. It was quickly apparent that this was a bigger problem than merely keeping the students off the playing field itself. I decided to have the students go over to the beach area (which has a steady refreshing sea breeze coming off the ocean) as they arrived (see photo above), rather than to congregate at the school and breathe the fumes. You can see a glimpse of the school across the road from the beach area in the photo below.
Holding school in such potentially toxic conditions did not seem prudent, but the principal did not have the authority to unilaterally cancel school without approval from the Ministry of Education. As I understand it, phone calls went back and forth between the principal, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Agriculture to determine what to do. I heard that the pesticide used on the field had been banned in the United States since 2004. I was glad we had taken the students over to the beach, where they played in the coconut grove, building elaborate little cities and other activities as shown below.
We were finally given the official word around 10:30 that school was canceled for Friday. I personally told the students that I would be interested in doing some sort of hike on this unexpected day off. I let them know that I would be going home to change clothes and get my backpack. I would meet anyone who was interested in joining me at the bus stop at 11:00.

At first, there was only about a half-dozen students there, which seemed like a fun and manageable group. However, they kept coming, and eventually I ended up with 21 students. We decided to hike about a mile along the road and over the ridge to the beach where the Blenheim River empties into the Atlantic. The picture below shows the students climbing the long steep hill out of our village, with the Atlantic Ocean behind them.

Once we arrived at my original destination, we determined it was going to be more difficult to cross the river than it had been previously. The river had changed course since I was last over there--below is an older picture showing how the river at that time was just a shallow wash across the beach, but now it had cut a deep channel next to the hillside that we would need to climb down. So we decided to walk further down the road to the next beach down the coast.
That required passing by a roadside bar with a nice overlook of a small island, which I had visited before but some of the students had not. I was glad to let them see this beautiful spot, as shown below. By this time, the students were getting hot and thirsty, and (of course) many of them had not brought anything with them. So I shelled out $20 to buy some bottled water, and the proprietor offered to fill up whatever empty bottles we had with tap water. It was a good way to make sure they were properly hydrated.
From there, we next came upon a fancy hotel (the only hotel in this area) called Atlantique View Resort (check out their website at for more information). A few of the villagers work there, but most of the students had never seen it before, so we decided to walk up the steep hill to let them see the nice landscaping, the beautiful views, and the fancy swimming pool. The picture below is taken from the resort's website, and provides a nice view of the two upper pools and the large bar/patio area.
While there, I thought I'd inquire about a possible day pass that might let us have a pool party rather than going to the beach. This is not something they typically do, but since there were no guests using the pool at that time, I was told we could swim in the upper two pools for two hours for $75, as long as I supervised them. I hadn't planned on such a large expenditure, but just happened to have an emergency $100 bill hidden in my wallet. I quickly decided to go ahead and do it--sometimes you just need to seize the moment! The woman working at the front desk said she didn't have the correct change at the moment, but that I could get it later. I hurried out to tell my students about our new plan. [Below is a picture of the pools that I had snapped in a previous visit, which shows the ocean in the distance.]
They were ecstatic! Most of them had only experienced the small cement pool the village built at the spring—see this previous blog story with a picture of our local “pool”. They had never been in a "real pool" with clear, chlorinated water, much less one with different levels, waterfalls, and “infinity edge” views of the Atlantic. Their joy was readily apparent and they proceeded to have a fantastic time. I was too busy supervising to take pictures, but I did manage to take the one shown below before I put my phone in a dry place for safekeeping.
At the end of the two hour session, I took them over to the patio area and tried to divide with all of them the food I brought. I'm not sure why they expected me feed them all, but I did my best. I had a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a large bagette bun, a couple of cucumbers, a coconut-ginger cake (baked by a woman in our village), and two wheat crackers with cheese. Using only my hands, I roughly divided the sandwich into halves, fourths, eighths, and then sixteenths, further subdividing a few of the larger sixteenth pieces in order to get 21 bites for everybody. The same was done with the cucumbers and the cake. Since it was impossible to split something so small, I ate the two crackers with the piece of cheese in between.

Everybody got a bite of everything, but obviously it wasn't a filling lunch. Jesus did a much better job feeding the multitudes with some fish and bread than I was able to do with my students. However, they were still so excited from our pool party that no one complained. They were still on “cloud nine.”

We then started our mile-and-a-half road hike up and down the hills back to our village. Occasionally, the students would stop to “forage” for mangoes (which are just beginning to ripen), fatpoke (or perhaps fat pork, which is similar to a grape that grows on bushes), and other wild foods. When we arrived back in the village, I was cajoled into spending another $15 to buy “ice pops” for everyone as a reward for completing our big adventure.

It was when digging out that $15 to pay for my purchase that I realized I had forgot something—the $25 change from the hotel front desk. OOOPS! I certainly wasn't going to walk all the way back to ask about it (assuming the same woman would still be on duty). Back in the United States, I would sometimes listen to Dave Ramsey's radio talk show about personal finances. Ramsey refers to money mistakes as a “stupid tax.” Sometimes you have to pay a “stupid tax” in order to make sure you don't make that mistake again. I guess I will just need to write off that $25 as a stupid tax I paid. Hopefully, I will get paid back with some sort of “positive karma” since this was such a good cause.

Overall, I “unexpectedly” spent $135 on this little hike to celebrate our “unexpected” day off. However, one of the many lessons the Peace Corps is teaching me is that the more one gives, the more one gets in return. While I can't afford to do this all the time, I've learned down here that money is not nearly as important as the unabashed happiness I saw on 21 young faces that afternoon. Just like the old MasterCard commercials, their smiles were “priceless.” It was an epic adventure to a luxurious pool that they will long remember!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Tree Ferns

At first, I thought it was a snake! Growing up in West Virginia (with both copperheads and timber rattlers), my brain was long conditioned to watch along the ground for long cylindrical shapes with some sort of diamond-like pattern (unfortunately, the pattern doesn't seem to show up as clearly in my pictures as it does in real life). It only took a split second to realize this wasn't a snake crawling along the rocks (in the picture below), but that initial reaction from my brain had left an indelible impression.
Once I realized I was safe, I recognized some familiarity with this object. I knew I had seen this unusual piece of wood before, but could not quite remember where. After all, it isn't like I had spent much time in tropical forests before I arrived here with the Peace Corps. Where had I seen this?

It became apparent that the branch was from the stand of tree ferns that we had stumbled into during a hike up one of the creeks (but called "rivers" here, regardless of size) way above my village. I loved looking up the long thin trunks, to the top where the branches burst out in a radial pattern, allowing rings of blue sky to show through. I don't think the photograph below really does justice to the incredible beauty I saw that day.

I had posted the picture above in my previous story about that hike, and some of you commented on it. Since others were captivated by the tree ferns, I decided to do a little research and write this longer story about them. That is when I realized exactly where I had seen this particular diamond-shaped pattern before.

Ferns are simple plants that reproduce via spores--they have neither seeds nor flowers. Ferns have been around for over 300 million years, and were the dominant part of the vegetation during the Carboniferous Period (also recognized as "the age of ferns"). Fern trees (also known as cyatheales) comprised much of the swampy forests that over eons of time became compressed into coal seams.

Eureka! That is where I had seen them before! It may have been in the West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center next to our capitol, the coal mining museum at WVU, the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, or perhaps at the West Virginia Geological Museum at Cheat Lake. At least one of these places (and more likely all of them) has intact cyatheales fossils that clearly show this diamond-like pattern that I remembered.

Finding such fossils inside coal mines is not unusual. The museums in West Virginia that I mentioned have plenty of fossil examples on display. In fact, I ran across a Smithsonian story about a fossilized forest that covers four square miles of a coal mine in Illinois. It reminded me of the day I got to spend underground in a real working coal mine that I wrote about in my previous blog.

Since realizing the connection between these ancient trees that once covered most of West Virginia, and which can still be found in pockets on my current island home, I have become quite fond of them. The fern tree has become a connection to my native state. I can now more readily discern a tree fern from a palm tree or a papaya tree, both of which long trunks with a burst of leaves at the top. Below is a long-distance picture taken across a steep ravine of a single fern tree (perhaps 15-20 feet tall) in a small clearing surrounded by traditional ferns.

In talking about this with folks in my village, I found out that I don't need to hike two hours up the creek to find fern trees. Although they are somewhat rare, it turns out there were a few on the hillside above our school. The pictures were not as impressive as those from the first time I saw fern trees, but at least in the picture below you can get a sense of the fern leaves extending outward from the ends of each frond (Google offered me a "stylized" version of my original photo, which I decided to use).
There was one tree that was down, and some of my students helped me bring a portion of it back down to the school for closer inspection (see below). Fern trees are hollow (as was this example we found on the ground), and some of my students tell me that snakes use them for hiding places. I'm not sure whether that is true, or just part of their general aversion to snakes—even though they don't have any venomous ones here. That there are no poisonous snakes is a fact for which I am very grateful, going back to that day about a month ago when I saw the picture at the top of this story. Let's just hope my brain doesn't get too lazy about watching for copperheads and rattlesnakes when I return!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Death in Dominica

One of the best parts about serving in the Peace Corps is the opportunity to observe a different culture than my own. This is true even for sad events, such as a death in our village. Last Sunday, a woman died (may she rest in peace), but it gave me the chance to respectfully compare the similarities and differences in how death is handled here.

In order to protect the privacy of the deceased, I won't go in-depth on some issues, but instead will try to give you a few anecdotal observations. Be aware that this is merely my reporting on one single death, and is not meant to be a comprehensive study of how things are always done here. Hopefully, there won't be any more deaths in my village, because I don't want to become an expert on this topic. Heck, I do not even consider myself an expert on the death culture of America!

The body was removed from the house last Sunday and taken to one of two mortuaries on the island. On Wednesday evening, I was invited to the home of the deceased for a prayer meeting. Once family and friends had arrived, those who could fit inside gathered within the deceased's bedroom, while the rest of us huddled near the bedroom door and the surrounding area of the house. One of the respected women from the church led the gathering.

I'm still new to this whole Catholic religion, but I assume that she was reading from “the book of prayers.” It was punctuated with lots of short group prayers that the others knew by heart, as well as scripture readings and hymn singing. Upon completion of this somber ceremony, everyone shared cake and drinks before departing down the hill.

The funeral itself was held on Friday afternoon at our modest Catholic church. With no funeral home in this tiny village, the visitation and viewing was held prior to the funeral service. The open casket was located at the front door of the church, so that everyone passed by on their way into the service.

The funeral mass was similar to what I've witnessed in the United States, albeit longer than most because it included communion. The absence of air conditioning and the sound of the omnipresent village roosters crowing just outside were noticeably different than a typical American funeral. It was somewhat similar to a standard Sunday service here, and included a collection to defray the funeral costs. Family members and friends were given a special badge to wear for the service (mine is shown below).

Following the funeral service, the casket was transported a few miles to the Catholic cemetery in the larger town nearby. Attendees shared rides so that everyone who wanted to go could get to the graveside service. I would like to point out that I was encouraged by family members to take some pictures at the graveside service. This is something I have never done before—but then again, with cell phone cameras ever present these days, such picture-taking may be commonplace in America now.
The old cemetery is on a hillside with a nice view of the Atlantic, as shown above. Two men from the village had been hired to dig the grave, and had started working at 5:30 Friday morning to dig the deep hole in the steep, hardened ground before the sun got too hot. It took them nearly six hours to dig the deep rectangular pit. It was located along the edge of the cemetery, bordering an adjacent, undeveloped bushy area. The plot was on a slope, so one end required more digging than the other end.
At the graveside, the priest said some final words and then threw the first handful of dirt on the casket lid before it was lowered into the grave (pictured above—if you look close, you can see dirt on the lid as it descends). Hymns were sung, including many that were familiar to me, such as “How Great Thou Art,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “It is Well with my Soul.” In the photo below, you can see the corner of the grave pit beside the man in the left foreground with the blue, maroon, and white striped shirt and blue hat. To his right (with the grave between them) is a woman with a black and white dress. Above her head and to the right, you can see the priest standing above the grave in his white robe and purple stole.
The crowd lingered as the surrounding piles of displaced dirt were shoveled in, until the hole was filled-in completely. Then flower arrangements were put in the middle and cuttings were placed around the perimeter of this new grave (shown below). As the sun began to set, everyone departed the cemetery.
Most folks then convened at the home where the deceased had lived. A tent was set up in the yard, where food, snacks, and drinks were offered. That is one of the differences that I see between our cultures. In the United States, my experience has been that friends will often bring casseroles, cakes, and other food items to the deceased's home (and/or church), so that the grieving family does not need to cook for the visitors who come to comfort them.

Here in Dominica, the tradition is that the deceased's family is responsible for entertaining visitors with food and drink. In other words, if you make the effort to visit and console the family, then they should reward you with food and drink that the family has prepared or purchased. It is just a different way of doing things than I have previously experienced, but that doesn't make it wrong. In some respects, this responsibility may give the family something to do rather than overly focusing on their loss.

It is partly because of this practice that there is an emphasis on funeral pre-planning and insurance here. Funerals can be expensive for your survivors, so many Dominicans make the arrangements in advance and pay for them by installment plans. I think many Americans might benefit from contemplating their own death and preparing funeral service plans, wills, etc., even if they don't have to host their own guests.

Dying is a part of life, regardless of one's location on the globe. However, I hope that deaths are a rare occurrence in my village (as well as back home), and that this will have been my last opportunity to write about this topic. In the meantime, make the most of each day you have. I know I am trying to do just that!

Here is a shot of the interior of the Catholic church in our village where the funeral was held.
Notice how the holes in the cement blocks on the back wall provide ventilation.