Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Exploring the “Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”

When I was growing up, there were only three TV channels—ABC, NBC, and CBS—rather than the hundreds of channels available now. Occasionally, the networks would broadcast “specials,” rather than their normal offerings. One recurring special that I always enjoyed was “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” For a landlocked kid growing up in West Virginia, the alien world of life under the sea looked very interesting. I even thought about majoring in Marine Biology.

Over the past dozen years, I got the opportunity to see this undersea world a few times for myself on cruise vacations to the Caribbean. It was truly amazing. I brought my mask and snorkel with me when I left for the Peace Corps. However, I'm located on the Atlantic side, and I haven't really seen very many interesting sights during my snorkeling attempts at our local beach. Most of the fish I spied were just plain silver and the bottom was just sand for the most part, plus the waves churn things up, thus limiting visibility. Despite these limitations, it was cool to see what is under the surface—I just don't do it very often anymore. I did take my snorkel to Cabrits National Park once, and enjoyed the calmer waters and coral reef there on the Caribbean side, but until recently I had not done nearly as much snorkeling as I had planned.

Last weekend, I got to spend a couple of days with two wonderful Peace Corps Volunteers on this island who are getting ready to go home after their two year stint. They often go snorkeling together, and I got to tag along to two of their favorite spots. This experience has me excited to do more snorkeling while I am here, because observing the sealife under the waters is incredible.

The first day we went to Rodney's Rock, which is north of the capital city of Roseau. Unfortunately, I didn't get a good picture of this rocky, short peninsula that juts into the Caribbean from an otherwise straight coastline, but I did take the following picture from atop Rodney's Rock, looking towards the southern end of the island.

Here is the story of Rodney's Rock from Lenox Honychurch, a renowned Dominica historian:
“There is a rocky point along the west coast north of Jimmit that is composed of fractured volcanic lava ejected from the Trois Pitons volcano... The British named it Rodney's Rock following Admiral George Rodney's victory at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782 (this battle is described on the sign photo in one of my recent blog posts). There is a local legend that the French, who occupied the island at the time, had placed lights upon the rock so as to disguise it as a ship anchored in the dark. This was done in an effort to delay Rodney as he sailed up the west coast in pursuit of the French fleet. The story goes that Rodney was indeed diverted by this trick and hung around all night pounding the supposed ship with cannon shot, only to find at dawn that it was merely a rock. As good as this story sounds, there is absolutely no proof that it actually happened and in any case at dawn Rodney was off of the Cabrits angling for an engagement with the French fleet.”
After a great time on Friday snorkeling at Rodney's Rock, we went to Champagne Reef (south of Roseau) on Saturday. Champagne Reef is very unique, because it has underwater geothermal springs which vent small gas bubbles, making it seem as if you are swimming through champagne in some areas. You can also feel the temperature differences as you swim through patches of heated water. In addition to the unusual view of the tiny bubbles, the sealife here is phenomenal. It is considered one of the top snorkeling sites in all of the Caribbean. Here is a picture of the sign at the entrance (look close and you will see some of the bubble streams).
I wish I could accurately share with you the incredible beauty that is underwater. Unfortunately, I can't take my camera into the sea. However, one of the two Peace Corps Volunteers with whom I went snorkling has been solving this problem by going to the Internet and finding pictures of what he has seen on his snorkeling adventures here. His photo album on Facebook provides better pictures than what is probably possible for amateurs to photograph (it is hard to get the fish to pose!), as well as the names of each specimen. He encouraged me to use his pictures—and yet even they don't adequately convey the vivid colors, graceful movements, and spectacular beauty that I witnessed at both Rodney's Rock and Champagne Reef.

One of my favorites was the French Angelfish. The yellow-green neon stripes were so bright against the stark black background they seemed to glow.

Although it is just black and white, the spotted drum was very interesting, with its combination of stripes and spots.
Another neon-colored stunner was the yellow tail damselfish. The way the light blue dots seem to jump out with their vivid color is amazing. Unfortunately, this example from his "catalog" doesn't seem to have much of a yellow tail like the ones I saw.
One of the biggest colorful fishes was called the Stoplight Parrotfish (don't ask me why—who knows how they come up with these names?). They were generally about two feet long, with subtle colors that would change as their angle changed.
Here is what the juvenile version of the Stoplight Parrotfish looks like. The red on the bottom was quite bright on some of them.
Again, even though it was just black and white, the Four-eyed Butterflyfish was still an elegant thing of beauty.
The picture below doesn't do justice to the bright blue colors on the ones I saw. This is called a Blue-headed Wrasse.
These are just a few of the astounding sea creatures I observed. I don't want to overwhelm you with too many at one time. I probably need to save some for blog stories yet to come. It is truly another world beneath the surface of the water. I'm looking forward to more snorkeling in the future.

Oh, and there is one other interesting thing I did at Rodney's Rock. Many people jump off the end of Rodney's Rock, because it is a vertical cliff into deep water. These two guys had done it before and wanted me to do it with them. One of them went around to a point off the side so that he could take our pictures as we jumped.

I carefully assessed the situation. It didn't seem all that high, and you didn't need to jump out a certain distance to hit the water—the water seemed to be directly below you, and it was indeed deep. I've done a lot of whitewater rafting over the years, and on several rivers there are large, steep rocks above a deep pool in the river. The rafting guides will often pull over and give folks the opportunity to take the plunge off of “Jump Rock” (as it is called on the New River in Fayette County, West Virginia).

In the picture above, I am sitting with my feet on a flat rock at the edge of the cliff, contemplating my next move. I was telling myself that this was “just like Jump Rock” back home in West Virginia. The photo makes it seem as if one would need to jump out, but that is just because the photographer is further away to my left, and so my sheer drop is obscured by other rocks between my spot and his.
I finally leaped out with outstretched arms to each side, and headed for the crystal blue waters below. If this photo had been snapped a nano-second earlier, it might have looked as if I was walking on the horizon line.
I popped up quickly and happily. In this final picture above, the photographer has already thrown my swim fins down to me, thus the yellow and black coloring visible on my feet. After snapping this picture, he threw my mask and snorkel so that I could enjoy the underwater scenery one last time as we swam back to the shore.

It was an incredible experience that I will long treasure!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Another West Virginia Connection

“Coal For Sale” announced the handmade sign along a road, catching this West Virginia native's eyes. What? I knew these young volcanic islands had no coal seams, so I was a bit befuddled. I later learned that it is just a shortened term in these islands for charcoal.

As a West Virginian, I always used Kingsford charcoal because they have a plant in our state. There is a big production facility near Parsons in Tucker County, snuggled next to the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. It is adjacent to the Allegheny Highlands bicycle trail, which I wrote about in my previous blog a few years ago. Here is a picture of my bike parked next to the sign with a portion of the employee parking lot visible in the background.

In America, we typically buy our charcoal in bags from a store. It comes compressed into handy briquettes, all the same size and with a consistent composition. Regardless of the brand name, it was likely made in a huge industrial complex such as the Kingsford plant, a portion of which is pictured again below (note the logo at the top of the tower and the beautiful mountain ridge beyond).
Some manufactured charcoal is imported in bags to Dominica, but there is another way the locals get charcoal—they make it themselves. About six weeks ago, I noticed a guy in our village digging a big hole in the ground, probably about five feet wide and fifteen feet long. He told me he was going to make some charcoal.
After digging the pit, he laid down a couple of long pieces of wood, which form a base upon which the logs are stacked. The idea is to lift up the stack of logs so that some air can pass underneath and reach the length of the pit. After tightly stacking the wood he intends to convert into charcoal, he surrounds the pit with banana tree trunks (visible in the picture above and below), which are pithy and moist. He then covers the stack with dirt, plus vegetation such as banana leaves, to limit the availability of oxygen, thus preventing the logs from fully burning. Finally, some of the ever-present corrugated galvanized sheet metal is placed on top, to divert some of the inevitable rainwater. Then, a fire is started underneath at the front of the pit.
The idea is to get the wood hot enough with a slow, low temperature burn to dry out any moisture and to emit the impurities, yet without enough oxygen to burn freely and completely at higher temperatures. The result leaves nothing except blackened but unburned carbon, which burns quicker and hotter than regular wood (and makes for some delicious barbecue chicken that I enjoy down here).

It is a similar process to what was used in the coke ovens throughout the West Virginia coalfields, where coal was placed in brick ovens, the door sealed to keep out oxygen, and then heated by burning coal underneath. The result was called coke and when it was burned, this drier, purer coal produced much higher temperatures, perfect for the many steel mills we once had in Wheeling, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, etc. You can still see decaying remnants of these coke ovens in many places around West Virginia's coal regions.

Back in our village, he started the fire underneath this pit back in June, prior to my visit back home to West Virginia. After I returned, I found him checking the burn one night. You can see the smoke in the picture above rising through the dirt that had been placed on top. It takes four to six weeks to burn, depending on the size of the pit.
Recently, he has started to recover his charcoal from the pit. In the picture above, you can see the rake he uses to help separate the charcoal from the dirt that had been layered on top. In the picture below, you can see some of the charcoal he has gathered on some galvanized (the short term used down here for corrugated sheet metal). He was sorting through the pieces by hand to ensure they were cool before bagging—that there was no heat left inside them from the pit burn. If any are still hot, they get buried in dirt.
It takes a lot of time, both in man-hours as well as in the weeks it takes for the slow burn. However, it does become a money maker when it is all done. He bags the charcoal up into large bags (feed bags?), as pictured below. As of the other night when I last spoke with him, he has 18 bags so far, but he is still waiting for the far end of the pit (the fire starts at the front and slowly works its way down the pile to the back) to finally cool down. He says from a pit that size, he usually gets about 20-25 bags at $50 to $60 apiece (about $20 US dollars each). He told me he could transport his bags and sell them in the marketplace in Portsmouth, but he prefers to just keep it at his place and sell it to folks here in the village.
It was fascinating to learn about how charcoal is made down here. While I appreciate the heritage and authenticity of homemade charcoal, I think I will continue my own tradition of supporting my home state and buying Kingsford when I'm back in the USA.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Vietnam and me

It all started innocently. A Facebook friend recently posted a link to someone else's video about Huey choppers in the Vietnam war. The video wasn't so much about the combat warfare aspect as it was a testimony to the pilots of those helicopters. I didn't have the time at that moment to watch the video, but I decided to save it for viewing later.

What pushed me over the edge to save the link and later view the video was that it was set to one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs, “Gimme Shelter.” [Which became even more important to me after seeing the Oscar winning documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom” and hearing the story of Merry Clayton, the female backup singer whose haunting vocals pierce this song.]

I've always been interested in cars, spacecraft, and aviation. I can still remember a book I read in junior high that taught me the basics of flying a helicopter. Whenever I've been close to a helicopter cockpit, I've always mentally gone through the process that book taught me of how I would control the engine speed, the rotor blade pitch, and other factors necessary to fly it.

So I clicked on the link and was transported back to the jungles of Vietnam, which I had watched virtually every night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. I wasn't even a teenager yet when “Gimme Shelter” was recorded, but I was learning a lot about our country and our world during the turbulent 1960s. My uncle was serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, and I had an older cousin in the Army, both of whom I admired very much.

Watching this video today while “deployed” with the Peace Corps made me realize just how incredibly lucky I am. It really impacted me, and I've been ruminating on it for hours. Although I realize that I posted a story last night, I feel compelled to write again on a very different topic. The military draft for the Vietnam war ended just a couple of years before I turned 18, and the war itself ended shortly before I graduated high school. If I had been born just a couple of years sooner, I would have been the right age to serve in Vietnam. Heck, I might have been one of those Huey pilots! I'm certain that had I been drafted, I would have went off to serve my country. Regardless of the morality of the war itself, I was patriotic enough that I would have answered the call of my country. Just as Kenny Rogers sang in “Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town,”

It wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war
But I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore.
Because I am sure that my 18-year-old self would have wanted to serve my country (perhaps even if I hadn't been drafted), that experience would have probably been—good or bad—the defining moment of my young life. There is also the chance that I might have been injured (as in the song mentioned above), or worse, that it might have been the end of my young life. Thankfully my name is not among the thousands inscribed on the epic black granite memorial on the mall in Washington, DC. Whenever I visit that memorial, I always look up the one name I know there, and think about all he missed—and all who miss him.

So I am deeply appreciative that my birth occurred when it did, and not sooner. I am finally getting the opportunity to serve my country with a two year stint in the Peace Corps on a Caribbean island, rather than in a terrible war in the jungles of southeast Asia. I am truly blessed! It is a great way to transition from my career into retirement.

The video, along with the songtrack, also made me think about all the craziness going on in the USA right now. Between the disappointing choices we are presented with during this election year, the domestic strife, the terrorism fears, the struggling economy, and so forth, America seems to be falling apart.

However, despite all the current bad news, listening to the apocalyptic lyrics of “Gimme Shelter” from the chaotic year of 1969 reminded me that we have been through tough times in the past. As bad as things might be getting up there in my native country right now, I hold out hope that the better elements of human nature will ultimately prevail. In the meantime, I would encourage all my fellow countrymen (on all sides of the issues) to think before you speak, and try to put yourself in the other persons' shoes. We must tone down the rhetoric and approach the problems with reasoned decision-making if we are to accomplish anything.

I can only hope there will be a country worth returning to when my tour of duty is completed. If not, I guess I could apply for another stint in the Peace Corps—they just recently started sending volunteers to Vietnam. Hmmm...

Obviously, this story does not lend itself to pictures. However, I remembered one that might be appropriate. While I was cleaning out the basement of my house in preparation for its sale prior to my departure with the Peace Corps, I found the model of my uncle's F-5 fighter jet that had been a fixture in my bedroom window in the house where I grew up. The photo I snapped upon finding it is a fitting reminder of those days of my youth in the 1960s.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Capuchin and Cliffs

One of the interesting sights I noticed on my recent flight to Dominica was the cliffs along the northern coast. They form nearly a straight line, with a steep drop-off into the waters separating Dominica from the French island of Guadeloupe. This view below from the airplane was my first glimpse of this rugged terrain.
Yesterday was “market day” for me. Generally, on one Saturday a month, I ride a bus to the second largest city of Portsmouth to shop at the marketplace (yesterday's haul included pineapples, oranges, potatoes, avocados, kenips, cassava bread, etc.). Often I finish my shopping and then visit with the Peace Corps Volunteer who works at a school in Portsmouth. Her situation is a lot different from mine, working in a larger school and living in an urban setting. [Personally, while there are advantages to both locations, I think I got lucky and received the better assignment.]

For yesterday's visit, I expressed an interest in exploring the northern end of the island. There is a bus route from Portsmouth to the village of Capuchin, on the northwestern edge of Dominica. Capuchin got its name because at one time, a group of Capuchin monks established a settlement there. While the monks eventually left, their name became attached to the village. By the way, Capuchin monks wear simple brown robes with hoods—the brown color is why the coffee and milk drink that is popular today is called “cappuccino” (not that I drink it). Some of you might also be aware of Capuchin monkeys, which were also named after this Catholic order.

We walked back to the marketplace and quickly caught a bus headed that direction. The small road winds through communities such as Toucari and Clifton, eventually ending at Cannor Park on the far side of Capuchin. The remains of the British soldiers' barracks have been recently restored, and a lone cannon (shown above) looks across toward the island of Guadeloupe. The historical marker shown below tells about the important naval battle between the British and the French in this strait between the island nations. [Clicking on the picture makes it larger, if you are interested in reading the sign.]
This sign also tells about the Waitukubuli Trail, which runs from Scotts Head in the south to Cabrits National Park in the north. It is the longest hiking trail in the Caribbean. The name Waitukubuli comes from the original name for this island—before Christopher Columbus arrived on a Sunday (which led him to call it Dominica, the Latin name for Sunday). Waitukubuli means “tall is her body” which refers to the high mountains here that are readily visible to anyone approaching the island.

We took a hike on the trail in order to see some of those tall cliffs on the north coast. It was fun hiking through the woods. There was a nice creek that bordered the trail for awhile. Once we crossed it and climbed the hill, we were eventually where the cliffs begin. Below is a picture of the breathtaking view. It was impossible for me to capture the top of the mountain and still show the coastline.

It wasn't a long hike, but it certainly was interesting. Just as a small bonus for you nature lovers, here is a picture of a monarch butterfly I watched as we hiked back.
I'm glad I got to see the northwestern area of this island. It is very nice there, but perhaps I'm biased—I wouldn't want to trade my village for anywhere else on this island!

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Exodus of the Bats

I wrote a few times last fall about the bat cave near my village. Each evening at dusk, thousands of bats depart the cave for their nightly feeding forays. I find it fascinating to watch the long undulating string of bats stream out of the cave, and then divide up into different groupings. Most of the villagers are so accustomed to this nightly ritual that they barely pay attention to it.

Although I can see them from my porch, I often use the bats as an excuse to make my way down to the bay after eating my dinner. There is no exact time (I think it varies with the weather conditions and other factors), but lately it has been around 6:25 PM. I enjoy spending time just watching and listening to the surf, and feeling the cool sea breezes while I await their appearance. The pelicans (and on rare occasions, the bobbing head of a sea turtle coming up for a breath) provide some extra entertainment while awaiting the main show—the bat exodus. Frequently, a few of the children will see me walking down the main street and follow me to the bay, but the bats do not seem as special to them as they are to me.

Recently, another Peace Corps Volunteer was visiting my village, and she got to see the bats fly out. I was very pleased that she also found it just as fascinating as I did.

Last night, I decided to get a new angle to view the exodus. I climbed up the rock wall of L'islet and headed out to a small clearing, so that I could be further out in the bay as well as higher up than just sea level. I patiently awaited the appearance of the bats from this new vantage point atop this narrow peninsula jutting out into the ocean. The following pictures are presented in the order in which they were taken (hopefully you can see the miniscule black dots against the evening sky—clicking on the pictures to blow them up may be worthwhile for this story).

After a few early individual bats were spotted leaving the cave, the numbers gradually increase as they make their way out. Notice how the string moves as they change altitude and flutter about.

In this first wider shot I took, you can see the string reaching across the sky as the numbers of exiting bats increase.
The string begins to split up and go separate ways in the next few pictures. It makes me wonder if there is a meeting each afternoon of the “Bat Air Force” officers, as they study maps and decide the nightly “target area” for each “squadron.”
In the next three pictures, some of the squadrons began to allow the sea breeze to push them back over top of my position, as they continued to divide up into smaller groups. Look towards the top of these three pictures and you can see different groups of bats flying over my head.
In the last shot, you can see that the numbers leaving the cave have drastically dwindled, although there are always a few stragglers (who must have had a hard time waking up from their daily upside-down, hang-by-their-feet slumber). There are none flying over my head, but many are still headed down the coastline for their nightly foraging.
It is all over in less than five minutes, but I think it is amazing to watch. These still shots really do not adequately represent this natural phenomenon, but even if I posted a video, I don't believe it would do justice to this magical sight. Just like the Peace Corps Volunteer who recently visited me, you have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Third World Root Canal

In West Virginia, the dumplings I've eaten were generally soft pieces of fluffy dough in chicken stew or creamed tomatoes. However, one of the differences I found in the Caribbean is that their dumplings are dense and hard, with nothing to make the flour rise. They are still quite good, and are a frequent addition to many dishes here, but very different than what I was accustomed to eating.

One day, I popped one of these heavy balls of dough into the back corner of my mouth, and felt a crack as I bit down on that dense dumpling. Well I'll be durned if I didn't crack a molar on—of all things—a dumpling! I couldn't believe it!

Fortunately, the Peace Corps is a bit like the armed forces, and they take good care of all our medical needs. In fact, it is probably better that a dental emergency occurred while I was serving here, because the Peace Corps foots the entire bill. Back in America, my dental coverage isn't that great, and there would have been large copays for such work. Arrangements were quickly made by our Peace Corps Medical Officer for me to see a dentist in the capital city (an hour and a half bus ride away from my village).

Upon examination, the dentist explained to me that the tooth was indeed cracked. A large previous filling had weakened its structural integrity, making it susceptible to failure under pressure. It would require a root canal.

A root canal? I'd never had one, but I knew a lot of folks who had and nearly all of them did not enjoy it. They had been described to me as painful, and that was coming from folks I knew who had to get them in the United States. Here I was in the Third World with the sudden need to find out for myself what they are like.

In all, it required four different trips to the dentist (a three-hour round trip each time). However, I'm happy to report that everything turned out okay.

I was relieved during my first visit to see that the office seemed fairly modern and the dentist was very nice. When the time came, he injected me with enough Novocaine that I never experienced any real pain. I have no complaints whatsoever about how it all worked out.

The picture below was taken during my recent mid-term dental checkup and cleaning which the Peace Corps Medical Office arranges for us each year. As you can see for yourself, the office is fairly typical of an American dental office. I have a smile on my face because his hygienist just gave me a good report on my teeth. Just like the old Crest commercials used to say: “Look, Mom, no cavities!”

Perhaps the best validation that I indeed had nothing to fear was that on one of my early visits, after being led from the waiting room to one of the back rooms, I saw a whiteboard the staff uses to track the daily appointments. When I saw the name “Roosevelt Skerrit” (the Prime Minister of Dominica and the most powerful person on the island) scrawled on the whiteboard, I figured I must be in good hands.

Finally, there is another advantage to going to this dentist. In addition to his dental practice, he has a farm where he maintains honey bees. He sells his honey at his office, priced about 10-20% less than I see for local honey elsewhere. A 750ml bottle such as the one pictured below only cost me $30 in Eastern Caribbean dollars (a bit more than $11 U.S. dollars).

Despite my initial fears, as it turns out perhaps the ability to purchase good local honey direct from the beekeeper is the primary difference between going to the dentist here versus going to the dentist in the USA. It is a sweet arrangement!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Week That Was

As mentioned in my previous post, I returned last Sunday evening. It has been a busy week since then, with several noteworthy events. On Monday, we worked on reconfiguring our classrooms to become a meeting hall where we could hold our awards ceremony. [Since there were no sixth graders at our school, we didn't have a graduation ceremony this year.] Everything went well! I got to make some remarks plus present an award, and we all enjoyed barbecue chicken and potato salad—similar to what I would have eaten on July 4th in America. Here are a few pictures from the event—the first shows our principal speaking and the second shows our choir singing.
On Wednesday, our school went on a field trip. We first stopped at the Cold Soufriere, where sulfurous fumes and mineral rich water bubble up from deep within the earth in the crater of an ancient volcano. Most of our students had never been to this nearby tourist attraction (which I had previously described as part of this post) and they were amazed, as shown below.
Then our bus crossed out of the volcano crater and down the hill towards the Caribbean Sea. We eventually arrived at Cabrits National Park. First, we checked out the museum, which includes the cool 3-D map of our island shown below. I liked that the students took an interest in the geography of their island.
I assumed that I'd get the opportunity to explore the ruins and hike to the mountaintop as I described in my previous visit here. However, once we arrived at the restored Fort Shirley, our students had a great time just playing on the grounds there. We ate lunch and then let the students climb all over the cannons, jump off the walls, and generally have a fun afternoon treating the grounds of the fort as their own personal playground. There was a broken picnic table that leaned over, producing an inclined plane that the children used as if it were a sliding board. Who needs video games when they are good at creating their own fun!
Thursday was report card pick up day, when parents were supposed to come to school to have a conference with their child's teacher and receive their report card. I used this last day of school to give out some small presents that I brought back from my trip to the USA. Each student got a kite, a caramel crème candy, and a Highlights for Children magazine. The kites were a big hit, as most of the kids spent the rest of the day flying their new kites on the playing field, as shown below.
One other unusual event occurred on Thursday. A couple of black SUVs stopped in front of our school, and backed into our driveway. Dominican Secret Service agents hopped out and assessed the situation before the Dominican Prime Minister (the most powerful position on the island) got out of the car. He toured our school, spoke with staff (including yours truly), and left with a better understanding of what we are dealing with here. Hopefully this unexpected visit might lead to future improvements for our school!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Mid-Term Vacation

After more than a year in the Caribbean, I was able to take a week off and fly back to West Virginia. Although I lived in Washington, DC, for three years early in my career, this was the longest I had ever gone without visiting my home state. I was less than a week late for Fathers' Day, and I was able to help celebrate my Mom's birthday. Plus, I was able to attend the 40th reunion of my high school class. It was a good week for me!
It took most of the day on Friday for me to make it home, with long layovers in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Charlotte, North Carolina. It was about midnight when we left the Charleston's Yeager Airport (named for Chuck Yeager, the West Virginia native who was the first man to break the sound barrier) and headed for our hotel. However, before arriving at the hotel, we stopped at a nearby Walmart store to pick up a couple of items. I walked through those doors, saw the cavernous amount of vast interior space, and quickly realized I wasn't in the village anymore. It was a bit of a culture shock to shop once again with so many choices!

After arriving in my hometown of Parkersburg, I got to drive again for the first time in over a year (Peace Corps Volunteers are strictly forbidden from driving). I felt as if I were 16 years old and learning to drive again, as my Dad rode in the passenger seat and had me drive all over the county, including the speedway which he had managed during the 1960s. He wanted to be sure I wasn't too rusty to use his truck that night to attend the reunion.

One of the places we drove to was the old Marbon, then Borg-Warner, then GE Plastics, and finally SABIC chemical plant. My dad spent most of his career working there, as did my sister. I was also employed there during the four summers I spent in college. This huge industrial complex along the Ohio River has now been leveled to the ground (as shown above), with only the gatehouse still standing between the parking lot and the far off river bank. It was quite different than I had remembered it.
My reunion had set up a big wicker basket for donations of school supplies for the “Kurtz Kidz” at my school in Dominica. I was amazed at the generosity of my classmates, as I received lots of great art supplies, pencils, pens, erasers, rulers, sharpeners, scissors, books, magazines, printer cartridges, etc. The basket had to be emptied a number of times as it filled up during the evening. The photo below is from Sunday afternoon as I examined the “loot” they had provided for my school.
One classmate had purchased a twin pack of expensive printer cartridges for our printer. That act by itself is very much appreciated. However, she took it a step further. She said she went in to her boss, and told him about what she was doing. She wanted him to read one of my blog stories, and then for him to consider matching her donation. She sent him the link to the "Love Letters in the Sand" story. He read it and agreed to match her donation. It turns out that "To Sir with Love" was one of his favorite movies of all time.

I tried to thank my classmates in a speech I gave on Saturday night (pictured below) up in front of the dance floor, because the stuff they provided (and the money some chose to give) will truly make a difference. I told them that if our teachers had been there to receive all this largesse, they would have been crying tears of appreciation. It was almost overwhelming even for me. The spirit of the Class of '76 is amazing!

The first part of my week was spent in my hometown of Parkersburg. After the reunion on Saturday night, I attended church with my parents on Sunday morning, and gave a ten-minute speech during the service about my Peace Corps experience, which seemed to go well.

Then on Tuesday, I gave a presentation at the Public Library to about 70 people. It was set up by Federally Employed Women, a civic minded group at my former workplace, and I am very grateful that they so ably handled all the logistics for this event. I recognized most of the crowd, either as former co-workers, or family friends, or folks I had met during my years on the school board. It was wonderful to see so many friends who were interested in what I am doing in the Peace Corps.

Although I had not anticipated it, I also picked up some generous donations at this event as well. For example, one friend gave me some money and said she wanted me to treat those students to another pool party. She had read my previous blog story about visiting a nearby swimming pool and wanted to make sure those kids got another chance to enjoy that. I can't thank everyone enough for the interest and generosity you have for my students and my village!
At mid-week, I relocated to Morgantown, West Virginia, the home of West Virginia University, as well as other close friends and relatives. The photo above shows a new multi-story mural painted on the wall of the Mountainlair, WVU's Student Union, behind the Mountaineer statue (that is not a student on the wall in front of the word "BIG," but merely a painting of one superimposed on the message). I was impressed with this new artistic addition to the campus. I gave another Peace Corps presentation on Thursday evening in the Mountainlair, and got to see some more old friends from that region of the state who attended.

Also while in Morgantown, I attended a movie for the first time in over a year (there are no movie theaters on the entire island of Dominica). We chose to see “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. It was an incredible movie about a fascinating but little known story from the Civil War, where some folks from Mississippi seceded from the Confederacy. I highly recommend it! I also enjoyed once again sitting in front of a huge screen in a darkened venue and getting mesmerized by a good story.

Throughout the week, I was able to enjoy a lot of my favorite foods that are not as readily available to me down here. It was good to be back in familiar restaurants such as Pizza Place, Cheryl's, Der Dawg Haus, Black Bear Burritos, Mario's Fishbowl, Lavender Cafe, etc. I also didn't worry about dieting while I was home briefly, so I really enjoyed myself!

During my time at home in West Virginia, I also enjoyed seeing the wildlife that I don't see down here. I watched deer, rabbits, turkey, and a beautiful red fox. However, the best animal sighting was a huge black bear that galloped across I-79 in front of us yesterday in Braxton County. Bears can really run fast! I just wish I could have been able to get my camera out in time to get a picture, because it was an astounding sight!

We drove down I-79 from Morgantown to Charleston, where my return flight originated this morning. This took us through the Elk River valley region, which was one of the areas that was flooded badly early on the previous Friday morning (the day I was flying back to West Virginia). There was about nine inches of rain in about nine hours, which caused flash flooding in much of southern and eastern West Virginia. It was a similar amount as what Dominica experienced during Tropical Storm Erika, and both of my “homes” suffered similar death counts as a result. Dominica and West Virginia, both with their rugged, mountainous terrain and populations living in isolated valleys, as well as each having more poverty than other places, too often get hit by torrential rains and others acts of nature. This is one tragic characteristic I wish my two homes did not share. Fortunately, neither the Morgantown or Parkersburg areas were hit hard, but 80% of West Virginia's counties have been declared disaster areas. Many families have lost everything.

We had heard that gas cans were one of the items needed, so we had stopped at Lowes and purchased a couple of new ones before leaving Morgantown. We figured since we were going to be passing through one of the affected areas, we would stop and fill them with gas and donate them somewhere. We ended up getting off the Interstate at the Elkview exit, where a bridge to a major shopping area had been totally washed out. I wanted to get a picture of it (shown below) so that my Dominican friends—who suffered with multiple bridges getting washed out during Tropical Storm Erika—could see that sometimes it happens in the USA as well.

We crossed over the opposite ridge and down into the Elk River valley along U.S. Route 119. The devastation was sad, but the good news is that there were many people (National Guard, State Police, churches, charitable groups, businesses, etc.) there trying to help out. We drove past a big refuse pile where folks were depositing their former clothes, furniture, and other belongings that cannot be salvaged, as excavators worked to pick them up and drop them in dump trucks to haul to the local garbage dumps. It was a sad sight. We donated our gas containers (which were much appreciated) and headed back to the highway.
For my last night in West Virginia, I got to spend time on the riverbank at the University of Charleston, gazing across the muddy Kanawha River. A week earlier, it was threatening to top its banks even in this deep section between my alma mater and the state capitol building. We had an enjoyable dinner at a nice new restaurant with some dear old friends for my last night at home. Plus, when we got back to the hotel room, I got to watch the last part of the NASCAR race from Daytona that evening. Saturday was a wonderful culmination to a great week back home.

Early this morning, I started the long journey back to my new home of Dominica. My flight left Charleston at 7:30 bound for Charlotte. After a layover there, I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and enjoyed another layover. Finally, I boarded a turboprop for the last leg of my journey—after requesting a seat change so that I would be on the right side of the plane. You see, this particular flight goes over my village each evening, and I've often looked up at it and wondered what the view would be like looking down on my village.

The sun was beginning to set as we approached Dominica. I got my camera ready and hoped that the scratches on the window glass would not degrade the photos I hoped to take. Soon my village came into view. In the picture below, you can see Mont Rouge in the lower left corner, with the peninsula L'islet separating our two beaches. The bat cave inlet that is difficult to get to can be seen in the lower right corner. Our playing field is the large green space in the lower center, and the white roof of the school can be seen to the left of the field. I can even pick out my cottage in this picture, but I'm not allowed to tell you where it is (a Peace Corps security policy). It was very satisfying to see my village and capture this view from the air.

I'm looking forward to returning to the school in the morning. I have lots of goodies that I have brought back to share! It was a nice visit to my home state, and I love my parents, daughter, sister, relatives, and other dear friends I was able to see during this brief time, but I also love my village and the work I am doing here. I have much more to do here before I finish! I hope you keep reading along with my progress!