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!

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back!
    I look forward to meeting you in person, as I arrived from my home State (via St. Lucia)for my PC Response position just as you were leaving for your home State.