Thursday, September 29, 2016

T.S. Matthew

Some of you have inquired about my status as Tropical Storm Matthew passed through the West Indies. The bottom line is that I am fine. We've had intermittent rain and wind, with the tall palm trees bending and the broad banana leaves flapping. From my cottage I saw lots of whitecaps extending well out into the Atlantic, but overall it really hasn't been very bad this time. Electricity and Internet went off a few times, but never for a long period. The water pressure dwindled ominously a couple of times, but I never went entirely without tap water (I drink filtered spring water, but use the tap water for dishwashing, showers, etc.).

School was cancelled yesterday and today, but Matthew was somewhat weak here, hitting St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines more than Dominica. I would liken it to the mild Tropical Storm Danny last year, thus not comparing to the devastating Tropical Storm Erika or even Tropical Storm Grace last year. [Yes, this is my fourth named storm in just over a year--I'd be fine if it was my last.]

I stayed indoors all day yesterday, but today I went down to check on the school for the principal. There was no damage, but some tree branches were down on the hillside behind the school. The beach area across from the school was littered with driftwood, coconuts, and debris from the high storm tide. It had been the highest tide since I've been here, eating away the low sandy “hill” where the waves crash ashore. The water had been up higher than the green benches in the coconut grove, almost washing away the remaining huts from the village feast. Fortunately, our village fisherman had moved his boat to higher ground.

The Peace Corps has kept us well informed throughout this situation with frequent weather and safety messages. We were under what the Peace Corps calls a “Standfast” (as opposed to “Consolidation” where we all gather at the same hotel in the capital to ride out a storm, which we did last year for Tropical Storm Grace), thus we had to stay home and were not to leave our village. They really look out for our security and take good care of us.

School will not be held again until Monday. This is because the last Friday of each month is called “Salary Day.” It is a day off for teachers to go to the capital and do their banking.

Here are a few photos of our beautiful beach as it looked earlier today.

Look close and you can see a couple of my students playing in the debris.
The area above is normally a long way from the water.

One of my students jumped into the last picture.

Monday, September 26, 2016

My Free Saturday

I've written before about how I do my laundry in buckets on my front porch most Saturday mornings. However, I have an arrangement with my host family (who own a machine washer—no one has dryers down here, because of the heat) where I pay them once a month to wash my clothes for me. It gives me a monthly Saturday free from my regular bucket laundry chore.

On these free Saturday mornings, I generally go down to the main road and wait for a bus (a 45 minute wait this past Saturday) to take me to the Portsmouth, the second largest city on the island. It is located in the north and thus much easier to reach than going all the way to the capital of Roseau in the southern part of the island.

Saturday morning is market day, as farmers, fisherman, and other vendors set up on a couple of streets that are closed to traffic until noon (as shown above). There is a festive atmosphere, and often there is a singer or musical group performing. Here are a few pictures of the colorful fruits and vegetables for sale in the marketplace.
The market is set up near the Portsmouth pier, and where there is a fish market. Below is a yellow-fin tuna getting chopped into tuna steaks, followed by one of the many big coolers of assorted fish on ice available for sale.
After making my market purchases, I generally go and visit the Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Portsmouth. This time, we decided to hop on a bus and travel north of Portsmouth to the little coastal village of Toucarie. We had passed through it on our recent trip to Capuchin, and I wanted to explore it further, especially since it appeared to have a place that rented kayaks. Here is the welcome sign.
There is an interesting Catholic church overlooking Toucarie Bay, pictured above. Unlike the church in Soufriere which I recently wrote about, this church was not open. [Note: My story about the Soufriere Church has become my most widely read blog story—eclipsing my coverage of Tropical Storm Erika—after Dominica's tourism board (Discover Dominica) shared my story on their social media platforms.] However, I put my camera up against the window to the right of the main door and snapped the picture below. The stained glass was limited to the semicircles at the top of the windows, but they were interesting and added some color to the interior. There is also an interesting graveyard across the road from the church.
Indeed, there was a place along the beautiful bay that rented kayaks, and I was able to get a paddle in my hand for the first time since joining the Peace Corps. Some of you know how much I enjoyed kayaking in West Virginia (here is a story from my old blog describing one of my kayaking trips), so it was good to get that feeling of gliding across the water again. This time, it was gliding over crystal clear, aquamarine tinted water. At times, I could see fish and sponges on the bottom. The different visual perspective of gently bobbing on the calm Caribbean water while looking towards the shoreline and the rising mountains just behind was breathtaking. Too bad I left my camera on shore! Below is a shot I took near the church graveyard of a fishing boat arriving in the bay. In the distance, you can see one of the hills in Cabrits National Park closer to Portsmouth.
I look forward to returning to Toucarie Bay in the future, and not just for kayaking (although I need to be careful about getting hooked on these “touristy” activities, given our meager Peace Corps budget). Supposedly, the snorkeling here is phenomenal as well, so I need to bring my mask and snorkle here next time. There are vents on the sea floor producing streams of bubbles like I saw at Champagne Reef. Plus, I've been told there are the coral encrusted ribs of a wooden sailing ship that sunk many years ago.

Finally, the vendor with the kayaks ( also has stand-up paddleboards, so I may have to give that a try sometime. Trying new things is just part of the big adventure that is the Peace Corps.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Back-2-School Pool Party

Some of you will recall the story I wrote back in May about treating my students to an impromptu pool party. Here is the direct link if you missed that story— This story is about our latest party (shown below) that was held on Friday, September 16.
The initial pool party was such a tremendous experience for the 21 students who had followed me (Pied Piper style) on a hike that day! For nearly all of them, that had been the first time they had ever been in a real swimming pool. They were all eager to do it again, and of course, those students who had not gone on that hike with me were wanting to get the chance to experience a pool party themselves someday.

While I was home in June, I was fortunate enough to receive several monetary donations from friends to benefit my service here. As I mentioned in my blog post about my trip home, one friend gave me a check for the specific purpose of providing the students with another pool party. She had loved my blog story about that day and wanted them to be able to enjoy it one more time.

This time, we decided to make it an official school outing—a celebration at the end of the first full week of school. [This was actually the second week of school, but last week was just a four day week since the opening of the school year on Monday, September 5, was canceled due to torrential rain.] Rather than a long hike, we would rent a bus to take us over and bring us back. The hotel charged a little more this time, because we had nearly 40 people. Below is a picture of us all, squeezed on the bus as we left the school (these large buses are referred to here as "coasters").

There were a lot of minor hassles getting this official event coordinated. Making arrangements with the hotel; informing the ministry of education; securing transportation to and from; writing, printing, distributing, and then collecting parental permission letters; arranging to leave book bags at the school rather than taking them along; etc. I also had to explain to disappointed faces why we couldn't allow siblings who weren't current students to come along—it was going to be crowded enough with just our students. Thus, the preliminary work was a lot different this time than the day we merely walked up the hotel's hill to see the view and ended up with a total unplanned pool party.

Another difference was dealing with the children's anticipation as the event drew nearer. They were so excited about it! "Sir, how many more days until the pool party?" On Friday, they were really psyched and couldn't hardly wait until the end of school. "Mister Kurtz, what time is it? How much longer before we leave for the pool party?"

The good news for me was that this time, I was not the only adult. We had three teachers and several parents who came along to help supervise. I think many of the parents were a bit dubious of this endeavor, because many of them have not had much experience with swimming pools. They probably wanted to watch over their children themselves to ensure no one drowned.

I didn't get to do much swimming the last time, because I was the sole lifeguard for two pools of children entrusted to my care (40 years ago, I passed my Red Cross Lifeguard certification test—I still remember a lot of it, but hope to never need to use it). This time, with so many "supervisors," I got to spend all my time in the deeper of the two pools (which was only about five feet deep). Most of the supervisors stayed up in the shallow pool with the younger students, while one other parent (who also came dressed to swim) and I watched (and swam with) the older students in the pool down below. I even got to spend time trying to help improve their swimming techniques. In the picture below, you can see me in the upper right corner with outstretched arms encouraging a student to swim to me.

Here is another picture taken by one of the teachers, showing me having fun with the students in the water (perhaps this was when I was trying to explain entering the water with your thumbs first so that your hand slices into the water rather than slapping the water with your hands). We had a great time on this gorgeous afternoon!
I took the photo below of the lower pool before I joined them in the water. What I like about this picture (as well as the first one in this article showing the upper pool) is that if you look on the left side of the ocean horizon, you can see a mountain on the island of Guadeloupe to the north of Dominica (with a cloud overhead). Friday had started off rainy (prompting lots of student fears that the big trip they had been anxiously waiting for might get canceled), but by the time we arrived at around 3:30, the weather was beautiful, and the atmospheric conditions allowed long distance visibility. The hotel sits on a portion of the island that has a more northerly view than our village does, and it was interesting for me to have such a nice view of the French island of Guadeloupe.
I also took the picture below, a diagonal shot showing the rock wall with the waterfall from the upper pool down to the lower pool, before safely stowing away my phone and getting into the water.
Finally, here are a couple of pictures taken by one of the teachers showing the action in the shallow pool. The students had a blast! I think everyone in the village has heard about what a good time they had.
The kids are already asking “When are we going again?” [And if any of my readers ever travel to Dominica, I highly recommend the Atlantique View Hotel.]

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Beautiful Church plus a Hot Beach

Yesterday, I got the chance to visit the village of Soufriere, on the southern end of this island. It is located near Scotts Head, which I've previously visited and written about, but I'd never been able to actually stop in Soufriere while passing through it. Actually, I learned that the arc that runs from Soufriere to Scotts Head is part of an old volcano, whose crater now lies beneath the Caribbean Sea.
There is a beautiful old Catholic church there, built in the late 1800s. As shown in the picture above, the left side front door was open, so we went inside to look around. No one was around, but I'm very glad we were able to see what the interior was like. [There are probably some official Catholic terms for some of the stuff I try to describe inside, but I'm still pretty new to this denomination, so forgive me in advance for not explaining things more accurately.]
Below is a closeup of the mural at the front. It shows some traditional dancing or cultural celebration on the left, a view of Soufriere and Scotts Head in the middle, and fishermen working on the right side. It was painted by Lennox Honychurch, an artist and historian who is well known in Dominica.
There were lots of colorful stained glass windows, and the afternoon sun was shining through on one side. Below are pictures of two of the windows I found most interesting. Not all the windows were this fancy, but even the ones without saints were still nice.
As we were heading out, I noticed a small, circular stone stairway leading to the bell tower. I snapped this picture of the sunlight angling in through a narrow slit window and illuminating the steps. Out of respect, I resisted the urge to climb to the bell tower. [I'm not sure that this attempt at creative photography is as compelling to you the viewer as it was to me at the time.]
After we left the church, we simply walked about 10 yards to the beach in front of the church. Here is a view taken from the fence line at the beach looking back at the church.
The beach in front of the church is known as “Bubble Beach.” Just like Champagne Reef where I've snorkeled a few times, Soufriere—which is a bit further south from Champagne—has a lot of volcanic activity not far below the earth's surface (you may recall that I recently visited some hot springs that are located further inland from the village of Soufriere). Thus, there is hot water venting into the sea in this area, and lots of little bubbles streaming to the surface. At Bubble Beach, they have placed rocks to cordon off some of the sea water, thus creating a hot springs bathing area (as shown below). The water is quite warm!
Finally, I let a friend snap a picture of me standing behind the touristy “Photo Bench.” Notice the fishing boats anchored in the background. Fishing is a major activity in the Soufriere/Scotts Head area.
All in all, it was an interesting visit to a unique and beautiful part of this amazing island. Now, back to getting ready for the opening of school tomorrow.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Roadside Boatbuilding

I've ridden the bus to Portsmouth (and beyond) many times the past year. One of the sights along the way that I always enjoyed was a man who builds boats under a big tree along the road as it nears Portsmouth. During my first year here, I was able to see the progression as he built several boats from scratch, each of which takes about three to four months. Although limited to just a few brief seconds of viewing maybe once or twice a month as the crowded van rolls by, I am always eager to see how far the current project has advanced since my last trip.

There were a couple of days over the past year when I was in Portsmouth and had the extra time to walk back the road to meet him and introduce myself, but he was nowhere to be found on those previous occasions. However, on Wednesday I finally got the chance to visit with him (I had to go to the Portsmouth post office to pick up a package from home—we have a post office in our village, but packages must be picked up in either Roseau or Portsmouth, and a customs fee is charged based on the contents).

His name is Erickson Steven, and he is 74 years young. He retired from his government job seven years ago, and took up boatbuilding along the road across from his house. He had always done a lot of sailing on the sea. He often gets tourists who stop by to admire his work, and he was very willing to answer my questions.
He builds the entire boat by himself, using only handtools. Below is a picture of him shaving the wood to create one of the oars for the boat. He is working the area where the flat blade narrows down to the cylindrical shaft of the oar. What can't be seen in this picture is all the curls of woodshavings on the ground below.
This particular boat is sixteen feet long. He has built some of this size, some 14 feet, and some at just 12 feet. One of his recently built boats was outfitted with a mast for sailing. This particular boat will be sold for $15,000 Eastern Caribbean dollars when it is finished (about $5,600 US dollars). Below is a view of the bow compartment door and the floor of the boat. One of the components he has yet to build is the seats. Those "sticks" are just temporary bracing.
I thought it was fascinating that he doesn't soak his wood and then try to bend it into the exact curved shape he needs. Instead, he hunts for wood that naturally grew in the shape he needs. He says it is stronger that way. Laying around in various spots under the shade of the tree, I could see a number of oddly shaped branches that he uses for boatbuilding.
He also told me that the best wood for boatbuilding comes from trees high up in the surrounding mountains. It is important to get the wood from trees located atop the ridgelines, because they have grown up being exposed to winds from both directions—the Atlantic side and the Caribbean side. This gives them the all-around strength necessary for a good seafaring boat.
I'm very glad that I finally got the chance to meet with this skilled (but humble) master craftsman. If I had an extra $15,000, I'd be tempted to have him build a boat for me. There aren't too many of these old school, everything done by hand, high quality boatbuilders left. He lamented that the young men don't want to take the time or make the effort to learn this trade. I hope I wasn't witnessing the end of an era, because it would be a shame for this island tradition to disappear.