It all started a few weeks ago when I learned that a sailing ship with about a dozen American college students would be stopping in Portsmouth on November 4, and were interested in visiting a school while they were here. They are part of a fantastic program called “Seamester” which provides them with an education while exploring the Caribbean in a two-masted schooner called the Ocean Star. [If you know anyone who might be interested, check out http://www.seamester.com/.]
I had explained to my contact person with Seamester that there was no school on November 4 because it is a national holiday here. In Dominica, they celebrate Independence Day on November 3, and then immediately hold a second holiday called National Day of Community Service. Everyone is expected to participate in volunteer efforts in their village (although apparently participation rates vary depending on the community spirit). My village enthusiastically embraces this holiday. I invited them to come and help volunteer with the school improvement projects we would be working on that day. Fortunately, they thought this was a great idea, since community service is one of Seamester's points of emphasis. Since buses don't run on holidays, I arranged with a driver from my village to take his bus over to Portsmouth to pick them up that morning at 9:30 AM, and then return them at 1:30 PM.
Having a large group of American college students come to visit our village and help with school improvement projects was a big thing! We looked forward to hosting them. However, there was another major event that helped make this “The. Best. Day. Ever.”
I learned the U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of the Eastern Caribbean, the Honorable Linda Taglialatela, was in Dominica for Independence Day. I invited her to come to my village to see Dominica's unique National Day of Community Service (which is a wonderful concept) in action. I was thrilled when I received word that she would indeed be interested in attending that morning, along with one of her staffers as well as a friend of theirs from the Canadian embassy (I guess that means we hosted a multi-national diplomatic delegation!). [Below is a picture taken in front of our school (with the black SUV carrying an American flag on the fender) before they left.]
I woke up early for this big day, and headed for the school before 7:00 AM to help get things in order. Upon the Ambassador's arrival, we decided to explore the village first and then come back to the school (which worked well since the American students would not be arriving until about 10:00 AM). Our village council had three major projects underway (four if you count all the women preparing food for the workers).
The first stop was near the end of the main road at the top of the village. The last house up the hill belongs to a beloved octogenarian, and the roadway and the drainage alongside it needed repaired. Men from the village had started at dawn on this project to replace some of the concrete sections of the road, using only shovels, wheelbarrows, and bagged concrete—a far cry from roadbuilding in America.
While up there, she visited with those preparing the food, and got to see breadfruit being roasted on an open fire. She expressed interest in it, so a knife was produced, the black scorched skin was removed as well as the center section, chunks were cut, and they all got to savor the smokey taste of warm breadfruit fresh from the flames. It all took place on a gorgeous vantage point overlooking the village and the Atlantic Ocean, as shown below in this picture with the village council president, the Ambassador, and myself.
There is a cacao tree near the spring, and lo and behold it had one ripe yellow pod hanging from it. One of the village kids offered to get it down, and then the village council president opened the fruit to expose the cacao beans, which are surrounded in a moist white gelatinous coating which is sucked on until the dark bean is left. These beans are then dried, roasted, and turned into chocolate (check out this previous blog story for more information on how cacao beans are processed).
As the diplomatic delegation was sampling the early stage of chocolate, here came my Peace Corps colleague up the trail, with 13 young Americans following her. Everyone got to try a cacao bean while we were up at the spring (a beautiful place that everyone seemed to appreciate)!
I then accompanied the Ambassador to the bottom of our village to see the work going on at the village council's fundraising center/bus stop along the main road. As with the previous stops, she was very friendly to everyone she met. We also got to point out and express gratitude for the bridge that was built many years ago for our main street with help from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Below is a picture with a red box added around "USAID" to see it on this fading sign.L'islet. They enjoyed climbing the cliff and seeing the beautiful views from this peninsula that juts out into the bay.
Before they left, the school staff treated them with a nice lunch featuring a traditional Dominican meal of roasted breadfruit, saltfish, cucumbers, and oranges. They also got to enjoy a dessert they rarely get—ice cream. Some of you will recally from previous blog stories that I have often purchased ice cream cones for our students when are on a school trip. However, on our way back from the National Youth Rally on Wednesday, one of the teachers and myself decided to do something different. Rather than stop in Portsmouth for ice cream cones to be eaten before getting back on the bus, we stopped at the supermarket and purchased a few gallon tubs of ice cream. We thought it would be good to offer it as a special reward to our students on National Day of Community Service (thus ensuring they would be there to help with the work). As it turns out, the Seamester students rarely get ice cream while living on the ship, so this was quite a treat for them, too!
However, the water never came back on last night—thus my hike in the dark to shower at the spring before going to bed. In spite of the water problem, it was still “The. Best. Day. Ever” of my Peace Corps service! [Luckily, the line was back in service today, and I was able to do my dirty dishes and other chores before posting this story.]