Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Best Day (So Far)

It was nearly 9:00 PM last night as I walked up the rocky path in the darkness of the jungle with only my little LED flashlight. After a long, hot, work filled day, I just had to take a shower before getting my tired body into bed. However, I had come home to discover there was no running water (Americans should never take the ability to turn on your spigot and get water for granted!). It seems that while cutting down a nearby tree, a limb had crashed down and broke the waterline to my cottage. Thus, I had to trudge up the hill in the dark to shower at the spring. Despite this setback, it was still (as the youngsters today seem to punctuate it) “The. Best. Day. Ever!”

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]

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.]

Because of the Ambassador arriving at 9:30 AM, I could not ride on the bus to pick up the college students as I had planned. Fortunately, my Peace Corps colleague who teaches in Portsmouth (and who hails from Athens, Ohio which is near my hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia) agreed to come to my village that day on the bus and coordinate the transportation of the Seamester students. Her willingness to help out was greatly appreciated!

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.

Then we went partway down the hill to check out the second project—improvements at the spring. The Ambassador hiked up the rocky path to see this community park of sorts, which includes a “cement pond,” a shower pipe, and a long pipe leading down to the road, so that those seeking fresh spring water can fill up their jugs at the road rather than walking up to the spring itself. I'm not sure if the Ambassador realized that she would be crossing a creek and hiking through the jungle when she agreed to come, but she did it all in good spirits.

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.

From there, we decided to walk past the playing field back to the school. She was given a tour of our small school building, and spent time talking with the principal and staff members. Before she left, one of our students, dressed in her official school uniform, presented the Ambassador with a gift basket of Dominican products in appreciation for her visit (with the principal looking on below in her traditional madras dress). I think the Ambassador and the staff members all enjoyed getting away from the capital and seeing what life in a small Dominican village is really like.
After the Ambassador left, the focus shifted to the Seamester students. They got involved in numerous projects. My Peace Corps colleague led a group of them on a beach clean-up effort.
Some of them helped to dig holes, attach anchoring hardware, mix concrete, and level up the new picnic tables which had arrived that day. These tables will be a big improvement for the new school lunch program we began this year!
Another effort was to scrub down the concrete and the drains surrounding the school building, as these college students were doing.
A couple of the students assisted me in painting “sight words” (simple words that students should recognize on sight rather than taking the time to decode phonetically) on the wall outside the classrooms. I had the easy part of drawing the words with chalk, which they then painted over.
Part of our beautification effort included some donated used tires. The inner edge was removed and slits were then cut into the sidewall, enabling the tire to be turned inside out. It then resembles a flower blossom, and it considered classier than simply planting flowers inside an old tire. The picture below shows one of the Seamester girls working with two local residents who were helping out, while a couple of our students watch.
As the time for their 1:30 departure approached, the folks from Seamester were having such a good time that they wanted to stay longer. They received permission from their ship captain, and I arranged with the bus driver to delay picking them up until 3:30, giving them another two hours to assist us. It wasn't all work—some of them spent time playing and interacting with our students and the locals. Some of my students even gave the Seamester students a quick tour of 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!

As their time in our village came to an end, it was obvious that it had been a good outing for the Seamester crew. They told me they want to come back in the spring as well as next fall. I'm glad they saw what a wonderful place this is, and that they want to return to help us again. Another one of their students asked for my contact information because he told me that he is graduating in December, and wants to travel back to Dominica. When he comes back, he wants to come help out again. We will welcome any and all of them back with open arms!
It had been a really great day, but it wasn't over yet. While doing some final clean-up chores at the school, I noticed that our village fisherman had returned with his boat to the beach across the road from the school. There was more excitement than usual, because he had caught a shark that was about six feet long. Thus, as I left to head home, I purchased a couple of pounds of shark meat (to make it easier for me to cook, he trimmed the sandpaper-ish skin off the meat).
I took it home, excited to cook and eat shark for the first time, only to discover the water problem mentioned at the start of this story. I decided to go ahead and prepare my dinner using bottled water to clean off the meat, and hopefully they would have the line fixed before I needed to do dishes afterward. I heated the coconut oil (made by a woman in our village), cut the shark meat into chunks, rolled it around in corn meal, and fried it in the pan. Once it was done, I squeezed fresh lime juice over all of it. It was good! Plus, I went out into the village later (hoping that they might finish fixing the water line) and purchased a roasted plantain for dessert. Plantains are like bananas, but by heating them over an open fire, the skin dries out but the inside gets softer and sweeter—a bit like a roasted marshmallow.

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.]

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