Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Tale of Two Birthdays

First, I should explain that I try not to publicly announce my birthday. When you get to be my age, birthdays are not nearly the exciting event they were during my youth. After you hit the quarter of a century mark, you start realizing that birthdays are only acknowledging how old you are getting, and bringing you nearer to your ultimate demise.

Plus, with all the identity thieves and other ne'er-do-wells, I avoid posting my birthday as much as possible, including on Facebook. I realize lots of you enjoy getting a flood of birthday wishes from your Facebook friends, but ever since I joined Facebook about a decade ago, I kept my birth date hidden for security reasons. I choose not to acknowledge the birthdays of my friends, because I just think everyone would be safer if we kept that essential identifier hidden.

Thus, it is with some trepidation that I embark on this story. By discussing birthdays in this blog post, I am acknowledging that I had one recently—but I won't state how recently. Hopefully that will provide enough cover (although a determined hacker can find out just about anything on all of us). I just request that my friends refrain from plastering my Facebook wall with belated birthday wishes. I appreciate your good intentions, but the less said about how old I'm getting, the better.

I bring up the topic of birthdays to discuss my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and how things progress from the first year to the second year. Last year, I pretty much kept my birthday a secret, but I wanted to do something special to celebrate my birthday. I decided that if I left school as soon as it was dismissed, I could probably catch a bus to take me to Portsmouth, Dominica's second largest city. Once there, I could go to the pizza shop in town and get a large carry-out pizza to bring home and enjoy. A large pizza would be something that I had not had since leaving the states, and could provide me with a couple of meals. It would be a way to do something special to privately observe my birthday.

It took awhile, but I was able to catch a bus to town that day. Then I waited in the pizza shop for my delicious pizza to be baked. I paid the $45 (Eastern Caribbean dollars), even though it was a bit of a “sticker shock” for someone accustomed to using coupons to buy take-out pizza for less than $10. I carried that aromatic big flat box home with me on another bus, and walked through my village before finally getting to my house. I opened it up and enjoyed a grand birthday meal right out of the box (and enjoyed leftovers for a couple of days).

I still have that pizza box in my kitchen over a year later. One doesn't throw something like that away here, because you never know when you might need a good flat cardboard box for some other purpose. However, it is a reminder that in one full year, I've only had one pizza box, whereas in America I might have had one per month.

During my second year here, I've got to know a lot of the people here better. I'm much more ensconced in my school and my community. I wanted to do something different to celebrate my latest birthday rather than making another hectic pizza run at the end of the day.

This year, our school started a fledgling lunch program. The children are encouraged (but it isn't an ironclad requirement, because we don't want a child to go hungry) to bring a dollar a day (or to bring some sort of in-kind food donation). Two of our parents cook a lunch for the whole school each day. The menu varies depending on what food is brought in, but usually a satisfying meal is produced. However, there is never any desserts with our “barely break even” lunch program.

I decided that this year, I would celebrate my birthday at school, by arranging for a huge birthday cake to share with the staff and children. I paid our cook $60 to make a nice large cake. Given the upcoming Christmas holiday, she chose to bake a fruitcake (which tasted to me not so much like one of those Claxton fruitcakes, but more like an applesauce cake with raisins and maraschino cherries). She also covered it with delicious frosting.

Needless to say, this was a HUGE hit with all our students. They eagerly finished their cheese bakes (fried dough with cheese slices placed inside, a popular lunch item) that day so that they could have dessert. Everyone gathered around as the cake was cut into 40 pieces. There had been talk of birthday candles, but no one down here had any, so I was spared from trying to blow out all those candles.

The children were so excited to get birthday cake at school! It was the most satisfying present I could have received, to see them enjoying this rare treat. Even though I spent more money, and got less food, it was well worth it! I got lots of birthday hugs from all the children, and they enjoyed singing happy birthday to me.

At the end of the school day, we had a special assembly, where a student came forward to present me with a gift bag (as shown above). Some of the teachers had purchased a Dominica hat, Dominica coffee cup, and a Dominica key chain for me. While they didn't need to give my any presents at all, I was grateful for the sentiment that these small Dominican gifts represented.

However, the best birthday gift this year was seeing the kids enjoy their dessert. It is part of a life lesson that I am learning during my Peace Corps experience—it is truly better to give than to receive. Unlike last year's birthday, I will long remember this birthday!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Santa Under Arrest?

Tis the season—the season for anyone with a long white beard and a bit of heft to get asked to play Santa Claus. After my debut as Santa last year at my village's Christmas party, I got my first invitation this year to take my act on the road. Actually, about five and a half miles up the crooked road that runs up the Atlantic coast. One of the members of the newest class of Peace Corps Volunteers works at a school north of me, and he and his principal conspired to have me play Santa Claus for their school's Christmas party on Sunday evening.

The Santa Claus outfit I used last year was not available, but I was able to borrow a hat. Wearing a red shirt and a pair of white shorts, it was decided that I would be “Santa on a last minute vacation in the Caribbean.” After all, that heavy outfit he wears on Christmas Eve is way too hot to put on down here.

Best of all, they arranged for the local police officer to pick me up in my village and deliver me to the school party in the police car (which is actually a truck here). The policeman even turned on the flashing lights to impress the school children, as shown in the photo below when I arrived.

Immediately the children gathered around me, and I tried to talk to each of them. Some of them wanted to touch my beard, which of course I allowed. You can see the front of the primary school (painted dark green) in the background of the photo below. The event took place at dusk along the road out front.
I was encouraged to take a seat off to the side while some of the school classes made there way up front to sing the Christmas songs that each class had rehearsed. This one small boy came over and just wanted to stand with me during the singing.
Then, they had me sit in a chair next to their Christmas tree. Prior to the event, all the student's parents had been asked to bring a gift labeled for their child for Santa to give out at the school Christmas party. A teacher would read the name for each gift into the microphone (visible behind me in the picture below), and then the students would come up front to get their gift (and to get their picture taken with Santa Claus).
All in all, it was a fun evening! Since I was not well known in this village, I think the children were surprised to see a Santa appear who looked somewhat similar to pictures they have seen. Hopefully, I helped to spread a little joy that evening. Best of all, I had a fun time riding in the police vehicle. However, I hope it is the only manner in which I am ever picked up by the police!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Godspeed, John Glenn!

As I watch another year come to an end, I have lost another one of my childhood heroes—John Glenn. Serving in the Peace Corps has made me even more nostalgic for the early 1960s Kennedy era that I can just barely remember. The NASA and the Peace Corps were two of President Kennedy's most important programs.

I'm not sure if I specifically remember Glenn's Atlas-Mercury flight in the Friendship 7, the first American flight to orbit the Earth. However, I do remember at least some of the Mercury space flights. I think I also remember the ticker-tape parades that some of these Cold War heroes received upon their return.

That is why when Senator John Glenn took a ride on the Space Shuttle in 1998, I wanted to show my appreciation. I drove an hour or so north from my home in West Virginia to the small Ohio town of New Concord. In 1962, he had received a huge welcome home parade in his little hometown, and they were going to try and recreate it in December 1998. I don't have any photographs from that day, but I did find this neat NASA photograph of Glenn with his beloved wife Annie in the 1962 parade in New Concord.

Because space flight had become routine, and most Americans were rather nonchalant about it, there was not an overwhelming crowd this time. However, New Concord put its best foot forward and those like myself who made the trek got a good taste of his hometown's hospitality. I especially remember some homemade versions of the Space Shuttle and his Mercury capsule that were pulled on floats, interspersed among marching bands, in the parade.

I also remember running into Niki Wenger, the West Virginia Teacher in Space finalist who had worked at NASA when I was there in the 1980s. We had an enjoyable conversation as we awaited Senator Glenn's remarks in the gymnasium of his alma mater, Muskingum University.

All in all, it was a very good day, and it is enjoyable to remember it on this otherwise sad occasion. I'm glad I made the effort to pay tribute to this admirable American. It is disappointing to know that all the original Mercury astronauts are now gone. I guess it is a sign that I'm getting old. At least I'm doing what I can to pass along an interest in space to the students here in my village.

As backup astronaut Scott Carpenter famously wished him during the launch, “Godspeed, John Glenn!” Thanks for the memories!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The QM2

Yesterday I had to make the hour-and-a-half trip to Roseau, Dominica's capital city. As the weather gets cold further north, it becomes cruise ship season here, and some days there are big ships in port. Seeing these ships docked allows me to reminisce about the time I first set foot on Dominica while on a cruise about ten years ago (never dreaming that someday I'd live here).
While this country needs the dollars brought in through tourism, it is a mixed blessing for residents, since the town becomes more crowded and traffic gets tied up. This is a conundrum faced by locals at tourist destinations everywhere. Overall, I think it is worth the hassles. Personally, I hope the visitors get to see what a fantastic island this truly is.
On this particular day, the ship in port was something special. I got to see the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Queen Mary 2. I can remember when I was young and watching Walter Cronkite every night (and maybe it was in those Weekly Readers at school) the stories about how the original RMS Queen Mary was being retired and anchored at Long Beach, California, to become a floating hotel and museum.
The Queen Mary 2 (QM2) is from the old breed of passenger ships, and was built for transatlantic cruises between Europe and America. Constructed in 2003, she is largest ocean liner ever built—1132 feet long and over 236 feet tall (just squeezing under New York's Verazzano Narrows Bridge). Her top speed is about 35 MPH, with a typical cruising speed of 30 MPH (much faster than a contemporary cruise ship). It boasts fifteen restaurants and bars, five swimming pools, a casino, a ballroom, a theatre, and the first planetarium at sea.
The QM2 can carry more than 3000 passengers, with a crew of about 1250. Usually it runs back and forth between New York City and Southampton, England. It is currently in the middle of a 27 day cruise to the Caribbean, having departed from England on November 19, with an initial stop in New York (which will also be the final stop before heading back). Dominica is the southernmost island it is visiting on this trip, with stops already made at St. Maarten and St. Kitts, and with remaining stops in both the British as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While visiting town this day, I happened to run into one of my students. He took the picture of me at the top of this story, and then I took a couple of him shown above and below. It was fun to see him in the capital city. I also took him up to see our Peace Corps office.
As I was leaving town, I made one more pass along the waterfront. I met one of the other Peace Corps Volunteers who was admiring this nautical masterpiece. He later sent me the beautiful picture below that he took from a spot south of town (thanks, Lew!).
All in all, it was a good day. I left with a backpack full of much needed groceries, as well as the memory of seeing this famous ship.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Fidel Castro's death is a significant event, whether you like him or loathe him. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer on a Caribbean island, I am experiencing the reaction in a much different way that I would have experienced it had I been at home in the USA. The government here has ordered all flags to be flown at half staff until after the weekend in his honor. There has been a lot of coverage on the local news here (I don't have a television, but I regularly listen to the news on the radio, which is how most of the folks in my village get their news). There has been some sort of local story about Castro every day since his death.

I'm too young to remember the Batista regime, the revolution that put Castro in power, the Bay of Pigs, or even the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear devastation. Growing up, I would have known Castro as a terrible Communist dictator. Once I was in college, I learned that this situation was like so many other things—rather than a simple black and white dichotomy, there was a lot of gray area. Everyone wants things to be simple, but things are almost always more complicated than most people realize.

This does not mean that I think Castro was a hero—he has many flaws. Like most autocrats, he came into office with many promises, but failed to deliver on them. However, for many small countries such as Dominica, he is admired because he made his island country well known throughout the world. He survived countless assassination attempts (including by our CIA), and basically thumbed his nose at the West. Heck, I even have a student in my school named Fidel—I doubt that would happen in American schools (when I hear the word “Fidel” now, I think of my little buddy rather than a dictator).

The healthcare system in Cuba is much better than most small countries, and Cuba has regularly supplied other countries with doctors and nurses—including Dominica. I remember seeing some white people in Portsmouth last year who were not in a touristy area, so they caught my eye. I wondered what their story was, and I found out they were Cubans who were sent here to work in the hospital. The Cuban government also provides a lot of college scholarships for Dominicans to come to Cuba to study medicine, engineering, architecture, etc. Dominicans need and appreciate the assistance Cuba provides.

Personally, I'd be interested in visiting Cuba, if for nothing else than to see all the American cars from the 1950s that they have managed to keep running. The five-decade American embargo never got the desired result of fomenting a revolt against Castro. I'm glad that some moves have been made by the current administration in the last couple of years to ease these restrictions. It seems to me that one way to help Cubans would be to allow people to travel and mingle freely. Now that Fidel Castro is gone, maybe it will be easier to re-examine the USA's overall relationship with this island country, located a mere 90 miles from Florida. However, it is hard to tell what the next administration will do on this topic (as well as many others).

In the meantime, I'll just enjoy my school days with my little friend Fidel, who will forevermore be the person I think about when I hear that particular iconic name.