Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Indiana Jones Day

Each night as I was growing up during the 1960s and '70s, we watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Reports from the Vietnam War were often thrust into our living room. Because of my interest in history and archeology, one of my vivid memories is film coverage of battles taking place around ancient stone temple ruins amidst the jungle. I was fascinated by the way the jungle was reclaiming the architectural efforts of man. I must not have been the only one fascinated by these scenes, as many Hollywood movies (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, etc.) have replicated similar scenes.
Recently I got to see something similar—the ruins of a British military outpost built in the 1700s that had been abandoned about a century-and-a-half ago. If you look close in the picture above, you can see me standing next to the roots of a large ficus tree that is towering above this old stone building. Below are more pictures showing how the jungle is reclaiming what man had once built. It is somewhat startling to be hiking through the forest and then find yourself among these eerily quiet ruins.
This is a panoramic view taken from inside one of the buildings.
Here are a few of the abandoned cannons I noticed along the way.
During the course of the day, we encountered seven different snakes, such as the tail of one shown below slithering into a crack in the mortar between the bricks in this wall. The fact that there are no venomous snakes on the island of Dominica makes exploring jungle ruins much less worrisome—if there were copperheads or timber rattlesnakes (as we have in my home state of West Virginia), this hike would not have been near as fun! I nearly stepped on a couple of them!
There were also bats hanging from the ceilings in some of the ruins. It is hard to see them because of the poor lighting, but here is a cluster that was hanging around together in a vault.
There are also some incredible views from some of the “lookouts” on this peak that overlooks the bay at Portsmouth. Below I am pictured next to a small mortar cannon.
Next is a picture looking out on Prince Rupert's Bay and the city of Portsmouth. This was the view from the small mortar cannon above.
Next is a view from the opposite side of the hill, looking north towards the island of Guadeloupe, with the beach hundreds of feet below.
Finally, here is a panoramic picture that shows the narrow isthmus that connects the twin peaks of Cabrits National Park to the mainland.
I had previously visited Cabrits National Park back in September, and shared some pictures of the restored fortifications, but here is an example showing cannons that have been returned to their original condition. Some of you might be interested to know that the settlers who were bound for Jamestown stopped in this bay on their way to Virginia in 1607.
They have done a good job with the restoration work on the main fort and its nearby buildings, but I'm glad that they left some of the other scattered buildings in their natural state of deterioration. What I witnessed on my explorations in the forest provides a good example of power of nature to take over what man leaves behind.
Thanks for coming along with me on my “Kuribbean Quest.” I ended my time at Cabrits by walking over to the beach at Douglas Bay. It was yet another great day in Dominica!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Morne Rouge

On Sunday, a group of us hiked up Morne (or Mont) Rouge, the tall hillside adjacent to our village's beach. It was steep, but the views were magnificent. Here is a picture of me taken part-way up the hill.
For a brief portion, there was a trail—but you had to watch your step, because one wrong step could result in a fall down the hillside.
The picture below shows a particularly challenging spot, where you had to cross a slight ridge on the hillside. Everyone seemed to choose their own path to get over this obstacle.
Below is a view of one of the oldest students who led up on this trip, showing him far above us as we zig-zagged up the hill.
Here is a view looking down on the beach area. If you look close, you can see two of our fishing boats pulled up on the sand.
Below is a tilted picture, which gives a wider view, showing more of the village (on the left side) as well as the beach.
As we neared the top and were off the rocky cliff and in the scrub brush forest, it began to sprinkle. The kids didn't need umbrellas, because they just used the stem and leaf that grows plentiful here. The leaves of this plant are huge—about two feet in diameter.
We were able to find a clearing at the top that gave us a great view of “L'islet,” as shown in the picture below. You can also see some of the red rock that gives Mont Rouge its name.
While in the bush, the kids were excited to find “red eyes.” Supposedly, the evil spirits (“secoya”?) in the forest eat these hard berries. So far, I have yet to see any of these monsters. If I do, I'll be sure to turn it into a blog story!
To get from the ridge that Mont Rouge is connected to, we had to work our way down a steep hill that had experienced a landslide during Tropical Storm Erika. The loose soil made it quite difficult to keep your footing.
After crossing the creek at the bottom, we then had to climb up a steep hillside to get back to the main road. Although difficult, it wasn't quite as bad as climbing the “cliff” of Mont Rouge at the start of this hike.
We finished our hike by crossing another ridge and dropping down into a small river valley that leads back to the village. The boys loved showing me a “swimming hole” where they could jump into the water. It was a refreshing way for them to end this fun trip.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Always an Adventure!

“Well, life's always an adventure in Dominica!” I exclaimed this afternoon to a guy from my village. He had been with me when our bus got cut off by a flooded river back in September. To get home that night, we chose to walk across a narrow I-beam above the raging waters. Today, the two of us happened to board the same bus from the capital city, only to end up in yet another unusual ride home. It was the perfect ending for this week.

I only taught at school on Monday and Tuesday, because I had to spend the last three days of this week in training at the Peace Corps office in Roseau. On Tuesday afternoon and evening, we had some torrential downpours, which led to some localized flooding. Below is an example, looking downstream from the Church Street bridge. This is normally a very small, calm brook, but Tuesday was the worst I had seen it since Tropical Storm Erika.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning, so I could catch the first bus to the capital a little after 6:00 AM. In the hazy gray dawn after all that rain, our bus came around a curve and found a boulder in the middle of the road (see picture below). Luckily, there is a little shop (just out of view on the left side) that has a paved parking area along this section of the road. That parking area allowed enough room for vehicles to squeeze around the left side of the rock. [By the way, this picture was taken on the way home Wednesday evening, and someone had tried to paint the rock red as a warning to drivers.]
Further up the road, as it climbs towards the crest that separates the Atlantic watershed from the Caribbean watershed, we came around another curve to find a new landslide nearly blocking the roadway. Needless to say, Wednesday morning wasn't the normal commute to the capital.
Since my first day of this three day training session was so memorable because of the surprises on the bus ride, it was only fitting that the final day of this week would also be memorable. Our training finished in time today for me to make my way over to where the buses bound for the north of the island depart. My favorite evening bus driver was still there, so I was able to grab one of the last seats before he left.

However, we were only a bit past halfway home when he pulled the bus over because it was overheating. As shown below, with these vans that have a cab-forward design, the engine compartment is accessed from the inside. I took the opportunity to get out of the bus and wander around.

It just so happened that our bus had stopped near a spot that had been in the news this week. During Tropical Storm Erika, a number of slides had occurred along the main road which connects Dominica's two largest cities (Roseau and Portsmouth), and runs along the western side of the island. With most of these slides, all that was done was to put up some barrels to warn drivers to swing wide around these dangerous spots. However, this week's rain had caused one of these slips to get worse, as portions of the roadway (including the warning barrels) fell down this hillside.
Our bus broke down at this spot, allowing me to take the picture above. You may notice the late afternoon sun gave me a shadow towards the left side that makes me seem very tall. I was cautious as to how close I stood to the precipice, because I didn't want to cause any further landslides! If you look carefully, you can see our bus in the distance (along with some of the passengers in the shade to the right). If you look down the hill, you can also see the old maroon-and-white warning barrels that fell into the ravine during the most recent cave-in of the hillside. On the opposite side of the slip, you can see some black utility pipes that were severed when the embankment slid down the hill. Perhaps that was carrying the fiber optic cabling for internet access, or perhaps they were water pipes. Regardless of what they carried originally, they are not able to carry anything any more.

So that is what led to my brief conversation I mentioned at the start of this story (with the guy from my village) as we once again found ourselves stranded on this major road. Serving in the Peace Corps is an adventure, and sometimes these adventures are simply having a bus break down near an unusual spot along the drive home.

Eventually I was able to get a ride on another bus to Portsmouth. Then I had to wait for yet another bus to transport me to my village. Instead of an hour and a half commute, it was a little more than a two and a half hour commute. Fortunately, I didn't have any commitments tonight, and so I just relaxed and made the most of it. Such is life in the Peace Corps!

P.S. On Wednesday, there was also a French competition on the island, and our combined 4th and 5th grade class got to come with two of our teachers to the capital (fortunately, I have never had to teach French!). I was able to hook up with them after my training class was over. We took them to a local pizza parlor, and then to an ice cream shop before we boarded a bus back to our town. I'm very glad that I was able to join them! Below is a picture of all of us taken by one of my Peace Corps colleagues, whose school also was celebrating with pizza after the competition. [I'm glad that today's bus break-down didn't occur the night we were taking all the students home.]

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Coffee Talk

I'm not a coffee drinker. When I was growing up, my sister and I always had to do the dishes after dinner. We hated to clean out the old-fashioned coffee percolator, with its basket of coffee grounds in the top that had been sitting there all day long. Unlike many folks, the aroma of coffee never enticed me—it just reminded me of a daily chore that I didn't enjoy.

Having avowed never to become a coffee drinker, I've saved a lot of money over the years—especially after Starbucks came along, bringing with it the era of expensive coffee. It isn't that I purposely avoid caffeine. It is just that I would typically drink tea or a Diet Mountain Dew instead of hot coffee if I need a “pick-me-up” in the morning.

However, I was intrigued when one of my students showed me an actual coffee tree in my village. There are several in our area, but one in particular (pictured above) is easily accessed along the road near the spring. The appearance of the coffee beans reminded me of cherries.
If you want a “pick-me-up,” you can eat the fruit from the tree. There is a large green seed inside (see below), which is what produces the coffee most of you drink. But there is a thin layer of “meat” around the seed. The meat tastes to me a bit like a hard, thin, grape, but with a wood-like flavor.
I was told that at one time, a lot of coffee was grown on this island. Some folks will still pick and fix it the old-fashioned way, letting the seeds dry in the sun, roasting them, and then grinding them up. If I'm offered a cup of labor-intensive, locally grown, harvested, and processed coffee, I will gladly give it a try.
Just don't expect me to make it a habit.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Low Key Weekend

It was a low key weekend for me, but even an uneventful weekend here is still wonderful. I had plenty of time for basics such as housecleaning, bucket laundry, Sunday morning services at our Catholic church (even though I'm not Catholic, I have been attending regularly), internet chats with friends and family, and general research work. I also listened to the WVU Mountaineer basketball games each night. Best of all, I spent time this afternoon at our beach, as shown below.
We got an early start on the weekend, because some heavy rains on Friday afternoon led to an early dismissal at our school. After Tropical Storm Erika (and Grace, to a lesser extent), Dominicans are still a bit antsy about heavy rains. Here is the view of the playing field from the upper floor of our school—it ended up getting a little worse than this before the water started draining off.
On Saturday afternoon, one of the soccer teams in Dominica comprised only of women came to our village for a scrimmage. Thankfully, the sun had dried the field enough for them to play. In the picture below, you can see them going through drills, with our school in the background. They were pretty talented!
Later Saturday, the local youth group sponsored a health walk over the ridge to the bus stop on the main road. Along the way, the kids introduced me to a new food called “glu-glu.” This is a palm tree that has long, skinny thorns, which keeps the kids from trying to climb it. Instead of coconuts, it has small green fruits, as shown in the first picture. You remove the tough skin, and can eat the flesh underneath (as seen in the second picture). Most interesting, though, is the small seed in the middle. You can eat it, and it is white inside and tastes the same as the meat of a coconut (I forgot to take a picture of the seed before we ate it).
We eventually made it to the main road and the bus stop there. Here is a picture of the signpost there. The mileage shown may seem like we are pretty close to some of these places, but when you consider the condition of the roads, it takes longer than you might think to get anywhere.
Here is a view of the intersection where my road (the upper road) meets the main road. Our road runs up the hill, and once you cross the ridge and start down the other side, you are rewarded with a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean.
I put the first picture I took at the beach today at the top of this story. After snapping this picture and spending some time in the shade of the palms, I decided to explore some of the rock overhangs within the hill to the right side of that picture above. Below is a picture looking back towards the beach area, showing both of our local fishing boats. You can also see a Suzuki SUV where a family drove down to the beach for a Sunday picnic.
Below is a panoramic view of L'islet (the peninsula dividing our two beach areas, which I've written about before).
Here is a normal view, showing more of the “cave” roof (none of these recesses in the hillside go very deep).
Below are two pictures showing the tidal flats at low tide stretching beyond where I could safely climb (these are not the same tidal pools where I ruined my camera). It was fun watching the crabs, fish, sea urchins, etc. Best of all, though, was simply enjoying the sights and sounds of the waves, as I climbed around the rocky wall.
Even a low key weekend down here is pretty cool!