Monday, May 30, 2016
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
The steep, rugged terrain and unstable soils in that area has led the government to declare Petite Savanne uninhabitable, and the surviving residents were forced to evacuate. Thus the government is providing a relocation and resettlement program for Petite Savanne's survivors. The government is officially abandoning rather than rebuilding the infrastructure for this remote village, which at one time had nearly 1000 residents. I'm sure it was a difficult and controversial decision for the government to make.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Petite Savanne for the first time. It was a long trip over winding roads to get there. Not having seen this village in its prime made it difficult to fully appreciate the devastation that Tropical Storm Erika had imposed. However, it was still easy to see—even nine months later—much of the destruction. The picture below shows the village in the distance from a hill above. Look closely and you can see evidence of multiple landslides on the far hillside.
Upon our arrival, we got out from the vehicle to explore on foot. There were a couple of Dominican Army soldiers there (wearing pistols—the first guns I've seen down here) to guard against looters, but they had no qualms against sight-seers. Below is a picture of the Petite Savanne Health Center, which appeared to still be in good shape, but has been abandoned in place, never to operate again.The World Without Us." It is a non-fiction book written by Alan Weisman, which tells what would happen to our current environment if humans suddenly disappeared--how nature would take over what we left behind. In a sense, that is what is happening in Petite Savanne. Below is another picture which was taken behind a church where a bell tower stood next to what I assume to be a bathroom facility. Green vines are already “consuming” the large metal bell and its tower, as well as the iron gate to the small building. Nature is reclaiming what man has left behind. Man can overcome nature for a while, but nature is relentless, just as that book predicts.
Yet on the day that I visited, there were about a dozen men who were rebuilding a small bridge over one of the other creeks (the smoke in the picture below is from the used cement bags they were burning). As you can tell, this is another normally small creek that ended up carrying massive boulders and debris down its path, clearing a wide swath of whatever was in its way.
One must really love a specific location to consider moving back to a place without any public infrastructure whatsoever—especially when the government has tried to set up an attractive resettlement program. Apparently, Petite Savanne is considered by some residents to be their home, regardless of the dangers or the inconveniences of choosing to live there.
Whether you call it determination or just plain stubbornness, I am impressed with their tenacity. Just organizing a dozen or so folks to help design and build a creek crossing is not easy. Their eventual goal of living once again in Petite Savanne, albeit this time with no government support or infrastructure, is even more difficult. Yet still these Dominicans persist—just like those green vines!
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
In the past, I had followed my students up to the big bare rocky spot that looms well above our beach. However, while at the beach one day several weeks ago, I watched one of my students climb even higher on the hillside, through some of the “scrub brush” above the bare rock. It turns out that there is a bit of a path (perhaps it was originally a cleft in the rock) that leads diagonally to a higher point, which ends with a sharp dropoff on the back side.
I knew I wanted to give it a try someday. I like to push myself, albeit in a responsible manner, to test my own boundaries. Could I safely make my way up to this higher vantage point? Recently, another Peace Corps Volunteer had visited my village and attempted to merely get up to the bare rock above the sea (which I've done numerous times), but backed out after seeing how difficult the climb really was without the right shoes. It is a bit challenging!which is covered in this previous story). The mountaintop above the village that I scaled about six weeks ago can be seen in the distance when looking up as I began the final portion of this hike. Below is the opposite view, looking down the diagonal pathway once I reached the top. It is quite a feeling of accomplishment (and a bit of an adrenaline rush) once you overcome the adversities and reach your goal.
By the time I had slowly and carefully worked my way back down the steep and treacherous hillside, she had created another smaller one to greet me at the bottom, as shown below. I think these expressions of appreciation are not just for what I've done by myself, but in some respects it is a cumulative result of all the hard-working Peace Corps Volunteers who have served on this little island in the past. Dominicans realize that the Peace Corps (or “Pisko” in the local kweyol dialect) has been coming here to help for many years. Those previous volunteers collectively played a part in creating the appreciation that greets each of us new volunteers when we arrive to help Dominicans.
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Although I didn't know about it at the time, in some respects the Belle Marche tradition is similar to an activity I have been doing with my students for some time. I enjoy exploring our neighborhood through group hikes, and will continue to do so through the rest of my service here. My only suggestion for next year's Belle Marche is that we should avoid scheduling it for Friday the Thirteenth—perhaps that is the reason why they had bad luck finding the waterfall!
P.S. The previous Friday, I led my own unofficial Belle Marche that eventually resulted in a pool party at a nice hotel (see that story here). I wrote about my “stupid tax” of forgetting to get my $25 of change back before I left the hotel. The good news is that the hotel arranged with a resident of my village to deliver my money to me. That was really nice of them! The people of Dominica have been wonderful to me!
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
I've been interested in government since childhood, when my grandmother went to Washington and brought back some publications from our congressman's office. In ninth grade, my civics teacher took some of his top students to attend the governor's inauguration ceremony in the capital. I majored in Political Science at the University of Charleston, and then went on to WVU to get both a law degree and a master's in public administration. I worked for the federal government for thirty years before retiring nearly one year ago. I've always believed it was our civic duty to support our government.
In addition, I experienced democracy first-hand when I put my name on the ballot during four different elections. I was proud to be elected to the non-partisan Wood County Board of Education, especially after trudging through countless neighborhoods going door-to-door (the old-fashioned way) explaining my positions and seeking support.
Following my terms on the school board, I undertook another part-time job as an adjunct faculty member at WVU-Parkersburg, teaching American Government and Constitutional Law. I tried to impress on my students the importance of participating in our democracy. I also tried to stress the need for bipartisanship rather than polarization.
So it probably isn't surprising that a political junkie like me never missed voting in an election throughout my adult years. Even when I was a student in Charleston or Morgantown, I always filled out my absentee ballot and mailed it back. When I lived in various locations around the Washington, DC area, I would make a point to find my way to an unfamiliar local school and cast my ballot.
However, my unbroken streak of voting in every election since 1976 ended today. Oh sure, I could have made arrangements to have an absentee ballot sent to me so that I could have participated from thousands of miles away during my Peace Corps service. I plan on doing that for the general election this fall.
But I just couldn't get excited about the choices that I was facing in American presidential politics as well as in state and local races. I'm not advocating for others to avoid voting, but given my unusual circumstances I decided to end my streak. In some respects, I am purposely breaking my record as a small personal protest over how politics has devolved back home. The hyper-partisanship, impact of big money, lack of compromise, and willingness to make inaccurate statements for political gain are not how I think things are supposed to work. It makes me sad for the future of my state and of my country.
Even though the process is complicated, I will be sure to vote in the fall, because I want to be able to preserve my right to complain when things inevitably go wrong, regardless of who wins the election. But if there was ever a year to sit out an election, I think this is it. I'm grateful to be serving in the Peace Corps on this beautiful island, and not being subjected to all the negative campaign ads during 2016.
For someone who had always been optimistic about the future of America, I'm turning into a pessimist. We owe it to our future generations to do better than we are doing now. In the meantime, I'm hoping to be proven wrong and for things to turn out better than I currently think they will. Please!
Sunday, May 8, 2016
At first, there was only about a half-dozen students there, which seemed like a fun and manageable group. However, they kept coming, and eventually I ended up with 21 students. We decided to hike about a mile along the road and over the ridge to the beach where the Blenheim River empties into the Atlantic. The picture below shows the students climbing the long steep hill out of our village, with the Atlantic Ocean behind them.http://atlantiqueview.com/ for more information). A few of the villagers work there, but most of the students had never seen it before, so we decided to walk up the steep hill to let them see the nice landscaping, the beautiful views, and the fancy swimming pool. The picture below is taken from the resort's website, and provides a nice view of the two upper pools and the large bar/patio area. see this previous blog story with a picture of our local “pool”. They had never been in a "real pool" with clear, chlorinated water, much less one with different levels, waterfalls, and “infinity edge” views of the Atlantic. Their joy was readily apparent and they proceeded to have a fantastic time. I was too busy supervising to take pictures, but I did manage to take the one shown below before I put my phone in a dry place for safekeeping.
Everybody got a bite of everything, but obviously it wasn't a filling lunch. Jesus did a much better job feeding the multitudes with some fish and bread than I was able to do with my students. However, they were still so excited from our pool party that no one complained. They were still on “cloud nine.”
We then started our mile-and-a-half road hike up and down the hills back to our village. Occasionally, the students would stop to “forage” for mangoes (which are just beginning to ripen), fatpoke (or perhaps fat pork, which is similar to a grape that grows on bushes), and other wild foods. When we arrived back in the village, I was cajoled into spending another $15 to buy “ice pops” for everyone as a reward for completing our big adventure.
It was when digging out that $15 to pay for my purchase that I realized I had forgot something—the $25 change from the hotel front desk. OOOPS! I certainly wasn't going to walk all the way back to ask about it (assuming the same woman would still be on duty). Back in the United States, I would sometimes listen to Dave Ramsey's radio talk show about personal finances. Ramsey refers to money mistakes as a “stupid tax.” Sometimes you have to pay a “stupid tax” in order to make sure you don't make that mistake again. I guess I will just need to write off that $25 as a stupid tax I paid. Hopefully, I will get paid back with some sort of “positive karma” since this was such a good cause.
Overall, I “unexpectedly” spent $135 on this little hike to celebrate our “unexpected” day off. However, one of the many lessons the Peace Corps is teaching me is that the more one gives, the more one gets in return. While I can't afford to do this all the time, I've learned down here that money is not nearly as important as the unabashed happiness I saw on 21 young faces that afternoon. Just like the old MasterCard commercials, their smiles were “priceless.” It was an epic adventure to a luxurious pool that they will long remember!
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
It became apparent that the branch was from the stand of tree ferns that we had stumbled into during a hike up one of the creeks (but called "rivers" here, regardless of size) way above my village. I loved looking up the long thin trunks, to the top where the branches burst out in a radial pattern, allowing rings of blue sky to show through. I don't think the photograph below really does justice to the incredible beauty I saw that day.my previous story about that hike, and some of you commented on it. Since others were captivated by the tree ferns, I decided to do a little research and write this longer story about them. That is when I realized exactly where I had seen this particular diamond-shaped pattern before.
Ferns are simple plants that reproduce via spores--they have neither seeds nor flowers. Ferns have been around for over 300 million years, and were the dominant part of the vegetation during the Carboniferous Period (also recognized as "the age of ferns"). Fern trees (also known as cyatheales) comprised much of the swampy forests that over eons of time became compressed into coal seams.
Eureka! That is where I had seen them before! It may have been in the West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center next to our capitol, the coal mining museum at WVU, the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, or perhaps at the West Virginia Geological Museum at Cheat Lake. At least one of these places (and more likely all of them) has intact cyatheales fossils that clearly show this diamond-like pattern that I remembered.
Finding such fossils inside coal mines is not unusual. The museums in West Virginia that I mentioned have plenty of fossil examples on display. In fact, I ran across a Smithsonian story about a fossilized forest that covers four square miles of a coal mine in Illinois. It reminded me of the day I got to spend underground in a real working coal mine that I wrote about in my previous blog.
Since realizing the connection between these ancient trees that once covered most of West Virginia, and which can still be found in pockets on my current island home, I have become quite fond of them. The fern tree has become a connection to my native state. I can now more readily discern a tree fern from a palm tree or a papaya tree, both of which long trunks with a burst of leaves at the top. Below is a long-distance picture taken across a steep ravine of a single fern tree (perhaps 15-20 feet tall) in a small clearing surrounded by traditional ferns.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
In order to protect the privacy of the deceased, I won't go in-depth on some issues, but instead will try to give you a few anecdotal observations. Be aware that this is merely my reporting on one single death, and is not meant to be a comprehensive study of how things are always done here. Hopefully, there won't be any more deaths in my village, because I don't want to become an expert on this topic. Heck, I do not even consider myself an expert on the death culture of America!
The body was removed from the house last Sunday and taken to one of two mortuaries on the island. On Wednesday evening, I was invited to the home of the deceased for a prayer meeting. Once family and friends had arrived, those who could fit inside gathered within the deceased's bedroom, while the rest of us huddled near the bedroom door and the surrounding area of the house. One of the respected women from the church led the gathering.
I'm still new to this whole Catholic religion, but I assume that she was reading from “the book of prayers.” It was punctuated with lots of short group prayers that the others knew by heart, as well as scripture readings and hymn singing. Upon completion of this somber ceremony, everyone shared cake and drinks before departing down the hill.
The funeral itself was held on Friday afternoon at our modest Catholic church. With no funeral home in this tiny village, the visitation and viewing was held prior to the funeral service. The open casket was located at the front door of the church, so that everyone passed by on their way into the service.
The funeral mass was similar to what I've witnessed in the United States, albeit longer than most because it included communion. The absence of air conditioning and the sound of the omnipresent village roosters crowing just outside were noticeably different than a typical American funeral. It was somewhat similar to a standard Sunday service here, and included a collection to defray the funeral costs. Family members and friends were given a special badge to wear for the service (mine is shown below).
Here in Dominica, the tradition is that the deceased's family is responsible for entertaining visitors with food and drink. In other words, if you make the effort to visit and console the family, then they should reward you with food and drink that the family has prepared or purchased. It is just a different way of doing things than I have previously experienced, but that doesn't make it wrong. In some respects, this responsibility may give the family something to do rather than overly focusing on their loss.
It is partly because of this practice that there is an emphasis on funeral pre-planning and insurance here. Funerals can be expensive for your survivors, so many Dominicans make the arrangements in advance and pay for them by installment plans. I think many Americans might benefit from contemplating their own death and preparing funeral service plans, wills, etc., even if they don't have to host their own guests.
Dying is a part of life, regardless of one's location on the globe. However, I hope that deaths are a rare occurrence in my village (as well as back home), and that this will have been my last opportunity to write about this topic. In the meantime, make the most of each day you have. I know I am trying to do just that!
Notice how the holes in the cement blocks on the back wall provide ventilation.