Monday, July 17, 2017

S.C.U.B.A.

Well, I got to cross another item off my bucket list. I finally got to try "swimming with the fishes" using a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus—better known by the acronym “scuba.”

I learned that Dominica would be celebrating DiveFest this month, and that on Saturday, July 15, anyone could show up at Purple Turtle Beach and get the chance to strap on an air tank and “blow bubbles” underwater. I alerted the other Peace Corps Volunteers on the island, and one of them chose to join me. However, he wasn't the only person I knew who was present.

Because I enjoy giving my students new experiences, I brought along one of the sixth graders. He had recently scored the highest on the sixth grade national exam, so this was a reward from me for his efforts. He is also the best swimmer among all my students, and had already started doing snorkeling and free diving with some of the teenagers in the village. I felt he would enjoy this unique opportunity that he otherwise would never have had the chance to try.
Another reason to only bring along one child is because there was a second offer on this day (which, with more students, would have become very expensive). At Purple Turtle Beach, you could learn the basics and then go into the water, but you were only swimming in shallow water maybe six feet deep. The bottom was all sand, so it was devoid of interesting scenery. However, if you enjoyed the free introductory session on the beach, for $50 EC (about $20 US) you could go over to the Cabrits National Park and do a longer session off their pier. The scenery is much better over there!
All three of us—the other Peace Corps Volunteer, my student, and myself—enjoyed the introductory session, so we decided to do the $50 deal (meaning I paid a hundred, but it was worth it—the more you give, the more you get). We were given some additional training before we were suited up and taken out to the pier. Unlike at Purple Turtle, we were all in the same group, so no one was able to take pictures. Thus, all the pictures in this story came from the beach dive (along with one above showing my student learning the basics of CPR, which was also being demonstrated at a beach gazebo as part of DiveFest).
I was the first to jump in from the pier where big ships dock, such as the Sea Cloud in this previous story. Following the instructions from our instructor, I placed the arch of my flippered feet on the very edge of the pier. Holding one hand on my regulator and mask, and the other on my weight belt, I lunged one foot forward to jump in the water. Once everyone was in and ready, we went down maybe 20 feet to a large flat patch of sand in the midst of the boulders and coral under the water.
A huge school of gray fish watched us with seeming curiosity as we descended. Our instructor, using sign language, told us to sit down on our knees on the bottom, as he demonstrated a few of the instructions we had covered before coming down (how to clear water from our mask, how to purge the regulator if it came out of our mouth, etc.). It was so bizarre to be kneeling on the sandy bottom of this underwater world, yet still breathing relatively effortlessly!
The tricky part of scuba diving is the need to equalize the pressure on your eardrums as you go deeper. Our brief experience in the shallow waters on the beach was not deep enough to cause any problems. However, in deeper water, you need to pinch your nostrils shut and force air into your Eustachian tubes to counteract the increasing pressure of the water. I was able to do it well enough to get through the dive, but I don't consider myself a master of this technique. Just like most things, I'm sure with more practice, this standard technique becomes quite easy.
I enjoyed exploring the sea bottom, with its incredible variety of life. I saw some of the same fish I described in my previous blog post about snorkeling. However, this time I was able to swim at their level, rather than simply gazing down from the surface of the water. To be breathing underwater while free to move around was a surreal experience. I'm very glad I was able to add this to the list of adventures I have enjoyed while serving with the Peace Corps on the Nature Isle of Dominica.

With this little excursion completed, my focus has shifted back to preparations for the Courts for Kids project. The 23 Americans will be arriving in the village this Friday. I hope it turns out to be successful!

Friday, July 7, 2017

My July (so far)

This month has been epic so far, with several significant events. Allow me to give you a brief glimpse of my past week.
It started on Saturday, July 1, when the Peace Corps Volunteers in Dominica gathered at Mero Beach to celebrate America's Independence Day. We had to do it on July 1 because obviously July 4th is not a holiday here—it was just another school day. Mero Beach has been described as the most “American” of Dominica's beaches, so it was appropriate to gather there. Below is a picture taken of our group (which included some special local friends who were also invited to join us).
On Sunday afternoon (July 2) in my village, the preschool held its graduation ceremony at the Pentecostal Church. It was so packed that I had to watch through the windows from the outside. These little children were so cute in their graduation robes. In the picture below taken on the front porch of the church, the leader of the preschool is organizing them for their entrance into the building.
Monday was a regular work day, albeit the first day of the last week of school. Tuesday was busy after school, as I had back-to-back committee meetings. The first was related to the Courts for Kids project, followed immediately by the Village Feast committee meeting. I've kept very busy with Village Council, credit union, and other committee meetings outside of the school day. I've had some weeks where there was a meeting each night. However, I enjoy staying busy, especially when comes to helping the good folks in my village.

After the second meeting concluded, I could finally meet up with the kids in the village to celebrate America's Independence Day on the actual Fourth of July. Fireworks are a big part of July 4th in America. In Dominica, I have not seen the kind of fireworks we have back home. What Dominica calls fireworks is much simpler—a steel wool pad tied to a string, which is then lit and twirled. The speed of the rotation adds oxygen to the smoldering steel wool, leading to a hotter burn and sparks being ejected by the centrifugal force.

While I was home for my daughter's wedding, I decided to improve on the basic concept. I brought back a small wire cage that my dad had used for putting suet cakes on the bird feeder. It holds the steel wool much better than a simple string. The photo above shows a girl twirling my firework cage by simply holding the short chain that attaches to the door. However, it didn't take long to discover that the best sparks came from rotating it with a full arm, windmill effect, especially if you lightly grazed the concrete street surface to bounce off more sparks, as shown below. It was a great way to celebrate America's 241st birthday!
Wednesday was graduation day. Last year my school did not have any 6th graders at all, so this was my first experience with their primary school graduation ceremony. It was held at the Catholic Church, the largest building in the village. There were numerous awards, a keynote speaker, a state-of-the-school report from the principal, special music, and much more.
The photo at the very top of this story was taken by one of my students as we prepared for the ceremony (notice the necktie I purchased here--it is a traditional Creole design). The picture just above this paragraph shows one of our four 6th graders exuberantly “dancing” down the aisle, celebrating her last moments as a primary school student, during the recessional at the end of the ceremony.
I want to share the pictures of these two wonderful students. The boy above scored the highest on the 6th grade national exam. The girl below won the “Most Outstanding Student” award (shown with her teacher, Miss Thomas, who is an excellent instructor). Both students are great kids. If I had extended for a third year, I would dearly miss all four of these 6th graders next year!
Their big day was not over yet for these four graduates. The staff (along with some parents) took them to a “graduation party” at a nice little restaurant on the island that features a small swimming pool. I was the only adult who jumped in the pool to swim with the kids (as shown below), and we had a blast! I think they will remember their graduation day for a long time!
On Thursday, most all of the students participated with our school field trip. We piled onto two large vans and went to the southern tip of the island. I've written before about Scotts Head, the unique southwestern tip of the island, where a narrow strip of land separates the Atlantic from the Caribbean. I took the picture below as we hiked up the hill.
Later, I tried to take a group picture at one of the old cannon placements, but most of them were more interested in the incredible view.
Then we headed over to the Soufriere church, which I previously wrote about here (and it became one of my most popular stories). This time, since no one was there with me, I went up the steps and snapped this photo from the balcony.
After eating our lunches in the shade near the church, we headed to the hot sulphur springs at Soufriere. Below is a picture of the children (and some parents) frolicking in the mineral-laden water.
On the way back home, we stopped at a local convenience store (called the 7-11, but it is not related to the American chain). I contributed towards ice cream cones for all the children as a grand finale. It had been a big day! Then, as we passed the small airstrip known as the Canefield Airport, I snapped this picture of the sun setting into the Caribbean (a view we never get on the Atlantic side of the island).
Friday there was no school for the students, but staff reported to work. It was bittersweet for me, because I am realizing that I may not see some of my coworkers anytime soon (I'm the only one who lives in the village). They have meant so much to me during my two years here. I owe much of whatever small successes I have had here to their support. They don't have a lot to work with, but they work very hard. I'm proud to have served with them. Plus, I will always have this keepsake scrapbook of wonderful pictures that they made for me and presented at the graduation ceremony this week. They said they wanted me to always remember them, but I assured them that I will never forget my time here!


P.S. I'm also very proud of my friends who made contributions to my Courts for Kids project. Altogether, you contributed nearly $2000 US dollars for my village, which will help us finish our court as well as make other smaller community improvements. When converted to Eastern Caribbean dollars, it is over $5000—a big help that will truly make a difference.

While I won't post names, I thought I would list the initials of each donor below. If you tried to donate but don't see your initials listed, feel free to contact me to see if your donation got assigned to a different project (I worry about the Dominican Republic getting confused with Dominica) or if something else went wrong. And once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

JM, JK, JP, AC, TSK, MF, SP, RW, LC, TM, JB, SB, MK, MH, BR, KM, TS

Friday, June 30, 2017

Public Art

I've written before of how my limited artistic talents have proven beneficial at the school (for example, read “Graphic Arts” or “I'm no Michelangelo”). However, I've been doing a lot of work away from the school as well lately.

I don't have any pictures, but I painted the name and the registration number on both sides of a fishing boat at the nearby port of Anse-de-Mai. Another fisherman wants me to do his boat as well. Rather than paying me cash, I arranged for fish to be donated for feeding the Courts for Kids people who are coming to build the playing court in my village at the end of July. [Special thanks to those of you who donated to this project! I can still get donations over the next ten days or so if you want to help.]

I've also done some painting for the Village Council. To promote our annual village feast—known as “Fete Thibaud” in the kweyol language—I painted the wall along the road near the beach where the feast is held. I only did a red outline of the letters to preserve the yellow and black traffic control theme of the existing wall.

I told my students (this wall is across from the school entrance) that all the letters look like they are dancing (or drunk), except for the letter “U”—which is also a bit thinner than the other letters. I told them that is because I want all of them to stay on the “straight and narrow,” so I crafted that life advice reminder into the sign.
The new bat cave trail is important to the future of our village. In order to make drive through tourists more aware of it, I painted a mural on the front of the building known as the fundraising center that the Village Council owns along the main road. I wanted to make it similar to the logo for the old Batman television show. As it turned out, I was working on this mural the weekend that Adam West, the actor who portrayed Batman on television, died. Thus, it is a bit of my own personal tribute to him. I especially like the picture above (that someone else had taken without my knowledge) because it shows me explaining what I was doing to one of my young first graders.
I also wanted to promote Fete Thibaud along the side of the fundraising center that faces oncoming traffic. To the left of the doorway (see above), I have a festive “Fete” in different colored letters above a calligraphy version of Thibaud. To the right of the doorway (see below), the date of the village feast is explained in terms that won't require repainting each year (ignore the exposed wiring for the missing electric meter).
I've shown this “Welcome to Thibaud” sign that I painted on the bus stop before, but I have since gone back and added a dark shadowing to make the letters stand out more. I'm limited in paint color selection, as it is expensive here and I must rely on donated paint.
There is no signage along the main road to Portsmouth alerting drivers where to turn off to go to Thibaud. Most Dominicans already know where everything is, so road signs are not that important to them. I walked out to the main road a few weeks ago and looked for possibilities to increase our visibility and awareness to drivers. All I could find that was available was this end of an 8 inch wide concrete retaining wall near the turnoff. It isn't much, but at least now we have some form of presence along the main road that we didn't have before. Little steps can lead to big changes.
Finally, I did this painting today for my landlord's shop along the main road. She seemed to like the Old English look to the lettering (that is her husband standing in the doorway in the picture below). It may not be perfect, but at least we are getting a bit more of a presence along the roadway. When I first got here, you could drive through the village and never know the name of it. It wasn't very inviting to outsiders. My hope is that in some way these “public art” projects will eventually help to bring in some much needed tourist money. This village can certainly use it!


P.S. I thought I'd share with you what I had for lunch today. We got out of school early today (thus no school lunch), so I purchased some pig snout soup from one of the shops to have for lunch today. Pig's feet, pig tail, and pig snout are commonly used in Caribbean cooking, and they really aren't all that bad. I have described pig snout as tasting like ham, only chewier.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Horses and a Hot Beach

One of my favorite aspects of being a Peace Corps Volunteer down here is helping my students have experiences they've never had before. Whether it is as simple as watching the Space Station pass overhead (and enjoying “magical” glow bracelets afterwards), sailing on a 40 foot yacht, seeing a real airplane close up, building a bamboo raft to float on the river, swimming in a real swimming pool, or countless other first time experiences (many of which—including the ones I just listed here—have been documented in this blog), I've loved every one of them. The excitement of doing something for the very first time is quite invigorating, even if you are just watching someone else go through something to which you're already accustomed.
This week I had the opportunity to enjoy the students' broad smiles as they got the chance to try something new—riding horses. Check out the pictures that I have interspersed in this story to see for yourself. There is a horse stable, the Brandy Manor Equestrian Center, that offers schools a program where for just $10 EC per student (less than $4 U.S. dollars), they get to go for a guided trail ride on a real horse. We arranged an afternoon outing for our 5th and 6th grade class, and caught a bus headed that direction after we ate lunch at school on Wednesday. [This is the same horse stable we encountered on our Belle Marche last year when we tried to go to Brandy Falls.]
The seven students all had a blast. Some had a few initial trepidations, but it was great to see them overcome their fears and end up sitting tall in the saddle. All who did it came back with huge smiles and the overwhelming desire to do it again someday.
I emphasized to all of them that the feeling they had of riding atop a large horse ambling along a trail was similar to what mankind around the world had experienced for countless generations when traveling distances until the growth of the automobile in just the last century. Hopefully they can remember that feeling and it will help some future secondary school history lesson come alive for them.
Afterward, we hiked back out to the main road, and walked along it until we caught a bus with enough room to take us all to Portsmouth. From there, we caught a bus taking us to the southern end of Picard, where we got out and walked to Coconut Beach. We finished the afternoon with some swimming and some cricket on the beach. We also ate the breadfruit and codfish the teacher brought along, as well as the can of Pringles I contributed.
[I made them do some mental math to figure out how many Pringle chips there were in the can based on the average serving size of 15 and with 6 servings per can. Then I made them divide into that total to decide how much each person should get (plus we figured out other totals to continue the lesson). It was a good opportunity to demonstrate math in action.]
I had been to Coconut Beach several times, but I learned something during this trip that I had not been aware of before. The students showed me how if you dug down in the sand, it was very hot. I knew there was a hot spring in nearby Glanvalia, but I did not realize that Coconut Beach was in a “hot zone.” You could dig your feet in the sand under the water and instantly feel the heat. The students liked smearing the hot wet sand on their faces and skin (I tried it as well). I tried digging with my hands in shallow water, and only got about 6-8 inches deep before it was too hot for my hands to go any deeper. It's hard to believe that the magma of the earth is so close to the surface on this island.
We ended the day by walking back into Picard to an ice cream store, where I purchased an ice cream cone for everyone (me buying ice cream on these special trips has become a tradition). It was a great way to end a great day! [Notice that you can see me in the background of the picture below.]
Finally, I just want to mention how busy my week has been, beyond just teaching school. Sunday was the Annual General Meeting of the National Cooperative Credit Union down in the capital city. Monday night was a committee meeting for the basketball court project. Tuesday night was the disaster management committee meeting. Wednesday night was the tourism committee. Thursday night was the Village Feast committee meeting. It isn't always this busy, but I'm glad to be actively involved in my community. It is a good place to be!


P.S. I just wanted to once again plead with my readers to donate towards building a playing court for my village, as part of the matching funds to the grant I won (described in this previous story) from an American charity. Time is running out because the charity will be transferring most of our money by the end of this month. I'm very grateful for the donations that have already been made, but I'd love to get more money to help out this wonderful community who has been so welcoming to me. Every U.S. dollar gets multiplied by about 2.67 when converting to Eastern Caribbean dollars, so a simple $38 donation from America becomes a triple figure ($100 EC) donation down here. It makes a difference!

For anyone leery of donating via a website using your credit card (the instructions for the electronic donation process can be found in the link above), it is also possible to donate the old fashioned way. You can mail a check to Courts for Kids, and just note “Thibaud, Dominica community court” in the memo line. Make the check out to “Courts for Kids” and mail it to:

Courts for Kids
PO Box 873786
Vancouver, WA 98687

Thank you for at least considering a donation, whether electronically or by check! It will make a big difference for my students and others in the village. The good folks here will surely appreciate your generosity!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Two Years; One Fear

These last few days have been important anniversaries for me. Two years ago on June 10, after retiring from my job, selling my house (and motorcycle), and giving my car to my daughter, I left West Virginia to overnight near the Pittsburgh airport. On June 11, 2015, I boarded a plane early that morning to join others in my group at our staging point in Miami. Two years ago today, on June 12, 2015, a total of 32 new Peace Corps recruits left a Miami hotel, boarded an international flight, and headed to the Caribbean. It was truly a leap into the unknown—the first steps on an incredible journey!
Fast forward two years to today, and I know I am a changed man. I've learned so many things about people, life, and myself. I've made lots of new friends (both Dominicans and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers). I have a comfortable life in a loving village that cares about me. I'm truly blessed to have been given this opportunity (that is my shirt shown below).
Serving in President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps is quite an honor. This is the centennial of JFK's birth in 1917 (it's virtually impossible to imagine him as 100 years old, since the assassin's bullet essentially froze him at age 46 in our memories), and many special events are being held to commemorate this centennial. I recently saw a video of Congressman Joe Kennedy III speaking about his great uncle and the Peace Corps. If you have the time and interest, it's worth watching by clicking here.
To commemorate the two year anniversary of the start of our Peace Corps careers, my colleagues and I went sailing on Saturday. The five of us from my class were joined by four of the other Peace Corps Volunteers. This was my third time on this boat (see my previous accounts here and here), but the first time for all the others. Everyone had a great time, as shown in these pictures! Plus, this time we got to see a huge sea turtle surface near the boat. It was a great way to celebrate this major milestone, and spend time together before we start heading our separate ways later this summer.
I have mixed emotions about my Peace Corps service coming to an end. I love the place where I was assigned. It will not be easy to leave the friends I have made here. The only thing that makes it palatable is knowing that I have already made arrangements to come back next winter for a vacation here, just to check up on everyone (and escape the cold weather). I will forever be connected to Dominica.

However, I need to go back to my West Virginia home. That point was hammered home to me once I got back to my house after the sailing trip on Saturday. My sister—my only sibling—who was one year behind me all through school, sent me a message that popped up on the small screen of my phone. All I could see was the first line: “Have some bad news to tell you.”

I immediately assumed she was referring to the death of Adam West, star of the “Batman” television show we both loved as children in the 1960s. My Facebook newsfeed was already full of this news from my contemporaries who had also been fans, so I thought I knew what she was going to tell me.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the bad news. She shared with me that she had been diagnosed with cancer on Friday. This shocking news hit me like a ton of bricks! Hopefully they caught it early enough and she will be able to beat it. She asked me to bring her back a Dominica souvenir bandana that she can wear to cover her head when her hair falls out from the chemo treatments. I purchased two bandanas today—one for her and one for me to wear in solidarity with her (shown in the photo at the top of this story).

This unexpected development shows why I need to get home in August. It also emphasized to me the fragility of life. You just never know when your life can be turned upside down. Thus, you should make the most of each and every day. I will leave you with one of my favorite photos of the two of us, in front of our 1970 Volkswagen when we were leaving home to head to the University of Charleston about 40 years ago.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

As Time Winds Down

During your service in the Peace Corps, there are three major training sessions. The first and longest (about ten weeks) is the Pre-Service Training (PST) where they prepare you for how to be a volunteer, for living alone in your assigned village, and for performing your designated job. Mine ran from my departure in June 2015 through August 2015. Upon completion of PST, you are finally sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).
After your first year as a PCV, everyone in your class reassembles for Mid-Service Training (MST). Our MST was held in October at the Abbey where we spent our very first weekend in the Caribbean. It was great to be with my colleagues once again (my group's MST picture is shown above).
The third major training session for each cohort class is the Close of Service Training, known to Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world as COS. The COS for my class was held a few weeks ago on the island of St. Lucia (where the Eastern Caribbean headquarters for Peace Corps is located). Instead of the austere Abbey, the COS training was held in a nice hotel (although not beachfront, so they were still trying to be frugal) with a swimming pool (see photo above). Even though we have several months left in our service, they needed to hold our training session before they can get ready for the Pre-Service Training for the incoming group of new volunteers now arriving. Plus, there is a lot we need to do before we return to the USA.
It was great to be reunited with the amazing group of people (pictured above, the night we were transported to the beach for a BBQ dinner) that comprised our group, the 87th group of volunteers trained for assignment in the Eastern Caribbean (thus our designation as EC87). We had persevered through the arduous Pre-Service Training in June and July of 2015 on St. Lucia, and then were scattered to our four different islands (Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, or St. Vincent and the Grenadines) on August 1 of that year. Our Mid-Service Training last fall was the only time since Pre-Service Training that we had been together as a group. It was wonderful to renew our friendships. There are truly some great people from across the USA who are in my class—and seemingly throughout the Peace Corps. As the time begins to dwindle for my 800 days as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I went down to the inlet by myself on the last night to view the sunset. While there, I watched the ship shown below returning to the harbor—just like I will be returning home in a few short months. However, I still have a lot to get done before I head home, especially the construction of a playing court in late July (I'm still seeking donations for this project).
As we celebrate the centennial of President Kennedy's birth, I feel honored to be serving in his Peace Corps. I hope this federal program will continue for many years to come—however, the current President's budget proposal makes big cuts in America's service programs such as the Peace Corps. I hope that Republicans in Congress will realize that the Peace Corps is spreading much goodwill on behalf of America and that it is worth continuing at its present size, if not larger. It will be a shame if it is cut.


One final point about my COS training—on the way back home from St. Lucia to Dominica, the ferry boat (which is cheaper than flying, and the Peace Corps tries to keep costs down) made its mid-way stop at the French island of Martinique. We were docked across the harbor from a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter. Some of you know that I almost went to the Coast Guard Academy after high school, so the Coast Guard has always been interesting to me. As we left, I could see the name on the stern was “Donald Horsley.” About a week after I was back home, I finally got around to do a web search on this ship.

It turns out that this ship had a busy week after I saw it. A few days later, it rescued six men from a disabled boat. Not long after this news story, there was another news story about this ship's arrival in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it offloaded over a million dollars worth of marijuana that it had seized. It was good to see this example of the American government performing visible work to help this area. It was also interesting to see that the commanding officer of this vessel is a woman. Finally, all this reminded me of the U.S. Navy hospital ship that was visiting Dominica when I first arrived. I feel it is important for the United States to help developing countries around the world, and the Peace Corps, the hospital ship, and the Coast Guard are good examples.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Marching Again

Some of you may remember the story I previously wrote about the “Diabetes March” that our school held. It was organized by the government Health Center (they have a form of universal health care here) which is located on the other side of the playing field from our school. We made signs and then the children marched through the village chanting slogans against diabetes. At the end, they were rewarded with juice and healthy snacks.
Recently, our village's Health Center organized another similar activity (the nurses who joined us are shown above). This time it was a “Vaccination March” through the village. It was part of an island-wide campaign to encourage parents to get their children immunized against diseases. The students enjoyed participating in this one as much as they had enjoyed the previous march, as these pictures attest.
I've been fortunate that I haven't had any major health problems down here. The Peace Corps has two doctors assigned to the Eastern Caribbean to take care of all of us, and I am impressed with all they do (I will miss this free service when I go home). However, I did get a splinter in my hand one day from the wooden frame around the chalkboard. The principal recommended that I go see the nurse at the nearby Health Center. It was a very nice building with basic equipment necessary for its simple function. I walked in and the nurse took quick care of me (no waiting!), and then I was on my way back to school. No paperwork, no billing, no administrative staff handling all the paperwork, nothing! Just pure healthcare! It was quite different from my experiences with American healthcare.
I'm not saying that healthcare is better here, but it does make me realize how much administrative overhead is required for the American system of healthcare. That's just one of the reasons why American healthcare costs are so high! I'm not looking forward to returning to the mess that the American healthcare system has become. It seems to me that Trumpcare is not the answer, because those losing health insurance will just cause the costs to go up for the rest of us. Plus, separating out those in high-risk pools may lower costs for the healthy, but will increase the costs for those who need help the most. Obamacare needed changes, but to totally trash his effort to impose the Massachusetts (Romney) model on the entire country is wrong. I am sad for the future of my country.