Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Four Falls Field Trip

In Dominica, the Monday following Easter is a holiday. Without any normal buses running that day, and on the heels (as well as the envy) of the successful trip for sixth graders (see my previous blog story), the sixth grade teacher and I quickly concocted a plan for an outing on Easter Monday for our fifth and sixth grade classes. As it turns out, not everyone could join us due to sickness or family plans that day, but we still had a great time. This day trip hit some of the tourist spots that my students who live in Dominica generally have not seen.

We started off this day trip by heading south, which took us past the airport. The first stop was not a typical tourist spot, but was educational nonetheless. I had the driver make a diversion to check out a bar on the other side of the river from the end of the runway. I had noticed that it had an old Cessna 172 parked beside it—it was very similar to the Cessna 150 that my dad used to fly, and that I had actually flown (except for takeoff and landing). I realized that this would be the best way for my students to get “up close and personal” with an airplane. Having talked a lot about aviation topics in their science classes (and having visited the control tower last year), it was good to let them actually touch a plane for the first time.

This particular plane had belonged to a German who was visiting the island when Tropical Storm Erika hit in August 2015 (see my report on this huge event). The nearby river had flooded the airport, and had carried this plane down the length of the runway, where it ultimately got snagged in the chain link fence near the sea. The insurance company considered the plane totaled (although it seemed fixable to me), so the owner let the bar owner have it for display purposes.
We then drove to beautiful Emerald Pool, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had visited Emerald Pool about a dozen years ago when we were on a cruise ship that stopped on Dominica—I never realized during that single previous visit that someday I would be living on this island and would return to Emerald Pool with the students I was teaching. After a beautiful walk through the forest, the trail descends into a depression where a waterfall fills a pristine pool (as shown above). It is a magical place! The photo below shows some of our crew nearly behind the waterfall.
We then hopped back in the van and drove to Jaco Falls (which is also sometimes referred to as Hibiscus Falls). It was very easily accessible from the roadway, with a concrete sidewalk and steps leading down to the pool. In the picture below, one of my students stands near the bottom of the waterfall.
The next falls we visited was actually a two-for-one deal. It wasn't very far from Jaco Falls, but on the other side of the road in a different watershed. We hiked along a dirt road and then through the forest to visit Spanny's Falls. It was beautifully situated in a natural alcove with bits of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy to highlight the multiple shades of green surrounding the falls. There was a nice wooden viewing platform, but I had to tilt my camera diagonally to get the full length of the waterfall.
We had been told that there was a second waterfall if you wanted to hike further. If you climb through the wooden railing that surrounds the viewing platform, there is a long rope that assists those willing to venture up the steep hillside. While their teacher stayed behind, I followed my students up the hill (as shown below) and through the forest to explore the next waterfall. While most of them left their shoes on that wooden viewing platform with their teacher so that they could climb barefoot, I chose to retain my shoes.
After an invigorating hike that included another steep, rocky hillside where two ropes were provided to help hikers go up or down, we arrived at a nice waterfall (apparently known as Penrice Falls) on a nearby creek (by the way, “creek” is an American term—in Dominica, every such body of moving water is a river). I had assumed that the trail shown above was going to lead to another falls on the same creek, but higher up. Instead, we had crossed a ridge to a different valley. Upon arrival, we were rewarded with this lovely view. On this one, the upper end of the waterfall was bathed in sunlight.
We then hiked our way out and back to the van. Our next stop was the capital city of Roseau to grab some food at one of the most popular restaurants on the island—KFC. My students love Kentucky Fried Chicken, so I bought a bucket for them to share (we had told them to bring a sack lunch and a drink, so the bucket of chicken was just icing on the cake to them). It is the only American restaurant on this island, which may add to its popularity (and I know it is also popular on St. Lucia, where I did my initial Peace Corps training). By the way, my students were amazed when I told them about the “all-you-can-eat” buffets at KFC restaurants back where I am from—they can't imagine being able to eat as much as you want to eat, especially if it is KFC chicken!

We then headed up the West Coast Highway, and stopped at a place known as Coconut Beach just south of Portsmouth. This is where a lot of the villagers headed to celebrate Easter Monday, so the students who went on my van trip still got to play in the Caribbean with their friends from the village. Four waterfalls, an airplane, KFC chicken, and a Caribbean beach—they had a great time!

It was also a memorable day for me, because I was invited to taste a specialty that I had never had before—iguana tail! Recently, a villager had invited me to see the initial preparations for cooking iguana. The first step is to roast the carcass over a fire (as shown above), so that the reptile's scales are easily removed by scraping with a knife.
I missed the actually cooking process, but when presented with a full styrofoam plate, back among the sea grape trees lining this remote Caribbean beach, I accepted the opportunity to taste iguana. After all, it was already dead and cooked, and if I didn't eat it, someone else would—so why not give it a try? It was pretty good! I remembered to take a picture before I finished it, as you can see above. Note that it is cooked with the “de-scaled” green skin still on it. It was accompanied by the long rolled dumplings (which are very dense as compared to the puffy West Virginia dumplings I am accustomed to eating) which are commonly served here, along with a brown gravy. It was a great way to end a great day in Dominica!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Mission Trip

True friendship is an amazing phenomenon that can span across decades! I am so fortunate that one of my fellow classmates from high school has been reading this blog and following my adventure. She was one of my classmates who contributed school supplies to the “Kurtz Kidz” collection at my high school reunion last summer. She and her husband decided to travel to Dominica during early April to spend her spring break from the school where she works. Their daughter came along, too.

On their first day, I gave them a quick tour of our village, including the beach, the bat cave, the views from the surrounding hills. We proceeded to drive around the north of the island, seeing various sights such as the location of the cliff-jumping scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. Then we went climbing up a long mountain before crossing the rim into the crater of an old volcano. We stopped in the middle to explore the sulfurous springs known as the Cold Soufriere—a remnant from when it was an active volcano. It was a good way to welcome them to the island.

On Monday, they came to visit my school and meet the students. The photo above shows my classmate with a couple of my students under the “Welcome” sign that I had painted on the bus stop. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college in three and a half years, had played soccer throughout her life. She had a good time playing “football” with our students on the playing field. I also took her across the road to climb the cliff and venture out on L'islette. The picture below shows me in my school clothes climbing up the rock wall, with her waiting on me at the top.
The fantastic thing about this vacation was that they made it a “mission trip” of sorts. They brought a lot of school supplies to help my students. Plus, they also brought me some great things, such as a Kentucky Derby souvenir t-shirt from their home state, as well as her fabulous home-made no bake cookies (in a nice plastic container that has already proven useful in my kitchen). The picture below shows my classmate and her daughter passing out some “goodies” to the students at our morning assembly.
Even more valuable than the school supplies was the soccer equipment they were able to donate. Because their children had long been involved with soccer, they had some connections that allowed them to get a good deal on new shoes, shorts, balls, and other items for our school's team. The boys were especially amazed at the fantastic (and colorful) shoes! These were absolutely amazing gifts for these children.
But that was not the end of their generosity. In fact, it was only the beginning. The next day, they paid to take our sixth graders, the sixth grade teacher, and a parent (along with me) on a chartered sailing trip. We used the same boat on which I took a cruise previously, and arranged to get all the necessary permissions. Sixth grade trips (or whatever your last year is in primary school) is a common practice in America, so it was nice to be able to do it here. It was quite a memorable day for our four sixth grade students. All their lives they have gazed at visiting yachts sitting in the bay or cruising at sea. On this day, they were able to see what the opposite view was like, sailing on the beautiful blue Caribbean and gazing back at the mountains of their verdant island home.
Just to give you an example of how new this experience was to my students (shown above), they had never swam off a boat or in deep water before. The only times they had ever been swimming was when they walked into the surf of the ocean (on our beach and on others). There had always been a gradual deepening as they walked into the water. However, when the sailboat dropped anchor in Toucarie Bay, the only was to swim was to jump off (or step off) the back of the boat, with absolutely no ability to “touch” the bottom. It required some adjustment for them to realize that swimming would mean never touching the bottom. Eventually, all of them entered the water and went swimming—just one of the many new experiences they enjoyed that day (they also got to taste the no bake cookies that had been brought down for me, as I shared mine that day so they could taste an American delicacy).
They also learned about sailing that day, and the boys especially enjoyed seeing how the sailboat worked, and actually got to “drive” it. The three girls spent a lot of “girl time” together (as shown above), which was very good for each of them. The adults all had a good time mingling around as well. It was a great chance to learn about each other, and to realize how much in common we all have, regardless of country. The picture below shows our teacher sitting with our benefactor as he holds the Dominican flag.
On Wednesday, I took the day off to accompany them on a whale watching tour from the capital. Only recently had I seen my first whales off the coastline of my village, but this adventure would be taking a large catamaran a good ways off the coast to see whales up close.
Before boarding the ship, there is a large display area explaining all about whales. It includes a complete skeleton of a sperm whale, the largest toothed whale and the most commonly found whale species here. While admiring the hanging skeleton, I discovered that it had come from my village! I had heard tales about the dead whale that had washed ashore in 2001, but didn't know that it had been the source for the skeleton that thousands of tourists view each year. They even had an original newspaper article about the dead whale, including quotes about the discovery from one of my friends in the village. Upon my return, I was able to tell him he is a celebrity with all the tourists who read that sign.
Once on board the ship, we motored a long way from shore before finally seeing some water spouts from surfacing whales. We focused on two of them who eventually came together, side by side, before the first one flipped up its tail to dive deep for food. The second one soon did the same. It was a rare sight that I will long treasure.
As we headed back to shore, dolphins would intermittently join with our ship, racing and jumping beside and ahead of us. It was quite fun to watch, and was a nice ending to our whale encounter.
Except, this wasn't the end. They took me out to lobster dinner on our back home. I had expected their generosity for my students, but I was overwhelmed by their generosity towards me. I am truly blessed, and it demonstrates that the more you give, the more you get. Thank you so much!

On Friday, they came back to our school for one more afternoon with the students. This time, the students got a little bit of an education about aerial drones. It was amazing to watch it fly above us. Below is a picture that it took, showing the school in the lower left corner.

The drone wasn't the only surprise that took pictures. Their daughter also brought along her Polaroid instant camera. The children were mesmerized to see it slowly printing and ejecting a completed picture shortly after it was snapped. It seemed almost magical to them!

All in all, their visit was an incredibly positive experience for my school. Many amazing memories (and indeed, friendships) were made that my children will long remember! Plus, it was one of my most memorable weeks on the island, as I enjoyed playing tour guide (and being the beneficiary of some great food and experiences). I hope it was as good a visit for them as it was for us. I'm glad they made it their “mission” to come see “the Nature Island” for themselves. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Planets (plus a motorcycle)

I completed a pet project today which was meant to broaden the minds of my students. When you live on a small island, it isn't easy to grasp just how large things such as the solar system really are. So I came up with a way to convey the size and the layout of our solar system for our school. This little project would teach science as well as mathematics.

We have a concrete driveway that led to the old school which was torn down several years ago. I recently took a meter stick and carefully measured the entire length of this driveway, from the blacktop of the main road where it connects to the end of the concrete. I found it to be 63 meters long. Within this length, the entire solar system would be represented.

Now I know that many of you, like me, learned when we were young that we have nine planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. However, Neil deGrasse Tyson and others in the International Astronomical Union (IAU) led a movement in 2006 to remove planetary status from Pluto, which is just one of several large icy objects beyond Neptune. Pluto (along with others, including an even larger icy object further out named Eris that was discovered just prior to the IAU decision) has been demoted to a new classification known as dwarf planets.

Thus, I only needed to fit eight planets into the 63 meter length of our driveway. Neptune automatically would be at the end of the driveway, while the sun would be the blacktop of the main road where the concrete driveway begins. Since Neptune is 2.8 billion miles away, we needed to divide 2800 into 63 to determine that every 2.25 centimeters equaled one million miles. By doing these calculations, the students got to see how mathematics can be used in real life situations. [Yes, I mixed miles with meters, since we have a nice meter stick, but it just wasn't essential to do this exercise entirely in metric numbers. Besides, much of life in Dominica involves a mix of English and metric systems.]

By researching the distance the other planets are from the sun, and then multiplying each million by 2.25, we could determine where they would be placed along the length of the driveway. Today, the older students helped me during lunch to lay out the planetary locations using the meter stick and chalk on the driveway. Then, we got out some paint, and permanently painted these locations on the driveway (as shown above and below this paragraph). The “artist” in me wanted to do all the painting, but I realized it was important that the students feel some ownership for this project, so I let them do nearly all of the painting.
Seeing how close the four inner planets are to each other (as well as to the sun) gives the students a better feel for the great distances to the outer planets. Mercury is about 80 centimeters away from the sun, while Mars is about 3.2 meters away. Earth is almost 2.1 meters from the sun in our model, but in reality the Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. [By the way, to keep things simple, I didn't try to represent the relative sizes of the planets—it was enough merely to demonstrate the distances between their orbits. Besides, the inner planets would just be tiny dots on this scale.]

After we were done, the students each picked a planetary orbital distance to stand beside, and their teacher stood way in the back where Neptune is represented. I then took the picture shown below from across the road. Their teacher is hard to see, but she is there wearing a light blue blouse. [Note that the student on Venus stepped back to look towards his teacher when I snapped this picture, inadvertently making him too close to Mercury and too far from Earth.]

I'm glad to have completed this project for our school. It helped me to connect with my days working at NASA, and hopefully it helps to expand the minds of my students.


After school was over, I had one more little project today. One of our younger children recently got a bike for his birthday. I decided to show him how he could turn his bicycle into a “motorcycle.”

When I was a kid, sometimes we would affix cardboard playing cards to our bicycle fender struts using a clothespin. The card would flip through the spokes as the wheel rotated, providing a motorcycle sound as we rode along. I decided to pass along this trick to the children here.

The picture below shows two of the kids enjoying the new sound effect. Note that I had turned the bicycle upside down to make it easier to work on. Without a convenient fender strut, I wasn't sure how I was going to affix the playing card. However, the kickstand (mounted on the rear axle) was thin enough to allow a clothespin to hold the card.

It was a trip down memory lane for me to hear that fluttering sound again! It was even better to see the smiles it put on the childrens' faces! They loved it!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Thank you, Darien!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are always looking out for ways to help your community. So when I heard about a small charity that specializes in sending boxes of books to Peace Corps Volunteers, I immediately submitted my request. That charity is located in the town of Darien, Connecticut.

Darien Book Aid was founded in May of 1949 when Mrs. Gordon Lamont of Darien conceived the idea of sending good reading material to share the American way of life with war-torn Europe. She gathered some of her friends together, which then led to getting the help of Ambassador John Davis Lodge (as well as other government officials). Finally, generous contributions from Darien residents helped to start this charity that continues nearly 70 years later.

Book collection containers were placed in stores, schools, and churches in Darien. The Red Cross, school children, and the Kiwanis Club helped with the collections. For many years, they enjoyed financial support from the government -- first from the State Department and then from the Peace Corps. Because of budget cuts over the years, today they have no government or other organization affiliation. Darien Book Aid depends solely on private contributions to gather reading materials and pay all their shipping costs.

When I arrived in St. Lucia for my initial training in June of 2015, I met a woman from Connecticut named Brie. We have kept in touch via Facebook, and I took notice when she posted that she had went to Darien in January to help this charity. As it turns out, she was working the day my box was packed, although she did not pack my box. However, she did agree to write up her experience so that I could share with you how the process works on the American end. Here is her half of the story:


“A fellow Connecticut Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV—those Peace Corps Volunteers who have completed their service and are now back in the USA), Jillian, organized the activity of our group to pack boxes of books for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) across the world. I drove nearly two hours from my home to participate in what I felt was going to be a worthwhile activity. I had never done anything like it so I was looking forward to meeting more RPCVs as well as giving back. I was conflicted about the particular day since it was on the same day as the Women's March on Washington (and sister cities). I had wanted to do both events but the book aid project was my way of putting good into the world. I was there in spirit with family and friends who protested.

The experience of packing books, which seems like a small thing to do, was immensely rewarding and exciting. I was shown around the library of donated books, the bin of requests from PCVs, the paperwork we put in each box that gives it a personal touch, how to pack a box, and so on. We got to choose which request we filled so I chose Albania and Philippines.

I absolutely loved reading about the PCV, their needs, and the audience for which I was to select books. I adore books and I'm an avid reader which made it more special. I included books from Fancy Nancy to Huckleberry Finn to books about the US to ESL (English as a Second Language) type books/workbooks. I had different demographics: age and learning level. I filled orders that desired award winning to basic reading to non-fiction.

What struck me was the needs of the communities; one of them only had material as recent as 1991. I felt a huge responsibility to send the best and "right" books as they may be the only ones they have for a very long time. I took a lot of time choosing my books pouring over them carefully. Thankfully, I was reassured that it was ok. It was about quality not quantity.

As I mentioned, each of us wrote a note to go along with the box of books which I felt was such a loving touch. I knew the excitement each PCV would feel when they received their box; then be able to share with the communities they serve. Then to think about the joy each student, child and adult, would get was almost overwhelming. The library was full of high energy, love, and camaraderie. I was on cloud nine after the event! Several of us went to lunch afterward and bonded further as we discussed our service in Peace Corps. I made new friends that day!

The icing on the cake was learning my friend and fellow Eastern Caribbean volunteer, David Kurtz, was one of the recipients of the books. Hats off to Darien Book Aid who collects books, fundraises, and ships at roughly $100.00 USD per box to PCVs.”


Thus, the box bound for my village was packed at Darien on Saturday, January 21. On Friday, March 17, I stopped at our village post office on my way home and discovered that the box had finally arrived nearly two months later (and with no damages). I hurriedly retraced my path to the school, carrying the box on top of my head as the local residents typically do. [This is a new skill I'm working on developing, as I sometimes carry my laundry basket and other bulky items on my head (although I am not a true Dominican, because I am not talented enough to carry such items on my head without using my hands).]

Since school had dismissed over an hour earlier, there were just three students still around, but they eagerly joined me to see what was inside the box. They were as excited as I was when we started pulling out the new (gently used) books and magazines. The picture above shows them engrossed in the newly arrived books.
On Monday morning, I processed the 24 books and 8 magazines into our small library. In the past, I have had to write an inscription in the front of each donated book noting the date and the donor. However, I was able to get a stamp made in the USA for the principal to use, so now I use her stamp on any new books. As the picture above shows, the folks at Darien also have a stamp of their own, so I simply positioned mine above their existing stamp.

After stamping the inside page of each book, I then must affix a colored dot to the spine to denote whether the book is for beginner, intermediate, or advanced readers. Non-fiction books get a white stripe added to their dot for easier sorting and placement. Finally, a layer of transparent tape goes over the dot to keep it in place. All of this process (and more) is described in my previous story about the good folks at the Hands Across the Sea charity.

Obviously, this wasn't nearly as many new books as what Hands Across the Sea has sent me each fall. However, we are always grateful for whatever donations we can get for our little school. Since there were not all that many books, it didn't make sense to do a big book fair as we had organized back in November (book fairs are virtually unheard of here). However, I did use one of our new picnic tables to display all the new books after they had been processed (as shown above). When the lunch bell rang, the children came out to see these new books for the first time. The picture below shows a couple of students reading the books after the initial crowd died down.
In closing this story, I thought I would share with you a picture (shown below) of the correspondence included in the box from the woman who packed it that day. To the surprise of no one who knows me, you can see that part of my request was for my personal favorite—non-fiction books. I am grateful for some of these small, heretofore unknown to me, charities that have supported my efforts in Dominica, such as Darien Book Aid, Hands Across the Sea, and Courts For Kids.


P.S. I just had to share with all my readers that Friday night, March 24, was very special to me. I had purchased a barbecued chicken (leg and thigh) for dinner and had taken it down to the shoreline to eat while watching the waves. Another local joined me there, and we had a pleasant conversation. While we were talking, we noticed huge splashes, forceful spouts, and even large black bodies as a pod of whales breached the surface off our coast. I'm not share if they were feeding, playing, or something else, but this was the first time that I had ever seen whales! Unfortunately, it was at dusk so the light was not good for taking pictures (plus the distance was too great for the camera on my phone to get clear pictures). I'm glad I had a local witness to verify the amazing sight that I was seeing! I will long treasure that experience!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

An Epic Battle

There were two big events this past week at my school. After qualifying in the regional competition last month, the football (soccer) team traveled to Castle Bruce on Thursday for the next level of the primary school tournament. While I understand we won some games there, we unfortunately did not qualify for the next stage. This is the same situation we found ourselves in last year. Oh well!

This story is not about an epic battle on the football field. It is about an academic battle between two primary school intellectual heavyweights from vastly different backgrounds, who fought valiantly until only one prevailed. In these two contestants, one can see them as a representation of the battle that many of us around the world face. But before describing this battle, let me describe the whole day.

I did not go with the football team this year, because I had accompanied the footballers to Castle Bruce last year. This year, I opted to help chaperone those children going to the French Festival held on Wednesday at a school near the capital so that I could get a different experience. I'm glad I did.

Various schools from across the island convene at a school so large that it has a separate auditorium. Several officials from organizations such as the Ministry of Education gave opening remarks. There was a parade of flags for all Francophonie countries (places that have some sort of French influence). A number of these countries are similar to Dominica—our official language is English, and we were a British colony prior to independence, but the local Creole language is related to French, and at times prior to the end of the 1700s, Dominica belonged to the French. That is apparently enough for the French to lay claim to us.

Our school was assigned to do a display about St. Lucia, another Caribbean island with a similar background as Dominica. The French island of Martinique (which is definitely French) lies between Dominica and St. Lucia, but both of us were primarily controlled by the British. I was a bit surprised that we were working on a display for an English-speaking country for the French Festival, but that is just how it worked out.

We (meaning the staff with some involvement from the students) did a lot of work for our display (our first grade teacher pictured above is also the French teacher for the upper grades). We created a paper-mache rendition of St. Lucia's most famous landmark, the twin volcanic spires known as Petit Piton and Gros Piton (read about my grueling hike to the top of Gros Piton in 2015 ). A couple of the Seamester college students who are artists were enlisted during their one-day visit earlier in the month to help create the background for a diorama.
One of the teachers (shown above) created a doll dressed in traditional St. Lucian clothing. One of the parents prepared a nice plate of fig and saltfish, a common meal there (as well as in Dominica). I drew a St. Lucian flag furling in the breeze, created a freehand map of the rugged coastline (and cut it out), painted the diorama (except for the background), and did lots of calligraphy for our signs. I think it all came out pretty well, if I do say so myself.
However, the last and biggest event of the day was the French spelling competition (that is the official program shown above). Students who are selected to represent their school are given a list in advance of nearly 500 French words to memorize, and they must spell them while designating the proper accent marks. Needless to say, it is a lot more difficult than a traditional spelling bee.

Our little school is so small (just 34 students) that we had no sixth graders last year. Thus, our top fifth grade girl competed last year. This year, she was back again as a sixth grader. She did an excellent job as one by one, the other competitors were eliminated until only two remained—our girl from a small “country school” in the far northern corner of the island (with overall substandard test scores causing some to look down on us), and a local boy from this large, successful city school that has been hosting this major event over the years. As a native of rural West Virginia, I could really identify with this match-up! Indeed, it is the essence of a classic struggle faced by many people throughout the world.

The two of them (pictured above with him sitting as she provided an answer--the official reading the words was standing just out of the frame on the left) went back and forth for several rounds as the tension built (now I know how my parents felt when they came to watch some of my College Bowl competitions). Each time I was so nervous before she gave her answers, and then so excited after she answered successfully. To put it in sports terms, could our girl actually pull off this “Cinderella story” upset of the host school favorite?
Alas, there would be no Disney movie ending to this story. She finally got tripped up by a word, giving the victory to the boy who goes to school where the event was held. However, she was awarded a nice trophy and gift bag of school supplies for second place. In the photo above, the winner is on the left, with second through fifth--there must have been a tie for fifth--arrayed in sequential order towards the right (note that only the top three got trophies and the bigger gift bags).

I'm so proud because she conducted herself with such poise, such grace, such brains—she truly is an incredible young woman (she is the same student who wrote the message in the sand to me in this blog story). Personally, I'm okay with how it ended—I was getting so wrapped up in the “underdog wins” storyline that I probably would have cried tears of joy for her, and the kids didn't need to see a grown man get emotional like that!

Afterwards, we took the students over to the KFC (which I had done last year with the football team). This is the only American restaurant on the island, and is very popular throughout the Caribbean. Just like last year after leaving Castle Bruce, I bought a bucket of chicken for everyone to share, and french fries for all the students. Above is a picture of a few of them standing by our bus enjoying their KFC treat (I think they were going for a "gangsta" pose). Then as we were leaving town, we stopped at a convenience store and I purchased ice cream for everyone. Those two stops cost me over a hundred dollars, but it was worth every penny. They are all good children, and it had been another memorable day on this beautiful island.


P.S. I just wanted to urge 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).

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.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Second Sea-mester

Thursday was set to be a big day for me. Unfortunately, it began with a cold shower in the darkness. It surely isn't a good way to start the day!

Normally, the weather here is fantastic! However, we've been suffering lately with a lot of wind, rain, and colder temperatures (the children wear coats, sweaters, and sweatshirts to school when it gets down around 70 degrees—I tell them that 70 is NOT cold compared to what I am accustomed to experiencing at this time of the year). I went to bed Wednesday night knowing that all the planning for my important day on Thursday might be scrapped because of the bad weather. Listening to the sheets of rain hitting the roof as well as the whistling wind did not contribute to a good night's rest.

What I didn't count on was the howling winds overnight knocking out the power to our village (and other locations) during the night. That meant that I had to get ready for my big day by taking a cold shower. Although it took me several months after I got here before I dared to try the 220 volt electric hot water heater in the shower head, I've grown very used to it now. Reverting back to a cold shower (in the dark, no less) on a cool, dreary, wet morning was not much fun. But I had to do it because this was a special day—a shipload of friends I had never met were coming (as well as the Prime Minister).

Some of you may recall that last fall I had made a connection with a program called Sea-mester, which brings college students from across America together to spend a semester on a schooner in the Caribbean. About a dozen of them came to my little village to help out on Community Service Day on November 4th. After we had made all the arrangements for them to come and help us, the U.S. Ambassador decided that she would also visit my village on that same date. It was quite a wonderful day spent with those college students, along with the surprise addition of the Ambassador.

The leaders of the Sea-mester program said they enjoyed getting off their ship, contributing to some community service work, spending time with children, and seeing life in a small Dominican village. They had such a good time, they told me they would stop again with a new group of students during the next term. Thursday was the day their ship would be in Portsmouth for the spring semester. Fortunately, the electric company was able to restore power just before the bus full of the Sea-mester students arrived around noon.

I had planned for them to spend time at the school, interact with the children, and then do some outdoor work projects. I was also eager to show off our new tourist trail to the bat cave, as well as some adventure hiking and rock climbing on L'islette and Morne Rouge. I wanted them to have some time for fun while they were off the ship for a day.

Last fall, we fixed a big lunch for them, which we could tell they truly appreciated. As a treat for our students as well as the Sea-mester students, I splurged and purchased three gallon tubs of ice cream (over $100 EC from my own pocket). We knew our children would love the ice cream, but what we had not anticipated was how much the college students enjoyed it, because is seems they don't get ice cream on their ship.

So we planned a big lunch for them this year as well, with another round of ice cream for everyone. In addition to buying the ice cream, I paid nearly another $100 EC for salted codfish, a common dish down here. It was served both regular style and San Coche style (with coconut milk). We also served up lentils, Dominica style dumplings, and a large array of “provisions”—dasheen, yam, tania, green fig, plantain, etc. Local tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots provided some salad, plus we had a fruit salad appetizer. It was a good example of local Dominican cuisine and was quite a spread!

I must mention that our school cook came down sick at the beginning of the week and had to be hospitalized. All of the work for planning, purchasing, and preparing this special meal (for the 16 guests, 34 students, and about 10 staff and volunteers) fell to staff members and some very talented parents (most of my blog readers know that cooking is not my forte). I am very grateful we were able to pull off such a nice meal (plus I'm grateful that our school cook is out of the hospital now and recovering nicely)!
The intermittent rain canceled the big plans I had made for activities with the Sea-mester students. However, one of the things I have learned in the Peace Corps is resiliency. One has to “roll with the punches” and be flexible. We ended up letting them spend the afternoon in the classrooms, interacting with the school children, as shown above.

Some of them gave presentations about life on the boat, teaching our students about their 88 foot, two-masted schooner named the “Ocean Star.” Our students learned about port and starboard, aft and bow, etc. They also were taught about tying knots. We put some of the more artistically inclined college students to work for us creating some educational posters. The next three pictures demonstrate these activities.

A few times, the rain subsided enough that we let the children go outside of the cramped classrooms and play with the college students. There were lots of big smiles on the faces of both our school children and their new college student friends! It was such a positive experience for both groups to spend time together.
Even though the college students seemed to be having a good time with our school children, I'm not sure it would have been quite as nice a day for them had it not been for one other stroke of luck. You see, the Honorable Dr. Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of Dominica, is actually the parliamentary representative for the district my village is in. On occasion, he visits villages in his district to update his constituents. He had planned to hold a special meeting about small business development in my village a few weeks ago, but pressing business required him to cancel the previous meeting.

I found out last Sunday that the meeting had been rescheduled for Thursday at 4:00 in the school building. I made sure his local contacts knew that there would be 16 American college students who would love to meet him before his meeting started. They let me know he would do a quick meet and greet with them.

When I alerted the Sea-mester leader on the Ocean Star via e-mail about this late-breaking development, I asked her if maybe the ship was really the “Lucky Star” because of the fact that on both of their visits, they had lucked into a chance meeting with a dignitary. The last time it was the U.S. Ambassador and now they would get the chance to meet the leader of a Caribbean island nation.

So, as a grand finale to what had been a much different day than we had planned, a couple of black SUVs (with one carrying the Dominican flag on its front fender) pulled into our school. Eventually, the Prime Minister stepped out of the vehicle, and came over to the large group of white Americans gathered at the corner outside of the school. He shook hands with each of the visiting Seamester students and thanked them for volunteering that day. He then proceeded to spend several minutes talking to them about his college days in America (New Mexico State and Ole Miss). He was very gracious with them and spent longer talking with them than I had imagined he would. The students came away very impressed with him, as evidenced in the well-written story from the official Sea-mester blog about their day in my village. The following three pictures capture his discussion with us (look close and you can see me on the other side of the Prime Minister in the last picture).
The meeting with the Prime Minister certainly helped to salvage a memorable day for them, despite the lousy weather. The good news is that they want to stop again during their summer term! Plus, I got the wonderful opportunity later that evening to talk directly with the Prime Minister about the Courts for Kids grant that I won to build a netball/basketball court for our school (you can help us out by donating to this project).

As I have often learned in the Caribbean, even the best laid plans can go awry, so you just try to make the best of things. Generally, it all works out in the long run!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

My "Ode" to Radio

Life without television has not been a problem for me. I enjoy multi-tasking while listening to the radio (via the internet here). I grew up in an era when we only had three television choices, so I often resorted to listening to the radio. This began in my youth but has continued throughout my life. We lived far enough away from town when I was growing up that it was hard to get the radio stations from our nearest town—back then many stations reduced their broadcast power after sundown. So I grew up listening to high-power, 50,000 watt stations from around the nation.

Atmospheric conditions would vary causing different stations to come in crystal clear on some nights, yet too static-filled on other nights, but there was always something interesting to listen to. Examples would include WCFL Chicago and WOWO Fort Wayne for music; news talk radio from stations such as WBZ Boston, WRVA Richmond, WBT Charlotte, and KMOX St. Louis; and Pete Franklin's Sportsline call-in show on WWWE Cleveland. I got a great sense of American geography and diversity by listening to the radio in my bedroom.

One of the reasons why I enjoy listening to radio stations goes back to my formative years. Growing up in the Cold War made me a bit paranoid about wanting to know if the Russians had launched their nukes. The ominous Emergency Broadcast System tested more often back then, and it had a lasting impact from my childhood. Plus, the jarring interruptions of radio and television for emergency bulletins to announce the assassination of JFK, MLK, RFK, and other scary events made me want to be “connected” to always know what is happening, because I had learned that anything can happen at any time. I'd much prefer to listen to a live radio broadcast than a podcast that is detached from any potential live interruption for the latest bulletin. [By the way, I understand some of my childhood memories were selected to be featured in a new book entitled "Growing Up in a Land Called Honalee: The Sixties in the Lives of American Children."]

I brought a transistor radio with me, but with my village hugging the coastline while surrounded by mountains, it means that radio reception here is poor. I can't get any Dominican stations on my radio—the only station I was able to get was a French speaking station from the nearby island of Guadeloupe. It wasn't very useful for me.

At first, I didn't have internet at my house. I read a lot more books and downloaded podcasts when I only had limited internet access at school or my host family's house. About six months into my service, another company started providing internet services in my village at a cheaper rate, so I've been online ever since then. The price started at about $67 per month, but this month raised to $85 Eastern Caribbean dollars ($1 US dollar = $2.70 EC dollars). It is worth it to me, just to hear radio at my convenience.

I downloaded an app called “TuneIn” which provides me with a wealth of listening options. [By the way, I like the name of this app, because it reminds me of the “Tune Inn” on Capitol Hill in Washington. As a young intern working on Capitol Hill, that “red neck” bar (which was owned and operated by a family from West Virginia) was an important link to home for a country kid living in the big city.]

TuneIn lets me hear local Dominican stations such as DBS and Kairi-FM, which I regularly listen to for their local newscasts. I can listen to West Virginia Public Radio and WOUB, Ohio University's public radio station (I always enjoyed WOUB because it had a lot of public radio shows that West Virginia Public Radio didn't carry, plus their music was much better in my mind). WAMU, which was my favorite public radio station when I lived in Washington, DC, is also on my TuneIn list of favorites.

However, with TuneIn, I can listen to public radio stations from across the nation. If I don't get home in time to hear All Things Considered, I can catch it on public radio stations located in time zones further west. When I miss Weekend Edition to go to church from 8:00 to 10:00 on Sunday mornings, I can still hear Will Shortz's “Sunday puzzle” on KQED San Francisco (or other west coast stations). The ability to “time shift” using different time zones is very handy.

I can also see the programs that public radio stations are currently airing, so I can pick up any of my favorites such as Science Friday, On Being, Living on Earth, Le Show, The Takeaway, TED Radio Hour, On the Media, and To the Best of our Knowledge. If none are currently airing, I can also listen to their pre-recorded podcasts via TuneIn.

I don't just listen to public radio. I also listen to sports, such as the WVU sports network and the two main auto racing networks (MRN and PRN). There is an Indianapolis station that I listen to for Indy racing news. I have WCHS Charleston as one of my favorites, so that I can listen to the West Virginia Statewide Sportsline (or the Hoppy Kercheval show). When Stanley Cup playoffs begin, I may also listen to some hockey games as I did last spring.

Other stations in my favorites include WTOP, a news station in Washington, DC. I also enjoy listening to astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson on his StarTalk Radio 24/7. Plus, I sometimes indulge in the overnight craziness on Coast to Coast AM (I'm skeptical of some of their topics, but still enjoy listening to the wide variety ranging from UFOs to Nostradamus to assassination conspiracies and more).

When it comes to music, there is a syndicated program I've always enjoyed called “Time Warp” with Bill St. James. It includes not just music, but snippets from newscasts and TV shows to relive a particular time period. Because it is played at different times on different stations, I often listen to it on a variety of stations such as one from Montana and one from Colorado. It is neat to hear the local commercials and imagine life in those locations.

On rare occasions, I will listen overnight to a Charleston station known as V100 that carries the John Tesh show. I can still remember from my undergraduate days at the University of Charleston the huge controversy when V100 changed their format.

If I want to go to sleep listening to music, more often than not I will listen to WCFL Chicago, which I mentioned at the beginning of this story. The 50,000 watt WCFL radio station that I listened to as a youngster is no more, but it has been revived as an Internet radio station that anyone can listen to on the web. There is no broadcast tower, but some fans and former employees have re-created what they think the station would be like today if it had survived. They have lots of the original WCFL promotional tapes that make it seem like I'm listening in my adolescent bedroom again.

To me, it is one of the wonders of the internet that historic WCFL still lives on. But I never dreamed I would be listening to it about 50 years later while living on a beautiful tropical island!