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.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


Unfortunately, I wasn't much of a “joiner” in my youth. We lived “out in the country” so it wasn't as easy to get involved as it was for kids living in town. It wasn't until my college years on a small campus that I really got involved with organizations (thank you, UC, for bringing me out of my shell). In hindsight, I wish I would have belonged to the 4-H during my youth, because much to my surprise, I find myself involved with it down here on this tropical island.
Just like many schools in Dominica, our school has a 4-H club. It meets every couple of weeks during the last hour of the school day. As a formal organization, they learn about how meetings are run. Usually they do some sort of project, such as beautifying the school grounds. Plus, they learn some of the basics about agriculture (a major source of income in my area).
Recently, a man from the village helped us build some raised gardening beds so that vegetables for the school lunch program could be started from seeds. Growing the vegetables in the raised beds protects them from animals. As you can see in the picture below, the beds were built using PVC pipe, rebar, cement, and sheet metal.
These are all pictures from a recent work day.
One of the fifth graders is busy swinging a pickaxe to get some good dirt at the base of this cliff beside the school. He is digging out hardened dirt from an old drainage ditch.
A blue wastebasket from inside the school doubles as a container to carry fresh dirt to the raised beds.
In the Caribbean, nearly everyone has a cutlass (which Americans tend to call a machete, but no one calls them by that name down here). Even the older students use the school's cutlass to trim the bushes and other activities. The picture above demonstrates how a cutlass and a hammer can be used to cut a piece of galvanized (the term they use for the corrugated sheet metal often used here).
In the picture above, many hands are working to break up some fertilizer (as in dried animal manure). Notice that our beautiful kindergarten/1st grade teacher is on the left side of this picture. She is digging into the fertilizer and breaking it up, right alongside her kids, even though she has some fancy fingernails. I bet many women in America would not be willing to do what she is doing for her students!
The blue classroom wastebasket also doubles as a pail of water. The student is using his hand to flick water onto the newly planted seedlings (look close and you can see drops of water flying through the air).

Even though it is late in the school year to get this project going, I am glad to see it happen. I think it is important for us to grow some of our own food to supplement our fledgling school lunch program, which was new for this year (last year I pretty much just ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch each day). Hopefully the children will learn some responsibility as they work to keep the plants alive with water and attention. Indeed, the 4-H program is very good for children, regardless of the country in which you live.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Inside the Bat Cave!

When I arrived in my village nearly two years ago, I was fascinated by the nightly exodus of thousands of bats from a nearby bat cave isolated just up the coastline. Most of the locals were rather “ho-hum” about it, because they had seen it all their lives. It really wasn't much of a big thing to them. However, I enjoyed going down to the shore to wait for the bats to stream out (frequently joined by some of my students).

I wrote my initial blog story about the bats in my first few weeks here during August 2015. A few short weeks later, I wrote a second blog story telling how one of the local residents led me on a challenging journey to the opening of the bat cave. About a year ago, I wrote a third story about when I went up on L'islette to observe the exodus of the bats from a different angle.

Even though I have not written any additional bat cave blog stories, I never lost interest in it. I made several more visits around the rocky point to the cave entrance, but had never tried to make the difficult passage to actually get into the cave.

I did perform some Internet research and made contact with a group of scientists (including a bat research team) who will be coming to Dominica next month. They are from an international science group called Operation Wallacea. I have already talked to them about doing an educational presentation for our community about our bats. We need to better understand our neighbors (and fellow mammals).

However, the upcoming visit by scientists is not the big news about our bats. The big news is that a new trail has been blazed that makes access to our unique bat cave much easier (and safer) than it used to be. It is amazing to see the big ocean waves roll up the narrow inlet and into the gaping black hole at the bottom of the cliff that is the mouth of the cave. We hope it will help bring more tourists to our little community, where they might spend some money to help our economy. I've already taken a number of visitors over there to see it, and they have all loved it. The picture above shows me on the wooden bridge that was installed which lets people safely get over to the rocks that lead into the cave itself. Prior to the building of this bridge, it was extremely difficult to go inside the cave.
The pictures above and below this paragraph show the posts and cables that have been installed to help provide extra safety. The new path was carved out of the rock so that hikers stay above the waves of the ocean. For those daring enough, you can still climb up the rocks and steep cliff to get there as well, if you want to do it the hard way.
Using the new bridge, I was finally able to enter the cave itself. Bats hanging upside down were clustered thick on the ceiling of the cave roof. I tried to stay quiet and move slowly, but still my presence spooked a bunch of them. If you look close in the picture below, you can see some of the bats flying out and around mouth of the cave (you can also see one of my students who did not venture into the cave).
I certainly enjoyed the view looking out from the cave towards the Atlantic, but I didn't stay long enough to explore the entire cave. I decided I had already disturbed too many of the bats, so I still don't know how far back it goes. I could not see an “end” because it looked as if it curved further back. One would definitely need a flashlight if you wanted to explore the entire length of the cave.
I gave a lecture to our students (one of whom is pictured above running up the new steps on the trail) the next day during morning assembly, warning them that although it is now much easier to access the cave, we should all be respectful of the bats. In other words, don't make a lot of noise back there, avoid playing in the cave area, never throw rocks to stir the bats, etc. My biggest fear is that the bats may decide to vacate the cave because humans are disturbing them too much. However, even if the bats move away, the trail will still be an interesting hike to see an unusual oceanfront cave—but hopefully the bats will persevere with their newfound stardom and stay in their home.

[One of the local young adults made a 13 minute video (featuring Dominican music) that details the hike to the bat cave. Check it out at]

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.

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!