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