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!