Monday, September 29, 2008

Leading the way to Legacy

It’s Saturday. I’m skipping church for a little tourist pleasure. I wake early – no water. Oh well. I look through my things and find the little cloth backpack that I purchased several years ago from an outdoor vendor in London near Big Ben. Perfect. I just need a few things to sustain me for the day: a few EC dollars, sun block, bug spray – lots of bug spray, my camera, a banana and some nuts. I’m off to the bus stop.

I’m the first to arrive. Other Peace Corps volunteers are meeting our tour guide, Lenny, at the Texaco Station in my village. Lenny is part of the host family that Judy is staying with. He is a young tall man who is friendly and easily amused. He likes hugs rather than handshakes and I feel an immediate connection to him. Judy is a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and an amazing woman. She will be assigned to eco-tourism on another island. She wants to see everything St. Lucia has to offer before she is sworn-in and departs for her assignment. One of the promises Judy made to us is to organize tours for us on her island of assignment. She’s a great organizer with an amazing energy for life. The rest of our Peace Corps friends arrive and we are off.

Our first stop is Litille Falls where we will meet Mr. Sly Joseph. We drive a short distance and turn off the road following a somewhat paved but mostly dirt road that will lead us to Mr. Joseph. He is a Rastafarian who is living off his land. By his own admission he says many people find him a little weird. Later I talk with others in my community and without exception they tell me about his remarkable high level of intelligence. I personally found him incredibly wise, insightful, and amazing. He is a person with a huge heart.

The first thing I noticed was his dog. As we opened the door of the van the dog greeted us with his tail wagging. He was curious and chasing the cats. This is the first happy dog I have seen on the island and it is a testament to Mr. Joseph’s approach to life. Most dogs in Saint Lucia are homeless and give humans a wide birth. Their heads are down and tails are between their legs. People are compassionate and leave leftovers for them, but for most dogs on the island, life is hard. Mr. Joseph is a person with love in his heart who believes he is borrowing a piece of the land while he is here and that he must leave it better than when he found it…a true environmentalist.

He invited us into his home where we met for quite awhile to talk about his life, his attitude, Rasta values, and how these things culminated in his passion for an eco-friendly sustainable lifestyle. We took our shoes off at the entrance and we entered his modest one-room home built of wood. He smiled as he turned on the light and powered up his stereo and announced his energy is carbon-free. There is a stove in a tiny section of the room; a stereo, television sofa and chairs in another section of the room, and finally a four poster bed in the far corner of the room…all the comforts of home in an eco-sustainable carbon-free environment. Mr. Joseph sat on his bed and we sat on his sofa and various chairs. We listened to Reggae while he told his story.

Twenty-five years ago he started coming to this land, planting trees, various herb gardens, and building paths. There are five waterfalls on his six acres of land. He was educated in Trinidad after receiving a full scholarship – books, tuition, room, board, and stipend – the whole thing. He had an important job with the government of Saint Lucia. He had four children, three boys and a girl, drove his car to work and lived a reasonable Saint Lucian life. He explained that as he got older he began to see things more clearly, realizing that the earth is a gift and we must protect it for future generations. He also believed that he was given so much that it was time for him to find a way to give back. He slowly positioned himself to move onto the land full-time. He grows his food, feeds his animals, makes his own electricity, pumps his water and lives a carbon-free lifestyle.

He wrote grants. The European Union gave him money. They University of Vermont supported his project. He went to Canada and learned how to build a hydro-water pump to create electricity. He built a hydro-water pump using the knowledge he gained in Canada, but substituting resources that could be found on Saint Lucia. He points to his head and says “this is what I use”. He is tenacious and received enough PVC pipe as a gift to pump his water up a hill before it is recycled back into the dam. He generates enough free electricity to sustain his house as well as the land around his home. He has lighting throughout the entire path to the falls.

He doesn’t just do this for himself. He wrote proposals and more grants so that school children can come onto his land and take classes to learn the techniques that have taken him a lifetime to learn. He wrote more grants to get funding for teachers to learn and teach his knowledge. He envisions tourist classes and overnight stays . . . . but his next project is to make natural organic carbon-free peanut butter with honey. He feels he could use the proceeds to continue educate others to be responsible guardians of the earth. He struggles with the capitalism. He resists putting up a sign charging a fee for his personalized tour.
We were finished with our conversation and now it was time for a tour of his land. As we headed out the front door of his home we could hear the load groaning he-haw of his burrow (is that what they say? I think so - anyway). He was greeting Mr. Joseph who quietly walked over to the animal and gently rubbed his nose. The donkey quieted. The dog was close behind wagging his tail and not letting Mr. Joseph out of his sight. There is another man on his property. When I pass him our eyes meet and the man points to Mr. Joseph and then pounds his heart with his fist. His gesture is saying, “Mr. Joseph has a big heart”…something we’ve already figured out.

We stopped at a fish pond and fed his small fish some crackers. He explained they are his pets. He adopted them from a local fish hatchery.

As we continued on the path Mr. Joseph spotted a few mangos in a tree and climbed it to ensure we all had a piece of fruit to take with us. Fearless, Judy followed him up the tree while Lenny begged her to go no further and come down immediately. Judy is a risk-taking daring athlete and to her it is second nature to climb a tree.

Further down he climbed another tree to get a cocoa pod from the cocoa tree. It is a pod the size of a gourd. He cracked it open and we picked out handfuls of the beans and ate them.

We walked on a small trail he built, past the trees he planted, and past the waterfall that ensures he has a supply of water to sustain his simple lifestyle of needs. He opened a door and displayed the hydro-pump he built himself. He took a complex technical concept and broke it down to an example we could all understand.

He explained that it operated on the same principle as the human heart. The body needs a self-sustaining pump to move blood throughout the body. Without the pump, all the blood would be at our feet, none would reach our brain, and we would die. Whereas our heart serves as the pump that sustains life, the hydro-water pump acts as a carbon-free pump to sustain the earth’s life. Mr. Joseph laughed and said that when he puts too much stress on himself he comes to the falls where he relaxes. It was a majestically beautiful place.

On the way back we walked through a grove of star fruit trees and we picked several fruits – some we ate there and others we put into our backpacks for a later snack. The burrow saw us coming and began groaning his he-haw sounds again – and again Mr. Joseph walked over to him and rubbed his nose. We walked past cherry and cashew trees.

It was getting late and we had another stop to make so we were headed back toward Lenny’s van just as a rainstorm began. We took quick shelter just outside Mr. Joseph’s house on a covered patio that overlooks the forest. He turned up his stereo and Reggae played as we watched the rain pound down onto the forest floor. After a few minutes the rain eased and we left Mr. Joseph standing at his doorway, waving, and inviting us to come back. As we drove off, we heard the burrow groaning once again – Mr. Joseph must have been back on his trail. This was a perfect Saint Lucia day.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kevin's Right about the buckets

The buckets are used to catch rain. When the pipes run dry, we use the water for bathing...hence, the term "Bucket Bath".

A Sunday visit to Vieux Fort

Bea needed to get a few things for her catering business this morning. She needed things from the grocery store, such as rice, sweet potatoes, and flour. Neil drove the truck to the country where they have a farm. There he will search for fruits, avocados, cinnamon, and breadfruit (a strange fruit that is grown on a tree, cooked to the consistency of bread, and then fried – I think that’s the process, but don’t hold me to it. Anyone who knows me, understands I’m not a cook). Since they only have one vehicle, Bea and I had to find a bus on a Sunday... not impossible, but it does require patience...and lots of time!

Someone from Micoud gives us a ride to the bus stop. I’m not really sure why we needed the ride as it is only about a half block, but I don’t ask questions because I don’t think the answer would be very satisfying. We wait, and wait. After twenty-five minutes, we pile into the bus and set out for the twenty minutes it will take to get to the Super J Grocery Store. Once there, we buy just enough groceries that we can carry and check out. We take the cart with five bags to the front of the store and she counts her money. She still needs to buy drinks at another store, but she has money left. Hence, she instructs me to wait with the five bags already purchased and she goes back into the store for another round. There is no such thing as credit here and very few people have debit cards, so budgeting to the penny is important, while planning is essential.

At last we have what we need. We wait outside the store for her son-in-law, Johann, who lives in Vieux Fort and owns a truck. We pile into the truck and he takes us to a warehouse store for drinks...another half block away.

Once inside the warehouse store I quickly spot Diet Coke! It cost EC2.00 but, I want it and I’m going to have it. This is very exciting as no one here drinks anything without sugar. Lots of sugar! Think of the sweetest juice drink imaginable….ok now pour yourself an eight ounce glass. Next, add a half cup of sugar to this already sweetened juice….now that’s Saint Lucian Juice!

Bea grabs the drinks, pays for them and Johann puts into his truck. He will bring them back to Micoud later this evening. In the meantime, we are dropped off at a bus stop. There is a bus waiting, but he only has room for one passenger, so we must wait for the next bus. And wait is what we did. After fifteen minutes or so another bus comes and we pile in, bags in hand. Half way to Micoud the driver announces he will not be going to Micoud, but is going on another route. Grumbling, we lug the groceries out of the bus and wait some more.

There is a family across the street who has turned the bus stop into a business. They are roasting corn on small BBQ’s and have small plastic bags of cashews. Not paying attention traffic, cars stop to buy their goods, and I witness several near accidents. We waited for another twenty minutes. I’m thinking about the groceries in the bag. There are five bricks of cheese and a tub of margarine. I wonder how long it’s going to take before a colony of bacteria begins to occupy the contents of the bags. A truck passes and Bea shouts “Micoud!” The pickup stops and we grab our bags and run to the pickup. Bea piles into the bed of the pickup and instructs me to sit inside the cab. Rudy, the driver, lives in Micoud. Everyone knows everyone and stopping is the neighborly thing to do. So, this trip to the grocery store, which would have taken one hour in Torrance, was a three hour adventure in Saint Lucia.

Washing the Feet of my New Friends

It’s a rainy Saturday morning. I’m up early. I shower, dress and apply make-up. Unlike most days on the island, it is cool today. The rain cools the air and the clouds shield the sunrays from pounding the island. I go into the closet and dig through my suitcases to find my little travel hair dryer. I haven’t unpacked everything because I will be moving in just a few short weeks to my permanent residence in Micoud.

My hair has been in a perpetual drip-dry state since my arrival because I can’t entertain the thought of blowing hot air onto my hair. Today is’s cool. I’d like to see myself as I did before I left; I take the extra time this morning to feel somewhat normal. There are not many mirrors so looking at my reflection is done primarily through peering at windowpane reflections. This is probably a good thing – I can only imagine what I must really look like! I put on one of the four dresses I brought with me, a dress jacket, and a pair of shoes. I’m ready for church.

I was there last Saturday and it was an inspirational day. I left wanting more – an odd thought for me. As we drive up to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the door of the pick-up truck opens and Bea says “go ahead into the church and I will be back later”. Humm; not quite what I expected, but I’m alright with it. I walk up the steps to the church and there is a man in a suit waiting to greet the people who enter. I am received with a handshake and a warm welcome to the church.

I take an isle seat in the second to the last row of pews. At the other end of the pew there is an elderly woman. She is short, wearing a gray skirt with a white blouse. She is wearing her church hat and her pocketbook is resting next to her. On her lap sits two books: the Bible and her Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Hymnal. No one occupies the seating between us.

They are singing from the Hymnal and the woman who is leading the hymn has a piercing voice which bounces off the walls in the church. The hymn is finished and the church silences while a speaker steps up to make announcements. As I sit quietly I hear my name. A woman is introducing me as Micoud’s new Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m asked to stand so everyone can see me. I’m not sure why that’s necessary as I’m the only white person within miles and it’s pretty obvious that I’m the one they are talking about, but I comply. It is another warm welcome.

Another woman announces the next hymn that will be sung and instructs the congregation to turn to Hymn #156. I don’t have a book so I just listen. The elderly woman at the other end comes down to my end of the pew and hands me her hymn book – she is singing and it’s obvious she knows the hymns from memory. She points to the words on the page and returns to her side of the pew. We sing a few more songs and with each song the old woman walks over to me, turns the pages and directs me to the hymn. Each time she walks back to her place at the end of the pew. Then we are instructed to open our Bibles to a certain verse. You guessed it – I have no Bible. Once again the elderly woman at the end of the pew comes to my rescue and hands me her Bible and then returns to her place at the end of the pew. Enough. I pick up the Bible and the Hymnal and move to sit next to her. She smiles and we share the page in her Bible. One of Bea’s sons, Kyle, is sitting in front of us and looks back at me and then looks at the woman. The woman whispers to Kyle, “I have a new friend” and she smiles warmly.

She is indeed my new friend. She explains everything that is happening. Four times a year they take communion. It is like none that I experienced. The Deacons lead the men from the church while the women stay seated. We are once again led in song while the Deaconesses, each dressed in a dark skirt and white blouse with white ”maiden” type hats disappear to the back of the church. While we are singing the deaconesses return with large white metal wash tubs filled with water. White towels are draped over their arms.

The older woman next to me explains that we will be washing one another’s feet as a symbolic gesture. The men are in another room performing the same ritual. More singing and tubs of water come out from the back of the church until everyone is paired and washed the feet of others. When this is complete the Deaconesses return the tubs and dirty towels to the back room and leave through the large wooden front doors. They are going to fetch. Within a minute, the Deacons lead the men back into the church and everyone is united. The bread is broken into pieces and the Deacons distribute it to everyone who wants it. The pastor leads the church in prayer and then says, “Let’s eat together”. And then the process happens again, this time with the wine, “Let’s drink together”.

After church there was a line-up of people waiting to meet me. Yet, another warm welcome. I have just acquired another fifty best friends.

A Saint Lucian Avocado

This is a typical avocado picked in the country farm that my host family owns.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guessing Game

Let's get some interaction. I want to know who is reading this blog! GUESS WHAT THIS IS? AND IT'S IMPORTANCE TO ME? Sorry, you may have to stand on your head to see it - I can't make it any different....humm, must be the computer, not the operator!


Neil's Mom - the best Vegetarian Cook in the Village
Me, taking a piece of cake to eat.

Bea Cooking

Saturday's are a day for family and rest -here's some pictures of my Saturday.

Singing in the Rain

It’s Thursday, September 18, 2008 and although I have the day off, I went to the school to use the internet and prepare for next weeks class on “Methods and Channels of Business Communications”. It started to rain last night – real rain, not the kind we have in Los Angeles. It hasn’t stopped. The roosters didn’t seem to mind this morning; they went about their job of crowing beginning at 4 a.m., waking everyone in the village as if there were no weather disturbance whatsoever. I’ve become used to them; although I do wish they would wait until 6:00 to start their alarm clocks. The crickets begin their song in early evening and provide a melodic performance all night. They are still singing when the roosters chime in. Around 6 a.m. the crickets silence and the birds chime in, each with it’s own distinctive call. Each creature seemingly knows precisely when to begin their song. Is this a wonder of nature that each cues another?

According to the weather report, rain is to continue through Monday. There are times when I feel like I am acclimating to this country and other times when I feel so “Los Angeles”. Last night was one of those Los Angeles moments. The rain was coming down so hard it woke me up. I listened to it for several minutes and remembered the clothes I had drying on the line on the porch. I got up to retrieve my clothes so they wouldn’t get wet and hung them in front of the fan in my room.

I turned off the light and went back to bed listening to thunder and seeing lightening through the mosquito net around my bed and the thin curtains in my room. At times, I was even frightened. This storm by Los Angeles standards would be the topic of conversation on the news …”Storm Watch 2008 with Dallas Raines. Stay tuned for the live Doppler Radar”. We would be talking about floods and mudslides. There would be more accidents than usual and people would be stranded in flooded areas. This storm would be the number one news topic. It wouldn’t matter if Fanny and Freddie were having a bad day, or that Americans now own a piece of AIG. Barack who? Sara what? It would be a good day to take a “mental health” day. Here, no one says a word – it’s business as usual. No one even commented this morning about the fact that it is raining.

After making a cup of Nescafe, I went to my room, took a shower and dressed. I grabbed my umbrella and began walking through the mud and puddles of water to the Micoud Secondary School. Oh, by the way, those water shoes I was beginning to think were a silly idea – am I ever glad I have them!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

EC78 Volunteers

Above is a picture of the EC78 Volunteers with \the U.S. Ambassador to the Eastern Caribbean, Ambassador Mary Ourisman. Margo, to her right is the Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean Director.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Some Pictures

We stayed in Miami for two days "staging". They were preparing us to leave for Saint Lucia. We all travelled together and were met by Peace Corps on the island.

Five O'clock departing from the hotel to Miami International Airport.

After we arrived in Saint Lucia, we stayed at the Pastoral Center for three days. There were 38 of us. They had a nice BBQ party for us at the end of the three days. We were given an orientation and bonded, then everyone went to live on their islands and with their host family. I stayed on this island where there are fourteen of us.

Filling the White Spaces

I’m curious. I look at my journal entries, some of which I paste into my blog, others I don’t. Those that don’t end up in my blog are either too personal or just not interesting enough to include. I’ve been keeping this journal for years. It’s lengthy, but there are some things that were never written about and I hope I will devote the time during my Peace Corps service to fill in the blanks. It’s interesting to look backwards, but even more interesting to think about the words that will fill the empty white pages.

So, today I’m filling up more white space with words that express another Peace Corps experience. I went back to the Micoud Secondary School today. There is no one to meet me and they have planned nothing. This was exactly what I was expecting. I proceeded to the teacher’s lounge. The lounge is a large room with row after row of wooden desks are squeezed together. There are also desks lining the walls of the room. Each teacher has a desk approximately 2 feet wide and three feet long as well as a chair to sit on. The windows are open on both sides and there are overhead fans to cool the room. It’s hot, not unbearable, but hot and it’s easy to work up a sweat in the room.

Teachers are dressed very nicely; women wear skirts, blouses and some brave ones wear jackets. Men have nice slacks and dress shirts with dress shoes. There is a bulletin board at the back of the room. A couple of letters are pinned to the board. One explains that a student coming from the primary school is a special needs student who does not see well; another letter outlines a medical problem one student is currently having. The room is cluttered with boxes of books and school supplies, yet students rarely have books. They are required to buy them and many have no money for that purpose. A class was already in session so only a handful of teachers were in the room.

It’s now up to me to figure out what to do with my time. I go around and ask who are the business teachers and find that the department chair is meeting with the principal. So I wait and make small talk with the teachers in the room.

It’s now 10:00. She is an attractive women, very warm and she is puzzled as to what to do with me. Finally she says, “you can teach my 11:00 class. The subject is international trade.” Although I’ve never taught that subject I’m game and ask what book the class uses. This is where is gets a little rough. There isn’t actually a book. The curriculum only says that several subjects must be taught in this course – there was a list of subjects including the stock market and international trade. She quickly brings three outdated textbooks and gives me access to the internet. I have fifty minutes to teach this subject and she also wants an activity to demonstrate the subject. So, let me get this right: you want me to teach a subject that I have little knowledge of, using textbooks that are badly out of date, and come up with an activity to demonstrate the key learnings within one hour. Oh, and by the way, the only resource I have is chalk and a chalkboard that is barely readable. I felt like I was on a game show and this was a test to see if I could get to the next level. OK. Mission accomplished. It was a challenge and great fun! Next week I teach communication – ah, a subject I’ve taught before!

Another slightly interesting point: when I was done teaching a student stood up and thanked me and wanted me to come back again – I believe this speech was prompted by the teacher. The teacher stood up and motioned for me to follow her. We quickly walked out of class while they sat quietly until the bell rang. The formal pomp and circumstance a teacher is given leaves me with two questions: Are students comfortable enough to really learn in such a formal setting? Would the American school system benefit from these formal practices?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Village Government

Motivation is a different breed in the Village of Micoud. In the United States we offer a set wage for a set amount of work hours. If work ethic is low, the company suffers and we go through a process to discipline the employee.

I attended a meeting of the Village Council this week. It was a dispute between the Micoud Village Clerk and an employee who was accused of not taking pride in his work as well as not reporting for work for three days. They, too have a process which is similar, but different from ours: similarities include verbal and written warnings, meetings and documentation.

The outcome of the meeting doesn’t matter, nor do the details of this individual situation. What does matter is the interrelatedness of the village. It’s this interrelatedness that determines the difference of our disciplinary action committees and theirs. Everyone knows everyone here – so many people are related it’s hard to keep track of cousins and aunts and uncles vs. friends and acquaintances. So what does this have to do with the meeting at the Village Council? Everything. There were four people in attendance besides me: The Saint Lucia Ministry Representative, one Council Member, the supervisor, and the accused. This was the third time this man was brought to the council which took an hour of everyone’s time and resulted in the same conclusion as the two previous meeting – “Do it again and that will be the end”.

I have to tell you, this was confusing to me. Why would they take so much time when clearly this approach is not fixing the problem? Actually, they were probably losing ground as other workers may begin to immolate this same behavior. But, as I talked to the village representatives I began to realize that if he lost his job, his children and family would suffer. The council members had ties to this family and did not want to be the reason this family would fall further into financial disarray. There is no welfare system here so if a family loses it’s only source of support it is devastating. And, so it goes. Life in the village in an integrated web of relationships which tolerates more than we would in the United States, but those relationships are tolerated because one action can effect so many people. Maybe we could learn something from Saint Lucia compassion.


It is Saturday. Saturday is the day Seventh Day Adventists worship. I was sitting on the porch waiting with my little hymn book Bea loaned me. My host family was getting ready for church. They said they would be leaving at 9:00 so I was ready on time. Silly me. I keep forgetting they have what they lovingly refer to as “Saint Lucian time”. I had my best dress on and a pair of dressy shoes…well, dressy by my standards; open toed backless sandals with heals. Going to church is the day when everyone puts on their best clothes. We didn’t actually leave until 11:30, but that was alright because it gave me some time to sit on the porch and reflect on the week.

As I listened to the activity going on in the house, I thought of my friend Jerene. She has a thing for shoes and has been the source of my supply since I met her in grad school. She has so many shoes she has become very creative in finding storage for them. So, if you ever have an occasion to visit her house, check her oven. I’m grateful that she and I wear the same size, although I do wish her feet were a bit wider.

Shoes are equally important to the women of Saint Lucia. I suppose women everywhere have the same shoe obsession that I’m accustomed to in the United States. However, they are expensive here which poses a problem for those that like to indulge in the obsession of footwear. My host family has two daughters living at home, Nina is twenty-four and Syisha is seventeen. They all love shoes, including their mom Bea.

It’s not uncommon to see women wearing three inch heals to work and to church. I’m sure Saint Lucian women must have the best balance in the world. Not many streets have sidewalks, and if they do, most are uneven with patched parcels of cement. Sidewalks are referred to as footpaths here. A footpath may be just a few feet and then the pedestrian is on their own to defend themselves against the speeding cars and vans on the highway. Politicians take great pride in funding them because when it comes to election time they can refer to something tangible that every village community will appreciate.

Syisha just returned from New York where she bought ten pair of shoes, mostly on sale, probably from Payless. She returned a week ago today with her bounty tied up in a white Hefty Bag that she retrieved from one of a dozen of suitcases. I sit here taking in the unfamiliar sights and smells of a typical Saturday morning in Saint Lucia: breakfasts of fried fish and salad, crowing roosters, goat noises, the smell of smoke in the air from those cooking outdoors, not because it’s fun, but because that’s the only method of cooking for some. And then I hear something so familiar . . . an argument over a pair of black three inch heels.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

School Daze

I walked into the classroom. There is a blackboard in the front of the room with the words “Office Administration” written in chalk. This is a Form 4 classroom (our equivalent to grade 10). There are windows on either side of the room with no glass and a nice island breeze. There are a few students at their desks. The desks are wooden with little slots to put their books and supplies. I’m a little early. I introduce myself and tell them I’m from Peace Corps and that I will be working with the school. As we talked, I explained that I taught business courses at the university level in the United States. I ask them how they like their class and they respond with a shrug. More students enter the classroom and now every seat is taken. Thirty-five students are waiting for the instructor. Each student is perfectly dressed in their beige freshly ironed uniforms. The girls have their hair pulled back with bows and barrettes. Boys and girls are wearing polished dress shoes. They have book bags with notebooks, pens, and books. I walk outside the classroom to see if he is coming and when I enter every student stands at attention. I asked a student why they are standing and she responds that whenever a teacher or principal enters they stand as a sign of respect. I assumed they were standing in anticipation of Mr. Henry, their teacher. They stand, and stand, and stand some more. Finally, I ask a student, “Are you standing for me?” She affirmed my fear – they were indeed standing for me and I have kept them at attention. I made a hand motion and they all sat. Wow!

Tiny Corpses

I walked up to the large building called the Multipurpose Building in Micoud. Upstairs is the Village Library and downstairs is a large open room. A stage appears at the far end of the room. On either side are large windows with neither glass nor screens, only bars. This is common here. It’s not because it’s a bad area, it’s because it’s hot and that’s how they construct building for air flow.

There is a small folding table and six folding chairs. This is where we will sit for the next three hours. The new Board of Director’s of the Micoud Foundation is energetic and committed – and very smart. I’m struck by their level of sophistication.

I’m a few minutes late for the meeting. I’ve been in Castries which is an hour and a half from my village. It’s been a full day of training, but I don’t want to miss this opportunity to participate. So, I come to the meeting directly from the bus. They are pleased to see me and appreciate my participation knowing I’m not officially theirs for the next couple of months.

As I listen one woman claps her hands once…then the man claps...and another woman claps. They are not applauding; they are killing mosquitoes. The large man at the head of the table mumbles something under his breath. I look over at the woman next to me and she has a grin of satisfaction on her face. Looking down at the table I see eight tiny corpses. She has a collection of deceased mosquitoes. Crickets sing so loud that they almost drown out the barking dogs. Just as I’m asked a question, a goat peers into the building and begins making goat noises. I have to ask them to repeat the question . . . ah, it’s all in a day’s work.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Making Adjustments

This is the view from the balcony of my host family. It's the Atlantic Ocean - nice, huh?

Everything is different and this is why everything is hard. Getting a cell phone was hard. In the United States, I buy a phone, pick a plan and sign a contract. The carrier bills me monthly. Here I buy a phone and then buy time and when I run out I have to find a Digicell Store to buy more time. Outgoing calls to landlines cost more than outgoing calls to cell phones unless you are using a landline phone. In other words, I think the way they do it is that if you mix cell and landline there’s more cost. Make sense? I didn’t think so. Anyway, incoming calls are free to me. Go figure.

ATM cards are new and the Bank of Saint Lucia is the first to offer them. Only one supermarket chain accepts ATM cards so people carry cash for all their purchases. I don’t have a supermarket in my village. I must get on a bus and go to Vieux Fort for that. So it really doesn’t matter that Circle J or whatever the name of the market is that takes the card because chances are I wouldn’t be able to find it anyway!

Bills are paid at the bank – yes I said the bank…the electric bill, phone bill, cable company – consequently, the bank lines are very long. I’ve been warned by almost everyone not to get caught up in them. You can pay on line by waiting at the bank with your bills while they set it up but because it’s new almost everyone I’ve talked to said they don’t want to chance their electricity being cut off due to a system that may not work yet.

The water was shut off in my village this weekend. Half the village was taking bucket baths. My family said they suppose they were repairing a broken pipe. No one knew for sure and no one really knew how long they would be carting buckets of water to their homes either.

It’s hard because it’s new and unfamiliar. It’s hard because there are new rules to learn. It’s hard because there’s so much change all at once. It’s easy because the people are friendly. It’s easy because anyone on the street will become my new best friend simply because I say “Bonjour, nom mewn se Karen. Koumonnon ‘w?” They laugh and appreciate my courage. (translation: Hello, my name is Karen. What’s your name?)

Tropical Rain

I woke today to the pounding sound of rain. I went to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee. No one here on Saint Lucia drinks coffee and there is not a coffeepot to be had. Instant Nescafe is the only choice available. This is something that really surprised me. Many volunteers brought coffee and a small Starbucks Press. I sat on the porch and watched the rain come down in sheets of water. Tropical rain is so refreshing. The air cools, the rooster’s silence, and the pounding drops on aluminum roofs is deafening.

I tried to explain to my host family that when it rains in Los Angeles everyone stops what they are doing and rush to the windows. There we remain silent watching a phenomena that rarely occurs in our dry climate. It’s an event in Los Angeles that is talked about with enthusiasm. To my host family, it’s a hardship because the catering business will be slow and less money will come into their pockets.

I finished my coffee and decided to make another cup, I reached the kitchen to find Bea making a cinnamon drink…YUM! She boiled cinnamon sticks that she retrieved from her country farm and then added sugar to sweeten the hot drink. Hot Cinnamon is my new favorite drink.

Liming in the Village

Today was an exciting day for the family. Their two daughters and various other family members arrived back home. They have been on an extended holiday in New York. They brought back shoes, candy, aluminum foil, clothes, school supplies and suitcases of various and sundry items. There was something for everyone and as I watched, it resembled an American Christmas. Items here are quite expensive, so three tubes of toothpaste acquired at Costco is quite exciting.

After everything calmed down, one of Bea’s daughters asked me if I would like to go for a walk. A walk here isn’t like one that I’m used to . . . it’s actually a social activity rather than an exercise activity. Liming is hanging out. Nights are hot and people sit on their porches. We walk past them and greet them with “good night” which sounds so final vs. our “good evening” greeting. We stop at various homes and sit on their porches for a few minutes before moving on.

Although people have known other Peace Corps Volunteers, meeting a new one is a curious opportunity in the village. We stopped at a relative’s home and were invited in for some conversation and a rum and coke. As I sat at the dining room table the woman of the house said, “Come, I want you to meet my father”. I walked into a bedroom as she turned on the light. There lays an elderly man sleeping. She shook him and said, “Daddy, look! wake up! Look, there is a white woman in our house”. He opened his eyes and turned over. He reached out for my hand and I placed it in his and he stared at the contrast of skin. This was an interesting encounter to say the least. Curiously, I wasn’t irritated or uncomfortable. If I had to describe an emotion, it would be amused.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Taking Time for the Rainbow

Jay’s advice was good. When all becomes overwhelming tune out…put the music on and take some time to be by yourself. So as I listen to Crosby Stills and Nash this is precisely what I’m doing this afternoon. No bus, no training, no talking . . . just being present. As I take this time, I glace over to see a beautiful rainbow over the Atlantic Ocean. At this moment there’s no place I’d rather be.

Differences – Start with Basics

One evening when Brendan, my second son, was three years old, a man from work stopped by our house. His name is Harland Celestine and he is African American. We sat around the kitchen table talking and sharing a bottle of wine. He brought BBQ for us to share and I suppose the cultural differences were in the back of his mind as well as ours. He was kind and gentle and Brendan must have sensed this because he climbed on his lap.

As we talked Brendan began to explore his hair. His tiny fingers were stroking Harland’s head and we all began to notice and smile. No one said anything as we watched Brendan discovering human difference. Harland smiled and enjoyed the experience as we did. It was a bonding moment for all of us.

Last night as I sat on the porch with Bea she looked over and said, “you have very nice hair”. I thanked her while continuing to look straight ahead. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her staring – she had the same questioning look in her eyes that Brendan did so many years ago. I knew she wanted to touch it but she dared not ask. She is a woman in her fifties. Brendan was just three. As we age we apply rules. I wanted to give her permission to touch it, but knew she would be embarrassed so I refrained.

Unspoken rules keep us from understanding one another. Perhaps if our cultural norms didn’t get in the way the world would be more tolerant. Small things get in the way of real understanding.

By the way, Nina, Bea’s daughter wants me to braid my hair in corn rows. . . humm. . . I will have to think about that!

Taking the Bus – A Little Rocky Music Please

This is my host families house. I am living in the top left area. the bottom is rented to a business. The building to the right houses the host family restaurant and an apartment they rent is on top.
My first day taking the bus by myself. I did it! My biggest fear conquered. I didn’t do it perfectly but I got to training a half an hour early and home before dark. Only those that really know me will understand this accomplishment. I did cheat a little. I paid the driver to take me directly to where I transferred to my final bus.

Getting on the second bus was really funny. There were at least 200 people waiting . . . I thought it was a line but not so. The first bus came and all 200 people tried to get one of only 14 seats. I was pushed aside and left standing there wondering what just happened. The next bus stopped and I witnessed the same results. I began planning my strategy for the next bus. I pushed my way forward to the curb, elbowing my way through the mob. As the bus approached, I was determined. . . I shoved . . . I pushed . . . and then I sat in the prized seat I had won. This time they were left standing by the curb wondering what just happened. This was my “Rocky” moment. I achieved the knockout!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Snack it Up

I spent the day with Bea, the matriarch of my host family. She rises around 4:00 a.m. to make food she will sell during the day. She does the cooking downstairs in her kitchen. She has chicken to prepare along with side dishes of rice, beans, macaroni, and salad. Around seven she heads out the door and loads the family truck to start her day. She has two points where she sells her food; both are in Vieux Fort. She drops food at the school where a woman waits to be told what she will sell. Then she quickly drives over to her truck, Snack It Up and begins organizing for the locals who will soon be there. Snack it Up is a catering truck permanently nestled under trees and surrounded by horses, pigs, and cows that are grazing on the land. I had the occasion to speak with many customers, all of whom say Bea’s is their favorite place to eat. People come here for not just the food but for the good conversation that comes with it.