Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Pitons, Lunch, and the Beach

Ladera Resort is a great place to have lunch. It is a beautiful setting between the Pitons. You can see the ocean between the two Pitons in the picture. This is the view from the outdoor restaurant. Pitons are volcanic “plugs”. They are made when the magma hardens within a vent from an active volcano. These stunning twin peaks are symbolized on the Saint Lucia flag. They are a place of reverence and worship and symbolize the soul and spirit of the Saint Lucian people. It is sacred land. It seems odd, yet fitting to see memorial 9/11 signs in several locations on the property. This Resort is spectacular.

Now it’s time to relax, so come along and let’s explore Jalousie Beach. This beach sits right at the foot of the Pitons. As you can imagine there is concern about development near the Pitons. Jalousie Beach, although incredibly beautiful is a person made beach. The white sand was imported from Trinidad. It is with deep conflict that I am enjoying this beautiful piece of island paradise. People are scuba diving and snorkeling.

Beautifully colored salt water fish surround me as I wade in the crystal clear Caribbean water. If you click on the picture you will clearly see the wonderful little creatures swimming in the aqua sparkling water. Isn't it magnificent? We're not done yet. Next, we are going to go to catch the best view on the west side of the island, as well as a beautiful waterfall. And, I can't wait to share the best picture I've taken since I've been here!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rabot Estate - A Cocoa Plantation

Our next stop is a beautiful cocoa plantation. You might want to hibernate your computer and go out for a Hershey Bar to enjoy while going along on this tour. Did you ever wonder where the chocolate from your Hershey Bar comes from? The Rabot Estate is a plantation which still produces chocolate and 95% of the production is sold to Hershey.

The Plantation Estate house and modern day pottery are high on a hill. Today, the plantation is a hotel with a limited amount of rooms. They are in the process of building new rooms now. What was once a 2,000 acre estate is now 138 acres. I was hoping the tour would explain the history of this old plantation. Unfortunately, that was not the case. However, we will see is well worth our time.

It's a beautiful day for a walk. Wintertime brings a wonderful island breeze and the weather is slightly cooler, in the low 80s. Our guide leads us over the bridge and onto a path that will take us through beautiful trees, plants, and to the cocoa processing area.

Chocolate Pods are grown on a tree. Only about 5% of the hundreds of flowers will achieve pollination. Five to six months later the cocoa pod ready for harvesting. Pods hang directly from the trunk of the tree as well as from branches. The colors range from deep crimson, through all the shades of gold to vibrant greens.

Picking poles with cutters at the end are used to cut the ripened pods from the tree.

The pods rest for a few days to enhance the taste, then they are split open with a cutlass. The beans and their surrounding pulp are pulled out and placed into buckets. The empty pods are rotted down into organic fertilizer and spread around young trees.

The next step is fermentation. The beans are poured into wooden fermentation boxes and covered with banana leaves to begin the fermentation stage. The natural sugars in the pulp create a chemical reaction which generates heat and alcohol. The beans are turned every other day, to ensure an even fermentation.

After approximately 7 days of fermenting, the sticky brown beans are turned out onto drying trays. Rain is predictable and an issue. Special rolling trays are used to move the beans out of the rain. The beans are a mahogany color and all the stickiness of the fermentation stage has been dried.

Last year HRH The Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, together with the Duchess of Cornwall, visited the island to reinforce Britain’s ties as well as to promote sustainable development, environmental protection and youth opportunity.

The grounds were spectacular.

Shineal Tree on the left (I have no idea how to spell it)

On the right: Nutmeg and mace are spices obtained from the same tree- Myristica frafrans the nutmeg tree.

Banyons are not seen in California. I find them incredibly beautiful. The first time I saw one was in Honduras when I visited Jay.

Bananas in mid-stage growth

Bamboo is common on the island

This is called a Lipstick Flower. Isn’t it beautiful?

Calabash is not edible, but the pods are large pods are used to make bowls.

It's time to finish the Hershey Bar and rest up because next we are going to go to an amazing resort for lunch.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Lighthouse

The Light House in Vieux Fort. The views are great and I could see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. According to Lenny, the story is that the Light House showed up on the island over one hundred years ago and no one really knows where it came from or who, if anyone ordered it. History is mostly oral and so it is difficult separate myth from reality, but legend is part of the island.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Saint Lucian Holiday

Sometimes I hesitate to write about tourism because I don’t want to perpetuate a distorted image of the island. I can’t stress enough that the image we hold of the Caribbean, although true, it is not the story. The real story is the back story. In my opinion, the beauty lies in the villages and with the people. Having established that, tourism is part of the island and one that deserves some space on my page.

In the next few days I will post a series of short posts to describe my Christmas holiday. I’ve already talked about activities in my village; among other posts were Bursting the Bamboo and Nine Mornings. Now I want to take you to see the Saint Lucia that was created to allow visitors to get away from the hustle in their lives and carve a momentary few days out of their lives to relax and unwind.

I try to balance my blog with people, history, culture, and the economy which includes tourism. In the 1970s, starting with Sandals Resort, all-inclusive hotels were allowed to build on the island. The large cruise ships that dot the harbor are all-inclusive. The bulk of money stays within the confines of these resort and sea communities.

Peace Corps Volunteers live in villages, towns, and cities along side people who fish or farm to make a few dollars. Many work behind the scenes to create the environment that visitors enjoy. They are the security guards, grounds keepers, waiters, and hotel maids. They are the people who prepare gourmet meals, take people around the island on water and land taxis, and teach scuba diving or take visitors high among the rain forest in zip lines.

Together, we will be visiting places that are incredible, beautiful, and relaxing, however; after a couple of weeks of exploration, I’m tired and happy to be back at home in my village.

Lenny is a taxi driver and Tour Guide and hosted one of our volunteers into his home during training. He’s driven us around the island before. Easy going with a good sense of humor, he’s a joy to be around. He’s our friend and we would hire no one else. He will take us to see the western part of the island. (If you are looking to book a tour guide in advance you can visit his website I do not receive any benefits for this small add.)

So, stay tuned. We will be visiting a lighthouse, a cocoa plantation, an incredible beach, and a resort positioned between the Pitons. Then, I will take you to a small village in the north where I spent Christmas Day.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bursting the Bamboo

One of the Christmas time traditions in St. Lucia is 'bursting the bamboo'. Beginning in November sounds of bamboo bursting are heard. Men in the village use kerosene, rags and sticks as fuses to make cannons out of hollowed-out bamboo. There is a video on YouTube which I've posted for you. It's at the bottom of the blog.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nine Mornings – Part II

We walk down the street past the church and near the sea. We enter through a gate and into the home. There are several people there. The kitchen is just inside the door on the right. It is packed with women cooking breakfast and singing “Good Morning, Good Morning, How are you this morning? La la la la”. As they sing, they dance in the kitchen while making fried bakes, saltfish, potatoes and cocoa tea. It’s amazing how happy people can be at this hour of the morning. They point to the dining room just opposite the kitchen. I am given a coffee cup and told to make some instant coffee or tea. There is also a stack of paper cups and local juice made from Golden Apples.

I talk to Joe who is sitting at the dining table. He lived in the United States for quite a few years before coming back to Saint Lucia to settle. He is a mechanic by trade. He explained why he couldn’t be a mechanic here. People don’t understand the basic business financial practices. People expect to help others when they are in need. In return for others helping others, they will too be helped when they are in need.

Car parts are hard to get here. If a fuel pump breaks, it is more than likely they will need to go to Trinidad or Barbados to get a new one. They incur the expense of travel plus the cost of parts. In the meantime their car has taken up space in the shop for two or three weeks. When they return with the part they have no money for labor. They expect it to be done as a favor, not understanding that the money charged pay Joe’s bills.

Joe also explains that he was part owner of a gas station. Other owners as well as family members would fill up their tank without paying because it was their business. They don’t understand that their salary should be used to pay for gas just like any other customer. It is the culture here and culture is difficult to change so Joe no longer has an interest in the gas station and does not repair cars either. It was an interesting conversation that gave me a new insight into the Saint Lucian culture.

I was given a plate of bakes and salted fish. I ate the food and finished my coffee. The Cocoa Tea was poured and now it was time to move to the patio. I walked through the living room, past the plastic lighted Christmas Tree in the corner of the room. Just before the exit to the patio I spotted a fish tank. I wonder where they got the gold fish. I can’t recall any store selling fish on the island. As we sat in the chairs and drank cocoa tea, we were handed a small booklet. In it were the words to Christmas Carole’s – some familiar, others were not, some were in English and others in Krewyol. It was still dark, but we sang a few songs. The songs had gospel flair and now the party was getting started. We finished the cocoa tea and out came the Pitons and Heinekens. When I declined the beer, I was offered wine. It’s important to know that rum and other hard liquors are referred to as wine.

The morning was like others in my village. The crickets sang their last chorus and the sun was rising. The sounds of competing roosters could be heard. Even the songs we were singing couldn’t drown out the sounds of a typical Saint Lucian morning. A male dog was trying to entice his female in the street in front of us. There is a public bathhouse a few feet away and as the sun came up the bath house became a hub for early risers. I noticed one man carrying two very large buckets filled with water up the street to his house and minutes later he was back for more. Another man drove his pickup truck to the bathhouse and was filling large buckets that were placed in the bed of his truck. This seemed curious to me.

More people were joining the party. Some brought CDs of Raggae Christmas Songs while others brought containers to pack leftover food. Nine Mornings Festival is celebrated annually during the nine mornings before Christmas – December 16-December 25. It starts at 4:00 a.m. The origins of the festival are mysterious. Some believe that it originated after Catholic Mass, while others believe the practice dates to the period of slavery. This is how the Nine Morning’s group in my village celebrates each of the mornings that proceed Christmas Day. I asked why “nine” mornings. Why not “ten”? No one knew for sure. What they did know is that one of the fifteen members of this group came back with this idea from a trip to Trinidad. The celebration has spread to at least one village in the northern part of the island.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nine Mornings – Part I

The bakery is only a block and a half away from my house…at most two hundred steps. I go almost every day to buy fresh bread. I live on Peanut Butter, cheese, bread and fruit with a few things like cucumbers or cauliflower mixed into my diet. In my whole life, I’ve never lived alone – this is the first time. Learning how to eat while living alone requires some thought. I admit, I’m not very creative, but since I am basically a “serial” eater (eating the same thing day in and day out for years) I’ve become accustomed to my new pattern of eating.

Yesterday was no different. I could smell the fresh bread baking as I approached the bakery. I reached the counter and the baker looks up and says “three rolls?” I said, “yes”, and plopped a large silver dollar onto the counter while handing him a bag to put them in. He took the bag and money and disappeared in the back room. Seconds later he emerged with my bag filled with the three rolls that would later be accompanied with cheese or peanut butter.

I notice three women and a man standing on the corner. They are wearing blue t-shirts with letters printed on them spelling “Nine Mornings”. They have Santa Hats on their heads; some of which have blinking lights, others have the words “Merry Christmas” spelled out in glitter. I hear them talking and make out the words “Peace Corps”. Then I hear a whispered, “psst”. I look over and they motion for me “vini!” (translated: come). I walk over and one woman says, “Do you have the spirit of Christmas?” I must have a puzzled look on my face because they don’t wait for my answer. One woman says, “My name is Agie, and this is JoJo”, as she points to the man standing next to me. They invite me to get some spirit tomorrow morning. I ask what time and they respond, “four”. I respond, “four what – in the morning?” They nod their heads.

I ask them what they do at that hour of the morning and they give me some vague answer about going to “people’s houses”. I want to fit it and the more I do with people the easier it is to integrate, so I agree. One woman says, “So we have a date? I can come up to your apartment to get your tomorrow morning?” I want more information about what this is about, but they say, “You will see. It will be a surprise.” I agree.

All day I wonder why I agreed to do this. What are these people up to? I’m in a village where everything is new. Peace Corps spent a lot of time talking about actions having coded with someone three times and it is a sign that you are now a couple; a man invited into your home signals to neighbors that you are having an intimate relationship; eat the food they serve and accept invitations so you don't appear aloof. Is there a signal I'm missing? I go to bed regretting my decision. Maybe it's something good. They visit lonely old ladies and bring them bakes and cocoa tea. Or maybe they go Christmas Caroling. But, then I think, maybe they terrorize the neighborhood. Maybe they stay up all night and get drunk and I’m at the tail end of some childish party. I have heard they slaughter animals for their holiday meals. Maybe they get together to help each other kill animals goats and pigs in preparation for the holiday. Alright, my imagination has gone wild hasn’t it? How dangerous can a few women and men with blinking Santa Hats and blue Nine Morning t-shirts be?

I woke with a start this morning. There is pounding on my door. Sleepy, I opened the door. I wanted to say, “Hey, I’m not doing this. Go away”. Instead I smiled and said, “give me a minute to put on some cloths and I’ll be out”. I threw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, pulled my hair back, sprayed my body with mosquito repellent and was out the door. Agie was talking to my landlady “Elizabeth”. This made me feel so much better. Elizabeth assured me I was in good hands and would have a good time. I was relieved. We would not be killing pigs and goats after all!

I will post Part II of this story later this week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two Signals bring out the Spirit of Christmas

If I were home in the United States, this would be an outrage. The police would be here in no time flat. People would be fleeing to their cars. Those under age twenty-one would go into hiding. And, yes, there would be arrests made. Neighbors would be standing on the sidewalk applauding the police.

There are two signals that get Saint Lucian’s in the spirit of Christmas. It was December 12, the day before National Day which kicks the Christmas Season. It’s the first signal. According to internet sources National Day is a day of pride that is celebrated with sporting, cultural, religious and social events taking place in various locations throughout St Lucia. Events include a lantern-making competition, choir festivals and musical performances. It is a national holiday.

My village’s version of National Day is very different. Thursday night, the day before National Day, I heard familiar tunes: It Ain’t Me Babe, Yesterday, and various other songs of the sixties. These are songs I still enjoy hearing – but these familiar songs were strangely unfamiliar. As a matter of fact, I had to listen carefully to identify the songs. The music was oddly distorted as if someone was creating a parody. My village kicked off National Day with a Karaoke Street Party that went on until three in the morning.

After a sleepless night, I woke early because I needed to be in Castries by eleven. I didn’t get home until seven in the evening. It had been a long day. Earlier I delivered a teaching demo at Monroe College to demonstrate my teaching style. It was successful and I will be volunteering as an instructor at the college beginning in January.

I got off the bus and as I walked home I approached the scene of last night’s party, the scene of the crime. There were new clues. The old broken refrigerator was placed on its back and a man was pouring ice into its belly, while another was stuffing Piton’s into the ice to chill. Coals were heating in a large BBQ Barrel. The man next door, who owns the meat market, was bringing packages of meat to cook.

Then I saw them – they were larger than life. They were squared and black and there weren’t just two; no, there were eight of them. They looked like the devil. Four of them were directly facing the direction of my apartment which was only two hundred feet away. I began putting the clue pieces of this new puzzle together. Clearly, last nights crime scene was turning into tonight’s newest caper. Nothing gets past me.

I was sleeping when it began. It was 10:00 in the evening when I heard the first ba-boom ba-boom rumbling from the big black beasts pointed at my apartment. Disoriented, I hurled out of bed. I was sure someone had set up a band in my living room, but there was no one. I went into the kitchen, and it too was empty. I ran to the spare bedroom and there was no band there. This street party ended at seven the next morning.

The second signal that brings out the old Christmas spirit is the weather. I was at a birthday party a few days later. Everyone was commenting that it finally felt like Christmas because the weather “turned”. Turned? Really? Well, I guess so. The temperature is now 84 degrees, the low 80’s…whereas it’s been 86 degrees– upwards of 90 degrees.

Ah, Christmas in Saint Lucia…you just have to love it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Visions of a Crown

On the way home she said, “I feel like I have a crown on my head”. It was another warm night, the windows were down and my hair was blowing as I sat in the backseat of Brenda’s car. She continued, “I’m on a high. I am leaving a legacy”. Her smile was wide and the pride she felt was noticeable to both me and Greg, another Peace Corps Volunteer. She looked taller and more commanding than I remember. This was a special day for Brenda. She has been an integral part of the development of the school for which she is sharing in this latest accomplishment.

We arrived early at the primary school. The formal ceremony would begin at 3:00. There would be distinguished speakers from the Saint Lucian Government, gifts of appreciation, song and dance, food, and a ribbon cutting ceremony. What this school accomplished was not easy. They were given enough funding to buy fifteen computers, computer desks and chairs, a server and a printer, as well as refurbish the room and install air conditioning.

Brenda was assigned to Vieux Fort as their Community Development Officer before her recent move to the District of Micoud. It was largely her effort and collaboration with the forward thinking principal that created the recipe for success. No one could possibly say no to these two persistent women with a vision for their children and their community.

I’d been to this school before and written about the unique and progressive learning environment in an earlier post (Grateful Reflections, September 2008). We arrive early and were greeted by scores of children who were excited about the day, proud of their school and curious about the white volunteers descending on their campus. I walked into the Reading Room and instantly had four little girls around me, all touching my hair, my skin and my clothes. I asked them to take me on a tour. We picked up a little boy along the way. They took me to their gardens and said, “Picture time”. They want to ham it up for a camera. They explained that this garden teaches students to value beauty and the environment.

More children join the pack as we move slowly around the campus. Each child wants to hold my hand and as we progress through the tour, I look down and cannot see an inch of my arms – I only see the little hands of children.

Before explaining the significance of each stop, they want their picture taken. One little girl takes my hand and turns it over – then compares the colors of our palms. Although her skin is dark, her palms are nearly as light as mine. Another little girl takes my purse and flings it over her shoulder. They take me into a classroom where they recite the lessons on the classroom walls.

When the tour of the gardens, the reading room, and classrooms are complete they announce, “Game Time”. We go outside in the courtyard and play Simon Says where I immediately do the wrong thing and they all laugh. Then we play Mr. Wolf’s Clock Game. One child moves the hands of the clock to a specific time and remains in front of the clock. The rest of the children move a few feet away and try to guess the time. Each time they ask Mr. Wolf if they are correct. The closer they get to the time the closer they step towards Mr. Wolf. We play the green game where one child guesses what the other children have secretly identified; it was always something about me – my shirt, my glasses, my eyes, etc.

Suddenly the teachers call the children and they leave running to line up and all is quiet. I see Brenda with the other volunteers, Greg and Melaney and we enter the large room with at least a hundred folding chairs, the Christmas Tree, a podium and a stage in front of the room. There is a cool tropical breeze circulating the room. We are seated in the front rows. The auditorium is packed with children, teachers, staff, parents, clergy, community leaders and government officials.

The meeting begins with a prayer led by a local priest. Everyone is acknowledged, including the Peace Corps Volunteers. Fifteen computers may not seem like much. In the United States, we might expect nothing less and possibly a lot more technology in our schools. To many in Saint Lucia the computer is still mysterious. One government official spoke about the power of information that students will have access to when the open their browser. They have ideas about how to use their new computer lab: an internet café, student homework and short courses for the community members are ideas that are explained. Brenda takes the podium and talks about the accomplishment with all the pride one could possibly have.

A group of children sang and another group performed a traditional dance. The cultural dance is a quadrille. It reminded me of a cross between a waltz and a square dance. They wear the national costume called a Wob Dwiyet which is a large, colorful dress (wob) worn over a jupon (long, white skirt with red ribbon running across), with a scarf around the neck. It wasn’t long after my arrival I realized anytime I saw this costume something special was about to happen. Long ago, women would wear this costume only on very special occasions such as when they were getting married. (I had a video of the dance and the file was damaged. I found this picture on the web)

The speeches have been spoken, the awards and plaques distributed, the singers sung and the dancers danced and now it was time for the ribbon cutting ceremony. We move outside and there it was; a large red ribbon around the door holding their newest dream. Inside that door was a newly painted and air conditioned room, furnished with brand new chairs and desks, fifteen brand new computers, a server and network complete with a printer; but most of all the pride of everyone present at this celebration. A prayer was said and the ribbon was cut. The priest walked inside, his holy water in hand, and blessed the room. Then people lined up and walked through the room, smiles on their faces and whispering as if it were a library. As I watched Brenda sit at one of the new computers I saw the vision of the crown placed on her head. It was a good day in Saint Lucia.