Sunday, December 27, 2009


I walk through the village and say, “Hello”, “Bonjour”, “Good Afternoon”. People are friendly and respond “Are you ok?” which is their version of “How are you?” I walk past the parliamentary representative office and the receptionist yells out, “Good Morning Karen”. As I pass the school children they say, “Miss, Miss! Hello Miss Karen”.

I pass by Jeffrey’s house. He is an old man who lost his wife two years ago. He eats his lunch on the porch while a pack of friendly and hungry stray dogs wait for a bit of kindness. I walk by Mrs. Nichols house. She is an old woman in her nineties. She sits on her porch every day greeting passersby. I bring her homemade cookies or cakes when I think about it.

The other day while walking to the bus I saw Sly Joseph. He is the Rasta who has land in the country. He has acquired grants and developed a partnership with the University of Vermont. He makes his own electricity and lives off his land. He is living the definition of “green”. He wants to invite Peace Corps Volunteers and the Japanese Volunteers to camp overnight on his property, swing from the rope to swim in his waters and enjoy a meal with him.

Walks through my village are a source of enjoyment for me. However, I’m always surprised when I greet one man in particular. He carries a cutlass, is dirty and must work hard in the fields. His response to my greeting is always the same. In a very slow and deliberate manner he says, “Fuck You Bitch”. He pronounces each word very slowly and very carefully as if to make sure he is completely understood. Forgetting about this strange greeting, I have been met with the same words on a few occasions now.

I know I’m different here. Maybe he’s had a problem with a white woman before. Maybe he’s heard stories about a white person. Who knows. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I related this story. The people there laughed and knew exactly who it is that greets me in such an unconventional manner. They said, “Oh, he says that to everybody”. I guess I’m really not that different. The truth is he doesn’t seem to like anyone and it doesn’t matter what I look like.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Pigs are Screaming

It’s Friday morning, a beautiful day. Four days of rain have let up to a bright sunny day. The children are dressed in their crisply ironed uniforms. The boys shoes are polished and the girls have colorful ties in their hair. They are walking down the street to school. I listen to the church bells ring and the roosters crow. I hear the goats and the dogs barking. The village has come alive as a new day begins. It’s a beautiful hot day with a wonderful island breeze.

I’m sitting in my apartment with the windows locked and secured, the doors closed and the heat is penetrating the brick structure. It is hot and opening the windows would provide the cool island breeze relief from the suns heat. On this morning, however, it is not possible. The windows will remain closed. I can’t make them stop. I can only hope their story ends soon. I live two blocks from the slaughterhouse. It’s Friday morning and the pigs are screaming.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top 10 Ways to Satisfy my Craving for a Chicken Taco

10. A friend mails it through regular mail

9. Find a friend who has more money and sends it FedEx

8. Spend all my retirement money to hire someone to bring one to me

7. Request a transfer to a country in Central America where they make them, knowing my request will be denied because my only reason would be to obtain and eat a chicken taco.

6. Evaluate what is important in life and then request an early termination from Peace Corps.

5. Use the rules of substitution to make a taco: bakes, cheddar cheese and cabbage

4. Concentrate really hard on the lasagna I wanted last week to change the craving, knowing I can’t have that either.

3. Think about the poor dying chicken to make it unappetizing.

2. Send my boys to Florida to build a large sling shot and shoot one to me

1. Learn to cook

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Beating Drums and Santa Hats

It is December 12, 2009. It’s 6:00 a.m. and there is a party. No, wait; it’s a parade. And, they stop under my window for a few minutes. They slowly move down the street and stop again. This appears to be a permanent destination. This is where the village limes. There are about fifty of them, some wearing Santa Hats and jumping up and down, while others supply a steady beat by beating on drums and pots and pans. Everyone is yelling. I'm not sure what they are saying as they are all yelling at one time.

The wind whips through the island signifying a new ten minute rain dump is about to occur. Surely this will stop the revelry. They continue beating the drums, jumping up and down and yelling. This is curious because normally the slightest hint of rain sends them seeking shelter. What is going on? This will be my second and final taste of National Day.

In my village, National Day starts on December 12. This appears to be a warm-up for the real event. Here’s a peek at the activities my villagers find to be a fun and enjoyable activity at six o’clock in the morning. It’s taken from my balcony. I’ve given up any hope of sleep for the next 48 hours. So, as a truly integrated and happy volunteer, I drink my coffee and enjoy my final December holiday experience.

I love how Saint Lucia describes this day: “Each December 13, a variety of sports and cultural events celebrate St Lucia's National Day. The Festival of Lights lantern-making competition is popular and villages throughout the country can be seen decorated with lights. It is a day of pride that celebrates culture and religion. This is the day that kicks off the holiday season.” I’ve never seen these activities, but they do sound interesting. Maybe I should show this description to the villagers and let them know they are doing it wrong.

It’s now twenty-four hours later and the crowd has increased to hundreds. They have added a DJ and a bar was constructed out of bamboo and other natural materials. The Soca Music is being played at record decibels and can likely be heard within a five mile radius. I am three houses away from the stage. You say you don’t know what Soca is? Well, for my older friends who are still listening to traditional Rock and Roll and are musically challenged, simply click on Soca and be instantly entertained.

It’s about 5:45 a.m. I don’t know about them, but I’m ready for some sleep. Do you think they are partied out yet?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Welcome to my Planet

Teaching IT class is organized and disciplined when Greg comes to help. Unfortunately, Greg lives in the United States and isn't a regular at the After-School Program. Aren't these children cute. They are so well mannered. I wrote this post before I taught IT at the after-school program today. It's obvious. Greg wasn't there today. It's obvious. I'm on a steep learning curve.

I wrote this post before the little girl pointed her finger at me and told me how I should fix her problem. I wrote this post before the children gave each other the middle finger and before one little boy was punched in the stomach during class. I wrote this post before I discovered the secret rumble post after-school program today. A little boy plans to beat up a little girl.

I am teaching the children to be ladies and gentlemen. Please don’t laugh. I am teaching the boys to respect the girls: ladies first, give up your chair; the little things. I am teaching the girls to be ladies, sit up straight and say thank you. Alright, I’m laughing. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, if I can’t laugh at myself, things will get pretty grim.

I wrote this piece before the little boy told me the Bible says man was made first and girls should show their men respect and men need not give the same respect back. I’m really trying to find the humor here. I’m sure it will come although I may need to put on my red sparkly shoes and click my heels several times. I’m glad I wrote this post so that I can get back to centered idealism, if not total denial, where I so conveniently live: Karen’s Planet.

This was this afternoon, but here’s a look at my morning: my clashing and contrasting planet.

It’s early, at least early for me. It is Monday morning. Mornings are mine. I do most of my work in the afternoons and evenings. Mornings are spent working on my computer, cleaning, walking, contemplating, reflecting, enjoying; all of those things we do when we are alone. It is a time for meditative relaxation…the calm before the storm. This afternoon I will be working with children.

I listen to The Hammond Song, a newly rediscovered song by the Roches. Music is a one of those things I have more time for since arriving on the island. How could I have distanced myself from the music that was the vehicle that centered me all those years? In the past months, I have spent hours building my music library with old favorites and finding new favorites. How would I have ever discovered the Cave Singers had I not had this time for reflection?

I sit on the plastic white chair on my back porch overlooking the village, drink my fresh pot of Starbucks Coffee and watch the village go about its business.

A man who lives behind my house is working in his outdoor kitchen. He is making local juice. His sink consists of buckets sitting on countertop of aluminum used for roofing material. He meticulously cleans his pans and utensils, while carefully wiping down the counter.

The woman two houses from mine is hanging laundry on the line. The day care school across the way begins to fill with children; Bible Songs start their day. The birds are chirping and sitting on the cable and telephone wires.

People go about their business accepting life as it is on this tiny island. Many will never leave the island and some will never leave the village. Life is simple. Sometimes I see it as better, sometimes worse, but most of the time I just see it as different. For many, life appears to be unbearably hard and I wonder if they see it that way. The man making local juice in his yard has no indoor plumbing, but I do see a cable TV wire running to his home. Does he see his life as hard? I wonder.

Thinking about it, this is a perfect way to jump-start retirement. Peace Corps has given me so much and most of it is unexpected. It was easy for me to lose my way during my thirty years buried in corporate life. Teaching was a nice bridge because it gave me perspective as I listened to those who were still fighting the corporate war on a daily basis.

I won’t move mountains while I’m here. Change is too slow for that, but perhaps I will touch a few people along the way. Perhaps I can teach just one child to read – or another to discover the gift of critical thinking. Maybe I can help one child learn to love himself. I can leave ideas, help create new ways of doing things, and open the people I interact with to see things differently. Anyone can help to establish an after-school program or teach a Junior Achievement class. They don’t really need Peace Corps for that. It’s the small things I hope to leave behind. One thing I am sure of is this: I am getting far more than I am giving.

Ah, I love living on my planet. I welcome company – want to join me?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Love Yourself

I like working with the children. This might be surprising to you, but I assure you, I’m stunned when I hear myself say those words. Working with children is not something I usually enjoy. I like teaching adults. I love to develop and deliver adult training. But teaching children? It’s never been my specialty.

I can hear the bus drive onto the gravel in the school yard. I emerge from the IT Room and take a deep breath. The children in the after-school program are excited. Elvinette opens the door. They rush out into the school yard, backpacks in hand, greeting those that are already here.

There are forty of them. Forty little balls of energy. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I wonder if I will live through the afternoon. But many times I’m having as much fun as they are. I think my saving grace is that I only have them for about ninety minutes. The program has four segments: Life Skills, Creative Arts, IT and sports.

Lately, I’ve been teaching computers. No, I’ve never taught computers before but as one Peace Corps Volunteer eloquently said, “volunteers are experts in everything”. So true. There are no limits and the stretch is always uncomfortable. I’m accustomed to the discomfort of doing new things. I like it.

The Life Skills Facilitator, Elvinette, is an amazing person. She is young and the mother of a three year old. Regardless of her age and experience with children, she is a natural and should pursue teaching. She is working with the children to help them understand who they are, where they are going and what it will take to get there.

Thursday was an important day. The people who are funding the after-school program were coming to visit. Elvinette recently helped the children make paper shields. They were asked to write statements on their shields. Who do you admire? Name a favorite thing? What do you want to learn? She took the shields and mounted them on cardboard for display.

As I read the shields, I smiled. One boy wants to be a mechanical engineer. I asked Brenda, “What made him say that? He must know someone.” This is a small village and not an answer that one might predict. Brenda responded that his uncle is a very successful mechanical engineer. A lot of the children admired their mothers. Many said their favorite color is red or that they like chicken and bakes.

As I continued reading through the display I came upon the shield of a boy that has been a challenge. He’s been labeled as a “troublemaker” by his peers. I’ve been working with him, “Come on and let’s show them what they say isn’t true. I know that you are a good boy. Let’s show them today how good you can be.” Some days he is successful. I see improvement. Other facilitators are also working with him. He is one of the reasons why I like working with children. As I read his shield, my eyes fill with tears. It’s another moment that stops my world.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


It is loud. It’s early in the morning and the noise wakes me. There is music and people talking. I look out the window and see a crowd in the street. The home across the street is abandoned. It is a miracle that the house is still standing. But as much as it is in bad shape, there is a shed behind it that is in worse shape. This is where Henry lives. I call him “smoochie man” because he smooches the air when he sees me. I just learned his name today.

Smoochie is sitting on the concrete step, trying his best not to fall into the street. He appears disoriented. He tries over and again to put his foot into his flip-flop, but is unable to do it. His head is bleeding. If I didn’t know his history, I would think he is drunk. But he is not. I suspect he must have had a seizure. There is blood on the side of the road. He must have fallen there.

Several months ago I went outside and he was lying in the street unconscious. The neighbors were surrounding him waiting for the ambulance. Elizabeth said he refuses to take his medicine. I hear someone say, “call 911 for the man”.

It is a party atmosphere. There is a man who taunts Henry. He pretends like he is having a seizure, makes strange sounds and then laughs. He dances with glee down the street. It’s hard to understand this cruelty. Henry does not want help and so there is nothing to be done except watch him and hope he does not have another seizure.

After ten or fifteen minutes the ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital. I made a pot of coffee, got dressed and headed for a one day course which was coincidentally to learn emergency first aid procedures.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Fish Tale

Before I left for Saint Lucia I lived within a five square mile radius. Why? Because I get lost. I got lost in a parking lot once. I have no clue how it happened. My friend, Linda was with me. I looked at her and said, “Where am I?” The look on her face was strange. I knew at that moment that I should have found a more discreet way to get out of that situation.

Another time I got lost driving in a park. For the life of me, I could not find the exit. I just kept driving by the same picnic over and over again. It was reminiscent of the Chevy Chase scene in European Vacation, “Look kids, Big Ben – Parliament”. Even if I had found the exit, I had no clear plan as to how I would find the freeway to get home. The park was outside my five square mile radius.

The problem is that people don’t understand. Sometimes they think I’m playing dumb. I assure you; I am not. This is a “condition”. My mother had it. It must be inherited. It might be DNA. Someone said it’s a brain disorder. I’ve heard it referred to as a disability. I accept that. I fit the perfect profile target audience for GPS.

Today, I went on a hunt. It was a hide and seek game. What was hiding? The doctor’s office. It’s time for our mid-service physical examinations. Peace Corps staff set up the appointments and gave us dates, times and phone numbers...but no address; largely because there are no addresses in Saint Lucia. I’m on my own to find it. How can I find the doctor’s office when the only thing I clearly understand is that it is in Castries? This makes me crazy. I still panic, but not nearly as much as I did when I first arrived.

In the end, I got two sets of directions. Go to Monroe College. Check! I know how to get there. One person said, “turn right”. Another said, “turn left”. And these are my friends! Sometimes I think they just like to have fun with me. I was looking for a pink or peach house with a little sign on it that said “Doctor’s Office”. Surprisingly, I found it right away. I only had to ask one person for directions. She happened to be a teacher who was teaching a class which I interrupted. She was very patient while telling me how to get there. She must be a good teacher.

I sat in the waiting room until it was my turn. The woman at the desk said, “You can go in now”. She points to a closed door. I walk over and open the door. There is a desk and an examination table, a scale and curtains. A woman was sitting at the desk. She smiled and I sat down. I wasn’t sure who she was. After a few seconds I realized she is the doctor. How refreshing; the doctor is waiting for me!

She said she needed a urine sample - stop reading if this stuff grosses you out. Jay, this definitely means you. I thought twice about whether I should publish this story, but I liked it and decided to share it. After all, it may be personal, but come on – we’ve all given a urine sample at some time in our lives. Right? And, I’m sure you want to know how giving a sample in Saint Lucia is different from giving a sample in Los Angeles. Don’t you? Be honest.

Anyway, now that I’ve clearly stated the disclaimer and lost half my readers I can move on.

When the doctor was finished it was time for my next game. The hunt was on again! You guessed it. I have yet one more opportunity to play hide and seek. I must now hunt for the lab. The doctor tells me it is in Castries and then she begins explaining something about two bridges and rivers; she talks about streets and building colors. I am clearly bored with all these directions and understand almost none of it.

When she mentions the fire department, I perk up and say, “Oh yes, I know exactly where that is”. But then she tells me it’s not on that street. I’m not sure why the fire department even came up in the conversation. Maybe my friends put her up to this. Or, it could be she was just having such a good time talking about it. I nod my head like I am hanging on to each and every meticulous detail. In reality, Elaine is meeting me here and I hope she can find it for me.

With little trouble and because Elaine had been there before, we found the lab right away. It is a good thing I am with her because based on what I heard the doctor say, I’m not sure I would have been on the right island once I got done with the doctor’s directions.

Once inside the lab, I wait an obnoxiously long time for someone to come to the counter. Elaine and I can hear her behind the wall talking to someone about every detail of her weekend. There are young men sitting on the sofas and none is even remotely considering giving up his seat. Finally a woman enters, takes my paper and says, "Wait here". Another few minutes ramble by and she comes out with a fishing tackle box and says “follow me”.

Are we are going fishing? I think about all the times I got up before dawn and went fishing with my dad. Those were nice trips. We would take a speed boat to the barge which was covered in fish scales and smelled. It was barely light outside when we arrived. All the men had floppy hats decorated with lures and they would stand back as their poles were resting on the rails in holders. Some more serious fishermen fished with two poles. Seagulls swarmed the barge hoping for a tasty morsel. I didn’t do a lot of fishing. I spent more time playing with the live bait in the tank and at the canteen buying candy and soda; mom would likely not approve.

I follow the woman around the corner and down a hallway until we come to a locked door. Surely, there is not a fishing barge behind this door. She opens the door and hands me the tackle box. She says "Everything is in here. Just put the cup back in the box when you are done". Well at least I don't have to worry about whether or not I can still caste a fishing line. It’s clear I’m not here to fish.

I enter the bathroom and there is no toilet paper - great - typical. I open the tackle box and there is everything one needs to give a sample plus hand soap, and....ta da toilet paper. But it’s kind of creepy, because although the toilet paper is in a plastic baggie, my imagination is running overtime as to where this half-spent roll of paper has been. There were no towels to dry my hands, but they had thought of everything else to put into a well-stocked fishing tackle box. When I come out there is a line-up of people with tackle boxes waiting their turn. I wonder if they think they are going fishing too. Very strange.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving - Peace Corps Style

If I were forced to estimate, I would say forty people were there today. Having a Peace Corps Thanksgiving is special; there were volunteers, local people, staff and a new baby. It is fun to share our holidays with local friends.

When I got up this morning I made a pot of coffee and it felt like a holiday. I turned on the Today Show and then watched a few minutes of the Macy’s Parade. I ate a banana, got dressed and headed for the bus. The strange thing is that I half expected to see people enjoying a holiday. Of course, this is just an ordinary day in Saint Lucia. Elizabeth came out as I was leaving and said, “Happy Thanksgiving Karen”. The lady at the gas station where I stopped to buy a bottle of water also greeted me with “Happy Thanksgiving”. She lived in Florida for several years. It’s a strange feeling being in a foreign country on an American holiday.

I got on the bus this morning to go to the far northern part of the island where one of our volunteer couples live. I met Elaine at her house and we picked up bread and butter on the way to the bus. This was my contribution to the meal. Lucky for them, I didn’t cook anything.

I have a lot of time to think during bus rides. As I rode up to Castries, I couldn’t help thinking about how grateful I am for this life. I get frustrated with the work I’m doing, but in the end doing this is my dream being realized. I also get a lot of pleasure when something works well. It feels good to know that there are a few small things I will be leaving that will be sustained. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer can be hard . . . and then sometimes it’s so easy when things fall into place. I’m so fortunate to be here today.

After dinner “fun-tivities” were organized by a couple of volunteers. Fun-tivities is not something my family does. It was entertaining. After a long day of bus rides, food, football and cheap fun-tivity entertainment I was ready to head back.

One of the volunteers had a visitor who rented a car. This is a very big deal. BIG! Anyway, they had to pass by my village to get home so I bummed a ride with them – in an air conditioned vehicle. Did I say BIG? The conversation was interesting and it’s moments like these that reconfirms I’m in the right place. I loved today. I am so thankful that I have been given this opportunity. And family – Jay, Brendan, Kevin, Theresa…get ready for next year. We’ll be incorporating some fun-tivities into our 2010 Thanksgiving Day!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Snippets: Things to Remember

A cool breeze strengthens and I look up and the sky is purple. It’s a good indication that I need to step up my pace and head for shelter before the down pour. These are the moments when I pause to reflect that I’m living in a village on an island.

It’s a nice night for a walk. I walk down the street, passing make-shift houses in between a few sturdy modern homes. Dogs are wondering in the streets and people are sitting outside enjoying the cool breeze of the evening. People greet me with “Hi Karen”. My village has a lot of bars and I pass by several in the two blocks. There are crowds of men and women in the streets with beer in hand. Country music is so loud it leaves my ears ringing. Many of the people I tonight, I will see sitting outside the hardware store in the morning. Jobs are not easy to find.

I’m working in my bedroom and enjoying the fresh air blowing through the room when I hear the sound of steel pans. I look out my window and see the Catholic Church; lighted and the doors open. I quickly dress and head for the church which is less than a minute from my house. I walk into the church and sit in a pew. A few friends notice me, smile and wave. The music is nice and children are dancing up and down the isles as the musicians practice. It is casual and a happy place. The church is where people worship but also where people congregate to have fun.

I walk down the road and smell the chicken cooking on the coal pot. A woman is roasting corn by the roadside. There are a few bananas and a couple of heaps of grapefruits sitting on the ground next to my favorite vendor. She is holding her grandchild who is less than one year. She gently rocks her grandchild in her arms while selling her fruit.

The cucumber vendor is just down the street. Many times she is upstairs inside her home. The cucumbers are left downstairs, sometimes with prices on them, sometimes not. To buy them, I must knock on her door and give her the money…trust is a matter of environment.

Turning the corner I say a quick hello to Jeffrey. He is an elderly and lonely gentleman who just lost his wife of fifty plus years. James, mentally impaired and always with a smile calls out, “Hello my lady”. The children in the village excitedly jump up and down saying, “Miss, Miss” when I pass. I like the people in my village.

There is a goat clearing the weeds from the cracks in the street. He looks at me, unimpressed, makes a goat noise and goes back to eating his snack. I look over and there are a half dozen more goats tending to the soccer field. Two pigs cross the road and there is a horse beyond the chain link fence tied to a tree. In the distance I hear dogs barking and roosters crowing. There is a mother hen and her chicks flapping about in the gutter water. Life seems so basic.

There is a fundraiser for the village Steel Pan Band. They need covers for their instruments. They are roasting fresh bakes and Dahl in large Dutch ovens sitting on coal pots. They are barbequing chicken and hot dogs. There is ice cream for dessert and plenty of beer at the bar. A few nights ago they were looking for additional ways to make money. They would be making money on food and drink, but they needed to make a little more. I explained Fre-Way Little League’s 50/50 raffle. Tickets cost $1 each and the pot is split 50/50. They liked the idea. They raised another $80 but called the raffle Half and Half. My Little League experience has proved to be quite useful in recent weeks. As the musicians are beating on the steel pans young children form a chain and line dance. Simple things are sustainable.

On a recent evening, I walked the darkened streets and maneuvered my way through the crowds of people, I think about how safe I feel in my village. It never stops surprising me. I approached a house with the colorful lights and there is a lighted sign that says “Merry Christmas” and lights in the shape of bells with more lights outlining the windows. My glasses easily fog in the evening humidity.

I’ve been here long enough now to learn the secrets of Saint Lucia, the secrets of my village. I recently learned why it is so difficult to get a chess club started here. It had to do with a village secret, something only whispered about – likely whispered in Kweyol. It took a trusted friend from the inside to fill me in. It’s a small community and gossip is a past time. Consequently, there are things that are simply not talked about, but swept under the rug. I’m beginning to hear the details. These are the ugly truths that lurk within societies. We have them in the United States. They have them here. Some are the same, others are not. Secrets can be difficult to hear when I’m powerless to make a change.

I met a couple on the internet, Greg and Karen. We connected through this blog. Although they live in Brooklyn, Greg is originally from Saint Lucia and they are planning to move here. Greg came for a visit and I have spent some time with him in the last couple of days. He took me to a primary school in the south. We spent some time with the principal before going into a classroom to help. The principal told a story of used teddy bear donations she receives. She gives each child a teddy bear during the holidays. Some lucky children will receive a used teddy bear for Christmas.

There is a fine line between hope and no hope. In the end it matters which line you choose to stand in. It can change the course of a life. Sometimes it’s harder to get into the line that encourages hope.

As my service charges through my second year, I find myself looking at my surroundings in a reflective manner. I want to capture the details and remember the fine points. There are many things I know I will miss and it is becoming increasingly important to record these pictures into my mind. I won't miss the ants that are crawling on my computer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lazy Days of Summer and a Request

It’s taken a year to appreciate the island’s education challenge. It is only now that I am beginning to grasp the obstacles that plague improvement. Recently, I have been spending more time with schools as well as helping establish an after-school program. This has illuminated the problem. If a child is having difficulty reading some parents feel ashamed. It’s not a topic for discussion. Much of the culture is rich and passed down orally through dance, song and poetry. It is a visual culture and I wonder if that makes it easier to hide the problem .

Peace Corps organized a four day mid-service training which is lovingly referred to as MST. It was held last week. All the volunteers from our group reunited. There are thirty of us left out of the original group of thirty-nine. We are living on four islands: Saint Vincent, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Saint Lucia. MST was held on Saint Lucia. Peace Corps reserved rooms for us to stay in and organized meaningful training sessions. I learned a lot during these three days.

Our service is more than half complete. I have often heard volunteers say, “the second year goes so fast!” I am beginning to understand that statement. I have spent a year building projects and creating work. Now, suddenly I must refocus. The holidays are coming and after the first or second week of December island time slows to a halt. My last three months here will be spent winding down and handing over work ensuring sustainability.

There is a new frenzy going on privately within my brain. This frenzy is occupying a great deal of time in my daily thoughts. Many Peace Corps Volunteers in my group are just beginning to toy with a new word: “E x t e n d”. Since that word will likely not be part of my service vocabulary, it is increasingly apparent that I must focus on what I want to achieve in the time remaining. So, let me take you on a journey through the organizational thought process inside my head.

As I sit in the conference room on the second day of MST I ponder which training track to choose. There is an open session with the Country Director and a session on Project Management. However, as I read through the agenda the third session is intriguing: Remedial Reading. The session is in another building. I walk outside around the pool and courtyard which is filled with flowers and patches of grass, to the cabana. (Photo compliments of Diane’s Facebook)

The room is small, intimate and dark. We immediately begin opening the drapes to let the light in. As twelve of us sit around a large square conference table, I notice that most, if not all of them, are either teachers or volunteers who are working with children.

As I listen, I hear stories from volunteers who teach remedial reading and I begin to understand this problem is larger than I originally understood. Many children in the secondary school cannot read. I’m not sure how they are passed through the system but I know we have a similar problem in the United States.

I’d not pondered the complexities of learning to read until now. Like math, the learning process builds. A child who does not recognize the letters of the alphabet cannot learn the sounds of letters. A child who has not established a solid foundation of sounding words phonetically cannot become fluent.

One volunteer relates a story when she was working one-on-one with a third grade child. When she asked him to make the sound of a “C”, he smiled and said, “meow”. That very answer was one indicator of his ability and helped her diagnose his reading level. He associates pictures but not sounds. It is a cute reaction and an amusing story now, but I think it will lose it’s appeal when this child is twenty or thirty years old.

As I listen I think back to a few days ago. I jumped on the bus. I headed for the after-school program classrooms in the next village. The first hour is focused on completing homework. The facilitators are struggling because so many of the children are having reading issues. There are forty children and I wonder if the four facilitators are equipped to deal with this problem.

I continue listening and participating in the remedial reading session I realize many in the room seem to have a level of understanding far deeper than mine. There are so many people and experiences from which I can learn. I picked the right session. I will suggest a similar session with our after-school facilitators and the woman who is running this session.

Children are bored during the summer. I see them sitting on their porches as I pass. “Hello Crystal, how are you today?” I say. “I’m bored”, she answers. “Good Afternoon Yvette, what’s going on today”, I ask. She responds, “nothing, I’m just waiting to see if the library will open”. Sometimes they come to my house and just say “teach me”.

Children recite key learning together. They read things together or are read to by the teacher. They copy things from the chalk board into their notebooks. From my observations much of what they learn is rote memorization. I have observed some teachers who gather their children around them and facilitate discussions and evaluate problems and situations which invoke critical thinking. I think these teachers might be the exception.

When I taught Strategic Management at Monroe College last year, my students were terrified when I told them I did not test using T/F and multiple choice testing methodology. Instead, I would evaluate their learning based on how well they understood the material and evaluated problems: the dreaded essay. They had been trained to memorize and preferred this familiar testing method.

It frightens me when I see so many people in my village who have no work and not much to do. They talk about village tourism, kayaking and fish processing. However, I’ve come to believe that, although these things may have merit, it is the children that need attention. Literacy, critical thinkin
g, social skills, motivation and building confidence in the up-coming generation will be required in order to build new business opportunities and sustain an economy. The after-school program is one such vehicle designed for just this purpose.

What happens when school is in recess this summer and the Crystals and Yvettes are once again sitting on their porches hoping that the library will be open that day? What happens to the sense of community that the after-school program is achieving when summer comes?

Looking at the village as a system I began thinking of easy to implement and easy to sustain activities. I have three ideas. First, help launch a chess club; second, create a book club for those that can read; third, create a family movie night and discussion.

There are good films with good life lessons. I just ordered four films: The Wizard of Oz, The Clique, Ratatouille, and If the Earth Were a Village. I’m looking for books that are 80-100 pages, second grade level, and fai
rly cheap to start a book club. The government has loaned us a couple of chess sets and I will try to identify a teacher to launch this project.

In addition to this, I have been asked to create and deliver a one-day training session for the teachers working at the schools for disabled on the island.

If I can focus my time on these few things and be successful at just one of them, then I will declare success!

So here it is. I have a request

  • If you, my friends, have suggestions of books that would be suitable I would love to hear your ideas. Reading level would be first and second grade; no more than 80-100 pages.

  • If you want to donate a book once I have identified the title please let me know.

  • If you are feeling particularly generous during the holiday season and have used DVDs that are collecting dust, suitable for family viewing and have life lesson messages embedded into the story, feel free to donate them.

  • Finally, if you would like to donate one card game "SLAM", they are about $6, I need ten games.We will use them in the after school program as a spelling and reading tool.

All you have to do is leave a comment on this post, send me an email at, or contact one of my children.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Call Him Sir

I learned more from a third grade boy than from anyone or anything I have done while on this island. What I learned stunned me. It left me speechless. I still don’t fully understand it. It happened on the last day we met.

I have spent one hour a week for the last five weeks with third graders. I volunteered to do this as an extra assignment. Yes, I did this willingly. This was not a requirement. I’m sure you are wondering, “Why would you do this?” You might even ask, “Are you alright?” or “Do you have an issue with the word ‘no’?” At times I wonder the same thing.

I am teaching Junior Achievement, a five week primary school course. Junior Achievement curriculum is designed to start in the primary school grades. Each year the curriculum builds and develops the child’s skills. Finally, at the secondary level, students run an actual business and put their skills to practical use. The material is at times challenging. It is developed through the eyes of American educators. Little thought has been given to how the material relates to children living in a small village in another country.

During the first class I asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” One little boy wants to be a fireman and another wants to be a policeman. A little girl wants to be a nurse and another wants to be a pharmacist. Of course there are a lot of budding farmers and fishermen, shopkeepers and mothers. One little boy said he wanted to be a “sir”. Male teachers are referred to as "sirs" as female teachers are referred as "miss".

On another day, I gave the children cut outs of donuts. I also gave them stickers with pictures of ingredients that go into making a donut. With crayons, stickers, direction and a little imagination the children learned the difference between unit production and mass production while making paper donuts. The problem was that my children had never eaten a donut and were curious about what one must taste like. We talked about donut commercials they had seen. Cable TV broadcasts American television with American commercials. One little girl told me she knows someone who has eaten a donut. We spent a lot of class time on that sticking point.

Monday was our final class together. The lesson demonstrated how the economics of the village depends on the movement of money. Junior Achievement supplied a cassette tape with a cute little rap song and the story of a quarter. My children love music and I was looking forward to this lesson.

Miraculously, I have a cassette tape player in my apartment. It’s a boom box that came with the furnishings. As I prepared for the lesson, I put the cassette into the holder and turned it on . . . nothing. I turned up the sound . . . nothing. It would have made the lesson a lot of fun for them had it worked. Resources are thin in my village and I had to quickly adapt. I bet you are wondering why Junior Achievement gave us a cassette tape and not a CD. I am too.

I decided to do the lesson without the music and tell the story in a very animated way. I made little packages of homemade cookies. The cookies had nothing to do with the lesson, but I tried to make up for the lack of music. I have no idea why. They didn’t know it should have had music. Perhaps it was a twinge of guilt.

So, with materials, freshly baked cookies and a plan in my head I walked down to the primary school for our last meeting. I was anxious to teach them a simple economics lesson and unprepared for the life lesson I was about to receive.

Miss Monroe greeted me and as usual the children were excited to see me. “I saw you in the village yesterday” said one boy. A little girl said, “I saw you on the bus”. Another child said, “When I saw you I told my mother you are the Junior Achievement Teacher”. There is always a lot of excitement when I arrive.

We talked about all the things we learned over the weeks and then we began our new lesson. I picked a few children to play parts in the story. I gave a quarter to the banker. As the story progressed, the children participated by passing the quarter around their “village”. The banker gave the quarter to the meat market owner. The meat market owner bought shoes at the shoe store and the shoe store owner bought pizza for lunch at the pizzeria. And the game went on. The quarter was passed all around the village until it finally went back to the bank making a full circle. The children were hanging onto every word.

When the story was over, I asked, “What do you think would happen if the quarter stayed at the bank and didn’t move around the village?” What answer would you anticipate? I thought they would surely say, “Miss, we would have no money to buy pizza”. Or, “The shoe store would not stay in business and there would be nowhere to buy shoes.” There was a lot of chattering and I could tell they were coming to a big consensus. Finally, the decision emerged as I heard one boy say, “We would all be slaves”.

As I write this I’m still speechless. This little boy taught me something valuable on Monday. I should call him “Sir”.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Gamble

I heard a quote that stuck recently. Robin Roberts participated at a recent conference and while talking about her recent fight against breast cancer she said her motto was, “Make your mess your message”.

I spent time thinking about that quote. Coming “out” on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about John’s addiction to alcohol was liberating and also a way to make my mess my message.

I have been living in a mess since coming to Saint Lucia. Sometimes things don’t work out. Organizational Effectiveness can be incredibly rewarding – and terribly frustrating. It’s about helping people focus on the goal rather than individual agendas, helping them focus on passion rather than skill, and on motivators rather than a defined structure. It’s about helping people feel comfortable with risk and learning from failure and celebrating success no matter the magnitude. It’s about patience and realizing slower is usually faster. It’s about helping leadership realize that people need freedom to do a job without interference. It's guiding leadership to share a vision with others and allowing that vision to grow in unimaginable ways.

More often than not teams will succeed. There are a few times, however, when the stars just won’t line up and I have to walk away. Unfortunately, this is the case with my primary assignment in Saint Lucia. This week I walked away from it. I tried everything I could think of and more. I called experts who I knew in the states and asked for advice. Each time I reached a dead end, I picked up the pieces and tried to find another opening. But, when every possible opening was met with resistance it became clear that it was time to move on. It’s not failure – it’s learning. I wish this team the best and hope it can find its way.

The good news is that I now work with what I describe as the best IPP (Institutional Point Person) on the island. Brenda and I have worked together on a few assignments since I arrived.

I am officially working with her on activities such as the after-school pilot program. I am working with another volunteer at the Ministry of Social Transformation to develop training and measurement instruments for the after-school pilot program. Brenda is open to suggestions, enjoys brainstorming and has an amazing capacity to listen and consider change. Yes, I teach her, but she also teaches me.

Although my past primary assignment did not work out, I have accomplished many things in the past year that I feel good about. I have done a lot of leadership training, taught at Monroe College, worked in the secondary and primary school to teach Junior Achievement, planned a very successful event to teach the village children about the two Saint Lucia Nobel Laureates and another to teach children about Saint Lucia’s history on its thirtieth anniversary of independence. I am fulfilled with secondary successes

So, here it is. Organizational Effectiveness is a gamble. My newest mess is now my newest message: You got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Thanks Kenny!

Friday, November 6, 2009

A New Kind of Water War

I’m used to water wars. I’m a California girl. Worse yet, I’m a Los Angeles girl. We get water from wherever we can find it. We have to because we are in a state of perpetual drought. What once appeared to be a nuisance every few years is now becoming a way of life. The Los Angeles water crisis causes strife between us and our neighbors. The need for water has threatened the ecosystem at Mono Lake and any other water sources within hundreds of miles.

I’m not a water expert and it would take time to research the entire history of the Los Angeles water war. You would likely be pretty bored reading it so let’s leave it this: Los Angeles doesn’t have enough water and must be creative in its ways to quench it’s thirst for the crystal clear liquid gold that sustains its life.

There are some counties that are recycling toilet water and making it into drinking water – yuck! Even as this is done it’s common to see people hosing down their driveways to rid the dirt and dust that may come into their homes. What are they thinking? Water rationing is imposed, but many people still don’t understand the urgency of the problem. People become outraged because their green lawns are turning various shades of brown. Really? This is a picture of just one of my neighbor's homes below me taken after the 2008 Slide Fire.

What happens when the ecosystem becomes unbalanced? Why should we care? Well, over the years the trees have become increasingly dense in the San Bernardino Mountains. The drought has caused many of the trees to be less healthy. Bark Beetles have attacked the trees and literally killed thousands and thousands of them. When the Santa Ana winds kick up, whether it’s a consequence of nature or manmade, fire season is inevitable. I don’t remember California having a bad fire season every year….it’s only been in the past few years. It’s almost too frightening to think about and I'm way to the left of this subject.

Enough about the Los Angeles water problem. Fast forward to Saint Lucia. The amount of water does not seem to be the issue. The issue is how to get the water traveling through the pipes and out of the faucets. Without going into another long drawn out research project, the bottom line is that the pipes are in poor condition and the country doesn’t have money to fix them. They are looking at privatization.

The country’s water system is fragile, pipes break often and many times we don’t have running water. Other times workers must work on the system and shut off the water, giving no advance notice to anyone. People have storage tanks outside their homes filled with water and/or buckets filled with water inside their homes. It’s a matter of expectation. They have learned to be patient and live with their own private water war. I’ve never been without water in Los Angeles, unless on a very rare occasion they give advance notice of dates and times the water will be off for some unusual repair.

Turn on last night’s evening news. Oops, here’s another kind of water war.

The worker’s at the country water facility WASCO are unhappy and striking. Half the island does not have any water. They don’t know how long the strike will last or how long people will be without water. Thousands of people are going about their daily routines without water. The story here is this: if Los Angeles residents went 10 minutes without water, backlash would be immediate. I’ve heard some complaints in Saint Lucia, but nothing close to the next riot I would expect in Los Angeles.

It’s a curious thing. Like I said, it’s a matter of expectation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Koko knocked on my door a few nights ago. Holding his notebook he asked me if I would help him with his math homework. He is learning double digit multiplication. I quickly discovered that he had not memorized his tables yet, making double digit multiplication very difficult and time-consuming. He only had six problems but we both knew it was going to take hours to complete.

Many times he looks to me for the answer, rather than finding and discovering the answer for himself. I often hear him say, “spell it”. My response is always the same, “look it up”. By now, he’s learned I will not give him the answer. He knows I will only help him learn how to figure it out. If he is doing geography or science, I open up the computer and look for maps or videos to help him understand things. He perks up with interest when I show him a YouTube video of a volcano erupting or find pictures of the stars on the computer.

So when he couldn’t figure out how to do his math problems, his question was logical. He said, “Can we find the answers on the computer?” I said, “Yes Koko, we can find the answer on the computer, but that would not help you learn math, would it?” It was a nice try.

I am happy that he now realizes that computers are tools to discover information. Most of the children in the village are not as aware as Koko because there are not enough people in the village that work with the children to help them make this discovery.

Seeing SexyMama, LoveyDoveyMama, YourSexyBabe, WildCat, and YaWannaBabe are common words in the village. What comes to mind when you see these words? Never mind. Don’t answer. I could recount a long list of these names as there are many more. Without giving all the information, these are partial email addresses. These names would probably be down at the bottom of my list just under or Yet, these are email addresses of children who are ten and eleven years old. How does this happen?

For the most part, children who I have come in contact with see computers as tools for games and chatrooms. Chatrooms are huge here. What does a stranger think when YaWannaBabe logs onto a chatroom? One little girl used my computer before I understood this problem. She was receiving email messages from people in those chatrooms. I can only imagine what I don’t know.

Most parents in the villages are not aware of what their children are doing on the internet. Many don’t know how to use a computer. I drafted a training session to teach parents internet safety. I discovered they aren’t ready to hear the message yet. I try to post my blogs from a humorous point of view, but I can’t seem to find a funny angle to this story.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

From My Cold Dead Hands

I worried before I came to Saint Lucia. What would I do without a car? I took a bus once in San Francisco with my friend Leslie. It was fun. It was a novelty. There are hundreds of miles of freeways in Los Angeles. . . guaranteed, every mile is in a state of gridlock as I write this post. Before I retired I drove eight miles to work; a 45 minute commute. Los Angeleans drive. How could I adjust to life without my car?

Several years ago, a new mass transit system was built. There are blue lines and green lines. There might even be yellow lines and red lines. I’m not sure. I don’t know who rides those lines. There is no need to figure out all these colors and schedules because Los Angelean’s have cars . . . lots and lots of cars. Everyone in my family has a car. And if one car breaks down, my son has a spare. He’s not rich, just a practical Los Angelean. Could I adjust to mass transit?

A car is a source of stress. I build in time because my keys are usually “lost”. Everyone gets up and starts looking when my keys are lost. This is even more stressful because I see the stress I’m putting on my family. The oil needs to be changed every 3000 miles. Sometimes I push it to 4000 miles, but then there is a nagging voice inside my head that says, “you will pay for this later”. I hate that voice. It’s another source of stress. Even still, I need a car.

My son, Brendan, doesn’t like to stop for gas. He runs out often. If I sneak a peak at the gas tank, he makes me feel like I’m intruding on his territory. The thought of running out of gas is more stressful than the act itself. This is just another thing we must learn to deal with, because we need our cars.

My son, Kevin, is a nightmare in traffic. A recent Facebook status on his page reads, “1:45 minutes to go 20 miles on the 405. I love L.A.?” Oh, am I glad I wasn’t in his car that day. Being in a car with Kevin would guarantee the Maharishi high blood pressure. But still, this is the price we pay to live in the Sunshine State.

I had a transponder pass for the 91 Express Lane. My transponder was pure joy. Ah, the key to a stress free ten mile drive. I willingly pay up to $5 for the privilege to race down the freeway with a queen-like attitude glancing over at the snarly, ugly, bumper-to-bumper traffic where my subjects have looks of exasperation permanently imprinted on their faces. I would sail through the fast track lane at eighty miles an hour, yelling and laughing at those who were either ill-prepared or too cheap to buy their way out of a situation that would cost them an hour of their life, only to find at the end of the ten mile privileged ride that I too would be ensnarled with the others and transformed as just another commoner stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Why would I want to give all this up?

I spoke to Jay, my oldest son, today. I explained that one thing I dreaded before leaving for Saint Lucia was not having a car to drive. I explained to him that it is likely one of the more liberating things that’s happened to me since becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. I look forward to my bus rides. I dread having to drive a car when I return home. Having lived in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer he understood and agreed. As he recalled his days in Honduras, he exclaimed with glee, “it’s so nice having someone else fight all the stresses of driving”. While he was talking, I thought to myself “Why would I ever want to drive again?”

When there is talk about car-pooling in L.A., the reaction invokes such emotion that it’s easy to envision Charlton Heston rising from his grave hold a steering wheel high in the air in one hand saying, “From my cold dead hands”. I have to admit I was one of them. But while I was talking to my son, I heard words come from my mouth that even surprised me, “When I get home we ought to explore the option of public transportation together”. He left Peace Corps and Honduras ten years ago and his Los Angelean reaction was, “I don’t think it would work out mom, we’d have to move.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fre-Way Little League

When I came to Saint Lucia it never occurred to me that I might attend a meeting where my education wasn’t needed. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t use the skills I built in the thirty years of my corporate life or the college teaching experience I gained in the first years of my retirement. They didn’t need any of this . . . no, what they needed was my experience as a Fre-Way Little League team mom, coach, manager and all around “what-ever-you-need, I’m here to help” person. When I applied to Peace Corps they never asked me if I had Little League experience.

I am helping Brenda, the Community Development Officer and a Peace Corps Volunteer, Andy, who is having so much fun here he’s extended for an additional six months. Brenda and Andy have worked on a plan to implement an after-school program pilot program. This is a national pilot program and a neighboring village is lucky enough to be included in it. A small group of forty children were selected to participate in activities that will include sports, life skills, the arts, IT and academic assistance. After school programs like this don’t exist in small villages and they are a lucky group of children to be chosen to participate.

The one requirement to be included in this program is commitment and participation. I can’t imagine this will be a problem for the children, but how to gain commitment and participation from the parents is another matter. The question arose, “how can we get them to participate?” There were many answers: we could invite the mothers to tea or give special training programs to help them build a consistent message for their children to hear and to bond home life and the program together. They were good ideas that will probably be used, but still something is missing.

I began thinking of my own experience so many years ago. I had three boys, a full-time job, shopping, cleaning and taking care of all the little things that come up in life when raising a young family. I thought I had no time to fit even one more minute of activity into my schedule. I remember mowing the lawn after I fed my children dinner. I painted the hallway at midnight to cover all those smudgy little handprints. I paid bills after they went to bed and did laundry to ensure we all had clean clothes for the next morning. I remember thinking, “someday I will wonder how I did this”. Today, I wonder how I did it.

One day I picked my oldest up from the babysitter and he told me he registered for t-ball. He was five years old and made this decision all on his own. That was the beginning of a new life… maybe for him, but definitely for me.

I was a Fre-Way Little League coach, manager, team mom and scorekeeper from the time my oldest was five years old until my youngest was twelve years old. As my lawn grew, the hallway re-smudged and laundry overflowed in the hamper, I worked in the snack shack, coached t-ball and was on the board of directors for the next several years.

The calendar I carried in my purse that was once used to track my work schedule, suddenly became the “family” calendar with game schedules, snack commitments and pizza parties scheduled in between my work meetings and occasional travel. I would often find one of my sons fishing through my purse to locate the calendar and study our schedule.

I was able to flex my hours and travel ensuring I made every Little League commitment a priority. It was an incredible bonding experience, not just for our family, but for the community as well. I made friends I would never have had the opportunity to make without Little League. We were at the field for practice, games, and fun.

Toyota loaned Fre-Way Little League the land. There were three fields, a conference room and a snack shack. There was electricity and water. Many times after the games were completed, we would build a big fire pit in back of the snack shack. On two occasions we dug a pit and roasted a pig. As we partied by the fire late into the night, our children would play on the fields and run themselves into exhaustion. It was a safe family-focused time. During the off-season, we continued to attend picnics and pizza parties. When we were at home, Little League was always the common topic that we could all talk about. When is opening day? Who will be the starring pitcher? Which team will I be on? Remember when I hit that homerun? How many bones have you broken? I’ve broken more than you! Our orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Uniten, unknowingly became a silent member of the team.

When my children decided they were done with baseball, it was my life that crumbled. What was I going to do with all my time? Who are my friends? How will I adjust? All the team parents felt this way. Occasionally I run into one of those parents and we reminisce about the great times we had.

The Fre-Way Little League sign is long gone as is the old snack shack and conference room. The manicured fields that the fathers spent hours mowing are long gone. The old field boasts of new Toyota buildings with tall trees producing shade and pretty foliage that gardeners tend each day. It has a freshly paved road where the dirt road once was.

We live in the same house and pass by it often. My children are in their thirties now and we have moved on from life on that field. Many of the parents are now grandparents; some have moved away while others remained. We’ve all moved on with our lives. But anytime I’m with one of my kids and we pass the field, I hear a soft whisper, “those were some of the greatest times I can remember”. There was an amazing sense of community and family that was built on that field.

At the Orientation Meeting for the After-School Program a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that many parents in the room didn’t know one another. Some parents were shy and didn’t say anything. It was then that I knew what was needed! I discussed this with Brenda and Andy and they agreed. At the next meeting we would implement the plan.

Brenda called the Parents Meeting to give a status of the program and to ask for their help. The children had already been split into four after-school groups: A, B, C and D. When it was my turn to speak I asked the parents to meet in their child’s group and to pick a “team parent” who would make sure children had snacks and would agree to be the contact for their team for special meetings and informational sessions.

I asked them to think about anything else they could do to help make this program a success. I told them about the team banners we made and about the competition between parents that developed. Then Andy came up with a stroke a simple brilliance …name your teams.

The parents were slow to mix with each other. In some groups only two or three parents were talking. Andy, Brenda and I walked around and encouraged the parents thinking and group discussion. At the end of an hour the room was buzzing. Three teams came up with great names, the Progressives, the Energizers, and the Stars. The fourth team is still looking for the perfect name. Everyone had a Team Parent and there were a lot of Assistant Team Parents who were named as well.

One team decided to plan a walk to fund-raise. Another said they couldn’t wait for that and agreed to and collected dues of $1. Their treasury is now $6. The cheers became progressively louder as each team was called by name. It was incredible to see this type of enthusiasm . . . and all it took was an American Little League team experience to be passed on to another country. Brenda declared it a big success and said their enthusiasm has taken a weight off her shoulders.

This experience gave me pause to reflect on a wonderful time in my life and so I’d like to whisper to my boys, Jay, Kevin and Brendan “those were some of the best times of my life”. I love you guys.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Just for the record…Children are alright. I love my own children to death. My granddaughter is incredible. Children are our future. People tell me they are precious gifts from God. Sometimes other people’s children are alright…and sometimes not. Why is that? I think I can answer this question.

Teaching children who cut up cardboard and stick it in their ears or who take stickers off paper and punch holes in the paper and plaster it on their faces so that only their eyes are showing is strange. Teaching children who are hitting and punching other children and who are throwing objects from their desks across the room is weird. Watching children use chairs like a bullfighter uses his cape is well, annoying.

Teaching children when half of them are in the bathroom makes me wonder if there is a mysterious urinary problem in the school. And, while I’m wondering, can they all be this thirsty? Should I mention this to the principal? Oh, never mind – she’s the one who left me there alone because the teacher is absent and she said, “I have some ‘principal’ things to do”.

Generally, I think other people’s children aren’t much fun. Specifically, I was not given the gift to teach third graders. I thought you might enjoy looking at this picture of my little darlings.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chocolate Cake Balls

I love to bake. It relaxes me and it’s something I’m good at, but it’s difficult to bake here when everything is different; the ingredients, the stove, the pans, the tools to mix things and measure things. The last post I talked about my search for cake ingredients.

I got everything I needed except eggs. Did I mentioned I only need four eggs? It’s possible to purchase one egg, two eggs, or a dozen eggs. I can also go to the store and buy one stick of gum. I can open a package of individual wrapped cookies that says “not for individual sale” and buy one package. It’s just the way things are here. I went to the market to get the eggs and they weren’t on the shelf. “Are you out of eggs?” I said. “How many you want?” said the woman behind the counter. I quickly respond “four”. She disappears and comes back minutes later with four eggs – still warm.

Today it has rained almost all day and so I decide this is a good day to make this cake. It’s Friday and Brenda will likely be at the Village Council Office down the road. She’s the whole reason I decided to make this cake. It was her birthday this week. She is the Community Development Officer and I’m working with her. She’s been good to me and I want to do something nice for her.

This is a recipe I’ve made a hundred times. The only difference is that I will be making it in individual size pans that I found in Castries. Why? Well, because as I’ve mentioned before my stove is run from this propane tank and I have a hard time lighting it. Actually, I’ve only used it once and I was able to light it right away. I think the truth is that I don’t want to use it, but I’m not sure why. But that’s what toaster ovens are for – right?

Oh, there is one more difference. As you might remember, I could not find instant chocolate pudding. I did, however, find custard mix. Although most of the information on the package was in Japanese, I was able to read the English directions that told me this custard was not instant but needed to be cooked.

Anyway, the instant pudding didn’t have to be made before adding it to the rest of the ingredients. The ingredients are simple: a chocolate cake mix, four eggs, sour cream, oil, water, instant pudding and chocolate chips. You just put it all together and stick it in the pan and tada! Cake!

I looked on the internet to find out what people say about using pudding mix that isn’t instant. I found most people said it could be done, just substitute the water for milk. Although there is no fresh milk on this side of the island, I do have instant which I made.

I didn’t have beaters and it took forever to get all the lumps out of the cake. I was going to use the blender but decided it would be much too messy, although it would have been easier to pour the batter into the cake pans. That made me think twice about it, but I then decided that adding the chocolate chips without blending it would make it really complicated. So, it took about 40 minutes of mixing the stuff together. I was alright with this because after all, I wanted this to be nice for Brenda!

I carefully scooped the batter into four of the pans which fit perfectly in the toaster oven. I turned it on and waited. I peeked a few minutes into it and they were looking good. Then just before they were done I was horrified. The cute little bundt cakes were turning into huge chocolate cake balls! They weren’t perfectly round balls, but balls that looked like they were deflated on one side. After inspecting it I think the custard might have congealed together and tried to escape the other parts of the batter making these cakes into horrible cake balls.

I quickly took them out of the oven and thought maybe they would flatten as they cool. You know, like cookies do sometimes? Well, these didn’t. I had four misshaped cake balls sitting on my counter. What could I do? Brenda would be leaving in the next hour and I wanted to give her a nice gift that I made with my own hands. . . not these chocolate misshaped cake balls.

The cake balls needed to cool, but recently I’ve had another army of ants coming through my house because I forgot to change the ant poison hotels that sit on my kitchen floor. So I got a dish, a bowl and a plate. I set the bowl upside down inside the dish and the plate on the bowl. I put water in the dish and set the balls on top of the plate. Unless these ants learn to swim they won’t be eating Brenda’s Chocolate Cake Balls anytime soon.

While they were cooling, I spent a lot of time going over my options. I could give them all to the kids in the neighborhood. They will eat anything. I could give some to Mrs. Nichols. She is so old she wouldn’t know the difference. There was only one more option. I cut the bottom off the balls and turned them right side up and put powdered sugar on them. Now they looked like the cute little bundt cakes that they were meant to be.

I now had a dilemma. What should I do with the bottoms? The only thing to do was eat them. They tasted pretty good, but I realized that the custard must have mixed really well with the sour cream and chocolate chips leaving the other part of the cake tasting different. After eating all the bottoms I realized I had just eaten half a cake and wasn’t feeling really good.

I cut open one of the cute little cakes to see if it tasted good enough to give to Brenda. But, by now I couldn’t really tell when I tried a top if the bottoms tasted better. I’d eaten so much cake it all tasted the same. So I chose the best looking cake and wrapped it up in a clear baggie and proudly walked down to the Village Council. I handed the cake to a smiling Brenda. I wonder if she was smiling when she ate it.

If anyone wants the recipe for cake balls just let me know. One recipe makes ten misshaped cake balls. I recommend that you invite some friends over to help you eat the bottoms.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It will get done . . . just now

Advice any Peace Corps Volunteers will give is “slow down and rid yourself of expectations”. It’s the best advice, but also the hardest advice to practice. Advice is always best if put into context. And so, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I will attempt to help you understand in the unlikely event you are mulling over the idea of submitting your three pound application to be considered for a job that pays roughly $720 per month.

My expectations for today could have been:

1. I will go to the supermarket today and get everything I need from one store, come home and bake a cake.

2. I will complete the work on a training package to be delivered next month.

3. I will help the little boy across the street with his homework and he will become an expert in the subject of collective nouns.

4. I will go to my 7 p.m. meeting and help the team develop a complete plan for Nobel Laureates Week. It will include specific goals and an agenda to move forward in planning a great January event.

I know I will be able to count on everyone to do their part to accomplish this list because it really is simple. Right?

But, this is the way the day went . . .

It is an adventure to hunt and gather food. I most likely will not find everything I’m looking for. I set out down the asphalt road. It is a cool 88 degrees today and the bus ride to the market is just 15 minutes. I am in search of instant chocolate pudding, chocolate cake mix, chocolate chips and sour cream, icies, cucumbers and an avocado.

Chocolate chips and cake mix – check. . . bingo! sour cream. No pudding mix of any kind, but they do have something called "custard powder". Whatever that is I bought it. They have eggs, but if I can find them in my village it’s more likely they will make the trip safely to my refrigerator. It always bothers me that the eggs aren’t refrigerated in the village market. I wonder about it. How long have they been sitting there? But I’ve never been sick because of it.

They didn't have avocado or cucumber at the market. I saw a vendor in my village before I left selling avocado's but she will likely be sold out before I get back so I went searching the streets of Vieux Fort and quickly came up with those two items.

I'm ready to return to my village. I walk over to the bus stop and board the bus. I'm the only one in it and it will not go anywhere until it's I wait an hour and a half.

I am at home now and the only thing I need to search out now is eggs, but first I need to unwind. Baking this cake probably won't happen today...I'll save it for some other day when I have more energy.

I turned the computer on and worked on a training package I will deliver next month, answered some emails and continued to read an interesting blog that I’ve become engaged in. I’ve read so many books and now blogs are my new interest. As I develop the six hour training package, I learn that I have only three hours. I need to rethink the content. I will save this for tomorrow.

Koko came by and asked for help doing his homework. He is learning the concept of a collective noun. The first thing he said was “lets use the computer to learn about this”. This is progress as most of the kids in the village see computers as toys, not information highways that can help them learn. Together we completed his homework, but I think the only concept he really understood was getting it done so his teacher doesn’t beat him. Mission sort of accomplished.

At 7:00 p.m. I had a meeting with Angelina and Denise to talk about Nobel Laureate Week. The event is in January, but I’ve pushed them to begin planning now. Denise had steel pan practice and so we agreed to meet there. Angelina and I sat on the steps listening to the music and talking . . . for an hour. We decided to postpone the meeting until the next evening.

I walked over to Angelina’s house to help her make coconut fudge. She is sending it to England. It is Jounen Kweyol (Creole Days) this month and her fudge and guava cheese were requested in England.

Angelina has two dogs, Rex and Diablo. Diablo is trained and is part of her family. Rex is not. He’s an eight month old nightmare tied up in the backyard. She wants me to help her train him. It sounds like a good idea. We made the fudge and watched The Biggest Loser together while Diablo played with the cockroach on the living room floor. I'm not sure which was more entertaining.

It was ten o’clock when I left her house. As I walked through the darkened streets of my village I thought about how safe I felt and I contemplated my day. What had I accomplished? Um. Oh yes . . . no I don’t think so . . . maybe . . . no not that. I’ll get back to you on this.

So, as they say in Saint Lucia, “just now” I will think about making that cake. Just now, I will help develop an awesome plan for Nobel Laureate Week. Just now, I will complete that training package. By the way, “just now”? It means “some other time”.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Extraordinary Morning

The neighbors are out and everyone is talking. An hour and half ago it was just another ordinary day. The church bells were rung and the village was lively. The neighbor across the street was sitting on her porch rocking her infant grandchild. Children in perfectly ironed uniforms and shined shoes were walking down the street towards school, umbrellas in hand. The roosters were crowing and the goats were making noise while the mother chickens were leading their chicks to nowhere in particular.

I had my usual breakfast; a banana and biscotti with a cup of black coffee. I took my shower, dressed, put my hair in a ponytail and slipped on my flip-flops. I flipped the music on and turned on the computer. I was catching up on the news and preparing for the Junior Achievement class I will be teaching this afternoon. It’s a rainy morning. Coming from California I am still enjoying every drop I hear on the aluminum roof. Then it happened. The knock . . . the knock that changed this ordinary day into an extraordinary day.

It’s my landlord, John. He apologizes for coming unannounced and I see a host of workers behind him. They were carrying ladders, large boxes and tools. They have been working on the house since June. They added a room to their own place downstairs and extended my balcony upstairs. They had my apartment painted and a few cracks patched. If the smallest thing is wrong, they fix it immediately. They constantly tell me that they want me to be very happy here. I am.

When my boys were coming for a visit last March John said, “Oh, we must get hot water for them”. I responded that my kids did not expect that kind of luxury. When all the work was done on the house, I thought the subject was dead.

“They are here to install a hot water system today”, John said. Are you kidding me? Did I really just take my last cold shower this morning? On some level I will miss the small sacrifice of taking a cold shower. There are only a handful of homes in my village with hot water. Many don’t have water in their homes and use one of the bright blue public facilities throughout the village. It is there that they wash dishes and clothes and take showers. .I got used to cold showers and it was part of my sacrifice that says, “I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer”. Maybe every once in awhile I’ll take a cold shower as a reminder of how much I’ve been given. . . or maybe not.

Just like that, in an hour and a half, it’s done. A new solar heating system rests on the roof. I look over my balcony at Elizabeth and say, “Elizabeth, you are making me look bad. People are not going to think I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer!” She smiles.

As I speak with Elizabeth, the workers are eating their lunch. It is barely noon. The neighbors come to talk and there is a crowd of people in front of the house. The workers break out a large gallon bottle of rum and poor themselves large glasses of rum and coke. It’s time to celebrate a job well done and let the sun do the rest of the work.