Thursday, May 28, 2009

Focusing on Yesteryear

In the morning or sometimes in the afternoon too, I walk around the village. It’s not a walk of exercise, but a walk of keeping in touch. I walk down my street past the guys who wash cars in the street in front of the convenience store/internet cafĂ© that they operate. I walk through the Catholic Church parking lot and then between the Church and Infant School. I say hello to the fisherman slicing up fresh fish by the sea before turning onto a small street where I stop to talk with Mrs. Nicolas. She’s always on her porch. She is 92 years old and was born on March 17, 1917.

The first time I saw her she said, “Come here, I want to touch you.” It’s common. There is a curiosity about my skin. Once a little boy touched me and said that my skin was soft. We touched each others arms for several minutes while I protested that it was no softer than his.

Mrs. Nicholas husband died sixteen years ago. She was married for more years than she knows. Although she was born in this village, she and her husband moved to England and lived there for fifteen years before coming back to Saint Lucia. Her husband was friends with Sir John Compton. Sir John Compton is the Father of Saint Lucia. He lived his life in this village and is a hero to most in this village and many in Saint Lucia. She likes to tell the story of how Sir John helped her husband return to England to work.

She complains that things are not the same as they were when she grew up. There are “nasty things” on television. People used to take care of each other. Now people are too busy to be bothered. Mrs. Nichols worked in a hospital and later as a caretaker for an elderly lady. When her mother got sick she had to quit. Soon after she left the lady died. Now Mrs. Nichols is old. She cannot maneuver the two steps from her front porch and must depend on her children to bring her food and things she needs.

I have frozen chocolate chip cookie dough in the freezer. I freeze it so I can make a few cookies at a time. Mrs. Nichols likes chocolate chip cookies. She also likes dried milk. So each morning before I take my walk I make six small cookies, package them in a clear plastic bag and when I stop to say hello I hand her the bag. She puts the bag to her cheek and declares, “Oh, they are still warm! This will be for my lunch.” As I leave to finish my walk she yells, “Don’t forget me”. Oh, don’t worry Mrs. Nichols, I won’t.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Crazy and Fun JOVCs!

A few weeks ago I attended a beach party to welcome our newest Peace Corps Volunteers affectionately known as EC79; the 79th group of volunteers on the Eastern Caribbean. It was a casual part at Choc Beach complete with volleyball and a coal pot. Hot dogs were roasted, homemade cookies and potato chips were set on tables with hot dog buns, mustard and relish. A closer look uncovered a plastic container filled with homemade sushi. Ah, the JOVCs are here (the Japanese Volunteers).

Days at Choc Beach are great. It’s a typical setting of tropical Caribbean blue clear water and white sandy beaches. Conversation is always good among the volunteers. It’s a break from routine and a welcome break from saying, “huh? What?” Although I say huh and what less these days because I’m getting more used to the island accent, I still must listen carefully.

Cheico, one of the Japanese Volunteers, asks me where I’m living. I tell her. She explains her plans for the weekend. She and another volunteer with a local Saint Lucian are planning to walk around the island. She asks me if I would like to join them. Although I am in search of new adventures in life, the thought of walking around the island on the main highway and in the hot sun just doesn’t seem like something I want to do. I politely decline. Then she asks if I would be willing to let them stay at my house on Sunday night. Of course! Now here is something that sounds like fun.

So Sunday morning came and they are due in mid-afternoon. Mid-afternoon turned into 8:30 that evening. They had walked half way across the island that day. They were exhausted. I had a salad and garlic bread ready for them as well as local juice and they brought pizza and rice. An interesting combination for dinner, but one that was pleasantly wonderful.

They got up before the church bells rang at five the next morning. I had breakfast prepared for them. We ate toast and eggs, nuts and fruit and drank coffee, tea and juice. We took pictures and then they were gone. It was six o’clock in the morning. They would finish their trek today. I wondered if they would phone me when they arrived on the other side of the island at Pigeon Point. They did. Excited and feeling accomplished, it was 11:30 at night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fights and Parties

They party on Thursday nights – and they party on…and on. It’s Karaoke Night mixed with Dancehall. It’s a happy night and although my house reverberates, it’s part of village life and I’ve become used to it. I am in the part of the village where they “lime” in Saint Lucia jargon or “hang-out” in California jargon. I like being in the village because it’s easier to get to know people.

But there is another part to village life. This is a small village and everyone is related in some fashion. They fight like relatives. As I write this there is a man washing his car. A woman walks by and begins to yell at him. He yells back. Then a neighbor adds a comment…and then another. Currently, there are twenty people arguing in the street. They are loud. I watch the people with hands on their hips, arms crossed, and fingers pointed all leaning into their opponent.

Soon it will be over. Tonight is Friday night and the party will begin shortly.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Change, a Six Letter Word

There is a lot of paperwork to submit when applying for a Peace Corps Volunteer. It takes time to process the paperwork. There are always more requests than there are volunteers. The Peace Corps matches volunteer expertise with organizational needs. The organizations want help. Some get what they asked for – at least the volunteer, but sometimes they don’t get the help they think they need. They may need to change their thinking.

There is a lot of paperwork required to join Peace Corps. A very large percentage of applicants give up, some are rejected and others were just exploring. It takes tenacity, patience and up to a year to get an invitation. After I signed the paperwork and left for my new country I realized the need to continue practicing tenacity and patience. I need to change my expectations.

You may wonder, “If Peace Corps has been in Saint Lucia since 1962, why are they still needed?” I sometimes wonder that too. But there is good reason. Change is slow. Change is frustrating. People don’t understand it or necessarily want to change. They want help, but many times they don’t know what “help” means. And Peace Corps Volunteers are adjusting to change too.

Then you may ask, “Why wouldn’t they want to change?” Okay, that’s just too complex to answer. It’s likely some of the same reasons why people in the United States, Europe, and anywhere else in the world don’t change. It’s likely the same reasons why it’s hard for me to change.

Yesterday was very frustrating. When I offered a different way to do something, I was told they needed to do it the way Saint Lucia does things. “Why?” I asked. The answer was more frustrating than the assertion that they needed to do it the Saint Lucian way. The answer is, “Because that’s the way we do it”. Wow! I realized at that moment that I needed to change in order to move them to change.

When the situation seems hopeless it becomes easier to look at things in a different manner. So why am I frustrated when people around me behave in a similar manner? Okay, I’m at the bottom. It’s totally hopeless. I’m going to do things different. To start, I'm taking the Alcoholic prayer a lot more seriously now: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Okay, I said it. I’m not feeling great yet, but maybe better.

Another volunteer from the group who arrived ahead of us called last night. He will be closing his service in about four months. I asked him if he was going to extend. He was quick with his answer, “No! I don’t feel like I’m making any difference. People don’t want to change”

As I responded to this, I thought of my own situation and listened to my words. “Change is difficult. We are here because it’s hard. Change is sometimes about timing. Don’t focus on the big picture of change; take the small successes you have and celebrate them. You have made a difference. It’s those small sustainable successes that add up.” As I listened to my words, I could hear how empty they sounded on the other end of the phone. We want to see breakthrough change, but truthfully, breakthrough change rarely happens. Change happens slowly in a series of small steps.

I’ve experienced a lot of emotions since arriving on this island. Today, I’m feeling hopeful and lucky to be here today, but it’s not always like that. As I reflect on my emotional roller coaster since August 2007 when I decided to apply for Peace Corps I have to smile.

  • I feel anxious. Am I going to get an invitation to serve?
  • I am having second thoughts. Oh no! They accepted me. Do I really want to go?
  • I am excited to leave.
  • I’m sad to leave.
  • I am having second thoughts. Am I doing the right thing?
  • I feel good about my decision. This is so right for me.
  • I love it here.
  • I hate it here.
  • It’s hard to live with a host family.
  • It’s good to live with a host family.
  • I am fearful. Can I really get on this bus and not get lost?
  • I feel exhilarated! I can get on the bus and get to a destination on my own.
  • I’m relieved. Training is over and my service begins now.
  • I’m settling in. I have my own place. I can live my way now.
  • I’m excited about the work.
  • I’m bored. I don’t have enough to do.
  • I’m aggressive in finding work.
  • I’m overwhelmed with work; some commitments should not have made; I need to undo some of them.
  • My primary assignment is fun.
  • My primary assignment is frustrating.
  • I hate my primary assignment.
  • I'm going to actively search for more secondary work.
  • I love my primary assignment.
  • I don't have enough time for more secondary work.
  • I’m frustrated. People don’t want to hear about other ways of doing things.
  • I celebrate small successes.
  • I love being here.
  • I hate being here.
  • Why am I here?
  • I can't imagine my life without doing Peace Corps.
  • I daydream about my life before Peace Corps.
  • I never want to leave this island. I am so happy.
  • I have island fever and need a vacation.
  • I hate this job.
  • I love this job.

I think they should change this six letter word, change, into one of the more descriptive four letter words I use to describe it! I say out loud "Egad, I love this job!". Sometimes I mean it while other times, I imagine myself wearing red sparkling shoes and clicking my heels three times.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Muddy Paths

I love teaching. The hardest part is grading. I feel bad when I have to give someone a grade that messes up their GPA. It upsets my whole day. So, when I received an emotional email explaining how this grade was about to destroy his academic career, I did two things. I called the Dean to ask for advice. Although I already know the answer, I needed to hear his response: “You are right; don’t cave Karen”. Then I went for a walk. Exercise is always good.

I walk past the fishermen and through the area the villagers call the Ghetto. As I get further in the ghetto the paved roads are behind me and muddy paths are approaching. I walk along the waters edge. A man carrying who knows what wrapped in a towel and placed on top of his head stops me. He has a cutlass in his hand and is wearing torn clothes and no shoes. He wants to know if I work for Saint Judes, a hospital in Vieux Fort. I tell him no.

He tells me that he dated a white nurse at Saint Judes. He gave her nice clothes. He had a car and took her to nice places. They had a beautiful house on the beach just past the double-gated entry. One day she took everything and disappeared. She took all his clothes and his car. He went to her house, but the house was no longer there. It disappeared.

Although she took everything from him she couldn’t take his will to make himself young. He explains that he’s afraid to die. When he becomes very afraid, he goes to a place in his head and becomes young again. He has powers that no one else has. He is special. I’m thinking, “he’s also afraid to take his medication”. He’s friendly, but as he talks, waiving the cutlass, I am beginning to feel uncomfortable. I remind him too much of the white nurse at Saint Jude’s Hospital.

I tell him I’m glad he found his fountain of youth, but I must move on. He wants me to let him know if I see the white lady who is a nurse in Vieux Fort and I assure him I will.

A few yards later I meet a very old woman. She stops me and says, “my name is “Camille”. We exchange pleasantries and she begins stringing words together that make no sense. It looks and sounds like Alzheimer’s to me. We spell her name together several times and she is having a great time. By now, I’ve left the grading stress behind and I’ve entered another dimension in time.

As I leave the muddy path and walk onto the paved road there is a sense of normalcy. People stop to have a few words. They ask me how I am. They want to know that I’m ok. Then they move on. I hope my student is able navigate his muddy path and move on to the paved road where he may find reality.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Oh, the company I keep

It’s really big. It must weight at least one pound. Ok, maybe not that much, but it’s big. I can hear it when it falls on the floor. It flies too. I don’t know if they fly in California. I’ve never shared my house with a roach before. I won’t be going into my kitchen anytime soon. And, I’m going to sleep with my mosquito net. I’m not going to take any chances with this flying monster.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Part and Apart

As I walk through the village I hear people, mostly men, say “are you alright sister?” or “be safe sister”. I am wearing my small purse slung over my neck. It has a colorful hippie peace sign on it. When I was in my 20s it was common to be called “sister”. At the time I felt a part of the societal changes and of something bigger than myself when called “sister”. It was a connection to the “community”. I feel the same connection when they call me sister today, only I’m connected to a far different community.

But there is another side to this story: the descriptive side. They say, “Hey White Lady!” When I hear this, I am reminded of the difference people see when they look at me. Being called “White Lady” is not disrespectful here – it’s merely a description used to get my attention. It’s interesting that people focus on skin. They could say “Hey, lady with the long hair” or “Hey, lady with the green eyes”. But they don’t. It is skin that we’ve been conditioned to use to differentiate people. It's no different anywhere in the world.

So in one short walk, I feel both part and apart from the community.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Amazing and Grateful

The stories below create a framework to describe why the title of this post is “Amazing and Grateful”?

“You are joking!” I respond, “No really, I have no hot water”. “But I thought you just didn’t have hot water for a day.” As if I still must convince her, I say, “No, really…I have no hot water at all…EVER.” She asks more questions: “Do you heat water to take a shower?“ “No, I take cold showers.” ”How do you wash your hair?” “In cold water.” And so the conversation continued. This is the recent reaction of one friend, but a reaction I hear from many.

Yesterday, I called my son. I asked him about a Merlot I bought in the supermarket in Vieux Fort. He said, “Why didn’t you buy the kind we had when we were there. That was a really good bottle.” I said, “Yes, but we bought the only three bottles they had.” Then he said, “Haven’t they re-stocked?” I was silent and he knew why. It’s been eight years since he returned from Peace Corps Honduras. His memories have somewhat faded in those eight years. The reality is that I will probably never see that bottle of wine again in the supermarket. And seconds after he asked the question, he knew the answer.

Nothing is reliable. During the Christmas holiday season, the entire island ran out of sugar. A few weeks ago I went to the market in my village looking for eggs. They didn’t have any. The woman behind the cash register said, “Wait here for a minute.” I did as she said and ten minutes later she came back with a plastic bag with one egg in it. She handed it to me. It was warm. She said, “That will be fifty cents”.

We are a group of 60-something women with the exception of Yoko who just celebrated her 30th birthday. My friends from the north, Peace Corps Volunteers Elaine and Lois are coming down with Yoko, a Japanese Volunteer to spend the night. Tomorrow we will go to Dennery for a 10K walk to raise money for their fishing village. I hear them walking up my steps. I am happy they are here. We call ourselves, “The Amazing Women”. Humble, aren’t we? But you might agree at the end of this post that one of us does deserve this title.

Yoko brought gifts for each of us; beautiful fans and cloth pouches used to store paper to clean our face. After pouring large glasses of cold water and putting their things in the spare bedroom, we set out to view the beauty of Viege Point. My village has three bays with two points, each of which is equal and unsurpassed in unique beauty.

When we got back I did something truly amazing. Those that know me will not believe it, but I assure you it is true and there are pictures to prove it. I cooked! And even more remarkable, they ate and lived through the experience. After dinner we ate a cheesecake Yoko made for the occasion.

I read the first part of this post to my amazing friends. We decided there were many reasons to be grateful and this was a good time to come up with a list. It didn’t take much to start the conversation.

¨ We are grateful for local food. The chicken who gave up the warm egg; eating fresh mango, avocado and grapefruit, each having a taste that can’t be described and must be experienced.

¨ We are grateful for water. Waking in the morning to water in the pipes and creating new techniques for taking bucket baths with hot and cold buckets of water.

¨ We are grateful for buses. We ride in nice buses vs. the old school buses found in many countries. This is an entire story in itself and one that may end up in a future post. Finding a bus on a Sunday while standing in the scorching hot sun or the pouring rain is always a relief. We are grateful for the support bus drivers give us when we don’t know where we are going.

¨ We are grateful to experience another way of living. Sleeping after the village parties stop which is usually well into the morning hours is so welcome. Listening to local music; Reggae and Steel Pan reminds us where we are. We are even grateful to hear the ever-present Karaoke. I was especially grateful to share my living experience in the Flat Erika project, supporting Peace Corps Third Goal.

¨ We are grateful for things that help us keep our balance. Working in gardens and composting or enjoying Caribbean sea views and ocean breezes; all of which enable us to de-stress and find peace.

¨ We are grateful for our friends. Meeting new friends; Peace Corps Volunteers and JOVCs (Japanese volunteers) and Saint Lucian’s. Friends who visit, both local and volunteers give us the social systems that sustain us in a new country. Having the good fortune to rent from good landlords who are supportive, helpful and caring people.

¨ We are grateful for a new way to work. Working in flexible environments where we can be creative and add value. Celebrating small successes that may lead to sustainable change. Working with strong Saint Lucian women in leadership positions.

Life is slow and can be frustrating. Change we suggest is many times viewed as unnecessary. Ideas are easily lost and meetings are long. Sometimes it’s difficult to think we are doing anything useful. And just when that happens we achieve a small success. It’s helpful to us to take a moment and reflect on what we have done or learned. This is the reason why the story title includes the word “Grateful”.

It was late and we exhausted our list. The next morning we woke, made a fresh pot of coffee and ate a wonderful assortment of muffins Elaine brought. It’s been raining and we are tempted to ditch the walk and stay here for more good conversation, but we don’t. We walked to the gap to pick up a bus. We told the driver we needed to be stop at a specific restaurant along side the road. This is where the race would start. Unaware of the 10K walk, he reminded us the restaurant would be closed since it was a Sunday; yet another example of a bus driver taking care of us.

We arrived just in time; the race was on, except we really don’t race. We keep a leisurely pace. In the end, we come in last, but we enjoyed the journey admiring the scenery, the birds, a centipede in the road. Lois and I even found a good conversational story about the inevitable dead frog on the roadside. Years ago she found a dead dried up frog carcass in the road and framed it. Obviously, she is an amazing artist!

A few minutes into the “race” we dropped off our backpacks at a volunteer friend’s home. We walked past the winding rivers, admiring the bamboo, the meadows, copious amounts of banana trees and past a man making coal. It was a humid day. The conversation and beauty made the 10K seem like a short walk. At the end of the “race” we reached our goal; the path to the waterfall. Elaine said people are consistently surprised at her age and her capability. She is an amazing sixty-seven years old.

On the way back, as if nature needed to remind us that we are living in a tropical climate and visiting a beautiful rain forest, it poured rain. We took shelter in one of the banana sheds along the roadside. I was the only one who had not left my umbrella behind so I was only “slightly” dry when we reached the shed. This was a good thing as I was the only one who didn’t bring a change of clothes.

We stopped to pick up the backpacks left behind. The couple who lived there was gracious allowing Elaine, Yoko and Lois to change clothes. They were an elderly couple. It was Sunday and they were enjoying a religious service broadcast on the local Saint Lucian station. The man was listening intently to the service while holding a picture of his aunt who had died just days before. The woman poured glasses of freshly made tamarind juice. Yoko magically brought a cake out of her backpack and sliced it to share with everyone. This is why she is now one of us – a totally amazing woman!

So we finish the weekend, grateful and at least one of us proved to be truly amazing.