Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I remember when. . .

my parents told me stories about having no money when they were growing up

stores were closed on Sundays

I played in the backyard and hid in the laundry that was drying on the clothes line

I wore two and sometimes three inch heels and suits to the office. I had a purse to match each outfit.

hierarchical structures ruled business and almost every decision was made by superiors

jobs were highly structured and teams didn’t exist

workers waited to be told what to do

the boss was almost always called Mr.

people referred to elders as Mr., Mrs., or Miss

Ms. was not yet in our lexicon

I knew all my neighbors

families owned one car and some didn’t own one at all

we only had one television

there were no dishwashers

very few people had microwave ovens

there were very few fast food restaurants

we cooked when we were hungry

grocery stores weren’t “mega-stores" and Benny, who owned the neighborhood market, would give me credit when I was short

I went to the “dime-store” with my mom to purchase fabric from the bolts that stood up in colorful displays

work-life balance was an unfamiliar term

a full-time job meant 40 hours a week; not 24/7

sanitation workers walked behind the truck, picking up bags of trash left on the curb, hurling them into the back of the truck

highways were littered with bottles, wrappers and cans before Lady Bird Johnson’s America’s Beautification Campaign

there was no recycling

I could walk on the California shores and find seashells

frogs were plentiful and catching pollywogs was an activity that took all day

it was safe to walk at night by myself

methanphedime was a word very few people understood and heroine was considered the hardest drug on the black market

the older generation was fearful we were losing our cultural identity

I remember when my grandparents said my generation was spoiled
people dressed for church and the women wore hats

That’s kind of like what it’s like in my village…

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I have been working on my computer for a couple of hours. I am drafting yet another workshop, this time for teachers. The day is heating up and I’m in need of some refreshing island breeze. I walk into the spare bedroom and pull back the curtain. I tie the curtain into a knot and open the window. The fresh air flows into the room and it instantly cools me down. As I gaze out the window, I look twice. There are people playing American football in the church parking lot just down the street from me. That, in itself is odd, but the people playing football look like me. They are white. That is even more odd. There are a lot of them too. Enough work; I need to solve this mystery. Why are they here?

I walk down the stairs and onto the street. It takes less than two minutes. I am met with the smiles of Betty and Don, a couple around my age. They have brought several young teenage girls here to teach a two week Catholic Bible Study for children in the village. Alright, this makes sense. As we speak a man with shorts and a t-shirt stops and I am introduced to Father Ed from the Philippines. This is his parish.

I tell him that I’m working on business development in the village to improve living conditions. He tells me that people must believe in miracles in order to receive them. He asks how long I’ve been here and I explain it’s been about a year. Father Ed says, “A year! Well, Peace Corps Volunteers always meet me right away so I know them. I tell them what we need here”.

Alright, I guess I’ve just made a mistake. About eighty percent of islanders are Catholic. There is no separation between church and state. Business meetings are started with prayer. Religion is discussed in public schools. Prayer and spirituality are embedded into the everyday life of the people. In short, the church has a lot of influence; this is his village, his flock and I’ve intruded on his space. Strike one.

Seemingly sympathetic, Betty interjects, “We were here a few years ago and the church was in disrepair. It looks so much better now”. I say, “Yes, I heard it was remodeled as part of Cricket World Cup”. Strike two. Father Ed is furious! Although many people I’ve spoken to say that is the case, Father Ed sets the record straight. The church was remodeled because it was its Diamond Jubilee anniversary. He says, “I hear that and they are taking credit. Did they get money? I never saw any money”. I realize I can’t win this conversation, but I attempt to explain that I only arrived a year ago and I have no idea about any money.

At the end of this discussion, I decided it was time for me to quickly remove myself from this uncomfortable corner I had painted myself into. There was no need to find another discussion topic because I understand the game well enough to know that the third strike would put me out of the game. Maybe I’ll run into Father Ed again on a better day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Celebration Time!

When Elizabeth smiles she looks down cocking her head to one side. There is a shyness about her, although she appears regal. But there is also a side to her that says, “I’m in charge. Don’t mess with me!” Until her recent retirement, she was principal of the Infant School (K-2). She is respected in the community.

Elizabeth ensures I have rides to events, that I understand cultural holidays and that I’m included in village activities; things my point person (the person who requested me) should be doing, but doesn’t. He is another story that will be saved for another time. So it didn’t surprise me when she told me she had arranged for my transportation to the reception.

This is the fiercest storm I have seen since arriving on this island. The three o’clock wedding which began at 4:30 is over. We waited an hour before the rain slowed to a mere pouring rain. I smiled to myself as I thought of how California would respond to this “lightened” storm version. Mudslides, flooding and infrastructure disasters would cause the National Guard to be summoned; President Obama would surely declare California a national disaster; shelters would be set up, untold dollar loss would be the topic on the news for days to come.

But here in the village, as the storm lightened to merely pouring rain, people were leaving for the Garden Reception. We retreated into Edward’s van; the air conditioner on and the windshield wipers furiously moving back and forth. We entered a traffic jam of vans, cars and trucks all on their way to the party at a sister village. Upon arrival, we stepped from the van and anyone wearing glasses immediately removed them. The humid air fogged our glasses and our ability to navigate the darkened path down the eroding uneven asphalt driveway.

As we sit in folding chairs under a shelter and watch the weather turn from bad to worse, Elizabeth says, “How was this wedding different from those in the United States?” Other than weather, there were only subtle differences. Music was a focused part of the ceremony and the audience was participative…more than I have seen in the United States. We are more formal; they are more celebratory. Perhaps there were a few more little girls and boys in the ceremony. This was one of my favorite pictures.

Today is Neema and Gerado’s day. Neema is Bea and Neil’s daughter. They are the family who hosted me into their home during training. Neema and Gerardo "picked" well. They are hard-working, serious, committed, and spiritually-centered. They are lucky to have the connection that many only dream of finding.

I’ve been to the Seventh Day Adventist Church many times with my host family during training. I found it interesting, at times moving and I always felt welcome. Some of the wedding differences I saw were SDA and not geographical differences.

Wedding programs and corsages made of ribbon and a little netting material with the bride's and groom's names were given to everyone who entered. Handmade fans with a picture of the bride and groom were available. These were useful as no air conditioning exists in the buildings. Finally, a small vial with clear liquid and a wand was handed out.

There was standing room only in a large church. I saw Neeni standing near the entrance of the church. She owns the Supermarket where I shop. I looked at Elizabeth and said, “There’s Neeni. We can make room for her.” Elizabeth shot back, “Neeni was suppose to walk with us, but she is never ready on time. Now she must stand”. Then she smiled and sat there in quiet. Elizabeth is clearly annoyed with all the waiting, but after a few seconds she softened and motioned for Neeni to come sit with us. She later confessed her meanness to Neeni and they both laughed.

Finally, an hour and a half late, the ceremony begins. Here Comes the Bride was not played. Instead a musician played an oboe as the procession moved down the isle. He was playing Wind Beneath My Wings. The bride walked alone to the mid-point of the isle where she met her parents. In a symbolic walk, Gerado came from the front of the church to greet them. He took Neema’s arm and Neil and Bea released their daughter, turned and walked back a few steps while Gerado escorted Neema to the alter. As Neil would later say in his toast at the reception, “My Neema is now your Neema”. It was a symbolic gesture of giving the bride away. Elizabeth, a Catholic, said this is an SDA custom.

The ceremony was participative and also celebratory. There were horns to be blown and cheers to be shouted. A groomsman expressed his feelings by singing a song. Neema's sister Niesha, also sang a song; Michael Jackson’s, I’ll be There. As the wedding party moved towards the exit, they swayed to the music while the crowd cheered and used the vials of clear liquid to blow bubbles as they passed.

After the service and as we waited for the rain to subside, baskets of newspapers announcing the new couple were distributed and the children finished blowing the last of the bubbles.

These things were not so different from any we would experience in the United States. What I thought was different was the sermonette. As someone who grew up in the 60s, some advice caught me off guard. “Neema, don’t let yourself go, there are women here in this very room who will take your man. Let Gerado always see you as the beautiful woman you are today.” The other side was, “Gerado, be strong – a superman to Neema. Neema treat him as your superman”. I was struck by the stereotypes; men will stay as long as a woman is pretty and he feels like superman. Then there was a lot of talk about ensuring Gerado was happy in bed. This was strangely interesting advice to someone who holds feminist values, but it is the culture of the island and I respect that.

The big difference? A little rain doesn't stop Saint Lucians from having a good time. However different and same this wedding was, it was a celebration of two wonderful people.

After the sermo
n was said, the vows exchanged, and the songs were sung the procession marched toward the door, the bride and groom escaped, but the rest of us . . . stopped . . . and we waited an hour for the rain gods to take pity on the celebrators as well as those who were setting up the beautiful garden party that was waiting for us.

And so I leave you with a posting of possibly the worst picture of a bride and groom ever taken; actually the best of the worst. I took a better picture of the cakes than the bride and groom...very sad. I obviously need photography lessons.

Align Center

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I open the door and there is a young woman standing there. I just met her less than an hour ago while sitting on the steps in front of my house talking to Angelina. I invite her in. She slips off her sandals and steps into my house.

She says, “Come out on your balcony”.

I follow her onto the balcony and she says, “See the guy in the red and white stripped shirt?”

“Yes, I see him.”

“Have you seen him before?”

“No, I haven’t”.

“That’s my brother. He wants to meet you. He’s shy and said I had to come here for him. I asked him why he wouldn’t do it, but he wouldn’t answer. He likes you.”

He is maybe twenty-five years old. I am almost at a loss for words, but I’m able to say, “Honey, I’m a little old for him”.

The ridiculousness of the conversation went on for ten minutes. Huh?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

No more nights....PLEASE!!

I like music and that's a good thing. Music is played morning, noon and night here. It's usually one of the most enjoyable aspects of village life. I've discovered new artists that I may have never known about if I hadn't come to this village. The problem is right now....they only play two songs. Please someone, make them stop!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Before I left for Peace Corps, I had a house phone and a cell phone. I had internet and satellite television. I had internet access on my cell phone and an answering service for my house phone. I had email accounts at three colleges plus two private email accounts. Passwords? I had so many passwords and variations of passwords it was dizzying. All this is designed to make my life more efficient and productive . . . well, sometimes it did, but often it was a source of stress and frustration. Dropped calls, internet interruptions, huge e-bills, forgotten passwords and contracts are things that make my life less efficient and more difficult. And, lost phones? Well, I needed more than one phone to find the one I misplaced or lost; this wasn’t a luxury; it was a requirement!

There are electronic gadgets for everything and anyone who knows me knows that I love e-gadgets . . . when they work and when I can find them. Three IPods? Of course! One summons WIFI and another is a perfect size for the gym. The third is needed in case the other two fail.

Of course, a machine is necessary that converts VHF to DVD format. How else would I be able to convert DVD to other formats that are more easily stored on my computer? And then I need the remote control for one of my three laptops that doesn’t have one built into the system. And the projector? Well, how else would I show films at Los Angeles Harbor College . . . not to mention the nights we pop some corn, rearrange furniture and have a neighborhood movie night. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.

I longed for the days before we had so much E-stuff. When I was a young child, we had one black and white television. My father bought one of the first remote controls. It was the size of our living room sofa and was connected to the television by a cable that a small child could crawl through. We had one phone hung on the kitchen wall and often when we picked it up we heard voices on the receiver. Four families shared a party-line. When I lived in Thousand Oaks, only five numbers were required to dial a friend on my pink princess phone. When I was a child, my family got on fine without all the e-toys we find on the store shelves today. Barbie Dolls and imagination were the only requirement for a girl growing up in the 50s.

So when I decided to volunteer for Peace Corps I was ready to e-simplify and rid my life of all this e-stuff. Sort of. My first thought was fear and then panic set in. I wondered what life would be like without my e-stuff. Ah, back to a simple life. Would I be able to do it? I began an internet research to find a list of things to bring. Then I learned that although Saint Lucia is a poor country, most houses have electricity and indoor plumbing and internet is easily available.

Humm…. I must bring an IPod. I learned that most Peace Corps Volunteers bring a laptop with them. I guess I should bring speakers too so that I can enjoy music. Thank goodness for digital cameras. I can download my pictures on Flixter and use some of them for my blog.

When I got here, I learned cable TV is the norm. I’ve been assigned more passwords and codes adding to the repertoire of endless number, letter and character combinations to remember. Peace Corps arranged for a special rate for volunteer cell phones. For some reason it’s necessary to have a house phone with internet. One cell phone, however, isn’t really enough. There are two cell phone carriers and it’s expensive to make cross-over calls. Many people have two pre-paid cell phones which saves them money. It turns out the house phone is also necessary because it’s cost-prohibitive to call landlines with cell phones and vice-versa. The phone system here is very complicated.

I’m standing firm on this point. I’m drawing the line in the sand. I will not have an answering machine for my house phone! As a Peace Corps Volunteer I must make some sacrifice. So much for e-simplification.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

And the winner is . . .

It was a long time ago. I was probably fourteen years old; a freshman in high school. I don’t remember what made me walk into that room. I wasn’t aware of much that was happening in my high school beyond the boys and parties. I must have seen a flyer around campus. It makes sense that I would be interested.

From a young age I strived to be a secretary, unaware of any potential beyond that. Choices for girls were limited. Only one choice was expected: to get married and have children. I was taught that girls went to college to find a suitable husband. I secretly wanted a career, but didn’t dare tell anyone.

My father was well connected. When I graduated from high school I was given choices based on my father’s ability to find employment for me: become an actress...hardly; an airline hostess...I'm too short; get a free ride at the University of the Pacific...I don't think so; work in accounts payable at my dad’s company for minimum wage, driving over an hour each way to and from work in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ah, that's the one! I saw it as the pathway to my ultimate destination; to become a secretary just like Susie on the television program Private Secretary. I wanted to work for a man just like the one she worked for – Mr. Sands. Susie was so sophisticated. She wore pretty hats and gloves that she shopped for during her lunch hour.

So, having chosen this lofty goal, it doesn’t surprise me that I walked into a classroom after school to join Junior Achievement, an organization designed to teach business to students. We set up a company and I was appointed the Finance Officer. We sold stock and made candles for the holiday season. My father had yet another item to drag to work and peddle to unsuspecting victims as retaliation for the things dad bought over the years from their children.

During the 2008-2009 school year in Saint Lucia, I have been working on the other end of Junior Achievement . . . facilitating the children in the Village Secondary School to learn business practices and hustle their Junior Achievement goods upon students, teachers and other unsuspecting bystanders.

Elaine, my friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, is here to help develop Junior Achievement as a sustainable activity to teach children business skills. She recruited me and other volunteers to help her with individual schools while she worked the larger island program. The semester is coming to an end and the businesses that were created are being dissolved. Stockholders are reaping the profits from their original investment of $5EC per share. The financial records have been completed and submitted.

As Elaine takes a deep breath children from all over the island are arriving in buses to attend a celebration that recognizes the schools that have achieved the best in profit, records keeping, company of the year and highest achiever…as well as the big one the Governor General’s Award for Innovation, Creativity and Originality. There were plenty of dignitaries to recognize and support the children. And there was entertainment; The Trio Brothers, a group of three boys from one of the schools performed.

My girls patiently awaited the winning announcements. We didn’t win the big one and certainly didn’t win for most profit, not when our profit was only $1.20EC per share. No, we didn’t get recognized for company of the year either. Our student didn’t get highest achiever, and we didn’t get first or second place for records keeping. Then they announced third place Records Keeping; and the winner is . . .

We proudly posed at the front of the room with trophy in hand whispering "good job" to one another. That winds up another project on the island. As we walked out of the building towards the bus, Mrs. Sami, the teacher I helped, declared next year our goal is to get the big trophy!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Unknown Territory Explored

It’s Monday and I need to be in Castries by 7:00 p.m. I’ve cleaned the house and prepared as much as I can. At 5:00 I head downstairs and toward the main road to catch a bus for the 45 minute ride. It should be easy to catch a bus because it’s the end of the day and drivers will be out in force looking to fill their buses to maximize their earnings.

I arrived a little before seven. Ah, enough time to go to Super J to buy a couple of bottles of wine. I pick two bottles of red and head for the Taxi Stand where I will meet Lenny. I am using this opportunity to stock up on some things I need – Mega J, here I come! Paper towels, toilet paper, large bags of coffee and drinks; oh, and two new pillows and a cucumber so large that Lenny and another man are making jokes about it. I leave them behind and go about my shopping.

The shopping spree empties out my pockets, but I have enough of some things to carry me to close of service. We pack up his taxi and head to Vigi where my sister, Janyn, will arrive at 9 p.m. She will be here for five full days and I have a packed schedule ahead. I know I will be exhausted at the end of her trip and I can only assume she will need a vacation after this vacation as well.

Her plane arrives and we wait more than an hour for her to get through customs. I’ve learned by now that nothing is easy and patience makes life seem easier. We pile into Lenny’s van and he drives through the Morne stopping at Dennery to look at the lovely view. Janyn is very photogenic, isn’t she? After an hour we arrived home and brought the bounty of goods acquired at Mega J up the stairs and into the house, along with the backpack she brought. Inside her bag were so many goodies; a new pair of flipflops, Lemon Luna Bars, Bagels, Mounting Tape to hang a new picture of my granddaughter – and a New York Pizza. Yum!

We opened a bottle of wine and stayed up late talking about what we would do while she was here. The days are packed and will go by fast.

A village tour which included Vierge Point and Sandy Beach with drinks at the Reef were on the agenda. The banana daiquiri was so good, it sent us searching for a blender to replicate the frosty drink at home.

Bus rides are an experience that most Peace Corps Volunteers like to share with guests. Loud music is a constant and swerving around vehicles can be nerve-wracking. One of the biggest surprises on the island is that Country Western is extremely popular. One explanation is that the culture is "story-telling" and so that explains their love for the stories told in this type of music. It's unfortunate that the wind overtook the sound in the video and the Country Western Music cannot be heard.

The Ziplines in Dennery were at the top of our list and we weren’t sorry. Zipping through the forest high above the trees at 30 MPH was great fun and walking up to the waterfall topped it off.

(If you are at work, I'd advise you to turn the sound down before starting this video).

After cooling off we hiked back to the road and waited…and waited for a bus. Catching a bus in Dennery is challenging and not a sport that I like to participate in. Finally, after some time, an empty taxi took pity on us and stopped, charging us only bus fare. It was there that Janyn left her camera; lost forever in the backseat of an unknown taxi.

Another volunteer had family visiting and we went along for an arts and crafts tour of the island they had planned. We stopped at Choiseul, a village known for its crafts where I purchased a doll made by a blind person for my granddaughter. After a leisurely drink at Ladera Resort and a quick purchase of purses made of wood, we stopped at Zaka Totum and Mask Studio where the artist creates amazing masks using recycled wood. Of course I couldn’t resist and picked up a simply designed mask made of Blue Mahoe, Jamaica's National Tree. Later we stopped for a taste of Cassava Bread before we headed up north to the art gallery in Castries and then to the batik and wood carving studios on the Morne.

Finally, we went to Llewellyn Xavier’s home in Cap Estate. Sometimes it amazes me how much access a Peace Corps Volunteer has. Among the locations of Llewellyn’s permanent collections are the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s worked with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jean Genet and others. His work is amazing. This is one stop where I did not make a purchase.

We sipped Rum Punch and ate fish cake while listening to him tell stories. Later we drank the juice from chilled coconuts that were picked that day in our honor. His current project is to conceptualize the environment to awaken world consciousness of the destruction the earth is experiencing. He had a box brought out with t-shirts with environmental messages that he designed. We each picked one and then signed his guest book.

The next day we attended the July 4th BBQ at the Peace Corps Country Director’s home where we met a group of Saint Lucia Volunteers who served in the late 1960s. This was their forty year reunion.

We went to Pigeon Point and hiked to Fort Rodney to enjoy the amazing view that pans the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It’s an old lookout complete with cannons that the English used to fight the French. The island changed hands fourteen times before the English prevailed. Saint Lucia gained independence in 1979 and just celebrated its thirty year anniversary.

Janyn left, more than likely exhausted from the packed days. I watched her plane take off while sitting on the beach nearby. Oh, the camera? Well, the driver of the taxi figured out that it belonged to the two white women he rescued on the side of the road in Dennery. He remembered the village where he dropped us off. He has a friend in my village. We are easily described and that friend knows me. The camera has been returned and is ready to ship back to my sister. Humm, do you think that would happen in Los Angeles?