Sunday, August 30, 2009

Just a Typical Week

I’m sitting on my bed writing in my journal. The window is open with the screen acting as protection from mosquitoes and other pesky creatures. It’s always ten degrees cooler in the bedroom. I can hear Karaoke in the distance with crickets singing, tree frogs whistling and dogs barking. There is gospel music coming from the Catholic Church.

The island breeze is a source of meditative relaxation. It fills my senses. It creates natural air conditioning during the warm evenings, not only cooling the air, but cleaning it as well. Things just smell nicer when the windows are open. The wind howls and groans as it wraps and winds itself around the village.

It’s a good time to reflect on the week. As usual it’s had highs and lows. The week began on Monday with a meeting in Castries. Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers conducted research on the island to find out what would motivate more Saint Lucian people to become volunteers in their communities. The meeting scheduled to report those findings. The email I received a few weeks ago said I could bring someone and I invited Angelina to attend.

Angelina picked me up and we drove to Castries. She was coming from work and I assumed she would be dressed up. She assumed I would be casual. We smiled as we realized I dressed up and she dressed down. We arrived at the hotel and I noticed food was being set up outside the conference room which is odd for Peace Corps. As volunteers and their community partners entered we introduced ourselves. Angelina knew a lot of the community partners, some of them were high ministry officials. I knew the volunteers and staff so it was fun for both of us to meet new people.

It was time for the meeting to start and we were asked to stand. The Saint Lucia National Anthem began playing and the Governor General was escorted in. Then the television cameras began rolling. I looked at Angelina and we both glanced at the jeans she was wearing. We both laughed. Neither of us knew this was such an “important” event. At least one of us was dressed properly.

I have spent the last few weeks putting a workshop together for Angelina’s school. She is the Principal at the Vieux Fort Special Needs Center. I spent the day with her and her staff on Wednesday. It was nice to meet her staff and get to know this special group of teachers who are focused on children with special needs. The workshop went well and now I have yet another workshop that can be tailored when requested by others.

Wednesday night I attended a board meeting with the village foundation. This is the organization that I’m attached to and deemed my primary assignment. The organization is dysfunctional and usually frustrating to be around. Wednesday night’s meeting didn’t surprise me – it was both dysfunctional and frustrating. Peace Corps asks that we give 60% of our time to our primary assignment and develop secondary sources of work for the other 40% of our time. I get much more enjoyment from my secondary activities.

I had business in Castries on Friday. I ran into the Community Development Officer for our district and she mentioned a few activities that were coming up where she thought I might want to get involved. I like Brenda and always have fun when I’m with her so I readily agreed to everything she asked me to do.

I ended my week with a day of rest on Saturday. I spent the day watching Kennedy’s funeral. It was a day down memory lane; the Kennedy years and history went on all day. More than the memories, it was inspirational to listen to the passion this generation of Kennedy’s had for public life. The messages I heard came at a time when I needed to hear it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A year ago today…

I got up early on Sunday, August 24, 2008. My flight was at 7:55 a.m. and leaving from LAX is always stressful. People are everywhere, staff is impatient and I was more than a little nervous on this morning.

I took a shower and got dressed. Everyone was awake and milling around in the early morning. I’m sure, knowing me it was 5:30 a.m. I don’t like to be late. I remember looking back at my clean bedroom with a perfectly made bed for just a second before picking up Barkley and closing the door behind me. My sons, my daughter-in-law, my granddaughter and my dog all piled into the white minivan that would chauffeur me to the airport.

We were early and there was time for Starbucks. Mentally, I was thinking, “What did I forget?” In reflection, I can say this: I left things I really needed to bring and brought things that are totally useless here. When we arrived at the airport I was sure my baggage was overweight and I was stressing all the way through the line. I guess American Airlines had an arrangement with Peace Corps because they didn’t even flinch at the bulging bags that I handed over to them.

I was on my way to Miami. Saying goodbye to my family was so hard. I looked at my granddaughter who I had helped take care of since birth and wondered if she would remember me the next time I saw her. I held my dog that I had spent hours socializing and training in anticipation of leaving. I watched my sons and my daughter-in-law with tears and goodbyes. None of us were prepared for this.

I thought of my oldest son when John and I took him to the airport in 1998. He was headed for Peace Corps Honduras. That was no easier than this. As I left my family Jay was holding Barkley high in the air and everyone was waving goodbye. I kept looking back until I could no longer see them. When I got to the American Airlines waiting area I remembered waiting there with my son Jay (it was pre-911 so friends and family were allowed into the area). For the first time, I really knew how he felt that day.

On Wednesday morning I would travel to Saint Lucia, my home for the next two years. A year later, I still get teary-eyed when I think of that morning.

The last year has been amazing, frustrating, sad, happy, difficult and almost never easy; but it’s also been a year that has enabled me to grow as a person, to realize my strength and to take risks beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. It’s given me the knowledge that in the end, this was right for me. My life would not have been complete without it.

I have lived with complete strangers who became my friends. I have met new friends, both host country nationals and Peace Corps Volunteers. I have learned that I don’t need GPS to find my way. I have learned I can still budget and stay within the budget. This last year has given me reason to pause and nurture the sixties values that I developed and still hold dear.

I have been home once since leaving and plan to return one more time. My sons have been here and my sister visited as well. Is the experience what I thought it would be….no. I don’t know what I was thinking before I left – but I didn’t imagine this life. I don’t think anyone can imagine the highs and the lows unless they become a volunteer and experience it for themselves. It is an experience that bonds volunteers together because it is so unique.

As emotional and tearful as the parting was, I recently learned something I didn’t know. It seems that immediately after my family returned home, the Bose Home Theater and flat screen television in my bedroom was removed and placed in the hands of a new owner…humm, very curious. The goodbyes we said appeared sad when I left but this new discovery leaves me wondering – how sad was it? How is my system Jay?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Secret of the Yellow Dots

I was in the living room visiting with friends I hadn’t seen in awhile. After an entire year, this was my first day home. I was telling a story about my experience in Miami International Airport. My son, Kevin, was in the kitchen and the only thing he heard was, “follow the yellow dots”. He immediately stopped what he was doing. “Are you talking about Miami International Airport?” I said yes. “Jay, listen to mom. She’s talking about the yellow dots!” Jay came out of the bedroom and both of them were laughing. It was at this moment I realized that I was a member of an inside club. I knew the secret of the yellow dots.

As a new member, I don't yet know all of the rules. I am not sure if there are Yellow Dot Police and I don’t want to reveal an international travel secret. Please only read further if you are in the Yellow Dot Club. I don’t want to be the one to destroy the idle fun of Miamians.

The plane landed only a little more than three hours since I left Saint Lucia. Dazed, excited and a little tired, I walked through the airport where I came across the baggage claim area. Having no baggage I was confused. I hadn’t gone through customs yet and there were at least two different directions I could take. There, standing by the baggage turns, was an employee who seemed to be doing nothing but standing around. I walked over to him and said, “Where do I go to find my connecting flight?” He didn’t answer. I found another employee and got the same response. Finally I saw an employee who was talking to another American Airlines passenger. I knew I had him. He couldn’t ignore me because I knew he can hear and speak. I waited…and waited.

Finally, it was my turn. “Where do I go to get my connecting flight?” After a few minutes of convincing him I had not checked any baggage, he said “follow the yellow dots”. It seems if you have checked luggage they don’t send it straight through. You must pick it up and then stand in another line to re-check it onto the connecting flight…please don’t ask why. We must just accept this as American Airlines stalwart business practice. What I knew then is that I made a good decision when I decided not to check anything on my trip home. How lucky I was feeling!

I diligently followed directions. I looked down at the yellow dots and thought to myself, “this is easy”. I wondered who thought of such a great system. I guess they could improve it by printing signs that say, “if you are connecting, please follow the yellow dots”. But, all-in-all I was pleased…until the yellow dots disappeared. I looked around and thought, “ok, I’m here”.

But “here” didn’t look like anywhere. I was behind a security check point. Should I climb over the rope? Humm, I don’t think that would be wise. I was so confident just seconds ago – and now I’m totally confused. An English gentlemen was behind me and had come to the end of the yellow dots. I was firmly planted on the last one and was not about to give it up. I tried mentally extracting the four letter words he was using so that I could understand what he was saying, but it was useless. The only thing I clearly understood is that he didn’t think much of the United States.

After several minutes standing on the last yellow dot on the floor, a security man behind the ropes was visible and I yelled over to him. His reaction told me he wasn’t happy with the way I was trying to get attention. I’m sure he must get the same question several times each day. Without uttering a word he motioned forward. Of course, I’m still confused and said, “huh?” That’s when he said in a very irritated voice, “just keep going”.

This was the moment I joined the “yellow dot club”. I have the answer to the great secret. Miamians have a strange sense of humor. I believe during a slow day and while lunching in the lunch room someone said, “hey, what can we do for entertainment to make our jobs exciting? How can we have fun with the passengers?” Although I didn’t see them, I am sure there are hidden cameras. I believe employees sit in the lunchroom being entertained by passengers behaving like lemmings looking for non-existent and disappearing yellow dots.

I’m back in the village now after a week relaxing and “vacationing at home”. Last night I was telling this story to Angelina, a friend who lives in the village. Her response was, “Karen, hasn’t anyone told you to go through JFK? Everyone knows to stay away from Miami International!” Ah, the other part of the secret.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


We are angry at what we just witnessed. She is our friend and when she hurts, we all hurt. Yoko, a Japanese Volunteer says, “I don’t understand. I am here to help them.” We listen intently, each of us feeling her pain. She explains that this has happened many times since she left Japan and arrived here almost two years ago.

We walked past an area affectionately known as the Ghetto. The smell of ganja permeates the air. There is a group of people huddled in a circle, high and laughing and pointing at Yoko. A woman got up and ran after Yoko throwing a piece of cloth at her. She taunts her because she is Japanese.

The Ghetto is near the sea where the fishermen come in with the catch of the day. The people who hang out there are struggling to survive. Maybe it’s the ganja that gets them through the boredom of each day. Making other’s feel less human may be another survival mechanism. Their feet are firmly planted on the path of scant survival where they are unproductive and less than ordinary. I feel sad for them for they won’t allow themselves to see Yoko as the wonderful educated, giving and smart person I know.

She has traveled thousands of miles to live in a completely different culture where people speak, not one, but two languages for which she is unfamiliar. Unlike Peace Corps Volunteers, Japanese volunteers are not allowed to return home during their two year stay. She has learned to read, write and speak English. She has helped her fellow volunteers plan an event to teach people about Japan. She has taught math to students and math methodology to their teachers. She is here to provide opportunity. While they toke on ganja, she is planning another lesson to teach Saint Lucian children math literacy giving them opportunities to lift their station in life.

Yoko went home in June after completing her two years of service. She returned proud of her accomplishment and with more knowledge and understanding of the world around her. She is kind and gentle and has had a positive impact on so many people around her. I’m proud to call her my friend and sad to remember that day when she was hurting.

Racism exists on the island as I suppose racism must exist in most places of the world. I am different here. Being white, I have also been the target of racism. It was upsetting, surprising and humbling. I hold the experience largely as positive. It is another part of life’s learning process. As a teacher I know that people learn by reading, discussion and experience. I’ve read and discussed racism and now I’ve experienced it. I am a better person for it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Goodbye Roach, Hello Family

I knew when I connected with a roach that it was time for me to get off the island and reconnect with my family. As if reading my mind, Brendan called the next day. It’s been a year since I’ve seen him and his wife, Theresa – but also a year since I left my granddaughter, Ava, who was just shy of her second birthday. He wanted me to see Ava. He didn’t have to say it. I knew he was worried that she may be forgetting me. We had a strong bond before I left. Before I left I was their ace-in-the-hole. their go-to person – the person who they knew would always drop everything to watch her when the need arose.

We tried to figure out how to meet in Orlando to vacation at Disneyworld, but coordinating flights was a logistical nightmare. Brendan suggested a “staycation” and I readily agreed. So, the day after my encounter with my new friend, the roach, I booked a round-trip flight (for one, roach not included) to California. Even though my other sons, Jay and Kevin, were here four months ago it would be nice to see them as well – and Barkley, well obviously he is part of the deal! It was a short week but very nice.

After reflection, I learned that . . .

Jay can be more thoughtful than he lets on

Theresa chooses nice flowers to welcome me back

Kevin will actually get up early to do something with his mom

Brendan’s hugs are always bear-like

Ava likes presents and Barack Obama

Ava is a budding artist at her preschool but doesn't like leaving mom and dad

Kevin still likes cooking dinner

We all like to eat Benihana's

Theresa's Vietnamese Spring Rolls are the best!

Barkley sleeps under my covers

Brendan is a wonderful dad, Theresa is a great mom and Kevin and Jay are the perfect uncles

I gained four pounds but it was SO worth it because I like eating

water parks are still fun and even better with a beautiful granddaughter

I miss the weekly Farmer’s Market at Wilson Park and pluots are unheard of in Saint Lucia

I miss beds with memory foam and down pillows

hot showers are nice

I can still clean up and look decent

going to the Disney Store to buy surprises for Ava was great fun

We talk on the phone as much as Saint Lucian's talk on the phone

Ava is a budding athlete - as long as she can wear her pretty pink skirt with sparkles on it. She likes her new pink football that daddy bought

pink and lellow (aka, yellow) are Ava's favorite colors

according to Ava, "Barkley is my dog too!"

people in California still conserve water

a week isn’t long enough to get up to my mountain cabin; ah, maybe December

Ava likes daddy's pancakes

I can sleep in the absence of tree frogs, crickets and karaoke

bags are necessary when walking to pick up my dog’s poop

I need bags when I go for a walk, but for a different reason. In the U.S. they are used to pick up dog poop, in the village I need something to carry fresh baked bread home when I spot the occasional vendor by the roadside

it’s still possible to drive a car after a year of taking public transportation

I really can sneak into town and my friends won’t take it personal when I don’t call them because there just isn’t enough time

sometimes my blog posts are in a weird format that my own computer doesn't display. I think I've fixed it

Costco sells the same biscotti’s that Mega J sells – it’s just that Costco sells them for $10 while Mega Js price is the equivalent of almost $32U.S. I think the Costco ones will taste better

Saying goodbye is never easy

if you steal a blanket from American Airlines it really is possible to snooze on the floor of Miami International Airport during a five hour layover

coming home to freshly washed and ironed curtains, some new curtains and newly painted walls has Elizabeth’s touch all over it

I miss listening to the fishermen announce their fresh catch by blowing conch shells through the village

I call both places home

people in my village make up for Peace Corps inadequacies and identity crises

my friend the roach has moved on and is nowhere in sight

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Connection

There was an immediate connection. It was telepathic. We knew what each other was thinking. There have only been a few times in my life when I had this type of connection. The first time I felt it was the first time I saw John. It was a moment when time stands still and then things move in slow motion. I instantly knew I would marry him. I could almost hear Robert Flack singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It was that moment that I fully appreciated the words to her song. I didn’t understand that force then and certainly can’t explain it now, thirty-nine years later. It was a connection, just something I knew.

When my first child was born prematurely, doctors told me he would probably be mentally impaired or worse yet would not live. I looked into his eyes and knew he would be alright. I never worried about him. I often wonder if he knew the same, but of course neither of us will ever know.

There are other less dramatic times when I have experienced a special connection: experiences with friends or family where we know what we are thinking; the moments when we say the same things in unplanned unison. Reactions to those special moments are a giggle, a stare, or even a diversion of the conversation to savor that special moment.

So, although there have been moments like this in my life, none has been as surprising to me as this one. I was reading and it was fairly late in the evening. I could hear the crickets and tree frogs outside my door and the music from the street party a half block away. It was just a typical village evening. I got up to get a glass of water when it happened. This may be difficult to believe, but I assure you I am not making this up.

My kitchen door was open and the screen was closed. The windows were opened and fresh island breeze was swirling around the room. I turned the light on. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement near the sink. I turned and saw him in full view. Fear set in. An intruder had entered my kitchen.

It was there that our eyes met. My first thought . . . “I need a weapon”. I grabbed the broom near the refrigerator. It has a blue handle and hand-painted Disney Tinker Bell characters on it. I proceeded to swing knocking glasses and silverware from the sink and onto the floor. I couldn’t be concerned about breakage at this moment. I would replace anything that may break. At this moment my life was far more important than a little glassware. This was an emergency.

He jumped from the counter and our eyes met again. This time it was different. I stopped swinging and he started telepathically pleading his case for me to stop. For an instant I felt sorry for him. Although he was an intruder and not welcome in my house there was a connection . . . he was really sorry he had made the mistake of entering my kitchen. We were both frightened. He knew it and I knew it. He had no weapon. He was defenseless. The power he had seconds ago was transmitted to me. I was in charge now.

My reaction to his plea is a source of regret. Even though this incident happened a week ago, I think about it every single day. It’s just now that I feel like I can talk about it. Somehow I will make amends in the future.

I did not allow him to persuade me to stop defending myself. No, after a few seconds of telepathic communication I continued my defensive swinging with the broom. I chased him throughout the kitchen. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to send him reeling over the back balcony to his death. I feel guilty for having this feeling. I do like to think of myself as a peaceful volunteer but my instincts were taking over.

The scuffle lasted for what seemed to be several minutes until he found his way out of my kitchen by making his body small and crunching himself under the screen door. I quickly slammed my door and locked it. The last time I saw that roach he stopped momentarily on the porch to look back at me. I swear he was telepathically saying, “it’s going to be ok for both of us now”.

I’ve been on this island for one year now. I think there is something to this disease called, “island fever”. Does anyone think I need a vacation?