Monday, September 28, 2009

Christmas is here

Everybody sing, "O Come all ye faithful" Wait, it's not Christmastime. What's that I hear? Oh! We have an Ice Cream Truck in the village! Life is good.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A New Decade

I know the reflection cannot be me. That person reached a new milestone today; a new decade. When my mother was in this decade, she was old. Her friends were old too. I’m constantly startled when I see the reflection the mirror. It can’t possibly be me! That person looks nothing like me. She has white hair and lines on her face. I noticed the other day how gravity has taken over in odd places. She looks somewhat like my mother.

Well, it’s not me. I have proof. I have facts and data that say there is a mysterious force that has taken over every mirror in my house. I know that sounds preposterous, but it’s true. When I walk around my village I see people staring at me . . . when I’m near enough to see them. I hear things too…at least I hear them when people speak up and don’t mumble. Men, and even boys say, “I like to see you”. When I’m in Castries taxi drivers, who are waiting for a fare, call out, “Hey Blondie”. Just yesterday when I was in Castries I was attempting to cross the street. There is no pedestrian right-of-way here and this can be a dangerous activity. A car stopped and the driver motioned me to cross the street. He rolled down his window and said, “I love you so much, I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.” Some men are even concerned for my safety and shout, “I want to be your personal security”.

People wouldn’t say these things to that person in the mirror! I’m sure my mother would not have heard these comments in this decade. Could it have anything to do with Saint Lucia . . . nah! These are hard facts and data. These statements are made by perfect strangers! And, these strangers are many times half the decade of that woman in the mirror – and sometimes even less than half! Besides, I’m in the Peace Corps. I have no car; my feet take me most places. Does this sound like the reflection in the mirror? I don’t think so either.

At times I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone . . . oops, is that a clue that might help identify the decade? I will leave it to your imagination to decide what decade I’m talking about. In the meantime, I’m going to go clean my mirror and see if that helps.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kangaroos and M&Ms

I have a fresh supply of erasers, pencils and paper. I have the internet and thanks to my friend Cathy, I also have plenty of M&Ms on hand, an essential tool to teach math. Almost every day there is a soft knock at my door. When I answer it there stands Coco and Yvette. Armed with pencils, notebooks and workbooks in hand, they say “Mom wants you to help us with our homework”. School is back in session.

Coco and Yvette live across the street from me. Their father is a fisherman who does not speak English. He is from Martinique where they speak Kweyol and French. Their mother speaks Kweyol and English. Although I don’t know for certain, they are both likely unable to assist their children in the homework department.

Over the years I spent a lot of time helping my own children with homework and frankly, I was relieved when I thought this activity in my life was over. Coco came alone today – a Sunday. He’s waited until the last minute to do his homework which is due tomorrow.

Today we are learning sentence structure. We are changing plural words to singular words. There are eighteen sentences he must change. He yawns; he lays on his paper; he zones out. He’s able to do the work, but doesn’t make a connection between what he is learning and how this will apply to his life. Actually, neither do I.

His dad is teaching him about the sea, how to fish, and how to trap crabs. Coco likes to work with his hands and wants to be just like his dad. His dad is a hard worker and he is gentle with his children. He is a good role model for Coco. He is teaching him a useful skill.

Coco will likely not be rich, but will be skilled and able to take care of himself…and it’s probably not going to make much difference if he knows that the singular spelling for Kangaroos is Kangaroo; a word used in one of his sentences. We looked Kangaroo up on the internet so now Coco knows what it is. Actually, in Coco’s life it probably won’t matter if he knows what a Kangaroo looks like.

Today I used the M&Ms for something different. Usually they are only used on math days. Today I put a small dish of candy on the table because Coco needs a sugar high to get through these sentences. Without a little sugar we could have been at the dining room table all night.

Monday, September 14, 2009

High Tea and Village Company

The cookies are freshly baked; White Chocolate Cranberry Nut Chews. (I am sure this first sentence will summon a blog comment from at least one of my sons.) The cookies are packed in two small plastic ice cream containers which I placed into my red back pack. I splurged on these cookies by using a half bag of the white chips I brought back from the states. Although chocolate chips can be found for a king’s ransom, to my knowledge, white chips cannot be found on this island. I will bring two dozen cookies and spend ten dollars on canned goods. The canned goods will be used to fill hampers for needy families during the holiday season. I pick up my invitation and backpack and head out the door.

It’s Sunday and I am surprised that I pick up a bus within just a few minutes after arriving on the highway. I’m headed to a small neighboring village. I’m secretly proud of myself because I have never been to Marylene’s house, but I know I will find it. I smile as I think about how I would have panicked a year ago at the very thought of making my way to an unknown destination. My smile becomes even broader as I think about the difference…there are no street names or house addresses here on the island. Possible twists and counted turns are described with an occasional landmark sprinkled in the mix. This was my biggest nightmare a year ago and now it’s just a small detail in everyday life. I will look for a yellow house with stairs leading up to her home. How hard can that be?

Within ten minutes I am walking on the road headed to experience high tea with a few women in the village. I look forward to walking on this road because it is lush with green foliage on either side. As I walk, I see a shirtless man wearing torn shorts and riding a bicycle. He is clutching a half empty bottle of rum with one hand while steering with the other. Just another day in paradise. We exchange pleasantries and I continue on. As I reach the top of the road Brenda approaches. I look up and sure enough there is the yellow house with the stairs leading to Marylene’s home.

Since I’m interested in Saint Lucian history, people have told me for the past year that I should visit this place – home and part museum. We walk in and I’m immediately overwhelmed with what I see. The home is arranged in a mazelike fashion. There are long tables pushed up against the backs of three large sofas which outline the living room. One must walk around the maze to gain entrance to a seat on the sofa. My eyes are fixed on pottery, pictures, old typewriters, crowns and dolls. There are paintings and artwork on the walls. A mock up of a Carib house sits in the corner. A huge pot is filled with dried foliage nearly touching the ceiling. A likeness of Sir John Compton, the Father of Saint Lucia, hangs prominently. There are small children’s handmade chairs with old purses and other trinkets sitting on them. This is just the first 10 feet from the entrance.

Turning the corner reveals more. New and old stuffed into every crevice and corner of the home. Barack Obama has a corner of his own, pictures and prayers for his success. There is an old sewing machine and Brenda says, “we used to have one like that. It’s run by turning the crank”. I respond, “someday I want to come back and have an official tour so I can hear all the stories”. There are old photograph albums sitting by the television. I’d like to pick them up and go through them, but I feel that might be intrusive, so I resist. We move to the dining area and there is so much china displayed that I’m sorry I don’t know more about this subject.

We sit down at Marylene’s dining room table which is filled with antique fine china and crystal dishes containing homemade carrot cake, assorted cookies and spinach croissants. The table is set with care. I’m handed a china plate and a silver hors d’oeurvres fork. Brenda pours hot water into each tea cup and swirls the water to heat the cup. That water is discarded and fresh hot water is poured into each cup. A basket of tea choices is passed around the table.

Marylene serves handmade vegetarian foods with a little fish, all of which she proclaims as low fat and nutritious. The food is artistically arranged on shells and then placed on the fine china. Like dining in a fine restaurant, the portions are small and delicately balanced with presentation. This is not just about food, but about the love that went into preparing the food for friends.

I take the cookies from my backpack which are packed in reused plastic ice cream containers and set them on the table. I study them carefully. One says Ferrands Vanilla and the other is Ferrands Cherry Vanilla. I suppose I could have put more thought into the selection of my travel container, after all this is High Tea.

As we talk two more women come in and join in on our discussion. Our topic: How do we organize a group of women to network and learn from each other? Stories about life are told. Each woman is a leader in the community and shares events that led them to where they are today. I enjoyed the richness of the discussion. In many ways I found there is little difference between us. We all have similar struggles. Everyone present had life’s lemons thrown at them and each added sugar making sweet lemonade. The question we couldn’t quite answer is this: Why do some women add sugar to their lemons and others don’t. Why do some women gain strength from tough moments while others give up and become weak?

Marylene is a strong young woman who is independent and a leader in the village. She has national recognition and is a Saint Lucia treasure. She is humble and I would not know these things except others have told me bits and pieces about her over the months I’ve been here. She is the woman who performed last Sunday at the Children’s After School Kick-Off Program. She is a mother, musician, caterer, artist and Jill of all trades.

After three hours it is time to leave. I reflect on the afternoon. I love being included in the community, but I panic. I am thinking – OMG, I am going to have to host one of these tea’s and I have NO idea how to make food like this! I bake cookies in my toaster oven because I don’t know how to turn on the propane gas which is stored in the tank next to my stove. I have no fine china or crystal vases to arrange artistic petit fours even if I did figure out how to make them. I’m not even sure if I spelled petit fours properly. I don’t have tea cups – only big mugs with things that have sayings like “Florida, the Sunshine State” printed on them. I need to get some culture! I need to find some sugar to add to these lemons! By the way, I confess I had to look up the spelling for hors d’oeurvres as well as petit fores. Please someone; give me some cooking lessons quick!

Thursday, September 10, 2009


It’s Sunday afternoon and it’s hot. I’m in my bedroom and reading a book. The window is open and the fan is on and it’s somewhat comfortable. I keep looking at the time…two hours, an hour and a half, one hour. It’s a count down. I’ve been invited to attend a kick-off meeting in the next village for a new after school program for children. I need to dress up and walk to the bus, then walk to the school where the meeting will be held…and as I’ve said, it’s hot. I’d rather continue reading this book.

I call Andy, the volunteer who has worked hard on this project. Yes, the meeting is on. It has not been cancelled. When I force myself to do something I don’t want to do, I’m almost always glad I did and this turns out to be no exception. I had a good time and met new people and connected with some I hadn’t seen in awhile.

I dressed for the occasion, reluctantly leaving the cool temperature in my house, to walk down the sun drenched asphalt road to the highway. A bus stopped almost immediately. After a quick few minutes, I called out, “stopping driver”. The bus stopped and I walked the winding road to the school where the meeting would be held. There were other Peace Corps Volunteers there and we chatted as we waited for the program to begin. A woman asked us to go outside and get a corsage.

As I moved outside to the entrance I met several of the women who had sat through the Leadership and Organizational Strengthening Workshop I gave in Canneries two months ago at the Country Women of the World Regional Conference. They were bubbling with excitement about what they had learned and how they have already applied some of the concepts. I put a lot of time in to develop this workshop. Wow! It was nice to hear this.

Like most meetings, we began with prayer, the national anthem and protocol. Each speaker who got up officially recognized the protocol before giving their address. Meetings here are very formal and this structure is typical of a meeting. At the end of these meetings it is typical that someone will stand up and give a “vote of thanks” ensuring everyone is properly recognized.

One of the women who is, in my opinion, a national treasure, played an African Drum while reciting an original poetic verse she had written encompassing the theme of the after school program, “save a mind, save a child”. Many were in tears as she finished the piece. She rocked the house. She will no doubt head the musical part of the program for the children.

After refreshments and conversation a friend from my village brought me back to my house. I changed into comfortable clothes just as the phone rang. Angelina wanted to know if I would ride with her to another nearby village. It sounded like a good idea so I packed up my things and started walking down to her house.

Angelina is the principal at the Vieux Fort Special Needs Center. She was picking up breadfruit and figs from a mother who sends two of her children to the school. There is a cook at the school that prepares lunch each day for the children. Lunch at the school is fifty cents. The woman pays for her children to be fed by donating some of the food that grows on her land.

As we approached the home a very shy girl with a wide grin watched Angelina backing up her car onto the dirt path next to her house. There were three dogs tied up and barking. The sun had gone down and there were tree frogs singing and bugs chiming in. A woman walks up to the house. She has a goat on a rope that is making noise. She grins a wide toothless smile. She likely has very little money but seems to be one of the happiest people I have seen on the island.

It is so noisy and chaotic. The shy girl holds my hand with a grip so tight. She does not speak and I see some sign language. I know it would be futile to try to free myself from her grip. I walk over to one of the noisiest dogs
and silently wait for it to be quiet. Then I bend down and pet it. The second dog stops barking and comes over for a little attention. Now only one dog is barking. Angelina says, “eh, eh . . . look at that. They are quiet. They are never quiet. You have the touch. Look Karen! Everyone is laughing.”

I know the dogs just want attention. I move towards the third dog and I’m told he will bite me. I know he won’t. He’s just insecure and afraid. I kneel down on the dirt and hold out an open hand. The dog quiets down and comes over to be petted. They just needed a bit of attention.

Angelina and the old woman pack up the car with food. The girl is still holding my hand, rubbing it and smiling at me. The dogs are begging for attention. Angelina shuts the trunk of the car and we are ready to go. I open the car door with my free hand and get in, I tell the girl goodbye. Her smile fades and she reluctantly lets go.

What a great day…and all I wanted to do was read a book! Look what I would have missed.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tales, Chants, Koudmen and Bush Doctors

I've spent time in the libraries researching Saint Lucia's past. It is rich in oral history, but thin on written information. These are just a few of the things I have picked up during visits to the library over the past year. I've saved a few others for a future post.

Tim-Tim Tales is oral literature told by a Konte. The Konte tells the tale with movements, acting, singing, and comedy. It’s an interactive tale where the audience gets involved. Many times the tales have moral lessons. A typical tale would center on good vs. evil. There are both animal tales and human tales. The tales are told in Kweyol.

A character in the animal tale is Konpe Lapin (rabbit). Depending on the tale he can be a thief, a schemer, a wise fellow, or a knowledgeable leader.

An example of a human tale follows. The three main characters in the human tale are brothers; Gros Jean who is strong, Mi Jean who is smart, and Ti Jean who possesses common sense. The devil sends servants to challenge the brothers. Gros Jean, who is exceptionally strong for a human, is no match for the devil’s strength. Mi Jean who is smart doesn’t understand the environment and is no match for the cleverness of the devil. Ti Jean who possesses common sense, enlists all the animals in the forest to fight with him. The devil gets very angry and he uses his devilish strength to fight back. Ti Jean knows that all the animals and his own strength combined are no match for the devil. Ti Jean prays. He uses common sense and shows his love for all creatures as well as his faith to defend against the devil. Ti Jean prevails.

Music is important on the island. Traditional music includes folk songs, lullabies, and chants. The chants are adaptations of Gregorian Chants. Today’s music is mainly composed of Country Western and Reggae, but it’s common to hear traditional music on the island.

A Koudmen is usually organized on a Sunday. Friends and helpers provide free labor for those that need an extra hand. Music is incorporated. If help is needed in the fields, musicians will come with tanbou (drum), bamboo, iron, or bottles which are struck to create motivating rhythm. Songs with work chants are sung. The Koudmen creates a sense of reciprocity in the community.

Evil spirits can be a concern. The Gadi, a bush doctor, is enlisted. He places special things in gardens and performs rituals. The Gadi is also a spiritual advisor.