Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Mystery Continues

It reads like a good novel. A crime committed. Suspense is in the air. I find myself searching for the answer. Like any good detective, I have interviewed fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and host nationals. I have identified possible suspects and looked for hidden clues.

The problem is that I can’t turn to the last page of this mystery novel for an answer. It’s not a book. This is a real-life mystery. An unsolved mystery. There are unanswered questions: Why does this only happen in Saint Lucia? Why aren’t other volunteers complaining about it? Why does it happen to me? And
where do they come from? Why do they appear sporadically? It's always when I least expect it. Why? Why? Why?

Even though the mystery remains unsolved, the solution has been found! Yes, no more victims! The orange dots on my clothes can be removed by soaking them in Soil Love and then adding them to a bleach and water solution. OK, it isn’t optimal for colors, but the orange dots have left the room.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Remembering John

It is hard to be away from home at times like this. The first time this happened, I was prepared. I knew it was going to happen. My friend David kept in contact and updated me regularly. When Gary died, I was sad. I had known for sometime that the end was near. I am grateful for the friendship he showed me before my retirement. Gary was a good man.

When I opened my email this morning, if anyone were around, they would have heard an audible gasp. This one I didn’t know about. John was loyal, caring and the leader of one of the best organizations for which I have worked. There were hard times and mergers, layoffs and changes that were difficult to understand. Agonizing decisions were made during that time.

John was a leader who cared and pushed back on the system as much as he could. He confided in me that it was difficult because he knew that the decisions being made would affect more than just one person. There are countless people, many still working at this company, who will never know that John’s tenacity and compassion is the reason they remain employed.

Traveling with John and the team was an adventure. There was the time we were on the second leg of a three city tour and stopped in Los Angeles, remaining in our seats, while more passengers boarded. As we waited in the claustrophobic environment, realizing we lived only a few miles from this confined hell, the team of five men and I concluded the administrative assistant who booked our reservations deserved an award for this one. When I got to the hotel that night my bag was stuffed with bags and bags of peanuts. It seems that pilfering airline peanuts and putting them in my suitcase was the entertainment that allowed them to remain sane.

Faking our way into the Admiral’s Club was another sport. John talked them into upgrading our seats on expired miles and then convinced them to send a large bottle of expensive wine to our plane. The commute was a celebration that evening. There is something to be said for getting something free.

There was another time when we arrived late in the night and John couldn’t figure out how to get the key out of the ignition. We concluded it was a rental and the only solution was to leave it in the ignition and exposed, hoping for the best.

There was the time when he asked me to navigate to White Sands Missile Range – what on earth was he thinking? We were fifty miles out of our way when he realized he had to drive and navigate.

It is difficult to be so far away at a time like this. I’ve lost touch with so many people that meant so much to me in the past. But, we move on with our lives. Funerals are a place where people say a final good-bye, swap stories, laugh at the good times and shed a tear knowing we have lost another friend. I will miss this memorial to honor my friend.

I am sitting on my porch doing laundry while writing this piece. I’m drinking my morning coffee while listening to the soft gentle island breeze. I can see the ocean waves from the porch – it is a beautiful morning. I can hear a preacher speaking over a loud speaker to those in the village. As life continues, I am taking just a few minutes to remember a loyal friend and to pay tribute to a good man. Thanks John for all you did for me. I learned so much from you.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Innocent Questions

I’d forgotten how exhausting questions can be. But, each question is important. Each question reveals the world of innocence. “Will a tsunami come to Saint Lucia?” I explain to Coco that Saint Lucia may experience a tsunami one day, but he is in no danger right now. His next question: “How do you know?”

Coco and Yvette have a lot of questions because of the Haiti disaster. They privately wonder if it could happen here on this island. So, I remain patient as he and his sister continue to ask questions.

I try to comfort them, explaining that scientists can predict tsunamis and they will be safe. Coco is worried about his home. With each answer I give, the questions get progressively difficult to answer.

“If I close all the windows, then the water can’t come in. Right, Miss Karen.”

“How high will the water get?”

“The water won’t break the brick walls will it Miss Karen?”

“How long will the water stay?”

I try to answer each question honestly while helping them feel safe.

Then the question that begs answering is asked, “Miss Karen, so scientists will tell us if an earthquake is coming?”

Saturday, January 23, 2010


The little boy who wants to learn to love himself turns out to be one reason why I am here (reference post “Love Yourself” 12/06/2009).

My first encounter with Michael was curious. He was in my computer class and another boy said, “Miss, Michael said he hates you”. Of course Michael denied saying it.

The next day when he arrived and before the program began, I took him aside. He was fidgeting and didn’t want to be with me. His body language was closed and he was anxious to get back to his friends.

I said, “Michael, I know you said that you hate me.” His response was anticipated, “No, Miss I didn’t say it”. Rather than argue with him, I told him no matter what he says about me to the children, I believe in him and will love him. He said nothing and ran back to his friends.

I began to notice that he would stare at me when I wasn’t looking. He seemed to always be nearby. I went home for Christmas and the children settled into their villages with school and the after-school program suspended during the holiday break. When I returned my relationship with Michael was different.

I arrived early to work in the computer room before the children arrived. I could hear the bus drive onto the gravel playground. I opened the door to greet the children.

Michael hides behind another child and then peeks playfully at me. His face transforms into a huge smile. This is the first time I’ve seen him since returning from my three week vacation. He is clearly happy to see me.

“Michael how have you been? I missed you.” I know he wants to hug me, but that’s not cool. I see a little boy and girl near him. I hug them first, then walk over and hug Michael. Since his peers accepted the hug, I knew he could accept one without embarrassment.

Later, I help him with the computer lesson and when I bend down, my hair flops over my shoulder. He reaches up and touches it. He looks up at me and says, “Is it colored?” I quickly respond with a smile, “no, this is the natural color.” “Why do you suppose you have light hair when my hair is black?” I shrugged and then he concluded, “It’s probably because your skin is white”. I said, “yes, probably”.

*For this public post, I refer to this boy as Michael.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Peeling Onions


Dunstan St. Omar, a celebrated local Saint Lucia artist, said it the best: “The curse of the Caribbean is that our poverty is picturesque”. This island is not the most poverty-stricken nation in the world, but poverty exists here.

Before I was invited to Saint Lucia, my impression of the Caribbean islands was created from the Sandal’s commercials shown on television.

People who visit the island and stay in an all-inclusive hotel or get off a ship for an afternoon are whisked away in an air-conditioned taxi to see the island: the beautiful Pitons, Sulphur Springs, the crystal clear aqua Caribbean, the incredible interior with dense rain forest.

There is a dense population of taxi drivers and competition is stiff. When he is alone, he drives with the windows down and the air-conditioning off to save a few pennies in gas money. Few tourists have time to see beyond the beauty and most aren’t looking for it.

As a volunteer, these are the things I first saw when the plane landed and I boarded a clean air-conditioned bus for the hour and a half trip across the island.

I saw vendors roasting corn by the roadside and selling local fruits which they farm. I saw my first sight of Castries. I stayed in a retreat for a few days and was well fed. I sat in air-conditioned rooms while being oriented to the island.

After a few days, training begins. I was invited to live in the home of a middle-class family who struggles to make a living. They have cable TV, electricity and running water – although the water was not hot. There was no internet.

Although they have three children at home who attend school and one in college, internet is a luxury they cannot afford. I used public transportation and was given just a couple of dollars a day for “walking around” money. Although many people stared at me, ask me for money or think I am a tourist in need of a taxi, at times I began to feel Saint Lucian.

It didn’t take more than a few weeks before I saw things that many Americans might describe as hardship; the lack of electricity in some homes and public wash facilities in the villages where I live. Of course there is no air conditioning, but I never expected that anyway.

The layers of the onion are peeled away as I mark my calendar with what little time I have on the island. It takes awhile longer before I began to see the depth of Saint Lucia poverty; the families that live off the beaten path on dirt roads in sheds or the families who are camping behind the trees in the bay by the sea, the children who don’t go to school because they don’t have the money to buy school uniforms; the illiteracy and sometimes hopelessness that abounds. And, then there are the children who don’t have enough to eat.

Then things happen that make me wonder, “Do I really understand the depth of poverty?” Or, are there more layers? I hope I don’t experience anything more that gives me content for the subject of this post. I want this to be my last post on this subject.


It is Wednesday morning. I walk down the road towards the primary school. I pass the secondary school and notice the principal, usually dressed in business casual is wearing a suit. I walk up to the classroom where I teach primary school Junior Achievement and the teacher confirms what I already know, “yes, we are closing school today at noon." We will do the Junior Achievement lesson next Wednesday. I remember I need a few things from the store and I need to get them now as it appears the entire village will shut down at noon.

I pick up a few staples at the market and bread at the bakery. I walk up the stairs to my apartment and look out the window at the parking lot of the Catholic Church. There are children playing games with their teacher. They are laughing and having a good time.

It is 1:00 now. Secondary school children are still in uniform walking down my street towards the church. In a few minutes, a hearse will drive through the village with a procession of mourners walking behind it. At 2:00 the mood at the church will be somber. The church will be overflowing into the parking lot. I will hear gospel singing. Cars will line the nearby streets.


The only hospital on this side of the island was destroyed in a fire three months ago. I now understand the devastating impact it is having on people. A make-shift hospital in an athletic stadium, with little equipment and doctor’s on-call, is the only choice on this end of the island. The girl, who was stabbed, died in that make-shift stadium hospital.

There is one ambulance here and when it’s down for maintenance, people must wait. The ambulance carrying the girl had to drive slowly to the stadium because the tires were bald. It took time to bring a doctor to the facility.

It makes me wonder who is at fault:
  • Is it the culture of reaction to infidelity?
  • Is it the ambulance driver who refused to drive faster?
  • The ambulance company who allowed the vehicle to use every thread of tread before replacing worn tires?
  • The government for not ensuring the hospital is re-built?
  • Was it the girl who stabbed her?
  • Was it her friend who gave her the knife?
  • Or, could it be the doctors who didn’t get there in time?


The other end of the island is met with another story. A friend of mine has a little boy who was hit by a truck shortly after Christmas. In critical condition, he was rushed to the public hospital. When his father realized that the scissors the nurse was using weren’t sharp enough to cut off his boy’s shirt he was horrified. The hospital did not have the resources to buy a pair of scissors.

The boy was fortunate because his father has insurance and he was immediately transferred to the only other hospital on the island; a private facility and nearby. The portion of the bill that will not be covered by insurance will undoubtedly leave the family in debt; but medical debt is an American story too. Happily, the boy is doing fine and will recover.
More layers of the onion are peeled away.


I have a mantra about money that I have carried with me for thirty years: Money is only important when you don’t have it. Right now money is important to that little boy and his family. Money may have made a difference in the little girl's destiny. This makes me angry. It makes me sad. It makes me ask questions for which I previously didn’t know I needed an answer.

Is it just an entire system of broken processes and infrastructure? Or, was Dunstan Omar right when he said, “The curse of the Caribbean is that our poverty is picturesque”?

(If you stayed with me during this long and drawn out angry post, I promise something more uplifting next! Thanks for listening.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Mostly, there is infidelity. Mostly, women raise their children as single mothers. Mostly, people do not get married. Today,
there is hushed silence in the village.

Women fight for the attention of wondering men. Women are jealous of other women.

I’ve seen women argue, threaten, push, shove and scream at other women over a man. It’s loud and everyone knows it when the wronged woman approaches the "other" woman who has been with her man.

I find it to be a strange sense of amusement most of the time. These are the adults. Since last week and as I reflect on the conflicts of the past, it's not amusing anymore. The woman who fight over their men are the role models for their girls. The wandering men are the role models for the boys.

The village, usually filled with music and lively conversation is different today. Whispers among small groups of consoling people, a few birds chirp, roosters crow and the church bells slowly ring. The air is thick with disbelief.

It is shocking and families in my village were forever changed in a moment of heated passion on a recent Sunday afternoon. A confrontation between young teenage girls. A knife fetched by one girl and handed to her friend.

Young children open their doors and witness commotion. Blood and chaos are seen by those with previously innocent eyes.

The ambulance with worn tires is late and limping. The hospital is temporarily set up at George Odlam Stadium after the fire three months ago. The doctors are on call.

One teenage girl is dead. Another left with the lifetime memory of plunging the knife into the stomach of her perceived enemy. And, then there are the innocent witnesses and the stunned people in the village. The reason: a boy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Memories Recreated

When I was a small child my mother would stuff my grass lined Easter basket with large jelly beans. They were largely unnoticed and a backdrop among the chocolate Easter Bunnies, Peeps and colorful decorated eggs.

I remember eating a couple of them during desperate sugar craving moments, but mostly I remember them sitting in the basket until mom cleaned up after the holiday and they disappeared with the fake grass and stale Peeps. I suppose she bought them because everyone knows that’s what Easter Bunnies bring to small children; or at least that’s what the advertisers said.

But then one day everything changed. Jelly Beans were no longer an Easter treat for children. It was revolutionary. It was amazing. It was unexpected. Jelly Beans were no longer large with a few colors that all tasted the same. Tiny little beans with huge bursts of flavor the second you bit into one suddenly appeared.

Do you remember the first time you ate a Jelly Belly? I do. Wasn’t it fun? Oh yes, the first time. I was well into adulthood when Jelly Belly’s were discovered. A handful of the little treats would turn even the most ardent curmudgeon into an innocent child, if only for that one moment. With the Flavor Guide in hand, I would eat just one . . . and each time confirmed the flavor with a smile. These beans were not gobbled, they were savored.

Each little bean burst with big taste promising a distinct flavor; Lemon Drop, Licorice, Green Apple, Coconut, Watermelon, Very Cherry, Bubblegum. Then came experimentation. Do you remember mixing the flavors to come up with the taste of Lemon Meringue Pie? I do too.

Ronald Reagan brought them to the attention of the American people making the company an overnight success. But enough about Ronald Reagan; this is suppose to be a good memory.

During my three weeks in California I went to Trader Joe’s to pick up toothpaste, almonds, dried fruit and various wonderful treasures that only Trader Joe’s can offer. While in line I saw a small box of Jelly Belly’s. I picked one up and threw it in the basket thinking this would be a good little sugar snack for me in Saint Lucia. It turned out to be a lot more than that.

The children across the street, Coco and Yvette, came up today knowing I likely brought them something from the states. Of course I did. When Yvette comes to my house she reads everything that is printed: receipts, medicine bottles, absolutely anything with a written word. She was thrilled when I handed her a new book. “Hannah Montana! I love her. I will finish this book in two weeks!” Coco loves stickers and I had plenty for him. I also brought glow sticks for them to share.

I looked at the Jelly Belly’s sitting on my dining room table and said, "Have you ever tasted Jelly Belly's" Both of them shook their head indicating they hadn’t. I picked up the box and opened it.

I poured them into a dish and then showed them the Flavor Guide on the back of the box. Yvette would read the name of a Jelly Belly and then we looked for the color.

When we all had the same color we put them in our mouths. The reaction of the children was the same memory I had of my first experience. With each new flavor came an "ummmm" and big smiles across our faces. It was the most fun I've had with kids yet - doing something so simple and remembering how I did the same thing so many years ago when they first appeared on the market.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What's Next?

Almost every volunteer here sold their house or gave up their rental, sold their furniture and most possessions, gave some things away and put a few memories in storage.

When I left for Peace Corps, I sold my car, packed up a few things in a big rolling duffle bag, put a backpack on my shoulders, closed my bedroom door, kissed my dog, my children, my grandchild and my daughter-in-law good-bye and left for two years.

My family is taking care of my house, my dog and my things. When I come back, I will greet all of them, open my bedroom door, unpack, and sleep in the same bed I left behind.

It was too easy. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Within hours of touch down, I found it easy to fall into the life I left. Why did I volunteer for Peace Corps if it is so easy to find the life I left behind? What did I expect anyway? This experience is suppose to change the way I live life, yet I found myself falling into the same life pattern I left.

I was only there for three weeks during the holidays, but that three weeks showed me a lot. I wonder if it would have been better to do Peace Corps as the others did. They have a built-in guarantee that life will be different upon return.

There are differences. The most important is this: Ava is three years old now, her hair has grown to her waist and she likes anything pink or princess. She talks, thinks and has opinions. We’ve lost the bond we had before I left. It makes me feel sad.

When I go into a grocery store, I look at it differently. Everything can be had under one roof. The abundance, cleanliness and vast amount of space are noticeably different and Trader Joe’s is within my reach.

Fashion has changed; skinny jeans are back. And the clothes people are wearing at the ski resort? Well, there are no words and the only way it can be expressed is through a picture. That's a guy is the black and white outfit!

I saw women in the strangest outfits at the mall; fish net stockings with garter belts showing and silly pink lacy socks lining spiked heals while others wore knee-high boots. All this and short thigh-high skirts and shorts to round out the look. What’s a girl to think?

I saw men in the tightest skinny jeans leaving nothing to the imagination which created a longing to see them in over-sized jeans allowing easy identification of the color and brand of underwear they are wearing. I silently began guessing what they were dressed for, but decided that I was thinking the way “old” people think, so I let those thoughts disappear.

There was a major fire that swept through my neighborhood in the mountains just before I left for Peace Corps. The Little Red House, a landmark in my tiny resort town was destroyed and the women who own the property vowed to rebuild, posting a small cardboard sign on their property. Now a new Little Red House stands in its place. A few new homes stand where burned out remains once were, but most of my neighbors took the insurance money or didn’t have insurance and will not rebuild. I lost my neighbors, but I gained an incredible view of the city beyond the mountain.

Have you heard of Red Box? What a great business! Red Box is giving Blockbuster Video Rentals a run for their business. Imagine renting a newly released video for $1 from a vending machine.

Technology has passed me by. I have trouble remembering how to operate the television and microwave oven. I’ve been told my old cell phone plan which is being held for me is now just that – old – and useless. I will need something called data for the new smart phones. I had to ask others to dial numbers for me because the new cell phones are so confusing. I joked with them that I have a flip phone; it was then I discovered that no one has a flip phone anymore. And, there is a new phone that has a peripheral that can be attached to the cell phone to add a projector! And I thought I was cool because I know about the Kindle and I even know a volunteer on the island who has one. Go figure.

These are just some of the things that make me feel different…a bit lost and detached from my old life. But, there is so much that makes me feel part of it and allows me to quickly assimilate into my past life. Ava and I will find that connection again. It just takes more than three weeks to bond. I love technology and will adapt. I already appreciate my city view in the mountains and the convenience of Red Box.

I will likely criticize the new fashions the same way I criticized the old styles before I left. I will smile to myself as I grocery shop because I will think about my Saint Lucian honed skill of hunting and gathering when I’m confused and frustrated while trying to make a decision in the 30 feet of isle space dedicated to nothing but shampoo and conditioner.

I may even apologize to the manager at Ralph’s who I steadily chastised before I left because he consistently ran out of Fruit and Nut Balance Bare Trail Mix Nutrition Bars; my pre-Peace Corps breakfast staple. It turns out he doesn’t have to worry about my return. The company discontinued them. I secretly wonder if the Ralph’s Manager rallied to make that happen.

But the big question for me is this: What will I do next? It seems easy to fall back into the same lifestyle I left. Is this what I want? Humm. I have another nine months to contemplate this question.

My Vacation

It’s strange to think that I spent my three week vacation at home. When I left, I told people in my village that I was going home for the holidays. When I returned, I told my kids it was time for me to go home. Home is in both places now, but I think my real home is still in California. That’s where my family lives. Family makes home…well, home.

So, here’s a pictorial recap of my life at home.

Holiday Boat Parade in Naples

Picking up Ava at Pre-School and marveling at all the learning resources

Ava’s Birthday Party

Hanging out with Barkley at the Bark Park

The beautiful views, culture, artwork and children's activities at The Getty

Hanging out with friends and family

Enjoying the "magic" of straight hair which is not possible in a tropical climate

Decorating the Christmas Tree

Baking and decorating cookies for Santa

Watching my grown son play Barbie Dolls with his daughter.

The mountains, the place where I can take a deep breath and leave everything behind

A last dinner with friends and family

And, not to be forgotten, the Chicken Taco I was craving - it was great.

I tried smuggling Barkley into my suitcase, but it didn't work.

Leaving…it’s hard, knowing it will be another nine months before I return. But, then I’m excited to get back to my village and be with the people I have grown to love and care about.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


My work here is nothing like I thought it would be. Things have changed and I'm so grateful they have. Among the things I'm doing is helping establish a pilot after-school program for forty children in a small village. It's not just for children, but it is for families as well. The program is concentrating on the future of these children in a holistic manner. I work with the children, the facilitators, the parents and the Ministry of Social Transformation.

Many of the children cannot read and some cannot do simple math. Tutoring is embedded into the program that includes life skills, IT, the arts, and a new sports program to learn tennis.

Shopping was a major activity during my three week vacation at home. I purchased things for every aspect of the program:

• Books to teach children to read and books to help those that can appreciate the value of a book club, giving them entertainment during the summer.

• Software to teach children to type, tutor them in math and help them be creative

• Mountains of stickers, glue, glitter, buttons and sparkley stuff to spark they creative selves.

• Three new tennis rackets will give them more court time.

• Games, games and more games to help them learn to read, do math and think creatively

• Movies and films to show to parents and children which will serve as entertainment during the summer, as well as a catalyst to talk about family values.

• A camera and Flip Video which will be used to document the two year pilot program and also used in a variety of learning activities, such as blogging and creating music video entertainment.

To those that helped me make this possible, thank you for all you did. I assure you that you have touched the lives of several children, if not all of them, in ways that will likely not be revealed to you, but known to them. It’s just the way life works and creates the real meaning of giving. The next blog entry are those you helped.


I usually like to plan these things well in advance. If I led the activity, I would put a team together and hold meetings. The meetings would be at least weekly and as time moved quickly to the day of the event. We would discuss infinite details and construct a risk management plan, usually in our heads, but sometimes on paper and always discussed. Yes, events that I worked on in the past were planned to the smallest detail. At least they were until I moved to Saint Lucia.

Three days before the children were to put on their costumes, say their lines and sing their songs, the planning began. I was in the room when the children were told what they would be doing. There reaction was, “We can’t do that!” Brenda skillfully told them, “Oh yes you can – and you will”. I was told two days before the event that they needed a PowerPoint show with all the pictures that had been taken of the children. After that they wanted a “skit” about what they were learning in IT. Although not vocalized, my reaction was much like the children’s reaction.

It’s amazing how well this activity turned out. Sure there were a few flaws here and there. The program began an hour late and the costumes were borrowed dresses from their grandmothers. What’s more amazing is that the boys willingly wore the dresses. Imagination is used in the face of lacking resources. The children’s play was an entertaining segment of the birth of the Christ Child.

They are being given voice lessons in Creative Arts and one child has an interesting voice and is assigned the solo in the piece.

The children are being taught a new sport: tennis. Although they don’t have enough rackets, no net and a graveled field is used as the court, the children are learning how to play the game. They performed a skit about the game.

Academic support is taught be a teacher with over 30 years of experience. She is kind, gentle and firm with the children. It is difficult for me to watch so many children struggle with reading and math. I’ve noticed that those that have the most academic difficulty are the ones that are the most difficult to teach. The children to recited poetry to demonstrate what they have learned.

Life Skills is an important part of the program because the children need to know they are loved, cared about and can learn. Building character is a large part of the program. The children encouraged the audience to participate in their interactive rap song.

The District Parliamentary Representative gave each child a toy at the end of the program. The little girls were given perfume and the boys were given toy trucks.

The program was concluded well into the evening with African Drumming and Song by local artison and Art and Craft Facilitator Marylene. Among the songs she played was a piece written and inspired by the program slogan "Save a Mind, Save a Child"

One last thing. I find it fascinating how music livens and can even define the people of Saint Lucia. This is the form of expression that most allows them to demonstrate who they are as a people. It's one of the things I love most about the island.

It was stressful planning the program, but the stress only lasted three days, whereas if it were planned my way it would have taken two months to plan and likely been equally as stressful. I’m not sure the trade-off would have been worth any extra quality that would have been achieved. The children had a good time. The best part was that they learned they “Can do it”….and so did I.