Saturday, February 27, 2010

Water Trucks

There is a trail in the Central Rainforest Reserve; it is east of Soufriere and at the foot of Mount Gimie, the highest mountain peak in St Lucia. It is a remote, yet unbelievably scenic, with a combination of Rainforest, Cloud Forest, Elfin Woodlands and wildlife.

The trail is famous for its two cascading waterfalls and pools at the head of the Troumassee River. It rises in the centre of the island, flowing to the mouth close to my village.

This is where my village accesses water. We don't get our water from the Dam in the north that is losing water at the rate of one foot per day. And this is the reason why I still have water when much of the rest of the island suffers for days with dry pipes. Lately, I have seen small tanker trucks in my village and wondered about them. A few days ago Angelina explained the trucks were transporting water to other parts of the island.

The country's water system is in disrepair. Much of the water traveling through the pipes never arrives at the faucet. It has been estimated that up to 50% of the water escapes through the leaks in the pipes.

When I first arrived on the island in 2008, there were meetings about this situation. An outside foreign company proposed management of the water system, fixing the broken pipes and creating a more efficient water system.

I don't know where the proposal ended up, but I do know that people were complaining that their water bills would rise if this was allowed to happen. Now the proposals include deep-well drilling, desalinization and buying water from Dominica. The government is hoping Saint Lucians will buy large storage tanks to house private emergency water supplies.

I don't have the full picture, only pieces of a broken system in an emergency state. Still, in the absence of all the facts, it is alarming - and likely a glimpse into the future of Saint Lucia.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I Found my Groove

Did I ever say that I love this experience? Did I ever say that this was the perfect thing to do at this time of my life? Did I ever say that, for me, missing this would have been missing life? Well, I should have. This is a long post, but I don’t know how to shorten it…so I put a lot of pictures in it to make it more interesting.

Monday was the 31st anniversary of Saint Lucia’s Independence. The families and children of the After-School Program went to Latille Falls for a picnic. It’s a few miles from my house and I decided to walk there. I packed up my backpack filled with requested chocolate chip cookies and headed down the road.

The road is beautiful and I pass by one of my favorite trees, banana farms and greet farmers as I pass. A few farmers pass in their trucks and ask if I want a ride. I thank them and decline, not because it’s dangerous, but because it’s a beautiful day.

Sly, or “Rasta Man”, the owner of Latille Falls, gathered the families together to talk about history and wish everyone a good time. The picnic was nice and gave me time to spend with the parents of the children I am with four days a week. After a few hours, I walked home. Cardio exercise is never an issue here.

Early the next morning, I finished making yet another batch of chocolate chip cookies I mixed last night when I got home. I had to get up early to do this because they need to be frozen before I pack them up and take them to the school. If they aren’t frozen, they will end up a melted mess. Oh, the things I’ve learned during my time in a tropical climate.

I made a cup of the new Instant Starbucks Coffee; it’s better than any fresh brewed I can make here. It’s mango season and my breakfast of choice.

One of the facilitators arrived for private computer class. I’m teaching her Microsoft Office and also the art of blogging. I am hopeful that she will take over the blogsite I have just set up for the After School Program.

I straightened the house, made the bed, did a few dishes, got dressed and packed up the cookies. I picked up the materials for the Junior Achievement last lesson and headed for the primary school in my village. Since this is my last class, I will hand them certificates and a small bag of cookies.

I arrived after a ten minute walk feeling like I needed another shower. We are in a drought and it’s hot. I greet the children and walk down the isles and they all touch my arm or my hair and some give me hugs. Some squeeze so tight I wonder if I will survive it. They are all screaming “Miss Karen”.

I went over the last few weeks and what we learned. Then we went through the lesson. When I was done and the certificates were handed out, they surprised me with a party. One little girl read a poem written by the children. Another sang a song for me. She wrote it: “Thank you for being our teacher. We love you and don’t want you to leave. Thank you for being our teacher.” It was a child-like song with little melody and lots of love. It was touching. They gave me a gift bag, with a t-shirt and a card.

Then the teacher brought out a large platter of cheese sandwiches. She proclaimed, “we used the mass production method you taught them to make the sandwiches”. We took lots of pictures together. They love pictures. Before I left everyone wanted a hug. There was a line for hugs. One child nearly knocked the wind out of me with his bear hug. The party they planned for me was amazing and something I will always remember. I assure them I will be in the village for the next few months and this goodbye is only a Junior Achievement goodbye.

My next stop is a bus ride away to the after-school program. At the picnic, I promised a child’s father that I would work with his child. He explained to me that everyone on both sides of the family, with the exception of one daughter, is illiterate.

His son is ten years old and can’t read. I will assess his skill level and then put some materials together for the boy’s sister to help him. I will work with him as much as I can, but he needs help at home too. So many people here are illiterate.

I arrived at the village and walked down the road to the school. I found the Kindergarten teacher, a friend, and she helped me make some flash cards and other things to help him.

Then I learned the IT Facilitator is ill and I needed to teach IT. So much for assessing the boy today. This will have to wait. Now I have to figure out what I will do with this class. Fortunately, the facilitators are submitting Lesson Plans. I ask for the plan, read it and remember the Jelly Belly’s and flavor guides that are in my backpack. A perfect day for a behavior tool!

I began the session with a discussion on how they were feeling. I have found many children cannot identify feelings beyond anger. I talked to the children about what we had learned about Saint Lucia Independence.

During the break, Brenda and I talked. She asked if I would put a PowerPoint presentation together to showcase the After-School Program successes. Of course I agreed, although I was thinking of the four full-day workshops I am currently designing late each evening.

When the children returned from break, I asked them to write five questions down. What is the capitol of Saint Lucia? What is the national bird? What is Saint Lucia’s Motto? Who is the Prime Minister? What is the tallest peak on the island? They were required to go to the computer and find the answers. They had fun with the exercise and wanted more.

As a reward for a job well done, the children and I sat down, flavor guides in hand and commenced to tasting the bursting flavors of Jelly Beans.

When they became hyper, bouncing off the ceiling and so active that they were becoming obnoxious, I declared the day had ended and sent them home to their poor unsuspecting parents.

I'm exhausted by now...does it show?

I jumped on a bus back to my village. I called “stopping” early, getting off at the far end of my village to walk the long way home. Once home I ate another mango, turned on the computer and finished Brenda’s PowerPoint slides shortly before midnight while watching the Winter Olympics.

This morning I’m finishing up a load of laundry, writing this journal piece before I flag down a bus to the next village to meet with teachers to continue creating individual assessments for the forty after-school children.

Hopefully, I will find the time to assess the little boy’s reading ability today and then get back in time to work on some of those workshops. As I speed down the road to the end of my service, my plate is full. This is the way I like it. I’ve got my groove on.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


On my way into Castries, I wonder if this is what it feels like to ride down a luge at the winter games at ninety miles an hour. The bus driver seems to be in a hurry. We are about a half hour from Castries when I break the silence. “If we get to Castries alive we should be there in no more than ten minutes”. Heads are nodded and nervous laughter is heard.

As we whiz past the harbor at break-neck speed, I notice three large ships in the harbor. There will be tourists, lots of tourists, descending upon the city today. Holding my breath, the driver plunges down a hill, slams on the breaks and I’m nearly ejected from my seat. I look around for the platform where we will stand to receive a gold medal for surviving the fastest bus ride on the island.

I catch the next bus to the Peace Corps Office where I will meet other volunteers. Thankfully, this driver seemingly has more time and navigates cautiously through the city. I call out, “stopping” and the driver stops.

I walk over to the pedestrian overpass; up forty steps to cross the street and then down thirty steps. I’m not sure why there is a 10 step difference. Someday I may study it and get to the bottom of this mystery, but not today. I walk across a long shopping center and over to the Peace Corps Office where I climb three flights of stairs to the volunteer office.

I’ve kept in good cardio shape, although weight lifting has taken a back-seat and I know it will be grueling to get back into the gym after my service is completed.

An hour later, Elaine, Ann, Debo and I are sitting at a wooden picnic bench and table on the restaurant deck having lunch at Choc Beach. An umbrella shades us from the penetrating sun. The restaurant overlooks the Caribbean Sea and the views are magnificent. I watch people floating in the water while another group is sitting in a large oversized flotation device that is pulled by a boat. Others are sunning on beach chairs. It is amazing to be here and we comment about the beauty around us. After lunch I will swim in the Caribbean before heading back to my village.

As we enjoy our lunch, the restaurant fills with tourists from the ships that are in port. We comment on the large number of tourists, but the topic quickly turns to water. Who has it and who doesn’t. I’ve heard some volunteers say their pipes have been dry for as much as eight days. I heard one local say it’s been three weeks. Water is a the topic for discussion among locals and volunteers. It hasn’t hit my village yet, but I know it will.

Debo watches one of the tourists use the outdoor shower and says, “I guess tourists don’t know about the drought”. This is tourist season and the country is suffering a drought worse than any in recent memory. Officials are considering calling a state of emergency which would give them more power to enforce rationing. WASCO, the national water company, is turning the water off to ration one third of the dwindling supply.

We are in the dry season now. Last rainy season brought only a fraction of water that the island usually enjoys. There has not been a significant downpour in over a month. Water stored at the John Compton Dam is dropping at the rate of one foot each day. Officials hope people will begin to recognize the need for personal water storage facilities in the future. Water is being trucked to the south and to higher elevations which is very expensive.

WASCO is looking into alternative methods to obtain water. These methods include importing water from Dominica; desalination which is an expensive option and deep well drilling. Deep well drilling seems to be the preferred option; however, they don’t have the equipment needed for it and will seek help from the United States.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve learned to be careful about the amount of water I use. In California, we live in a perpetual state of drought, but the water has never been turned off. I find myself hording what is available right now. Every available bucket and container is filled to the brim with this liquid gold. My laundry is kept up, my hair is washed and the first thing I do in the morning is take a shower, knowing it could be the last real shower I will have for days. The conditions are expected to worsen. The wet season doesn’t begin until June. So come on, do a little rain dance for the country. The following video is a peak at what could be the future of Saint Lucia as well as many countries around the world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I went to Europe with my friends, Linda and Jayne a few years ago. We visited Delta Works, built by the Dutch. It was an amazing sight to see their daily battle with water. The dam was built to hold back the ocean water and was awe-inspiring.

I assumed they consulted with world experts to find out how to build these structures. Surely, the engineers in the United States must have come here to teach them to build these cement monsters. A little naive, isn’t it? They are the world experts and we consulted them after Katrina.

I’m still learning at my age that I need to “undo” many of the stereotypes I was taught in school as a child. As I write this, I remember: Oh yes, this is exactly what the 60s was about; thinking for ourselves and finding truth.

So, here is the story. A large flatbed truck pulled up in front of the house. The driver opened the door and jumped out and onto the back of the truck onto the pile of gray blocks. He put his gloves on and began unloading the cement blocks and neatly stacked them in front of Elizabeth’s house.

I watched as they were unloaded, thinking how hard this work must be. Each block probably weighs at least ten pounds and there are way too many to count.

The blocks are made by mixing cement and pouring it in a mold. Each block is handmade. Now I am the first to admit I know little about building a house, but I do know enough to be intrigued when watching Saint Lucian’s construct buildings.

Homes are either constructed of wood or blocks. The newer wood structures seem to be made of plywood, whereas the old ones are more carefully and artfully constructed using wood brought down from the rain forest. These homes have handmade windows and shutters and decorative cutouts. It's easy to see a craft with love and care that construction workers had many years ago. The more modern homes, like mine, are constructed of blocks and set into cement floor foundations.

Early into this adventure and during my home stay, I watched the workers build an addition across the street. My first thought is that they have no idea how to construct a building. Then I remembered my thoughts of the Dutch and Delta Works.

These are the construction workers who build structures to withstand hurricanes. Many of these buildings were here during the worst hurricanes. They remain standing when they receive more rain in one season than Los Angeles will see in a generation. Humm, it seems to me the houses in Los Angeles slide down mountainsides when a few more inches than normal descend upon the land.

As I observed the construction of Elizabeth and John's new addition, I was not surprised that power tools were seldom used. Picks, shovels, sticks and large pieces of bamboo are standard. There was also a handmade broom, made from bamboo and banana leaves. Any nails that are used are nailed by hand – there’s no nail gun. Nails that are bent are not thrown away, but hammered straight and re-used. Cement is mixed in the street and shoveled into small buckets and hoisted with ropes to the taller areas.

The structure begins to take shape. They leave openings for the windows. This is one of the few places where wood is used. They will construct frames and attach it with nails and of course more cement. Once that is done they will make a wooden structure for the ceiling and, yes, poor cement on top of it. That will be my new extended balcony.

The railing is made of decorative ballisters. Ballisters are popular on the island. They are made of cement from molds that are reused. I talked to one man who makes them. He can make four per day. They each have a metal rod through them and are left in the sun to harden.

The workmen fitted a cement foundation to the posts and placed each ballister in the foundation that was filled with fresh cement. It will harden overnight.

So here is the bottom line on this post: It's amazing what a Peace Corps Volunteer can find entertaining. I would never have guessed that I could engage in the spectator sport of watching workmen build an addition onto a house. Imagine, this kept me entertained for nearly two months.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Idle People

There are many idle people in my village; people with no jobs and nothing to do. They sit in the same place everyday. Some sit on one side of the street in the morning and when the afternoon sun shines in their face, they move to the other side of the street. They just sit on the pavement. Idle people.

This was once a thriving village. Fishing and banana farming were main sources of income. Before the two lane highway was constructed, people came from neighboring villages to shop. Today, the retail stores open occasionally and many do not open at all. The buses pass this village in favor of Vieux Fort, twenty minutes further down the road, but with more modern shops.

Natural disasters and export laws have depressed the banana industry. Fishermen use the same techniques that their fathers and grandfathers used. They manage to catch just enough to feed the village.

When times were good, many young adults aspired to build a living on the rich Saint Lucian soil.
They called bananas "green gold". There was little connection between a formal education and farming.

My ten year old neighbor will be a fisherman like his father. He cannot understand why he needs to learn math and literacy. Today, many see farming as hard work with little reward.

There are no programs, that I'm aware of, to help farmers become businessmen. Many are illiterate and made vast fortunes when the industry was booming. No one helped them invest their money. No one explained the value of saving. There was little thought that an end would come to the banana growing boom.

I wonder what it’s like to be without a job and to be illiterate, to live in poverty and scrape by each day. I wonder what it's like when your child cannot attend school because there is no money to buy a uniform. Why do they accept this life rather than change it? Is it hopelessness or acceptance? Does it feel normal and right?

There are so many things that can be done, why not volunteer, if for no other reason than to find purpose? I wonder how it feels to survive; to be at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What is the world losing by allowing people to remain at the bottom of this theoretical pyramid?

I wonder what the world would look like if everyone had a purpose. What would it look like if resources were evenly spread; if everyone had enough and no one had too much. I wonder if we would have solved the unemployment problem, environmental issues, and endless wars if everyone had enough but not too much. I wonder how I would feel if I had no purpose.

"What kind of victory is it when someone is left defeated?" Ghandi

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Marshmallows and See’s Candy – Is it all the same?

I had to go to Castries last week and stopped in the Peace Corps Office. When I walked into the volunteer office there was a big Federal Express Box sitting in the corner of the room. I walked over to it and there was my name in big print. Packages are fun! Every Peace Corps Volunteer loves getting packages from home.

All my favorite things were in that box: My favorite game, Rummy Cube; a bag of dried Mangoes from Costco, possibly the best ever; small pouches of dried Starbucks Coffee, a new product that tastes close to fresh brewed; a large jar of Jelly Belly’s with several printed copies of the flavor guide which I will share with the village children; colorful paperclips, a small thing that I have needed so many times, but didn’t have.

The last thing I pulled from the package was a box wrapped in familiar black and white paper. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the box was this: I need friends around when I tear the wrapping and lift the lid. I know that if I open this box while I’m alone it will be deadly. I have a hard time eating an "appropriate" amount of candy when there is a whole box to be had.

There is a famous experiment conducted at Stanford by Walter Michel some years ago. It’s known as the Marshmallow Experiment. It is a simple experiment that correlates impulse control with intelligence. The experiment was longitudinal.

Four year old children were taken to a room one at a time. Each child was left in the room with a marshmallow. The child was told by the experimenter that he/she could eat the marshmallow right then, but if they waited until the experimenter returned then they would receive an additional marshmallow.

The children squirmed and tried to distract themselves. Some children succumbed to the temptation while others waited up to twenty minutes for the experimenter to return and to receive another puffy white sugary treat.

Eighteen years later those same children were studied and it was found that those that waited scored higher on their SAT Tests. Impulse control can be correlated with intelligence.

So, why am I telling you this? Just look at the picture of an open box I found online. I’m sure if I open this box I will have zero impulse control. But I do seem to have some control over opening the box…so what does that mean? Does it mean I have impulse control or does it mean that I know I don’t have impulse control? Would the children have better impulse control if the marshmallow was in a bag and couldn’t see it, but knew it was there? What does this say about me? Does it matter?

Watching these kids reminds me of watching myself look at this candy box!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Renewable Energy

I made a pot of coffee, straightened up the house and put on what I consider nice clothes. Nice, by my standards, means that I didn’t put my jeans on and I wore closed toed shoes instead of my flip-flops. I left early this morning. Early, by my standards, means 9:00 in the morning instead of 2:30 in the afternoon. I work at home in the morning.

I walked down the road along side the drainage ditch that has an unpleasant odor. I walked past empty plastic bottles and papers discarded by the side of the road. There is no recycling on this island. It pains me every Tuesday and Friday when I take my trash downstairs for pickup. I know at least 50% of what is inside the bag should be recycled and I am an unwilling part of the problem.

Half way to the main road a bus stopped and asked where I was going. He was trolling for passengers before starting his journey. Unlike Los Angeles, the island enjoys very efficient public transportation saving the environment from nasty toxins and pollutants.

I boarded the bus to meet Brenda at the next village. We are going together to the ceremony. Brenda arrives right on time and with a familiar fabulous smile.

Upon our arrival and as we got out of the car she said, “Where is everything?” They were supposed to have a tent, food, chairs, a sound system and television cameras all in place by now. Just as Brenda was expressing her disappointment, a truck pulled up and began unloading the equipment to set up the tent.

Events rarely start on time and this one would be no exception. For an hour, we waited; Brenda, the Parliamentary Representative, the Minister of Commerce, local fishermen, the media and various members of the community engaged in casual conversation until the event was ready to begin.

While I waited, I walked around and took in the sights of the celebration. I walked to the wobbly wooden dock and looked at the heap of fishing nets that were waiting to be stored. Fishing is not high-tech here. They weave their nets and spear their catch.

They use small boats and cut and sell their fish to people in the village each day. Today the boats fisherman use to make their living gave way to the celebration.

A new boat, Peace Be Still, sits dry-docked and is seemingly waiting for a story to be told. Another sits on a trailer, which is curious because I’ve never seen anyone hauling a boat behind a vehicle on this island.

A man escorts tourists to the dock and engages them in conversation. I’m distracted and when I look back they have disappeared, likely onto one of the boats that transport people to a remote part of the island.

I look up and there it is. The reason we are here: renewable energy, a lone wind turbine able to sustain winds of 150 miles per hour and give enough power to light the fishermen’s way while rendering candles and flashlights obsolete.

They come early each morning and open their lockers to retrieve their nets and spears. The electric company turned off their power months ago because they could not pay the bill. Renewable energy is not the norm....yet. This new site is just one small turbin powering a small amount of energy to power up a few bulbs to light the fisherman's way.

We are seated. The sound system, powered by the wind, is plugged in and the music begins.

‘Breeze’ plays the saxophone and the children sing for us. The National Anthem is sung, prayers are said and speakers declare the project a success.

The Parliamentary Representative, Jeannine Compton, encourages more projects like this as well as adding bio-energy where they raise pigs. She talks about water and the problems Haiti is experiencing with this scarce resource. She reminds us that sustainability of our resources is sustainability for life itself.

Breeze continues to play as we enjoy refreshments and the wonderful island wind.

The University of Vermont has undertaken this project and several others that are similar to it on the island. Each year students and faculty come and provide equipment, manpower and resources to increase renewable energy on the island.

The island is a perfect setting for renewable energy. It enjoys wind, solar as well as hydro-powered energy providing electricity to a small farm owned by Sly, our Rasta friend (See post dated 9/29/08, Leading the Way to Legacy).

Power is expensive here and people are motivated to decrease their monthly electric bill.

I have energy saving bulbs throughout my apartment. My water is heated by solar energy. My electric bill is expensive in proportion to the stipend Peace Corps provides. The power company is considering building a wind power station near my village in the future.

As I reflect on the day today, the thing that stands out in my mind is this: the unpleasant smell in the drains, the trash strewn along side the roads and the lack of recycling; the simple fishing techniques that were handed down are still used today. These things are contrasted by the use of solar, wind and hydro technology to sustain affordable electricity. I can move about the island seeing yesterday and tomorrow at the same moment in time. It is difficult to wrap my mind around these contrasting visions on the island.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It's all about Donuts!

The last time I went into a third grade class to teach I was speechless….children put cardboard in their ears and noses. They were using chairs similar to the way bullfighters use their capes. I was there to teach the difference between unit and mass production and they would have none of it.

The Junior Achievement Kit provided paper donuts and stickers so the children could make paper donuts using both mass and unit production methods. But, the children couldn’t move past the fact that they had never tasted a donut. To make matters worse the teacher was absent and I was left alone with the class. After a half hour, I gave up; called it a day and left defeated. The children were left unsupervised.

This time was different. I've been planning this lesson since I visited home in December. I was prepared and armed…armed with little packages of donuts that I carefully wrapped and brought back from California. These tasty treats would be distributed if and when the lesson was finished and they behaved accordingly. And, the teacher was there to ensure that they wouldn’t treat their chairs like bullfighting capes. That always helps.

The lesson lasted one hour. Each time a child finished a donut, it was held up for my inspection. Each time, I expressed excitement, “Oh, look class; the perfect donut.” Or, “Look this one is colored purple! It must taste like Goofy Grape!” It was fun. It was a success! I’ve redeemed myself as an educator and I can once again hold my head high.