Monday, March 29, 2010

A Cup of Tea


Some volunteers work in the capital. They have structured 9-5 jobs and offices with computers and air conditioning. Others work in schools as counselors, teachers and coaches. Some live in small villages and work in more unstructured ways. Each of us in Saint Lucia is experiencing Peace Corps in a different way.

I live in a village and work in unstructured ways. This suits my work style well. Although English is technically the second language on the island, almost everyone speaks the language. I don’t have to learn another language to survive. I have electricity, running water, even hot water. Well, most of the times I have running water.

My son, Jay, was in Honduras. He lived in a remote village. He had no electricity or in-door plumbing. His floors were dirt. He taught sustainable farming methods such as terraced techniques and diversification. He can now read, write and speak Spanish fluently.

I have a friend, although I confess I have never met her in person, who is living in Romania. She is teaching in a climate where it gets extremely cold. She speaks Romanian. At times she can be seen riding on a donkey cart.

I have another friend, again one I’ve never met, who lived in Samoa. He lived in a rural village and, among other projects, focused on helping people with weight control and to learn about good nutrition.

Although each of us will have a different experience, there is one commonality I hear from almost all Peace Corps Volunteers. The pace is slower and it feels like time moves at a snails pace. The clock ticks but never tocks. There is simply more time.

The thing I’ve noticed is that I spend my extra time examining details. If someone asked me, “Are there any benefits of being a Peace Corps Volunteer besides the obvious?” I would unequivocally say, “Yes, I have time to reflect on moments rather than days or weeks”.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


The Peace Corps has three goals. The first is to help people in another country, the second is to promote a better understanding of Americans and the third goal is to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Teaching is a way to check off each goal in a clean sweep. I gained something valuable from the Peace Corps experience: I have become more aware of the United States focus on business education. My experience is that more often than not, courses are taught in narrowly focused specific subjects rather than focusing the subject matter in a global perspective with a systems view.

Although there is usually a chapter in a text about the global environment, international courses are more often separate subjects when they should be integrated. There may be an inference to globalization, but no real information or exercises to help students learn what that really means. There are specific internationally focused degrees, but why? If we are to compete in a global environment, we can't think in global silos, but many times we teach students to think in silos. It's arrogant.

When I was teaching a course in Management Strategy, the text had a section on generational values. When we talked about this subject in class, the students were trying to bucket themselves in the American generational values. There was no qualification that the material is only relevant to one area of the world. I was stymied.

Although Saint Lucia is a westernized nation and some of the values fit, they have their own history which created their unique culture and generational values. The next few weeks I had them research and put their own generations into buckets.

For the first time, they began to think about the diversity they would face if they were to work in an American company. And, they began to recognize how their own value system can collide in the workplace here on this island. That exercise taught me as much about Saint Lucia as it taught them about American values. It was rewarding.

I teach Junior Achievement in the primary schools and none of the material is geared towards a global environment, although they have many customers in many countries. They have an exercise in making paper donuts when many children don't know what a donut is. They have stickers with American currency when children here only know the Eastern Caribbean Dollar. There is an exercise to elect a mayor, one of which supports a facility to take care of stray pets; neither of these things makes sense to the children in my village. It’s baffling.

The opportunities I have had to teach in a foreign country have helped me grow. I hope the tools I have passed on to them will help them in the years to come. I know the knowledge, culture, information and rich interaction they have shared with me will impact me for years to come.

When I think of teaching and how it connects with the goals of Peace Corps, I think I can easily check all three boxes.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Frustrating Meetings

I have attended several meetings for this organization in the past. Leadership was poor and the meetings were increasingly frustrating. As a result, nothing was getting done and I realized this wasn’t the best use of my time.

I was surprised when I sat down at a recent meeting with this organization. There was enthusiasm. People were volunteering to do things to move forward and ideas were flowing. Then, I looked around and noticed the leader was not present.

There was a mix up in communicating the meeting. Many members weren’t there because the communication process didn't work. The consensus was to send out a new meeting notice for the following week and resume the rich conversation they had started that evening. It was all very exciting and hopeful.

At their insistence, I attended the meeting the following week. When I walked into the room, the leader was there. The focus of the meeting turned to members who have wronged the leader who was not invited to the last meeting. The momentum and any hope of progress came to a screaming halt.

Then, much like an archeological dig, the complaints went further and further. Each shovel of dirt uncovered another tidbit of wrong-doing. And with each shovel, I could see the members sinking further into the abyss of powerlessness and hopelessness.

By the end of the meeting, they were just sitting there being lectured to with no vision, no enthusiasm, no commitment, no participation and no volunteering to move forward. And worse, no leadership.

The meeting was pulled back into their circle of ineffectiveness and I was pulled back into the memory that this is the reason I stopped attending these meetings.

Monday, March 15, 2010


I remember playing Jacks as a child. It was a matter of coordination. Sort of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. The first time player usually finds it difficult, but once the rhythm is found, the game is easy.

It is an inexpensive game, easy to play; easy to transport. All I needed was a small rubber ball and a few jacks, a relatively cheap purchase at the local dime store. Dime stores, which sprang up in the late nineteenth century, slowly began disappearing in the 1960s.

My mom shopped at both Newberry’s and Woolworths, although Newberry’s was preferred. I went with her often, usually to buy patterns and cloth. She sewed many of our clothes and most of my doll clothes. The store had wood floors. When I close my eyes, I can hear the clomping of shoes and smell the scent of large bolts of material. I would wander through the store while my mother looked through huge books to choose a new Vogue Pattern.

I was usually allowed to buy some candy, a squirt gun or a small toy. I remember standing in line with my mother. She had thread, material and patterns in her hand. I had a small package of Jacks. Newberry’s and Woolworths both quietly gave way to the next generation; the discount store, Akron and Gemco which yielded to Walmart and Target.

Did you ever wonder about the origins of the game jacks? Neither did I. Well, that is until I saw a group of children in my village sitting on the ground with a pile of rocks. According to various sources on the internet Jacks is one of those games that children invented during ancient times and long before commercial toys were available. Rocks and bone fragments were used to play the game.

And, to think I’ve lived this long not knowing this little piece of trivia.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Cabaway is the name, but likely I’ve misspelled the word. I’ve asked some people how it’s spelled and they stare at me with a puzzled look and then shrug. No one seems to know how it’s spelled.

I’m not sure if Cabaway is capitalized, but for the purpose of this post, capitalization is the rule.

I’ve looked up various was to spell it: cobeweit, kobeyweit, kob’weit, kobwuey. But each search turns up the same message, “Your search - kobwuey - did not match any documents.”

I ask people in my village more questions. When was the first Cabaway built? The most common answer is sometime after emancipation or maybe during slavery. If I knew how to spell it perhaps I could figure that out. But I don’t. Where did Cabaway’s originate? Was it Saint Lucia or perhaps a neighboring island? So many questions.

There is a Folk Research Center in Castries. They may be able to help. Maybe when I get extra time I will call and inquire. But does it really matter?

These are frustrating little questions in life. They are like little drippy faucets, hanging around just waiting for the moment when their lingering frustration creates a breaking point. But, let’s not dwell on it. I don’t need these pesky questions to occupy the only tiny spaces left in my brain that are still able to absorb some small piece of trivial information.

The Cabaway Boys don’t care. They are having fun pushing their homemade Cabaways down the street. They come in various sizes and styles. I’ve seen some large enough to carry a load of coconuts, although this is not its purpose. Or is it? Maybe it was originally a work tool, but then later morphed into a toy. It is a toy – right? Oh, these pesky unanswered questions!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Little Engine that Did

Amy is someone I have connected with though my blog. She is thinking about Peace Corps and has questions. She asks, “On the days that you don't like the Peace Corps, is there something in particular that bothers you; loneliness or something dysfunctional within the Peace Corps system?” It was an interesting question that I explored before answering.
“Why on earth did I undertake something like this?”

Training was most difficult. Living with a family, learning the public bus system, being handed my lunch by my host "mom", and given a Peace Corps allowance of $2 a day was humbling.

Adjusting to being away from my family was difficult. I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I had more difficult days than good days during these weeks.

There is something to be said for stubbornness. There is no way I would have thrown in the towel. It was my decision and I was committed. I was also convinced it would get better…and it did, as you will read.

For me, training was the most difficult period of adjustment - HANDS DOWN! But, we as a group, got through it - it's just part of the process. We went through an experience together and people are seen at their best and at their worst. Difficult situations present the opportunity for bonding.

"Can I make a difference?” Is this right for me?"

The first year I began an exploration to find my footing. At times I felt I wasn't doing enough. Other times, I felt crushed by the bureaucracy of the Peace Corps, something I hadn't considered when I applied to be a volunteer. I am living in a foreign country and adjusting and assimilating into a new life and it is difficult. Many times, I felt like I was pushing a long heavy rope up a steep ever-inclining dusty hill.

I was beginning to develop relationships with people on the island and was doing everything I could to explore and understand the values of Saint Lucian people. I was also beginning to see the politics within the organization. There was no definition, agreement or vision of the work they wanted. My primary assignment didn't work out, which happens.

I spent far more time during my first year with fellow-volunteers than I do now. There were times when I felt like I was wasting my time, getting older and wasn't doing what I came here to do.

At this time, and unknowingly, I started to make friends with people who would become my collaborators and friends, the ones I work with, count on and love. I continued up the steady incline pushing that rope during my first year.

It is here when I began to understand why Peace Corps preached “flexibility” ad nausea during the applicant and training stages to become a volunteer. The good days far outweighed the bad days. Flexibility and determination pulled me through it; that and using my past experience to create meaningful work when there is none.

"I am ready to get back to familiar surroundings."

I’m in my second year with a great assignment and working with wonderful people. I have plenty to do - more than I can do and must say "no" more often than "yes". Generally I’m living the dream I had envisioned. People are now pulling my long heavy rope for me. I am over the hill and being pulled to the finish line. There are times, however very rare, that I have a bad day.

During those times, I want to get into my car, turn on the air-conditioner, use my GPS to get to new places, visit my mountain home, go to a family Sunday dinner, see my granddaughter's Christmas play, go to the gym and spa, take my dog to the dog park, teach a college course or two, travel and generally enjoy the retirement I worked so damn hard to get.

It gets lonely in a small village, even though I've made friends and many times I have more people around than I'd like. At times I become lonely for people that share my history, culture, attitudes, values and beliefs.

Then something great happens - usually something really small and I’m pulled back onto my path.

“I want the best of both worlds.”

It is unthinkable to consider my last day with the children I am trying to help. I am sad to think of leaving the friends I have made, both Peace Corps and Saint Lucians. It is regretful that I will likely leave before really getting to know the newest group of Peace Corps Volunteers who just arrived on Valentines Day. It will be difficult to leave an environment where there is so much natural beauty. I want to pack all that up and take it home with me.

The good days WAY out-number the bad days! Actually I can't remember my last bad day, although I do hold my breath as I walk alongside the sewer in 85 degree heat.

Time is moving fast. I took the day off recently and met PC friends in the north. We had lunch on the beach and then went swimming in the Caribbean. What an amazing way to spend a few hours.

I have incredibly interesting work right now. I'm doing case studies on the after-school children, developing several full-day workshops, I tutor the children across the street, I give private lessons on Microsoft Office two days a week to a young woman who wants to learn how to use the computer. I teach Junior Achievement at the primary school.

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion for the new volunteers. One of the questions asked during the discussion was, “Would you do it again?” My answer is simple. My life is full and I am happy. When I reflect back at what I’ve done and how far I’ve come to get here, I have no regrets. I would do it all over again. Was it difficult? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Oh yes.

After the discussion, I was talking with a couple of the new volunteers and I compared the emotional process to the story of the “Little Engine that Could”.

My first year was spent with the mantra,
I think I can, I think I can” and then, the second year came and I’m speeding down the hill singing, “I knew I could, I knew I could”.

One of the things I love most about this blog is the people I have met because of it. I’m grateful Amy asked this question as it gave me time to pause and reflect on my answer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Contemplating Coconuts

Why is he putting coconuts on his roof? Ah, it must have a leak. Yes, that is it. The roof has a leak and people know how to use resources here to their advantage. But how will he fasten them to the roof? Humm. Maybe he will poor cement on top of them. Builders use cement for everything. But why didn’t he put a layer of cement down before carefully laying the coconuts onto the roof? And, why does he need coconuts and cement? Why not just cement? I don’t see any cement bags.

Maybe he is an artist. He collects coconuts and he is going to do some artistic project that has a message only seen from an aerial view. That seems like a lot of work for just a few lucky people who can afford a helicopter to fly by to witness some obscure message. And, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any helicopters fly by my village.

Alright, I can likely reject the artist idea, but I’m keeping the roof repair on the list of possibilities. Maybe he just has too many coconuts and doesn’t know what else to do with them. Maybe his house is filled with coconuts and he has no where else to put them; now he will begin stacking them on his roof. No, that’s just silly.

Oh, I know, he is feeding the birds! Do birds like coconuts? I’ve never seen a bird eat coconuts before. This man must love birds! Then I think to myself, “Karen, none of this makes any sense!”

So this was my entertainment during my first and second cup of coffee one morning. I used my imagination to think of every possible reason why this man has large burlap sacks of coconuts that he hauls onto his tin roof, spreading them out one by one.

I brainstorm quietly, coming up with reason after reason for this curious behavior. When I can no longer come up with anymore brilliant ideas I decide to do the only logical thing I can think of to solve this mystery. I stood up and walked over to the edge of my deck, “Excuse me sir. Would you mind telling me why you are putting coconuts on your roof?”

It was then that he patiently explained he was setting them out to dry. It would take two, perhaps three days for them to dry. Once dried, he will retrieve them and separate the meat from the shell which he will sell in Soufreire where they manufacture coconut oil.

While I was drinking my coffee and watching this man drag bag after bag of coconuts onto his roof, I was looking for a complex answer. I failed to see the simple answer.