Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Food Pyramid

Type II Diabetes in Saint Lucia is of epidemic proportions. Imagine. A lot of starch and sugar is eaten here. I spoke with a woman several months ago about her mother. She had her leg amputated. The woman said to me, “The doctors are very quick to amputate”.

Given this information it made sense to add Nutrition to the structure in the after-school program. An entire month was dedicated to teaching the children about basic nutrition and the food pyramid. They were taught serving size and quizzed about various foods.

Today I went to the store to stock up on regular stuff that I eat. When I brought it home, I studied my purchase carefully. I examined the food group chart and to my surprise the things I purchased fit very well into the pyramid. Maraschino Cherries and dried apricots checks off one serving of the “fruit” group and the Pringles fills the daily requirement for vegetables. Water…check that one. Top Raman – great for the pasta group. Chocolate goes into “fat, oils and sweets”, but doesn’t it count for something that it’s mostly dark chocolate?

Now I could “beef up” the meat group … pardon the pun. But I have a problem with that group. First, I don’t really like meat. I don’t eat anything other than fish and chicken breasts. I really don’t like anything with bones because it reminds me of what I’m eating. I find that thoroughly disgusting. Yes, I know, if I was starving I would eat anything. I’ve heard that argument before. It’s just that I’m not starving.
But there is a bigger problem. Chickens in our village are fully equipped with backs, legs and thighs, but they don’t have breasts – seriously. If they do, they are hiding them from me because I’ve never been able to find them in the store in my village. I stalked this chicken to see it was hiding a breast, but I couldn’t really tell. It doesn’t matter anyway because I don’t cook. Fortunately for me I love almonds and exist on peanut butter … so I can check off the “protein” group.

I was talking to a Peace Corps friend yesterday. (You know who you are but I’m keeping your identify a secret to protect you. I’m a good friend and you may thank me later.) She had potato chips and coke for dinner. I’m sure she washed it down with a boatload of dark chocolate, but she didn’t confess to that. We both laughed before silence overcame us as we quietly reflected on what she had just said. I said, “Do you think we are going to live through this?”

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Goats? Dogs? It's all the same.

The End Nears

It was a strange day today. I know that I’m coming close to the end of my service, but today there was a lot of reality in the mix.

I heard the car pull up and opened my door. Brenda was walking up my steps. A big smile greeted me. We chatted for a few minutes until there was another knock. I opened the door and welcomed two Peace Corps staff, Sharmon and Elizabeth. Every few months they come by to see how things are going. But, this meeting was different. Rather than focusing on future projects, the focus was on past accomplishments.

We spoke about the work I am doing, about a previous Peace Corps Volunteer accomplishments, about my village and then the conversation turned. Sharmon asked, "Have you thought about what you will do when your service is completed?" Have I ever! I thought about that as I pressed the send button to start the Peace Corps application process over three years ago. Do I have an answer? ABSOLUTELY!….not.

I explained that I am very goal oriented. This is another chunk of my life and like everything else I've done, I want to understand the purpose of why I'm doing it. So here I was, talking about the subject that brought me here in the first place. As we spoke in nonsensical words, I silently thought, “I was a wife and a mother. I had a long and full career. I taught courses after I retired. I hoped that I could do something meaningful for a couple of years that would spark an idea about what I might do next. Now here I am almost two years later and I am no closer to the answer than I was when I was standing in the Los Angeles International Airport waving goodbye to my family.”

Later I opened an email from a university where I previously worked. In the past couple of months there’s been conversation around my return. Although we agreed that I would come back and teach, I was stunned when I read the sentence. The words cut through me, “We are preparing for your return. Please review the note below from main campus and if you need to make changes send us an email.” I’m not sure why those words stopped me cold, but it could be mounting reality.

After reading the email, I thought about my life. It’s exciting to come to the end of service, but it’s also bittersweet. I hear Brenda talk about future projects she will be doing and I will miss the interesting work. I helped Angelina write a proposal for a Peace Corps Response Volunteer and I wish I could tackle this assignment. I will miss the children in which I see amazing daily progress at the after-school program and I will miss creating and facilitating workshops for professionals around the island.

Later in the afternoon I walked down the long road to the highway to catch a bus to Mon Repos, a nearby village. Within minutes, a bus stopped to drop a passenger. (I should note that there are two bus routes that can take me to Mon Repos; one that goes all the way to Castries, and another that only goes as far as Mon Repos.)

The bus was full and I took the last seat. Almost in unison, every passenger on the bus said, “This bus doesn’t go to Castries”. I responded quickly, “I’m just going to MoPo.” There was laughter in the bus and a woman in the back said, “She said MoPo! She doesn’t say Mon Repos. She’s one of us!” I spent a few hours with the after-school program children and facilitators. I helped with homework and answered questions. I watched them learn to play tennis and do art projects.

When I returned to my village, it was dark. I called to the driver, "stopping at the junction", paid him $1.75EC, the equivalent of $.65. It is hot and people are sitting outside to feel the cool island breeze. I love walking through the village and always get out at the far end to extend my stroll. I wave to an old man who stands at the window of his darkened home watching the world pass by. I suppose life without electricity is normal in his world. I pass by the football (soccer) field and hear the children shouting “Miss Karen!” I walk by small shacks and wonder if the people who live in them are happy. I walk by several rum shops with various genres of load music drowning out the crickets and tree frogs. I see the occasional spirited game of Dominoes being played on a makeshift table.

I see roosters protecting their hens, dogs sleeping on the streets and goats chomping on weeds. I hear people sitting on the roadside say, “Karen, are you passing?” And, then I softly climb the stairs to my apartment trying to be careful not to bother Elizabeth and John, but know they are watching for my safe return.

I have had a lot of emotions while living here, but I rarely thought I would be sad to leave. I suppose I never let myself think about this reality. It isn’t that I didn’t want to stay. It’s that I knew this was a twenty-seven month assignment and that I would leave. It’s temporary. I knew this then and I know it now. The thing is that after two years, this village has become my home.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


The educational system in this country has adopted the English style of learning. They do a lot of reciting. They are told and then they repeat what they are told in unison.

When I taught at Monroe College, the students were terrified because my tests were essay questions rather than a sheet of paper with boxes to be marked true/false and multiple choice questions.

My guess is that the students did well in primary and secondary education which allowed them to advance. Although it's not scientific research, I bet these students are ones that learn best by memorizing and reciting. They likely did not learn by respectfully challenging the instructor.

Students tell me that Saint Lucia professors make tests as difficult as they can and expect many to do poorly. The American system seems less punishing and more nurturing. As a teacher, I want students to do well and when they don’t I share in their failure. Students are told that if they attend an American university they will find it very easy. Really?

Working in the after-school program with 8-10 year olds has been enlightening. I am amazed at the amount of illiterate children here. It is simply frightening to think of so many children who, without intervention, will not be able to read the sign on the road or the menu handed to him. Imagine yourself going through just one hour unable to read. It’s an enormous handicap. I wish I could do more about this problem.

There are factors that come to play: a high illiteracy rate among parents, children having children, poor diet, and untreated learning disabilities, poor teaching facilities that lack resources as well as descent acoustics. There are deeper problems, such as the lack of parental resources to buy uniforms and books for their children and parents who place little value on formal education. I’m not sure it’s much different in the United States.

(I have no idea if the children in these pictures read or not. They are just adorable children and representative of those on the island.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Street

The people live in the village. They cheer, encourage and celebrate with the children. The intensity and excitement are palpable. The finish line is only a few steps away and with each step the voice of the crowd increases by another decibel. Some bystanders are caught up in the moment and begin running with the children who are about to cross the finish line. This is one of those moments when the people in the village are one; everyone has the same focus; like-minds. It’s Sports Week and this is a happy occasion.

At first glance, this is just a street; one of thousands on the island. It stands tall and straight, sloping down into the village where people lime. This is where people unwind, talk about their day, commiserate about their problems and drink a Piton. This street has witnessed happy, sad and mundane days.

They come from the fields; the farms in the interior portion of the island. Cutlass in hand and dirty from a days work, their pick-up trucks are filled with “green gold”. Banana farmers are rich in soil and that allows them to reap the bounty of their harvest. Truck after truck cruises down the hill headed to the nearest collection point where the farmer will trade in the harvest for cash. It’s just a normal day in the village. At least it was normal until the export laws changed.

It was a familiar sight, but not familiar at all. They are waiting to see the old pick-up truck that they have seen rolling down this street so many times before. The street is lined with people, not a standing space left. It is quiet. There is little to say. Each is grieving in their own way, going over small memories in these private moments. And then, it appears. It is small in the distance, but as it moves closer the reality becomes unbearable. A sob is heard and then a cry. The people begin to scream and some collapse in the street. The little pick-up truck holds the casket of their fallen leader. Sir John Compton had done so much for this village.

The village was bustling, especially on a Saturday. Neighboring villagers would come to do their weekly grocery shopping, buy a new pair of shoes or buy schoolbooks for the children. It was difficult to move around the island in those days, but the street in this village was well-travelled with buses transporting shoppers who left handfuls of money in retailers ringing cash registers. When the main road was built, shoppers changed their path in pursuit of a more diverse shopping experience in Vieux Fort. The cash registers that once left ringing in our ears, now stand silent for the most part.

This street has witnessed change in the village, the era of green gold, a hero, Sir John Compton and buses filled with shoppers. These are just a few memories that make this street a historical timeline of the village culture. But new memories are made; the cheers for children, running as fast as their feet will take them, replace the sweat of the farmers, the ringing cash registers and the tears for their leader.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Paper Beads

The Hub

There is a lot to say before we get to the point. The point, of course, is paper beads. But, I need to tell you how I got there in order for you to appreciate them.

I have my own Communication Center in Saint Lucia. The first feature of my Communication Center is my phones; I have lots of phones. I have a cell phone. I need it when I’m out and about. I’m not really good with it because I carry a backpack instead of a purse. It gets lost in my backpack so I put it in my pocket. It’s sensitive and turns itself off a lot. My friends know to send me an email when I don’t answer the phone.

I went through a period when I forgot to take it out of my pocket and washed a lot of phones in my semi-automatic washing machine. That was expensive. I solved the problem. I put a crumpled piece of paper in the washing machine. The paper was a symbol for me to find my phone before turning the water on. It worked; I haven’t washed a phone in months. Unfortunately, the phone that survived is the one that likes to turn itself off.

I have a landline. I need it to call other landlines because it costs more to dial a landline number from a cell phone. I may not have opted for this and just paid the extra cost, but I couldn’t get internet without getting a landline. Why? Well, the only thing I can figure is that when I arrived on the island there was no internet competition.

A lot of people carry two cell phones. We have two carriers and it’s expensive to make calls between the two companies. Some people wear their phones around their necks. Here is where I draw a line in the Caribbean beach sand. I will only have one cell phone and you will never catch me wearing it around my neck.

Many of the locals use texting to communicate. I became a “texter” when I began teaching at Los Angeles Harbor College. Students texted me to say they were late or couldn’t make it to class and for a myriad of other things they wanted to communicate. It’s not my preference, but I used it then and use it now.

I have a Vonage Phone. I know, I should have a Magic Jack. It’s a cheaper option, but I brought the Vonage box and, frankly, it’s too much trouble to switch. The Vonage Phone is hooked up to the internet and has a California area code so that people can call me and I can call them. It’s nice.

Another feature of the Communication Center is the internet. I rely on it for work and to keep in touch with friends. I research. I don’t have to GO to a library to get information. I use the internet to research material for courses and workshops. As alumni and faculty, I have access to several university libraries. Email is important. Occasionally, I use Skype when I want to see the people I’m talking to. It’s fun, but the pictures are less than clear so this Communication Center feature is not often used.

I have a Facebook account. Most of the volunteers have a Facebook Account and so it’s a good way to keep in touch. I use chat. I chat on Facebook and Gmail. I usually don’t initiate the chats, but I do chat. It’s definitely part of my Communication Center. And, of course, I’m a blogger. It’s my way of keeping in touch with a wide group of friends. Even if I don’t know you, by now you are my friend.

I pay bills on-line and occasionally make a purchase. Recently, I purchased two books from my friend Lois. She co-authored a new book called “Carried Away”. I’m a Paypal user which makes it easier to make purchases.

I recently sent two real letters using real stamps, something I haven’t done in years. It was different and fun, but I don’t feel like I’ll make it a habit. I prefer to use my Communication Center.

My Communication Center is a hub – a web of activity. Three phones, Skype, email, chat, texting, a bill paying and purchase center, a research tool, Facebook and Blogging. My Communication Center is a delicate balance of software, hardware, devices, wires and cables. As I recently found, it can be a house of cards.


When I returned from my trip to Costa Rica, I found my landline didn’t work. Although the landline is part of my Communication Center and is included in my Hub, it has less value to me. I looked at the dead phone sitting on the table and thought to myself, “I will report it just now”. In the meantime, I will pretend there is no problem. It’s just easier that way.

‘Just now’ in Saint Lucia means maybe in five minutes, maybe in a few hours, maybe tomorrow, next week, or maybe never. It’s pretty vague. Island living has compelled me to adapt this lack of urgency; at least when I choose to adapt to it.

I was in Castries last Tuesday and had a little free time. I wasn’t sure if I had paid the phone and internet bills yet so I stopped at Lime, my phone/internet carrier. This is another ‘just now’ thing. I’ve forgotten to pay my bills for two months and no one says anything. They never threatened to cut my service or even mention that the bill was overdue.

So, this is the way I roll in Saint Lucia. I go to the office and stand in line. I don’t like carrying a lot of money and prefer to pay the bill with a credit card. Sometimes after standing in the Lime line, I have to go to the bank and stand in line to get money and then return with cash to pay the Lime bills. I do this when the credit card machine doesn’t work. I’m used to the process. I patiently accept this. It’s part of Peace Corps charm.

The credit card machine worked yesterday. I hesitated because I thought I may be directed to another line, but mustered the courage. “My landline doesn’t work. How do I report this?” Much to my surprise she took the information right there. She punched information into the computer, asked a couple of questions and then said, “A repairman will be out within three days”. I thought to myself, “yes, or just now”. But as I said I have no sense of urgency about this phone.

I was working with the children in a neighboring village when my cell phone rang the next day. It always startles me when it rings because it shuts itself off so often. Anyway, it was the repairman! He explained he had fixed the problem from the little station in the village, but wanted to check to ensure everything was working properly. He needed to know how to locate my house.

This is always a chore because there are no street names of numbers. I explained in painful detail how to get to my house and then asked him to knock on my landlord’s door and ask them to let him in the house. I am convinced he either lives in this village or knows someone here because he understood every landmark I described.


When I got home I found that not only was the landline dead but I also have no internet. OMG, my entire Communication Center – the delicate balanced hub of activity has been disturbed. I cannot get phone calls from the U.S., can’t skype, make purchases, pay bills, research, email, chat…Nothing. I realize I don’t have a clue what I should be doing because I can’t access my on-line calendar. My communication hub is now confined to one phone; my cell phone. Whereas just yesterday the world was at my fingertips, my world has been reduced to one tiny island – Saint Lucia. Just now is not acceptable!

Little did I know that I would miss five days of work, make dozens of costly phone calls from my cell phone to LIME’s landline, experience success and then failure and that it would take over week to fix the problem. But, there is something about those frustrating and bad experiences in life that turn out to be introspective and humorous.


At the After-School Program, the focus for the month is slavery. We are teaching the children to think broader. I asked them what it meant. They said that it meant that people were beaten but couldn’t come up with meaning beyond that. I asked them to find the definition of slavery on the computer. They discovered that it was when someone was forced to do something they did not want to do.

We talked about what they were “slaves” to in their world. They came up with a list of things. We talked about peer pressure. We talked about drugs and alcohol. As we explored this concept they began to understand that, although slavery in the more literal sense was devastating, wrong and frightening, they reasoned that they are slaves in a sense to things in their world. Just like slaves, it takes brave people to overcome the adversity.

As I sit here, isolated in my darkened room, feeling sorry for myself, frustrated and alone, I think about the discussion with the children. I conclude, I am a slave to my Communication Center. I, too must be brave. I shall overcome. Really? NO! I don’t want to overcome – just put my house of cards back in order….please.


Morning finally arrived. I made it through the night. One entire day without full use of my Communication Center and I’m still breathing. I made a pot of coffee, turned on the news and began tapping my finger. Would the repairman show up? Would it be today, or just now? I went downstairs and Elizabeth came out. She said, “Don’t panic, he will show up”.

It was well into the afternoon and no one had showed up. I was alright with it. Totally reconciled. I was calm and in control. I am bigger than this! It was 3:00 and I was just about to leave when there was a knock at my door. It was Elizabeth and just at the bottom of the stairs there was an angelic looking face. A beautiful man, complete with his own tool belt. Beyond that there was no white horse, but just as good. It was a black truck with a LIME logo on its side. Hello Digby!

He scampered up the phone poll and ran up my stairs to test, repeating this process several times. And all the sudden – the internet. The world again is at my fingertips. It was almost like I’d never known such peace. I slept well Thursday night. And then came Friday.

The LIME technician said, “I just fixed your line, can you test it?” “What?” I respond, “There was nothing wrong with my line!” For several seconds, the only thing I heard the technician say was, “Oh, sugar”. He said this many times. I asked, “Did you break it?” He could not answer. He only said “Oh, sugar”. I knew the answer.

It has now been eight days. So here’s what has been happening. Last Tuesday, I reported the landline was dead. My internet was fine. Wednesday they came and broke the internet so I had no phone or internet. Thursday Digby fixed it. Friday the unknown “Oh, sugar” man broke it, closed the ticket and left. No one works weekends. Monday I opened a new ticket. Tuesday they said they were here in the village trying to fix it from the LIME office. I’m not sure if there is any truth to that. They also indicated they couldn’t fix it and would be back today. I’m not sure there is any truth to that either.

My landlady, Elizabeth, came to my house today with a piece of homemade cake and said she was going to Vieux Fort and would put “threatening LIME” on her list of things to do while there. I’m not sure why, but she is still in the “anger” stage. I need to help her get to “acceptance”.

So, what am I doing to make this tolerable? I’m making paper beads.

Paper Beads

I used to grow things when I was younger. When John and I were first married, we had a communal vegetable garden complete with a scarecrow. We lived in a three-plex and we were all friends. The first year we planted twenty-six tomato plants, not realizing that many plants would likely supply the entire neighborhood with tomatoes.

I had hundreds of houseplants. I took the curtains down and the plants supplied our privacy. I remember sitting on the front porch with my oldest son, then two. Together we repotted plants, added nutrients to the soil and watered them.

I made lots of Christmas decorations and usually had a needlepoint on hand to sew. I macraméd and crocheted. Most surprising is that I also cooked and baked. We barbequed in the yard we shared with our friends. No one had much money then so communal dinners were not only fun, but a survival strategy.

After a handful of years, we bought a house and moved from the three-plex. Slowly life began to take hold. Two more children, Little League, school functions, a full time job, long hours and travel, a lawn that needed to be mowed, walls that needed paint and laundry that needed to be washed, replaced the hobbies that previously took so much of my time.

I was never really great at any of the things I did, but the hobbies were relaxing. I didn’t stop doing all those things at once – it was a slow change. Slow enough where I didn’t really notice.

And now, there is another change. A slow change, but significant. There are no longer children to take care of and all the things that go with it. I retired from my job and I gave my lawn mower away and hired a gardener. I signed up for Peace Corps and moved to another country where I live in a rented apartment so there are no walls to paint. I stopped cooking years ago, although I still occasionally bake; even here.

Technology now takes up most of my time. Internet research and work that requires a computer, online videos, music, blogging, emails, Facebook, chats, and perusing websites that supply endless stories written by unknown but talented writers in need of an audience – these are the things that now take up my discretionary time.

The internet is my diversion when I work. It’s my break – the way I clear my head. An hour of work – then thirty minutes of surfing into the black hole of time.

I tried turning on the television, but was bored. I’ve read everything interesting and the only books I have left are books that I started but found less than engrossing. I listen to my IPod, but long to multitask so I clean.

Then I remembered the instructions I stumbled onto a few weeks ago. They were easy instructions on how to make paper beads. I’m not sure how I came upon it. I wasn’t looking for it. It’s just what happens when surfing the internet. So, today, taking a break from creating a new workshop on event planning, I made paper beads.

While I was cutting and gluing, I thought of the hours I spent on past hobbies and the peace it brought me. It was fun and relaxing. It was also rewarding because I had something to show for my time. It’s nice to get back to basics, but I do miss the internet!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

That Mother Thing

I am not a religious person, but I do believe. There have been six times in my life when I felt a presence that can only be described as God. When I saw each of my babies for the first time, I saw love. At the precise moment of birth I knew God was there. This accounts for three experiences. I will be silent about the other three for the moment. We’ll just leave it at the birth of my first child. That was the first time I had real proof that God exists.

The birth of my children was only the beginning of a love that doubles infinitely over time, and, as my love grows my protective instincts surge. Although I have no idea why, the mother swells inside me and never stops growing. No one told me about this before I had children. Although my children are now adults the mother thing continues to grow. I conclude it never will.

Often times while I’ve been here, I silently brainstorm long lists of every possibility of impending disaster. Mothers do this very well. Let me explain. My phone is silent. I check my email. Nothing. No one is trying to contact me. I haven’t heard from them in three days. There must be a reason because they have protected me from bad news in the past. This is my evidence that they are protecting me now. They protect me with their silence.

I’m sure someone is sick. Or maybe my granddaughter isn’t well. One of them has lost a job. There’s been an accident of some kind – I can invent lots of these in my head. I’m very creative. They’ve done this to me. I blame them. This is another part of the mother thing.

I can identify many things to worry about which sends me into never-ending and constant worry frenzy. This is an activity I practiced regularly at home and it is only magnified being so far away.

I watch television infrequently. In my spare time I read. I research. I journal. I contemplate my thoughts. And I worry.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


I was in a quandary. Should I name this post Mishmash or Hodgepodge? Then it came to me…who cares? So I named it with a word that is not in the dictionary. ‘Hodgepodging’ is a better description for this post.

I surfed my desktop and hard drive, my external hard drive, thumb drives and my camera digital storage disk to come up with a mishmash of things. Nothing has enough content to write about, yet I want to share it. My actions can only be described as hodgepodging.

So below you will find a few things that I found interesting during my hodgepodging excursion and wanted to share them with you.

I have a consistent tan line on my feet and my toenails grow longer than they did in California. More information than you wanted to know? Oh, come on. Read on. It gets better. And, I'm saving the best one for last.

These little frogs are less than the size of a quarter, yet make the most noise throughout the night. This one greeted me at my front door. If you look at the door jamb you can see how small they are.

Gecko's periodically take up residence in my house. I'm ok with it. The little one that didn't make it is food for the ants.

Here's a Hermit Crab. I don't have much to say about it other than I'm not sure how many I stepped on before realizing I was in their breeding ground. I'm so sorry little ones.

I love these pictures. The little boy lizard is trying to impress the little girl lizard by making that big white net looking thing. The little girl was very interested with him and her throat turned a bright red color, but I didn't snap the picture of it on time. You have to trust me on this one.

This is a picture of Rat Island off the coast in Castries. It's usually green but because of the drought it looks rather brown and dead. I don't want to find out why they call it Rat Island. Can rats swim that far? Can they live through droughts?

Dogs and cats are not spayed and neutered here so there are always lots of puppies and kitties.

Goats get tired too.

Trees are shaped by the wind.

So this one is my favorite. The pictures are compliments of Elaine. This is a rainbow sun - or a sun halo. This phenomena occurs when there is a refraction of sunlight through cloud suspended ice crystals. Isn't this amazing.

So there you have it. A mishmash...I mean hodgepodge of information that can be found while mismashing - no, I mean hodgepodging my way through my technical devices. Oh never mind. You know what I mean.