Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mexican Independence 200 Years

Tracy left the island and it was time to slow down a bit. Janyn and I spent slower days; we had a Banana Daquirie at Sandy Beach and went to the after school program. The last Thursday she was here was Corpus Christi day, a religious holiday.

Elvinette arranged for a large bus to take children to the Mexican Embassy. When she asked if we wanted to attend, we jumped at the idea. The Embassy had an exhibit celebrating it’s 200th anniversary of Independence from Spain.

I’ve become a night person since I retired from the corporate world in 2005. Before coming to Saint Lucia, I taught night classes. Since being here, I start my days after noon. So when Elvinette said we had to be in MoPo to meet the bus at 9:00 in the morning I knew it would be a small challenge.

The next morning Janyn and I arrived in MoPo just in time for a huge downpour. We took shelter and waited for the bus. As expected, the rain stopped as quickly as it started.

It was a happy bus ride. The children were singing songs and there was excitement in the air. For many children, opportunities to go outside the village are few and so the bus ride was high energy and just plain fun.

In less than an hour we drove past the sparkling Vigi Beach, past the airport and up a steep hill where the embassy overlooks the Castries Harbor. The Children got out of the bus and waited until everyone was ready to enter.

The Mexican Embassy is a tiny room and I wondered how long the exhibit would hold their attention.

We were in this room for a very long time. To my surprise the children enjoyed every moment.

The Mexican Ambassador was thrilled that we were there. He played with the children. They set up tables and played a game of Mexican Bingo and prizes were distributed. He showed them how to play with a top and the interaction was delightful.

The children took our camera and captured their moments.

Janyn and I were amazed at how captivated the children were at the Embassy. Confined to a small space for over two hours, they were well behaved and interested.

I thought of my own children and what it might have been like if I had taken them to this exhibit when they were young. Actually, just thinking about it gives me a headache. So lets move on.

We piled back into the bus and moved down the hill until we found a nice shady tree at the beach. We enjoyed a great picnic lunch. Of course, neither Janyn nor I thought far enough ahead to bring food, but we spotted a couple of food stands where we could buy something. Brenda would have none of that. There was plenty of food for us too. The children played American Football on the beach, collected shells and made sandcastles. The ice cream man stopped and scooped cups of cold dessert for us.

And so the day was over and it was time to pile back into the bus for the long ride home.

Janyn and I looked at each other and no words needed to be exchanged. We bid our friends a fond farewell and walked down a two mile stretch on the beach to do - well, what we do best.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


How was I going to get everything done? When I read the email I knew that the request was a desperate attempt to find someone willing to help analyze the stack of surveys that had been left unattended far too long. The deadline could no longer be moved forward.

The problem was that I had to teach the little first grader’s the concept of money being exchanged for goods. I hadn’t read the lesson plan and prepared. I can’t ‘wing it’ when it comes to teaching. I emerged from my computer and looked at the two innocent people in my living room. My sister Janyn and niece Tracy were visiting. Ah ha, resources!

I handed them the package of Junior Achievement materials and said, “How would you like to teach a class tomorrow?” While I worked in my bedroom, coding and inputting numbers and creating charts and graphs, they busily taped coins to paper to show the children the difference between E.C. and U.S. coins. They clearly received the fun assignment.

The next day we walked down the road to catch a bus to MoPo. Tracy was armed with knowledge and a plan to teach the class. She led the students through the lesson. Janyn assisted when needed while I played photographer. It was Tracy’s day with the children.

Students are always curious about people with light skin and blond hair. Tracy not only has light skin and blond hair, but is young and pretty as well. A little boy in the corner professed his love for her; he was smitten.

Just as Tracy began to read a story to the class, there was a thunderous rain coming down onto the aluminum roof. There is no glass in the windows because it is far too hot here. Doors aren't closed because ventilation is needed. So when it rains it becomes deafeningly loud. Unfazed she raised her voice and continued while the students listened intently. This happens so frequently the children have learned to adapt.

The emergency assignment was perfectly timed. I completed the analysis and the Junior Achievement Lesson was a big success.

So, here’s the message: if you come to see me you aren’t just a visitor – you are also a resource! Oh, and when I went to teach the class the next Thursday, the little boy who “loves Tracy” asked where she was. Apparently he was hoping to see her again and disappointed that his true love had left the island.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The more I learn, the more the same word comes up: Why? Why would anyone try to make money doing this? They grow on trees and they are a seed. What many people don’t know, or at least what I didn’t know, is that the tree not only produces the seed, but also produces apples.

The apples are quite sweet and very juicy, but it is difficult to transport them because the skin is fragile. I’m sure the reason I’d never eaten this difficult to ship and tasty fruit in Los Angeles is because the Cashew Tree grows in tropical climates.

The Cashew Tree begins flowering and the first beginnings of the seed pod become visible. As the flower dissipates and the seed matures an apple begins to grow.

The seed pod is a dark kidney shaped hideous looking thing; I’m reminded of some yucky worm like creature. But, aside from John, everyone I know loves cashew nuts and, therefore, my unscientific conclusion is this: it’s not relevant what they look like in their natural state, largely because no one knows and wouldn't care anyway.

Each apple has one seed. Why on earth did anyone think it would be a good idea to mass produce and sell cashew nuts! I mean cashew 'seeds'. One seed pod per fruit. How can anyone make money from this massive effort? One tree can produce a lot of fruit, but think of the hours of work each tree represents!

One must remove them from the tree, detach them from the apple, dry them, roast them,
separate them from the hard leathery pod, pack them and ship them. And, the juice of the apple stains clothes, so there is an added step if you are not careful: shopping for new clothes.

My friends in the village wanted to ensure I understood the whole process. Recently, during the after school program, they brought cashew pods to roast so I could witness it first-hand. A hot fire is built and the seeds are put onto a roasting pan. They are stirred and mixed. Then the pan is removed and the cashew seeds are carefully removed. It's a messy process, fun to watch and even better to eat the seeds fresh and hot from the fire. What a treat.

I needed to know more about this fruit phenomenon.

Nigeria, Tanzania, India and Brazil account for the largest producers of Cashews. Vietnam and Indonesia recently entered this market. We love our cashew seeds. The United States imports 50% of the global market of cashew seeds! Last year, India exported 108,131 tons of cashews! Are you kidding me? One seed per fruit and India single-handedly exported how many tons? Now that is dedication.

Now I need to know how this is possible.
Here’s a video on YouTube showing people removing the cashew seed from the pod. Imagine.

And, here is more detail; a factory in Benin.

Nuts and seeds are a daily part of my diet. When I need a snack many times I will go into a convenience store and pick up a small bag of cashews. When I return home in just a short couple of months, I will be better prepared to appreciate three ounces of cashew nuts at less than $2 per bag.

But, I’m still curious. What else do we get from this tree? Well, it turns out the answer is “Quite a bit!”

Tribes in Surinam use the seed oil as an external worm medicine to kill botfly larvae, wine is made to cure dysentary in the Amazon, shampoos, lotions, scalp creams are made from parts tree bark, oils and leaves; We get salted nuts, plain nuts, dry roasted nuts, oil roasted, jumbo whole nuts, mixed pieces, honey roasted nuts, Trader Joes Lime and Chili and Sesame Honey Cashews, cashew juice, apples,cashew butter, cashew oil, cashew art (compliments of eBay-hey it's not my art! I'm just the reporter), cashew brittle, cashew granola. I need to take a breath and stop here, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m related to Forest Gump.
Oh, and one more thing. The cashew apple provides me with a perfectly amazing cashew smoothie. Cheers!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saint Lucia Tours - The Laborie Experience

The Caribbean Islands was never pegged on my travel map.

I’d seen the commercials on television; the beautiful aqua waters with coral reefs, the huge cruise ships docking in several ports, people drinking tropical drinks while laying on lush lounge chairs, snorkeling and sailing in an exotic island, being waited on in beautiful resorts.

I'm describing what you may have seen on the recent Bachelor television reality show. It's a tourist paradise. My sons said the same thing; the Caribbean Islands was never pegged on their maps either. We've just never been the type of people that like a 'tourist paradise'.

If it hadn’t been for my assignment on Saint Lucia, none of us would have spent our hard-earned money and precious vacation hours to bask in the sun and be handed tropical drinks by local waiters while lounging on freshly cleaned cushy chairs. Don't get me wrong, a day or two of this is alright, but, for me I want more. What a surprise to all of us when we learned there is so much more character to this beautiful island.

Saint Lucia has identified three pillars which are depended on to develop their economy: agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. Until a few years ago, agriculture was the stable pillar, but when the banana industry’s competition increased and hurricanes and insects destroyed crops that pillar began to wobble.

Today, Saint Lucia depends on the tourist. From a layman’s point-of-view, it appears there are problems this industry; foreign corporations that exploit the land, little dollars making it into the hands of locals, increased crime in the capitol and low level subsistence jobs name of few of the problems.

Reference the Westin Paradise, Saint Lucia. I can never resist giving a shout out to the Westin who leveled a beautiful island point and began building a new resort before the economy went south. They abandoned the site which now sits in a decaying state.

I sometimes wonder if tourism is the right focus, but I’m not an expert in the Tourism Industry in Saint Lucia. These are just simple observations and I concur no one has briefed me on the big picture and master tourism plan, and therefore, tourism could possibly be the next best thing that happens to the people of Saint Lucia.

One thing is for certain. I am an expert on my needs for my own personal travel. All those wonderful things that I said the island offers are not things that I look for when I travel. And, let’s get real. I’m just not into what they are selling me. But, that doesn’t mean the island doesn’t offer what I want.

Much to my surprise, and the surprise of my family, Saint Lucia offers what I want – they just failed to tell me about it. My two year assignment on this island enabled me to uncover the true beauty of the island.
When Janyn and Tracy were here, I wanted them to see more than what they had seen in the marketing material. I wanted them to see Saint Lucia.

Laborie is a small village in the southwest Caribbean side of the island. It is likely a place where few, if any, tourists have been. It’s unlikely that a taxi driver would suggest such a place, but hopefully that is going to change. With a well-organized community and motivated people, the village received a grant to help them establish a village tour; The Laborie Experience.

The village is a short two bus ride distance from where I live. We arrived in Laborie and headed for the Foundation’s Community Center.

Toyla, our guide was waiting for us and from a half a block away I could see her waving her hand high in the air to signal we were going in the right direction. We visited a small museum which is incorporated inside the building. There were objects on display from the times of Caribs through the early 20th Century. It was a good introduction to the tour.

Arawak Artifacts

Old Tools - imagine trying to use this saw!

After a few minutes looking, studying and asking questions in the museum we were off to see the village.

We stopped at the Catholic Church, the largest building overlooking the village. It is said that it was built so that the priest could look out on the village during service to see those that were not attending.

Many of the people decorate the outside of their homes with conk shells that are still in bountiful supply at the local beach.

Strategically placed shingles protect old wooden homes from the pounding rain.

Older wooden structures are seen with ornate wooden carvings that decorate the older homes, but this is history. Newer homes are made from handmade bricks and cement balusters. Still a labor of love, but far less labor intensive.

Nestled behind a home and through a narrow walkway is the Bread Factory - a must see and taste experience!

A 'local' artist, JAG who is a former Laborie Peace Corps Volunteer and accomplished artist, painted this wall mural depicting of typical Laborie Life.

After the tour, we had a local lunch and visited the beach before heading home.

When my sister and niece decided to visit the island, I put this tour at the top of the list. There were two reasons; first, the money goes straight to the economy and supports local people and two, it is a way to connect with the people who live on the island.

Their non-traditional vacation involved teaching children how to make paper beads and leading a class in Junior Achievement. We walked through the rainforest. We watched a Leatherback Turtle attempt to lay eggs. We accompanied the children in the after-school program to the Mexican Embassy to view an exhibit and had a picnic on the beach later in the afternoon. We were invited to dinner at a friend’s house where they experience their first real taste of local food.

We did spend a couple of days beaching and drinking banana daiquiris, and although fun and relaxing, those weren’t the highlights. The daiquiris and beach don't create the stories we take home. It's the people, the culture and the experience of immersion that create the memories.

I wish Saint Lucia would market the rest of what this beautiful island has to offer. There is so much here. Saint Lucia is at the top of my family’s “best vacation” list.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cow Killers

I was headed for the Peace Corps Office. I climbed the same forty steps to the overpass and down thirty steps to reach the other side of the street. I’ve done this dozens of times, but today was different. Just after the bus dropped me, and only a few steps from the sidewalk, I noticed a tiny creature crawling in the dirt. I might have missed this little thing had it not been for its brilliant color.

As I watched this little creature make its way in a hurried fashion, I was reminded of years past when John and I would spend so much time on a small detail of nature. There is a meditative feeling that overcomes me when I watch an ant carry food to it's queen or watch a spider spin its web or a squirrel burying a nut, only to be stolen by a sly Blue Jay. I miss having someone to share the details in life.

I stood there looking at this ant when a young man appeared behind me. I risked conversation, “Look at that ant. Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Normally, when I try to converse with strangers, I’m met with silence and strange looks. This is especially true in the city. But today it was different. The young man said, “Now, I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like this before. We watched in silence, well into a minute. It was a quiet bond and I found it comforting to enjoy this moment with a stranger.

When I reached home that evening, I Googled the strange looking ant. It is called a Red Velvet Ant or a Cow Killer. It’s unlikely this tiny creature has ever actually killed a cow, but evidently its sting is so painful that it is said if a cow were stung, it would die from the pain.

This creature is not an ant, but a female wingless wasp.

Males look much the same but have wings. It will do no harm if left alone. But there is one more curious thing you should know about this little creature. If you pin the Cow Killer down with a stick or object it will scream. Now isn’t nature amazing!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Long Walk

Sometimes I wonder why we must put people in boxes. We all do it. We see a homeless man or woman on the street and turn our heads. We see a group of minority men and become cautious. We see a well dressed man and see success. It’s no different in Saint Lucia. It’s human Nature. Here, many see a poor man, a Rastafarian farmer, and people become distrustful. This was the case two weeks ago when we walked across the island.

I have a lot of stories to tell, but none like this one. I can only tell the partial story because some of it is far too personal. We made a lot of mistakes that day, but in the end, the mistakes we made were worth the new friendship and bond we gained.

My sister and niece, Janyn and Tracy were visiting and we decided to walk across the island. I read that there is a well-marked path and I do love the rain forest.
Elaine decided to come along. One thing led to another and our first mistake was getting a late start . . . 10:30 a.m.

Later I was told people start at dawn for this hike. Why didn’t we have a sense of urgency? I have no idea what I was thinking. We started out from my village. Most people take a ride up the six mile road, but I thought this would be cheating…clearly our second mistake.

We stopped at the village market for water. I bought a big bottle as did Janyn and Tracy. Elaine decided two small bottles would be enough. Really? This is the warmest time of the year and we are venturing out across the island with less than a gallon of water. Our third mistake of the day…not enough water.

We walked across the village and crossed the highway to the six mile stretch that leads to the path. It’s a beautiful walk and many villagers have country farms along the way.

We reached LaTille Falls about two miles into the walk and a friend from the village spotted us. I spoke with her for a few minutes and she warned us about going without a guide.

She said four women should not be alone. She pointed to a Rasta man who was walking up the road and said, “You must be careful of people like him”. One thing you should know about me is that I’m independent. The same is true for Janyn, Tracy and Elaine. None of us needs a man to take care of us. I told her not to worry and we were on our way. It turns out she was right. This was our first warning. We did need a guide and sometimes we do need men to take care of us. You must know I choke while writing those words.

As we walked up the road, we approached that Rasta man. He was throwing a mango at the tree in order to make others fall. I said, “that’s clever”. He asked where we were going and I explained our intended hike. He said, “I’d like to go with you but I have other things to do”. Then minutes later he asked if he could accompany us. I conferred with the others and everyone agreed that he could come along. He told us that God put him in this exact place so that he could accompany us on our walk. His name is Julian.

We approached the “Country Club” which is a small building in the middle of nowhere. I was amused at the name until I stopped to think about it. The 'club' IS in the country, open to all who pass. They play dominoes and sing Kareoke. There are no dress codes or extravagant entrance dues. Our country clubs are in the city and most are opulent and have tennis courts and golf courses.

I once went to the Los Angeles Country Club and had to wear a dress to ensure my entrance. Luckily, I was with a man, otherwise I would have had to enter through the side entrance. Women were not allowed through the front door...nor were they permitted membership. I think I like the Saint Lucia Country Club better.

Janyn and Julian played a couple of games of Dominoes while we drank our cool beverages. By now it was noon. What were we thinking? A game of Dominoes in mid-day before walking across the island? The forth mistake…wasting time.

Once again we set out for our trek across the forest. It was about 1:30 p.m. when we approached the dirt path through the forest. A man driving a car stopped. He and Julian spoke; they were friends. He got out of his car and gave us handfuls of fruits to take with us. He said we were getting a late start; our second warning. Later, when we were running low on water, we found the fruit refreshing.

The reported well-marked path was indeed marked. At least we did see this sign. The problem was that we couldn't figure it out! And, it was the only one we saw.

We entered the forest and marveled at the beauty. We listened to the sounds…sounds that can only be heard in a rain forest. We heard the calls of birds including those of parots, the Saint Lucia National Bird. The smells were equally tantalizing.

We had made four c
ritical mistakes and ignored two warnings by the time we had walked three hours to reach the entrance of our hike. There were a myriad of other unspoken problems encountered along the way that should have caught our attention and one that should have turned us back.

The last warning sign was sounded by crickets and tree frogs...sounds only heard as the sun goes down and the skies are blackened. My glasses began to fog as the forest humidity raised and I hung them on my shirt as we continued to move in the darkness. We had three cell phones which illuminated our path.

In the darkness of the night, Julian stopped. He said, "do you hear that?" We did. It sounded like bass; maybe drums, definitely music. That was a good moment. We didn’t walk out of the forest until 10:30 that night, a full eleven hours from the beginning of our journey.

At one point, I was ready to make camp in the forest, but at Julian's insistance we kept moving. It turns out that because I bumped into that friend by LaTille Falls, the village knew what we had done and there were people looking for us. Oh dear. How did I get to be this old and this stupid?

As I said at the top of the story, there are secrets that we left in the forest and remain between the five of us. In the end Janyn, Tracy, Elaine and I all agreed that Julian was right: God sent him to us. He protected us. He kept us going. He is our dear and wonderful friend.

And, by the way, if anyone happens to take this walk and comes across an aqua pair of blended-transition-designer glasses, they are mine.