Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The See-You-Later’s and The Mixed Feelings

It's been one week since I returned home and I'm biting the bullet. I must write my final "Peace Corps Update." It is so hard to put these final months and my return into words, but here is my best effort:


After our Close of Service Training in January, the focus of our work turned to wrapping up our projects. I spent time discussing with each school how my libraries would continue in my absence. This "sustainability" part of our service is a challenge. Often volunteer programs fall apart after the volunteer leaves. We look at sustainability in a few different ways: the lives you have affected and the programs that continue (or not). This way, even though we may try to no avail to secure the continuation of our programs, we can still count our successes in the people that have benefited personally from our work during our service.


At one of my schools I was able to start a library schedule where classes came to the library for 30 minutes each week to allow their students to return and checkout books. During this time the teachers were able to learn the process and organization of the library. At my other school we discussed doing something similar, but never could get it off the ground. In my final weeks, however, I met a parent who was interested in helping operate the library during breaks. I am fairly confident that the students will continue to have access to the books at both schools, which is a significant improvement.


In February another volunteer and I celebrated our 25 birthdays and this began a trend of Peace Corps get-togethers and celebrations for the remaining weeks of our service. Also, my Lucian hiking buddies had me make a list of 25 things I wanted to do before I left St. Lucia. This set the tone for the last months, to enjoy everything that deserves enjoying in St. Lucia. I am thankful for these suggestions, because all my freshest memories are of the things I love most about St. Lucia, and that is the way I will always remember it. Here are some of the things I did in the final months:

  • Camped on a beach at the base of Gros Piton
  • Explored Cas En Bas beach, a beach in the north east with lots of rocks and places to explore
  • Went to Jazz at Janm de Bwa (restaurant on Pigeon Island) and hiked to the top of Pigeon Island at night.
  • Roasted s'mores over a bonfire on the beach (twice), this included introducing some Lucians and Japanese volunteers to their first s'mores ever.
  • Hiked to Anse Louvert (the same hike I sprained my ankle on over a year ago). It's a secluded beach on the eastern shore surrounded by cliffs and inhabited by iguanas. There is not much shade around this beach so I got home absolutely burnt to a crisp!
  • Did final shopping for souvenirs
  • Attended ceremonies at my schools to celebrate my service there
  • Swam to Rat Island (small island in Choc Bay) one last time with one of my favorite hiking buddies
  • Went to church with my hiking buddies
  • Did an "around the island" trip with EC79 (fellow PCV group). We went down to Soufriere, did some ziplining, ate some good food, took a boat trip around to Anse Chastenet for some snorkeling, and shared final toasts.
  • Learned to make fish cakes
  • Learned to make bakes, saltfish, and cocoa tea with my favorite hiking buddies
  • Played the national anthems for EC 83's swearing in ceremony
  • Treated myself to my very first massage
  • Had a final dinner with my host family and all the volunteers they have hosted in the past 4 or 5 years
  • Went to the bank 3 times before I successfully closed my account (It was a joke amongst the EC79 volunteers that St. Lucia would have the last laugh in everything… this rung very true). Closed my cell phone account. Transferred my internet account to the new volunteer who took over my apartment.
  • Attended a big Peace Corps get together/potluck, celebrating our end of service and EC83's beginning of service
  • Went cliff jumping over a sea cave and was presented with my very own cutlass J


My schools did a beautiful job sending me off. I was surprised and overwhelmed at the preparation and thoughtfulness of my "see-you-later" ceremonies. (I refuse to say goodbye, only see-you-later is acceptable.)  The students sang songs and recited poems. Both schools presented me with beautiful gifts. At Balata they did a skit about me in the library and performed the "So Long, Farewell" song from The Sound of Music. I was moved to tears. The Balata principle seriously embellished my accomplishments, but it was encouraging to hear her describe the ways I had affected the school, including teaching them about alternative classroom management methods, life skills, chess, and libraries.


I spent my last few days and night with my favorite hiking buddies. Those were the toughest see-you-laters. Cliff jumping was a perfect and symbolic final activity. This transition feels a lot like just jumping off a cliff. On departure day I finished cleaning and packing a few things and then sat down to wait for my favorite driver to arrive. In the last hour the electricity went out, of course (St. Lucia's last laughs). When the taxi arrived I hugged my landlords and took off on my final ride through my community and down the island, taking in all the sites, smells, and sounds. At the airport, I had lunch with four other volunteers before we headed through security. I choked back tears when we hugged goodbye, but once I was on the plane I just let go.


So many emotions surround this experience, some very low lows and high highs. It's difficult to believe that a year ago I was at my wit's end, but now it is so hard to leave. Returning has been overwhelming. I feel excitement in seeing family and friends, but grief in letting go of this amazing part of my life. I have encountered all different reactions from people at home. There are those who ask the obvious questions and those who ask the meaningful ones. Some give me great big hugs of welcome while others look at me as though they aren't quite sure where I've been and are not sure if I am here to stay. I have determined that very few people here will truly get what I've gone through or am going through. I just have to be satisfied with my experience and know how important it is to me.


In this one week I have hit the ground running. I have this frantic need to get "settled." I am sure a sense of peace will come soon. I just have to take it one day at a time. Mostly I just wander around in shock and awe thinking, "I made it! Did that really happen?"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crunch Time!

Alas, yet again I have waited way too long to update you. I am full of stories.

In the weeks after Hurricane Tomas I was surprised to see how quickly St. Lucians jumped into action. Though there is still much work to be done, the locals seem settled and back into their usual routines. Those that lost homes are relocating and rebuilding. Some roads are still precarious but functional (in that make-shift Caribbean way). There are places that are still without pipe water, but that is slowly being fixed. Schools were out for 3-4 weeks and have some catch-up work to do. Since my schools were closed, I spent some time helping with "relief" efforts. Two other volunteers and I coordinated the purchase of bulk supplies (hygiene, food, work, and shelter necessities) that we then helped package and deliver down in Soufriere by boat. From a distance we could see some very large landslides, huge reddish-brown "wounds" in the sides of mountains. Last year's severe drought probably didn't do much to help the stability of the soil in all the rain from Hurricane Tomas. The rivers are still high and extra muddy. It's amazing how powerful nature's elements can be. I was also surprised at how little attention this got from international media. Most people had no idea we were even hit by Hurricane Tomas, let alone left in a state of serious disaster. Headquarters didn't even realize until our Country Director called to inform them! All eyes were on Haiti as Tomas moved northwest toward the thousands left unsheltered by the earthquake. Fortunately, they were not badly hit.

When school finally returned in November, I got into library catalogue mode in preparation for the arrival of new books. Over the summer I contacted a nonprofit organization called Hands Across the Sea. They focus on collecting exciting, age- and culture-appropriate books to send to schools and libraries in the Caribbean. My church, Central First Wesleyan/ALIVE, helped collect books that were then shipped to Hands who then had them shipped here. After a long wait and a few hiccups with the hurricane, the much-anticipated books finally arrived at my schools. I was surprised to find at each school 8 decent sized book boxes packed to the brim with wonderful, colorful, exciting, and relevant books. The number of books more than doubled my existing library collections! I was eager to get at them, but they arrived right at the end of the term; it would have to wait until after Christmas.

On the 18th of December I headed to the airport for my 3rd trip to the States (2nd trip home). I soon realized how normal St. Lucian life had become for me and that American life would now feel a bit abnormal. As I made it into the terminal I was immediately aware that I was going from minority to majority. It felt weird. (Interesting and random fact: I met an old Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the airport. He served in the Pacific Islands!) I landed in Charlotte, NC and WELCOMED the blast of frigid, dry air as I switched from sandals to socks and boots and t-shirt to heavy jacket. (Thanks Mom!)

In the car I had to fight the urge not to tell Dad he was driving on the wrong side of the road, which I would later demonstrate to him as I pulled out onto the left side of the road. Oops! It's been a year since I drove; give me some slack. I marveled at the concept of wide lanes and a turning median. At one point I found myself walking toward Wal-Mart, because the concept of having my own personal vehicle hadn't quite set in. Also, no one uses horns correctly, if at all, in the US of A… just saying.

I jam-packed each day with things to do and people to see. On a trip to the mall to get my Macbook fixed I kept feeling this engrained impulse to say, "Good Morning!" to everybody. I suddenly felt very obscure. In St. Lucia I am "the white girl" or "the Peace Corps," but here I was nobody and it didn't matter what I did because no one was interested.

At home I had to remind myself that it was ok to drink the tap water, and I was very overwhelmed with all the STUFF that I have. Having lived the past 2 years with about 2 suitcases worth of stuff, my concept of "need" has really changed. The food was also overwhelming; there is so much of it!

I spent Christmas up in Michigan, as is tradition, with the whole family. It was wonderful. We laughed, ate, played games, ice-skated, romped in the snow, and enjoyed being together. Highlight of the year was, for the first time in a long time, taking my grandma's 72-year-old wooden toboggan out for a spin. We crossed our fingers and hoped it wouldn't fall apart as 6 of us older, heavier, and longer-legged "children" pushed off down the ice chute. As you may have guessed, we made it… several times! When I am with family I always feel blessed. This year felt extra blessed, especially with my new sister-in-law there! New Year's I was back in SC. A bunch of good friends, mostly old college buddies, came over to eat, drink, and be merry… oh and blow some things up. J Again, I felt blessed.

New Year's Day Mom, Dad, and I were up bright and early to get to the airport. I changed into sandals and t-shirt and waved goodbye. A few hours later I was greeted by a waft of hot, humid air… home. Being that is was a holiday I knew transportation might be a little scarce. So I thought if I talked to the right people I might catch a ride north. The first family I asked was more than happy to help. As we got to talking I learned that this was their fourth visit to St. Lucia and that their taxi driver was a friend of mine! (He is the preferred taxi driver for all of us Volunteers and has been for years. We love him.) He gave me a ride all the way to my front step. Later in the week their daughter, in the 4th grade, joined me for a day at school. She experienced the chaotic nature of Caribbean schools and the grade 4 class got to ask her an assortment of questions about school in the States. She was shocked when they asked, "What do they beat you with?" and they were equally shocked when she replied, "nothing!" It was eye opening for both parties, to say the least. She was able to help me unload all the new books that we received before Christmas. I was thankful for the help! It was so nice to meet a family that is actively reaching out beyond the "tourist boundaries" in St. Lucia. We are keeping in touch and they are now able to support my schools by sending some supplies. I couldn't have had a better start to the New Year!

As the southeast got pummeled with a great snowstorm, I sweated through a wonderful visit from Harriet and Tom Linskey, the founders of Hands Across the Sea, the nonprofit that shipped me the books. They live on a sailboat, and after all the books have been delivered, they come around and visit the benefitting schools. It was fun to show off the work I have done over the past year. At one school, the grade 6 class came down to sing them some songs. The principals of my schools were both grateful for the opportunity to express thanks for such a large donation of good books. Now if I can only get them all organized before April!

Last week I attended the "Close of Service Conference" held for the group of us that came in February 2009. We have only 3 months left (eek!) so the training focused on preparing us to finish things up here, readjust in the States, and move on to new things. I have procrastinated thinking about what it will be like to leave here, and it really hit me that this is going to be hard. When we left the States two years ago we had the comfort of knowing that we would return, but when we leave here in April we won't have that same comfort. Goodbyes are going to be tough and the transition will be weird and emotional. On the plus side, during training we listed all the accomplishments we have made as a group over the past two years. It was incredible to see how much we have done and to feel a part of something much bigger than myself. Our group laughed and cried together as we processed our experiences and next steps. This was our last time together as a whole group. In 3 months we will leave on separate planes to separate cities and states to begin separate lives and adventures and be with people who have most likely spent these last two years doing something way more normal than Peace Corps. Two years ago I thought I'd never make it this far and now here we are. Amazing.

In other news:

Somewhere in there we had a huge Thanksgiving gathering.

In December I made my granmama's cranberry bread on my own for the first time ever and shared it with many of my friends and colleagues here in St. Lucia.

Also, our Country Director, Margo, left us to work up in D.C. and we have a new director now, Kevin.

Sargent Shriver passed last week at the age of 95. Peace Corps is pretty much his baby. He lived from 1915 to 2011; just imagine all the things he saw!

"Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own." –Sargent Shriver

Close of Service: EC 79

My Lovely Visitor

New Posters!

The Books Arrived!

Cranberry Bread!

Hurricane Relief

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kids with Kerosene and Hurricane Tomas

This past weekend was St. Lucia's "Jounen Creole" (joonay cree-ole) celebration. I think the translation is "day of Creole." It's a time when everyone gets together to celebrate Creole traditions and heritage. My favorite part of Jounen Creole is the food. I was particularly looking forward to indulging in some bakes (fried dough), saltfish (fish cured in salt that has been soaked and stewed), and cocoa tea (cocoa, spices, and milk cooked into a delicious chocolaty tea). This combination of food is somewhat of a traditional Creole breakfast, and take my word for it, it's scrumptious!

I went to school on Friday morning happy that the week was almost over and looking forward to some fun and relaxation over the weekend. I was welcomed with the sound of loud "BOOMS" and children yelling and laughing; all of this was coming from the center of the schoolyard. Naturally, I walked in their direction to see what all the hype was about. Upon closer inspection, it was as I suspected. The children (let me emphasize that these are elementary school-aged children) were participating in the tradition of bamboo bursting. This was my first encounter with bamboo bursting, so I was rather excited. I'm told it is unique to St. Lucia.

Bamboo bursting is worth describing to you. Basically a "canon" is formed out of a long piece of large bamboo. (Large as in both my hands would not rap completely around the stalk and tall as in almost as tall as I am.) One end is left closed, and a small hold is burrowed in the side of that end of the bamboo. To "burst" the bamboo, one must pour kerosene down the small hold and light it repeatedly while blowing on the flame. My assumption is that this forms flammable vapors that build up within the tube of the "canon." Eventually when you hold your flame over the small hole, a loud BOOM is produced and a puff of smoke and kerosene droplets emit from the small hole and the end of the canon. This process is performed over and over for the sheer enjoyment of playing with fire and making loud noises. These BOOMS can be heard a lot during holiday times such as Jounen Creole and Christmas.

So! I approached a group of elementary school-aged children who had a healthy supply of kerosene, matches, and at least 3-5 "canons." The resourceful children had partially filled a beer bottle with kerosene, stuck a wick in the mouth, and set it afire to give them a steady supply of flame to light their canons. This beer-bottle-on-fire is known amongst the locals as the "flambo." They would hold sticks over the "flambo" until they caught fire and then bring the flaming stick to the holes in their canons to light the kerosene. I needn't mention that they carried their supply of kerosene in local rum bottles. I stood by with the other tiny onlookers (no teachers were around) and watched with amazement as they set off explosion after explosion. Some of them were better at it than others; their explosions were much louder and more frequent. The smell of kerosene filled the air and each explosion seemed to bring a little wave of heat and sometimes a burst of flame. There was excitement and fervor in the way the children made themselves busy with the bursting of the bamboo.

Of course, I took out my camera and made sure to capture the moment with picture and video (soon to be posted). Inwardly I contemplated the hilarity of comparing this to American schools. Just imagine American parents letting their 10-year-old kid play with canons, matches, and kerosene. And then imagine them sending their kid to school to do that!? 2+2 = lawsuits and juvy!

The rest of the day was filled with assemblies, singing, dancing, and (my favorite) Creole foods. I excitedly waited my turn to get some fish cakes. These are made of saltfish that has been mixed into a batter and fried. Soooo good! I also enjoyed a delicious cup of cocoa tea. By the end of the day the children were dancing laps around the school while singing in Creole.

Just as I was packing up my things, another Volunteer called me to ask if I had heard anyone else talking about "the storm." I told her no and we hung up; I didn't think much about it. Again as I was waiting for my ride, another teacher said, "there is a storm coming." Sure the sky looked kinda dark in the distance, but this is normal. Rain and storms blow in and out of here all the time. I rode home and laid down for a nap before I was supposed to head out for Steel Pan practice. I awoke to my phone ringing. It was yet another Volunteer on the line. She told me a tropical storm was coming and that Peace Corps was telling us to stay home. I rolled out of bed, tired, and happy to skip steel pan practice. I would go tomorrow… so I thought.

I was up late into Saturday morning watching shows online, but the skies seemed calm. When I finally went to bed, I fell into a deep sleep. I awoke with a start sometime around 6:00am to the sound of my door alarm (Peace Corps just gave us these alarms that you stick in your door). I ran to see what was up, but no one was there. I later deduced that the wind must have jostled the alarm loose, setting it off. Despite my late night, the adrenaline was now pumping, and I could not fall back asleep. At around 8:00am our Safety and Security officer send out a mass text message, "St. Lucia is under a hurricane warning. This is the official alert to STANDFAST!" This means we are to STAY INSIDE! Shortly after that, the winds started howling and the rains came down. It was barely light outside for the clouds were so thick that they blocked the sun. I have never in my life seen such wind or experienced a storm that lasted so long! The wind and rain would come unceasingly for over 24 hours.

I closed all my windows except the front ones (protected by the porch). I spent the morning watching the wind and rain beat the trees outside. At around 11:00am (Saturday) I still had power, Internet, and phone service. By then I was getting tired from my late night, so I decided to take a nap. When I woke up around 1:00pm I had no electricity and no water. I sent text messages to my brothers to have them let mom and dad know that I was in the storm but doing ok. I turned on my little hand crank radio to see what was happening elsewhere. People were calling in from all over the island giving reports. The hurricane was between us and St. Vincent (south of us); so the southern part of the island was getting the worst of it. One caller said that their community secondary school had lost its roof. Others reported houses losing their roofs and some landslides. In the evening, 100mph winds were recorded at the southern airport (and that was before the worst of it!). At 6:00ish we were thrown into complete darkness as, I assumed, the sun went down. I lit my candles and made some hot cocoa. The wind was literally howling and thundering; my screens were whistling violently. I could see lightning, but I could not hear the thunder and the rain beat against my windows in rhythm with the wind.

With nothing better to do, I went to bed early with my headlamp and a book, turning my phone off to preserve the battery. I slept intermittently, always waking to the sound of the howling wind and rain. Sometime during the wee hours of the morning I couldn't sleep anymore, so I made a cup of hot tea. The sky was lightening ever so slightly which, I assumed, was the sunrise. I watched the wind and rain for a while before I finally fell back asleep. When I awoke around 9:00am Sunday, the storm was over, just like that. The sun was even peaking through the clouds.

I spent Sunday and Monday listening to reports on the radio and receiving visits from my friends around the area. I didn't get cell service back until around 1:00 Sunday afternoon, at which point I started furiously texting my brothers to let them know I was ok! Electricity finally returned Monday evening. (I've never been so excited to see a light turn on or hear the hum of my fridge!)

Overall the damages seem pretty bad. The southern half of the island is disconnected from the north as roads have been blocked or washed out by landslides, trees, or collapsed bridges. People are now using boats to get back and forth. Soufriere (southwestern side) seems to have been hit pretty bad with some large landslides. I'm hearing that some areas may be evacuated. The radio reports a number of deaths, but I've not heard any report on injuries. Many homes have been lost. The Red Cross and other organizations have been hard at work trying to assess and address the aftermath. Tourists are being moved to the north by boat and rerouted through the northern airport. By Tuesday morning all Peace Corps Volunteers had finally been accounted for. The southern volunteers have been collected by boat and consolidated in the north. The northern volunteers will be consolidated in the next few days.

St. Lucia's water system is shut down for now because of damages. No one has pipe water. We are not sure how long it will take to get it back up and running. The lack of water could quickly turn into a serious crisis. I am honestly not sure what's in store for us volunteers over these next few days, weeks, and months. It's unpredictable. I'm trying to prepare for anything. My cat, Sergeant Tibbs, will hopefully be going to a new home soon, just in case.

Keep St. Lucia in your thoughts and prayers. It will take a long time to bounce back after this one. I will try to keep you posted, but have no guarantee of internet contact!



Monday, October 11, 2010

“I only have one problem…”

At this point in my service, time really flies faster and faster. It seems like only yesterday we were at 8 months left and now we are down to 6.5. The countdown on my computer tells me that I have 190 days to go, total. Like mom said, "I can remember when Tom's wedding was that far away!"

At my schools, my days are filled with creating as much excitement about libraries and reading as I can. I am working with the teachers to organize the masses of teaching resources. With the kids, I am reading to them and providing various activities to create incentives to keep them reading on their own.

At my main school assignment we have been conducting parent satisfaction surveys. We want to get feedback from the parents so that the teachers and principal can discuss some of the things they are doing well and some of the things they need to improve. This was really successful with our student surveys, so I hope for a similar outcome with the parent surveys.

We are also presenting "life skills" to all the teachers this week. We did life skills last year with the principal and tested it out with one class. It was a really positive experience for the kids, so we want all the teachers to get on the bandwagon. This week I will be talking to them about the benefits of life skills teaching and helping them learn how to incorporate it in their classroom. The principal is very supportive of this; she is determined to make it a part of their curriculum, which means this will be sustainable!!! That's exciting for me.

A story…

Every now and again our Peace Corps director does site visits at our main work site. She comes for an hour and a half to talk to you and your counterpart just to see how things are going. These have been kind of intimidating for me in the past, especially when I was really struggling. So I made sure to put my best foot forward. Things have been going well, so I didn't count on any issues arising.

The first thing the director asked was, "have any issues or difficulties come up in your working relationship?" I'm thinking everything has been going great, so no worries.

The principal responded, "Well I only have one problem…"

My heard plummeted! Inside, I was panicking, "this is so unfair, especially since she didn't bother to talk to me about it." I even go as far as to think, "after all I've been through, just send me home now. Clearly I just can't get this right."

I kept a straight face and waited for the principal to finish her thought, "and that is, that Katherine is not staying for another year."

Relief overwhelmed me! Later I laughed at my internal panic. The rest of the visit went great. And I just have to say that it feels so good to be on the right track, working together with Lucians on things that really seem to matter.

Other highlights:

We just got a new supermarket up north. I went in the other day and thought I'd stepped through some kind of portal into the United States. It's bigger, better, and more stocked than any other supermarket here. I spread the good news and soon a bunch of us were running around like little children saying, "did you see the portobello mushrooms? did you see the artichokes? did you see the cream cheese? did you see the tortillas? did you see the chips?" It's been rather hysterical, culturally shocking, and exciting. I'm not sure if this new supermarket is a good thing for my budget. Since discovering it, I have indulged in Portobello mushrooms, hummus, yogurt and granola, and real celery. All of that might sound pretty ordinary to you, but for me it's been heaven.

This weekend one of the other volunteers organized a "bake day" for all the PC girls who could make it. She's been watching a little too much food network. So, we all gathered at my house with our various baked dishes. It was worse than Thanksgiving. We literally ate ALL day long. It started with coffee, my homemade cranberry biscotti, and my apple crisp (with real whipped cream). Then we moved to spinach quiche, baked pears, and homemade snicker doodles. We finished up with some fancy pasta, potato skins, and a chicken broccoli casserole. By the end of it we were all laying around in food comas, barely able to move. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Life is pretty good, and I'm thankful for it. Christmas plans are nailed down. I'll be home for just under two weeks of running around seeing people, and then I'm back to St. Lucia for that last stretch. Thanks for all the prayers and support. As always, I look forward to hearing from you all.