Thursday, May 28, 2009
Sunday, May 24, 2009
These past two weeks have left me exhausted. So much so that I just spent today resting and cleaning. Let's see if I can catch y'all up.
Two weeks ago I met with a group of students and volunteers at the Red Cross for the purpose of electing a youth committee executive. This will be the team with which I will work with the most… at least that's what I understand. As my counterpart was out for the week, I did my best to lead the meeting. Participation in the meeting was a little low, so it turned out that the five eligible persons present became my five committee executives. I'm hoping that they will turn out to have the time and the passion to do some cool stuff with the youth programs at the Red Cross.
Last weekend I went to the beach to relax, swim, and play some volleyball, which turned out to be a great way to release some stress and energy. And I got to go to steel pan practice, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I discovered that the band with which I practice makes their own drumsticks, and, in fact, sells drumsticks to many other bands on the island. I've been trying to get a pair of my own for a couple weeks now (because we are supposed to have our own), and they are going to make me some soon. Unfortunately, we don't have practice for the next two Saturdays L… so I will just have to wait. Anyway, our teacher was telling us about the upcoming Carnival (Caribbean festival). Apparently during carnival there is an event called panorama during which all the steel pan bands compete. There is a lot of rivalry between bands, so I am looking forward to the show!
Sunday afternoon my community hosted a swearing-in ceremony for the new community council. My landlord's brother and my host dad are both on the council. The ceremony was very interesting. They had a local band playing folk music and they had a community folk dance group perform cultural dances in fancy dresses and everything. Part of the program included a government representative who gave a long-winded speech about all the changes that will be happening in the community. It is the second biggest community in St. Lucia and is its own district now. So there are plans being set in motion for things like a fire station and police station, lighting for some of the playing courts, a new cemetery, etc. I noticed as I watched each person come up to give a speech or make an announcement that it is customary here to make sure everyone is greeted at the beginning of whatever you have to say. So if I were asked to speak at such an important event, I would individually address all important persons, saying their position and name (even if I don't know how to pronounce it), then I might address individual groups, and finally I might acknowledge the general public, the ladies, and the gentlemen. This can be quite a long list if there are a lot of important people at this important event. Even if the speaker only has a short speech, they must go through this process. Thus, you may find yourself sitting a little longer than expected at said ceremonies.
Tuesday night a fellow volunteer and I went to the practice of the dance group that performed in the swearing-in ceremony on Sunday. The younger group practices on Tuesdays and we thought it would be a fun cultural experience. The dancing is, as my mom puts it, "very 'British' or almost 'western square' with a calypso flair!" I guess St. Lucia's history of being 7 times French and 7 times British and finally ending up with the British has impacted their culture. St. Lucians also have an obsession with country music and line dancing… which I don't understand. St. Lucia is really a melting pot of British, French, and African cultures… with American line dancing thrown in there just for kicks and giggles. Anyway, we spent part of the time watching the group practice before two of the guys came over and suavely bowed and asked us to dance. We learned several different steps including a waltz. Despite my aversion to and lack of talent for dancing, I enjoyed the evening.
Wednesday I found myself representing the Red Cross at Youth Parliament. I guess it sorta relates to the idea of a mock government or mock trial in the states, but in this case it isn't necessarily mock. The bills that are discussed are actually presented to the government. This year's youth parliament was different in that they had youth representatives from each area of the Island. They were between 14 and 35 years of age. Just like the swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, there were a lot of formalities involved in the process of conducting the parliament including a big wooden stick, robes, bowing, lots of standing and sitting, saying aye or no, and banging on the tables. The bills discussed had to do with what consequences are appropriate for parents whose children are not going school and whether requiring community service for graduation from secondary school is appropriate. Each youth came with a prepared speech and they got intense at times. I was impressed with some of the younger ones; they really gave their opinions rather decidedly, sometimes evoking a cautionary warning from the Speaker. Overall they seemed very eager to point out the faults of the government.
Thursday I joined the Disaster Preparedness Director from the Red Cross in making a visit to Soufriere (southern part of the Island). We went to visit a school that is starting up a Red Cross youth group. I took them the leader materials and did my best to explain the program. It was encouraging to see teachers who are eager to be involved.
Friday I explored my culinary side once again and successfully made tortillas, refried beans, and even a salsa of sorts. My last batch of tortillas were more like crackers, so it was exciting to get it right this time. I'm really enjoying learning to cook. I think I may try making my own yogurt soon, but first I need to collect some jars… guess I'm having lots of jam this week.
And this weekend I finally got to go snorkeling. Really I just visited another volunteer for the day. She lives near a beach and I just took my mask and snorkel just in case I might see some fish. But we ended up seeing some coral, sea urchins, fish, and even some sand dollars. I think we spent nearly two hours just combing the ocean floor. I'm pretty sure I got stung by sea lice while I was out there, and I accidentally kicked a piece of coral and got a giant scratch on my leg, but other than that I came out unscathed. After swimming around we returned to her house to eat vegetarian spaghetti (with soya chunks… which actually tasted good!), play games, and watch movies. We stayed late which led me to discover (thankfully) that busses run up to my house even way late at night. It's nice to know that I have some freedom to go out in the evenings and still find my way home! Also, my bus driver on the way home is part of a group that does excursions all over the island. They go hiking, snorkeling, bird watching, turtle watching, and all sorts of stuff. He knew several other volunteers from these trips and gave me his card so that I can join them on future trips! J
And now it's back to work again… the continuous cycle. This week could prove to be exciting. I don't know if I mentioned it in any earlier updates, but the teachers in St. Lucia have been going on and off strike because of an issue with their pay from the government. It has not been resolved yet, and there has been talk lately of the teachers going on strike for the rest of term three!! This will affect both my school attachment and my work with the youth groups at the Red Cross. Not to mention the fact that many kids will miss out on very important education. So, keep that situation in your prayers. The teachers need more respect and the students need an education!
Well, that's all for now folks! As always, I love hearing from y'all and I miss everyone bunches!!
Enjoy your week!
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
When you hear “small town” most people think of a little community, almost like a village, with quaint houses, friendly people, mom and pop shops, good home cookin, whimsical habits that only that town understands, an “everybody-knows-everybody” atmosphere (or rather, everybody’s related to everybody), and the always-juicy bits of gossip that might as well be national news.
Well picture that but in the context of a country. It’s funny, but I often find myself drawing parallels between St. Lucia and the good ole small towns of the south. Let me try to give you a verbal panorama of St. Lucia. As I walk out my door in the morning I step on to a little gravel road that I sometimes share with the neighbor’s goats as they trim the grassy edges. My landlord’s dogs bark after me as I pass the clothesline and begin my journey. Often I meet my neighbors as they also head to work.
I flag down a bus just as if I were hitching a ride and I always remember to say, “good morning” as I board. This is a very important social rule. It is considered weird or rude not to greet people here, no matter whether they are friend or stranger. Anyway, the bus driver speeds off down the road, beeping and shouting at everyone he knows and slamming on the brakes to pick up other patrons. The minivan-sized bus fills with students in school uniforms, adults in business attire, mothers with infants and toddlers, the rich and the poor… up to 14 passengers… and sometimes even more as small school children squeeze between the adults.
On the drive down the mountain I see all sorts of things: mountains that disappear into misty clouds, the distance sea, farmers carrying bundles of bananas or plantains on their heads, people wandering with no shoes and no shirt, rickety houses built into steep hillsides, backyard gardens, and road-side vegetable vendors. The bus driver slows down to swerve around the many potholes that litter the road even in the presence of oncoming traffic. Sometimes they stop to let mothers drop their babies at daycare. This morning my bus slowed to avoid hitting a man on a galloping horse right in the middle of the road! And of course, the seating situation is a constant puzzle. Those in the back seats upset half the bus when they need to unload, but this is all taken in stride, it is a normal part of life.
Approaching town, the road widens and intersections become roundabouts. It is not uncommon to see horses or cows grazing in the middle of these roundabouts. Traffic thickens as everyone heads to work. Approaching my stop, I yell at the bus driver, and he slows down to let me off and waits for me to pay him an amount that I have now committed to memory.
At work, it is normal to have friendly visitors and office conversation is expected. Calling schools and leaving a message does not mean that the message will be passed on. Meetings start 30 to 45 minutes late and absences are expected even if it is important.
At school, students come wearing matching uniforms of the school colors. Teachers keep their belts close by and students scurry into place if they see that belt in hand. Sometimes the slap of the belt and the whimpers of the children can be heard in the principal’s office. At lunchtime the students run around on the field outside making up their own entertainment and playing by the small river.
An average walk through town should include at least 2 sightings of familiar persons. If I don’t recognize anyone in town, they will later tell me they saw me walking here or there. My bus terminal in town is right behind the market, so I see the vendors everyday on my way home. They set out wooden pallets with vegetables, herbs, and spices shading themselves from the sun with umbrellas and waiting for interested buyers. I usually walk right by the guys who sell coconuts out of the backs of their trucks and they sometimes try to sell me coconut water with rehearsed sweet talk.
The streets of town are busy. Every street is lined with shops and in front of the shops are street vendors. Vagrants and beggars linger in front of the supermarket in hopes of collecting sympathy. The smells of bakeries, fish, spices, and fried local food mix with diesel and gas fumes. In the background is the jumbled music of shops and passing cars playing Reggae or remixed American tunes with the bass turned up. Tourists wander here and there doing what they do best with their moneys. Busses line various streets at their respective stops that are spread throughout the entire city. And thick Caribbean accents and Creole remind me that this isn’t Kansas anymore.
Getting a bus for the trip home is a bit different. Where my bus stops in town, behind the market, there are several lanes full of busses that go to my community. There is a system to these lanes that I don’t know if I will ever understand… and from recent conversations, I’m not even sure some Lucians understand it. Anyway, some busses only go to the main area of my community and some go to the extremities. The only real way of knowing whether a bus is going to my area is to ask or to know the driver. So I always ask. My experience has always been successful with the second lane though… so maybe that is part of the system.
So these busses wait in the “terminal” (of sorts) until they are full and then they go speeding off toward their destinations. After a long hot day, and sitting in a still, hot bus for several minutes, the breeze from the windows is refreshing. I usually close my eyes and soak in the cool air as it forms my hair into a windblown knot. It’s all fine and dandy until a few raindrops start to fall and the Lucians snap the windows shut like meltdown is imminent. And then it’s a stuffy sticky ride to the top of the mountain where I welcome the peace and quiet comfort of home.
From the moment I started talking about Peace Corps, I’ve been answering the question, “Why?” Friends and family want to know, I suppose, whether your reasoning is rational or crazy. I would say it is a bit of both, but the point is that from the start of it you build a defense, a well-formed explaination as to why this is good for me. And as the departure date approaches, everyone begins to express his or her apprehension about the upcoming two-year separation. And I, being my overly anxious self, spent a lot of time comforting my friends and family, letting them know that it would be OK, just a few short years.
Between the hustle and bustle of last goodbyes, packing, and wrapping up loose ends here and there, I became a robot; just taking the next steps, afraid that if I thought too much my courage would fall apart. I put on a brave face and stepped on a plane where I promptly fell asleep from exhaustion. And after that I was swept up into training, adjusting, host families, moving, learning new languages, meeting new people, projects, and the like. Three months later, my heart is finally catching up with me. It’s like it hits you all of a sudden… I just left my family, my friends, my home, my car, and everything that I know. “I just did something crazy!” as our Country Director put it so beautifully.
While Peace Corps may be an adventure, something fun, and maybe even a career boost, it is also a sacrifice. Two years, well it’s not a terribly long time, but you can miss a lot in two years. In two years people move, get married, have children, make new friends, get new jobs, travel… the list goes on. True, I will be making new friends here and my life will be joyful and full here… but I will lose something at home. Things will be different when I return. I may miss out on time spent with loved ones. Friendships may fall by the wayside.
I don’t think I truly allowed myself to let go of home until this past week. I was just having a homesick day. I was missing family, school friends, river friends, camp friends… all the different facets of my life, and I just broke down and cried till I fell asleep. It wasn’t necessarily a sad, “poor-me” cry or an “O-my-gosh-I’m-not-gonna-make-it” cry. I had just pushed my feelings to the back burner while I dealt with everything else… and I needed to feel it, to let go, in order to move on.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Each week we are supposed to spend some time "integrating." Integration is a rather broad term so it encompasses a variety of activities. I have set aside Friday for integration, whether it be cultural or community or whatever.
So today started with me taking a long walk from the other side of my community (I spent the night with another Volunteer) to my house. Because I live on a mountain, the walk was pretty much all uphill. I stopped by the store to grab some charcoal and bread and a few other items, and by the time I reached my home I was dripping with sweat. I unloaded my groceries and bags and then went to the bathroom to hop in the shower only to find that the water is off… again. This time however, I was prepared. I scooped some water from my little water buckets (filled for exactly this reason) and took a little sponge bath. It was satisfying to be able to feel clean despite the lack of running water.
Then I set about my business. I had planned on doing some baking today. So I started with my mom's good ole pineapple casserole. Though I had to improvise on some of the ingredients, it came out tasting spectacular, a nice reminder of home. Next I baked a loaf of Banana bread; my first one ever. While baking said bread I also managed to send an egg carton smashing to the floor… creating quite a mess… grrr. Anyway, my apartment acquired a wonderfully sweet smell during all this baking and it made me smile. The banana bread came out great, though I have not tasted it. I'm hoping to give it to my host mom as a mother's day gift. While my stuff was baking, I managed to get some coals started in my coal pot. I rigged up my little grate by putting three rocks around the edge so it would sit just above the coals. I roasted a few hotdogs and even some chicken. Thankfully during the day a little bit of water started running so I could wash all the dishes I was dirtying. I also managed to mop my apartment (had to clean up the egg ya know). The running water, however, lasted only a short while.
I was sorta waiting for my landlord or her husband to come around so that they could open the laundry room. It's not that I needed to do laundry, but rather I did laundry 3 days ago and didn't get to take it out before the room was locked for the night. Since then I had not seen my landlord to ask her to open it for me. My landlord's husband eventually drove up and opened the laundry room for me. I opened the lid to the washer with a little apprehension about what I would find. Well, there was no mold, but the smell wasn't really nice. I then thought, maybe there's enough water to rewash it. It was only a small load. I started it and it began to fill slowly… but then stopped. But by then it was too late and there was soap in there already. Hmmmm. I didn't want to leave them in there again. So I decided I would use my water buckets to rinse them as best I could and hang them up anyway. The rinsing really turned into washing because the water was so soapy, but by then I had no more water to do any more rinsing. So my towels got hung wet and soapy. I will probably run them through a rinse cycle eventually, but for now at least they are airing out and well, they smell very… soapy.
So, there went my little bucket water supply that I was so proud of. I will fill them again as soon as the water turns back on… which may not happen till tomorrow… or the next day. Anyway, in the evening I heard my neighbors talking and decided that I should go at least say hi. They have hosted Peace Corps Volunteers and Japanese Volunteers in the past, so they know the drill. They welcomed me into their home and we spent some time chatting and getting to know one another. They have two super cute dogs that actually come and let you pet them (a rarity down here). I gave them each a good scratch and they licked my hands. I miss my dogs. While I was there I discovered that they too were frustrated with the water shortages of late. At least it's not just me!
Quite a full day, huh. I baked a lot… made a lot of messes… used up all my reserve water… got to visit the neighbors… experienced St. Lucian water shortages… and now I'm sitting in my living room listening to the glorious (*sarcastic tone*) karaoke going on nearby (this happens every weekend). And still no water… and to top it off, no Internet… whew, Peace Corps life… at least I get to eat pineapple casserole tomorrow J.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
The Red Cross has been having emergency meetings about the flooding situations and also meetings about the coming hurricane season. Part of me is excited to see what the weather gets like. I like rain... and storms. But really I like them when I can stay inside and read or when it's appropriate for me to run outside and play. Here I have to keep working, which is really gonna stink. I'll be attempting to trudge through puddles while keeping dry pants and clean shoes, which is impossible. And all my clothes are gonna smell mildewy because nothing will ever dry. And most of all, I'll be sleepy because rainy days just make people feel that way....
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I never thought I would be so busy so soon into my PC service!! At the Red Cross I have been working on organizing files and resources as well as trying to get a feel for what programs exist and how they work. It's a little overwhelming because I feel that there are high expectations for me and I'm still just getting used to things. It kinda makes my heart jump into my throat when I'm looked at as an expert. The reality is I am just a college grad and this is my first real career! I met with some of the youth leaders on Saturday and got some feedback from them as to what they've been doing and what they'd like to do. We are hoping to plan a summer camp and it is going to take a lot of work to pull it together. I'm just learning as I go.
Working with the school is slow as I'm only there once a week. On top of that, the teachers have been on strike over an issue with their pay. So school has been out on certain days. I've been assisting with the grade 5 class. Currently I'm just acting as a teacher's aid, but I have a few ideas of other things I can do there. It is just going to take some time to get them moving.
Apart from work stuff I've been trying to get out and experience different aspects of Lucian life. I went to steel pan practice again on Saturday and had a great time. I found out the names of the songs we are playing so I can try to listen to them to get a better idea of how they are supposed to sound. And I figured out how to do cool stuff with the songs in GarageBand (program on my Mac)… which kept me up till like 3 a.m. (I know… I'm a dork).
St. Lucia is celebrating Jazz Festival this week. Basically there are all sorts of music events going on around the country. Some are free and some are not, but the idea is you just go and enjoy some good tunes, maybe some good food, and most definitely a good time with friends. I went to one such free event on Sunday with a few other Volunteers. It was on a beach up in the north of the island. The interesting thing about Jazz Festival is that it's not really about Jazz music… just music. So the artist of the evening was the Calypso king from last year. The beach was really crowded and people were really enjoying feeling the music. The other Volunteers and a Lucian attempted to teach me to "dance" without much success…
Monday night I went to a community youth group meeting near where I live. The youth group doesn't necessarily have a regular meeting day, but they do organized activities and such. I figured it'd be a good way to meet and get to know people my age. The topic of the evening (and for the next few weeks) is men's health. So the discussion was all about how men are more at risk for (or more likely to experience) things like STIs, dying in a homicide, getting injured in a automobile accident, having unprotected sex, not going to get regular health checkups, etc, etc. All of them were things that are related to a behavior…, which in principle can be changed. So the leader asked the young guys in the group if it was possible to reverse, or slow down, these negative things in the lives of men in St. Lucia. The idea is that it can be changed if men choose healthier behaviors. It was interesting to hear some of the guys disagree though. Some of them believed it was literally impossible to bring about this kind of change, because men will not alter their behavior (especially in the areas related to sex). I'm told that this is a very common attitude here. Some seem more wiling to deal with the consequences then go without their fun. Anyway, It was nice to meet some other youth my age… I hope that I can continue participating in the group.
Another interesting story:
I woke up Tuesday morning to the sound of torrential rains outside. I mean it was just deafening how loud it was. And the rain was accompanied by wind. It was such a nice sound; all I wanted to do was just lie there and rest and read all day. Tuesday is usually the day I go to school, but it just so happened that the teachers were having another meeting about the strike going on. So school wasn't really happening. Even so, I had to go out to get a few things done in town. As I walked out to catch a bus, with raincoat on and umbrella open, I splashed through little rivers running across the gravel drive by my apartment. By the road, the watershed gutters were gushing with water… it was just flying down the chutes. I welcomed the shelter of the bus. The drive down to the city was interesting. There were areas where the road was even beginning to flood where watershed drains were overflowing. Near town a river runs along the side of the road and the muddy water was nearing the brim. Debris and garbage were floating down and getting caught in trees and roots. The streets in town were full of puddles. I was glad to be wearing flip-flops cause my shoes would have been soaked otherwise.
I learned later that some towns experienced more serious flooding. A few people had to go stay with relatives and friends. And this was just one day of hard rain. I'm told that the month of October is like that every day! So you can imagine, if flooding was experienced from just one day of hard rain, how easily disaster can affect this country. Many of the big towns are actually below sea level.
I'm also learning that during hard rains like that, and even at other times, the water lines can be shut off. So sometimes I come home and go to wash dishes or shower and all of a sudden nothing comes out of the faucets! It usually comes back on after a while, but sometimes it might take overnight. It's strange when I have Internet but no water… just kinda makes me shake my head. Anyway, I bought two large buckets with lids today so I can keep water on hand for these times. Now I can do a little washing and a little bathing even if the water is off.
In the afternoon the rain let up and I was able to walk down the hill with my landlord. I met her mother and uncle and niece and saw the house where she grew up. Her mother and brothers and sister and uncle all live on the same road. They all do a little gardening so I got to see some of their gardens. My landlords mother kept pointing at things and saying, "this is guava, do you know guava… well when they get ripe we'll show you what guava's like… but you have 2 years, plenty of time, plenty of time to experience all these things." She was cute and sweet. I hope I get to see more of her.