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!



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