Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Central American Adventures

So it's been about 3 weeks since I left my island home of St. Lucia. Leaving proved to be one of the most difficult partings I've had. Despite living away from family and friends for 2 years and facing many challenges of volunteering in a developing country, St. Lucia had become my home. I don't think I fully realized this until just before leaving. After leaving, I flew back to Florida for a night, shipped suitcases home, and immediately set off again on a traveling adventure with 4 other Peace Corps Volunteers from St. Lucia. It's been fun traveling through Central America so far, and I am thankful for the chance to make the transition back to life away from the Peace Corps with fellow Volunteers who are experiencing a similar range of emotions. So far we've been through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras (very quickly, I might add), and are now in Nicaragua. Some of the highlights have included:

-Climbing Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala and coming within 15 feet of flowing hot magma!
-Swimming through a cave to an underground waterfall by candlelight
-Sledding down a Volcano at speeds up to 51km per hour and subsequently crashing close to the bottom
-Swimming in natural pools forming a bridge over a river at Semuc Champey

One of my experiences was a bit less crazy as those listed above, yet perhaps even more memorable. I wrote up a little story about it and pasted it below. Hope you enjoy it...

On any trip of sizeable length that involves frequent movement from
place to place, multiple living accommodations, and above all an
unwavering devotion to the pursuit of that which is cheap, one
inevitably will encounter a destination that’s, well, more or less a
dud, just a bottom of the barrel dump. My Peace Corps Volunteer
friend Sam and I discovered such a rare gem after splitting from our
other 3 beach-bumming friends to check out Lake Coatepeque and climb
Volcan Izalco at Cerro Verde National Park in El Salvador. Sam had
heard from a Peace Corps Volunteer friend that had previously served
in El Salvador that the place to stay on the Lake is a hostel called
Amacuilco. Despite the fact that the most recent version of Lonely
Planet Guidebook to Central America deviated significantly from Sam’s
friend’s recommendation, describing the place as “wretched and
ramshackle,” “haunted,” with “complaints of theft,” we decided to go
ahead and reserve our room at paradise anyway, as it was not
surprisingly the cheapest place on the lake to stay at $10 US a night
(still steep compared to our usual standard of $4-$5).

As we explored our newfound home, we began to see why the Lonely
Planet Guidebook, otherwise known as the “Bible of travel guides,” is
such a reliable source the vast majority of the time. Apparently the
fact that we were the only two lucky occupants wasn’t indication
enough. The stairs to our room shook as we ascended and the door knob
had obviously been turned one too many times, as the El Salvadorian
owner explained in Spanish that she would provide us with a lock and
key to supplement it. The room had sort of exotic jungle motif going
for it, vines creeping in through the dusty windows, spider webs
slowly possessing certain areas, and dead insects caught in the
tetters of an old mosquito net. Surprisingly, the room contained 3
beds. Not surprisingly, however, the first bed evidenced age through
various lumps caused by springs popping up through the quasi-mattress
of sorts.

As we headed down to the dock we discovered the pool, just slightly
short of empty save for 3 inches of old, dirty rainwater that had
collected at the bottom. Though a “no diving” sign wasn’t posted, I
gathered that it wasn’t a real feasible option. The footpath to the
dock was made up of broken tile pieces in an eye-capturing design, but
it abruptly stopped, with a large heap of abandoned remaining tile
pieces evident off to the side. A distant gaze of the lake proved
beautiful, but a closer inspection of the immediate area revealed a
comprehensive layer of plastic potato chip bags and other assorted
trash covering the bottom.

While waiting for lunch to be cooked, which took a decent couple of
hours considering chickens had to be caught and killed, we quickly
glanced through a dirty old travel magazine of Honduras from 1992, and
disappointingly stumbled upon a fooseball table partially filled with
water and about as level as the state of Colorado. At this point,
Sam wisely pointed out, “I bet that this place was real nice at one
point…just about ten years ago. Finally, we noticed that the place
next door was quite filled with people, the majority most likely
wealthy El Salvadorians on holiday. “Eben bon,” I exclaimed. “We
should have stayed over there. How much are the rooms there according
to the guidebook?” “About $10 US more,” Sam replied. “Tempting.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But we’re paying too much here as it is.”

Later, after taking a nap, we went back to the dock to consider a
swim. Ultimately, however, the combination of tiredness from the
previous night of no sleep (3:15 wake-up for bus) and the abundance of
trash led us to decide against a quick dip. As we sat on a lakeside
bench relaxing, the owner came out and started resolutely stomping on
the boards, shaking the dock and laughing all the while. I turned to
Sam and puzzled, asked, “Is she finding the instability of the dock
humorous?” Just then, the short yet stout woman raiser her right leg
as high as an El Salvadorian woman can, paused, and thrust it
powerfully onto the dock. This proved to be the fatal death blow, as
the board went crashing from beneath her and her entire right leg
plummeted through the newly formed hole. Startled, yet still howling
with laughter, she pulled herself up and scurried away. “Is that
sufficient justification to demand our $20 back and find another
place?” I jokingly asked Sam. “Eh, whatever,” Sam replied. “Yeah, I
agree,” I responded. “This place has a real rustic feel to it.” “For
sure,” Sam concurred. “Rustic with a capital R.”

The situation didn’t improve much later. After dining alone in an
enormous, practically deserted restaurant/hostel, we struggled to get
back into the hostel after being locked out, ultimately resorting to
holding the buzzer down for a solid 30 seconds to draw sufficient
attention from the owner, who had probably been nursing a bad leg.
Later that night, as we both read in our beds, a strong wind came and
thrust open one of the not so securely latched windows. “Well that’s
comforting,” I spatted sarcastically. “If someone jumps through there
in the middle of the night I doubt that I’ll be too pleased.” “This
place is haunted,” Sam added. “Yeah,” I agreed, “with a Psycho-esque
feel to it.

Fortunately for us, we were not visited in the night by a masked
thief, robbed, nor stabbed in the head by the thick, jolly,
dock-destroying El Salvadorian firecracker. In fact, we stayed
another night and even recruited our Israeli hiker friend we met
climbing Volcan Izalco to join us. His initial attempt at asserting a
positive perception of the hostel (“I don’t mind the springs at
all…pretty comfortable bed”) was tempered by his mid-shower water
outage and subsequent less than successful attempt at completing
bathing in the trash infested lake.

While paying an extra $10 to hop next door would most likely have
granted us a much more comfortable experience, it’s the leaky faucets,
particularly those that necessitate deliberate and repeated
child-proof Tylenol bottle opening push and twist tactics to turn off,
and other life experiences of initial inconvenience and frustration,
that in some twisted way occupy the most treasured parts of our
memories and ultimately, in many ways, can come to mean so much more.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Last St. Lucia Post

So I wrote this blog entry in my journal quite a long time ago and started by saying that it would most likely be my last blog entry here in St. Lucia, and now I can say that definitively as I’m scheduled to leave in 3 days.

It’s been a busy summer and seems to be getting busier (obviously, as it has taken 3 weeks to transfer this entry from journal to computer) as I’m trying to wrap up some projects and put certain measures in place to hopefully ensure that other projects continue smoothly in my absence. Also, thrown in the mix is completing Peace Corps paperwork, cleaning my not so spotless house, and trying to do a bunch of fn things with friends before leaving September 10th. Though its been a bit hectic, I prefer something to do over nothing at all, so I really can’t complain. The first 3 weeks of this summer were spent helping facilitate a bunch of summer camps. Like last year, I worked a fellow PCV to conduct a tennis camp. Fortunately we had a bit more help coaching this year. In between the tennis camp, I also helped with a youth camp for kids in my community. It was a bit haphazard and thrown together, but like most activities here, it somehow came together and the kids seemed to enjoy themselves. The last camp I assisted with was a summer youth development “Leadership through Sports and Service” camp that my friend Jen, a Volunteer in Soufriere, was organizing with a community youth group.

As I’m nearing the end of my service, I’m realizing that I don’t have man pictures, if any , of some of the people with whom I see on a regular basis in my immediate community. I’ve been trying to get a few more pictures of my neighbors, therefore, before I leave. Though this seems like simple enough a task, in some instances has seemed more difficult than Calculus 2 in college with Professor Olinick. Blast! For example, there’s a sweet little old lady who lives just higher up my house named Mary, husband Joseph, but surprisingly no carpenter son. She calls me “my darling,” “my love,” or “koko” (common affectionate nickname here) and nearly every time I pass she asks how I’m doing…twice. It goes something like this:

Ben: Good Afternoon, Mary!
Mary: Good afternoon, my darling. How are you?
Ben: I’m doing great, thanks. How about yourself?
Mary: I’m fine and how are you?
Ben: I’m good (not much has changed)

She also really loves it that I enjoy speaking Patois and is always up for conversing in it. So, she’s obviously on my list of people I would like to get a picture of before leaving. Unfortunately, however, every time I have a conversation with her about this we end up in the same place (even now, 3 weeks later)

Ben: Hey, I was wondering if I could get a picture with you before I leave to take back to the States and remember you by.
Mary: Eh, eh, koko. You want a picture of me?
Me: Yes, of course.
Mary: Oh, that’s nice. Anytime, anytime, my darling. But not today. My hair is looking a kind of way.
Me. Eh, eh, don’t be silly. You look great.
Mary: No. Look at it. I would need to fix myself properly.
Me: Alright, no problem. I’ll check you later about it then.
Mary: Of course. Yes, anytime is good. Anytime, but not today.

So I’ve had nearly the exact same conversation with Mary several times and always get the same reply of “anytime, anytime is good, but not today.” I’ve even tried to book a day in advance, but that doesn’t seem to be a fruitful venture either. ☺ Personally I would best like a picture of her as I know her, twisted hair and all. Sometime when people dress up here you can hardly recognize the person anymore as they might be wearing a wig, big hat, and who knows what else. I once thought I thought my host mom was taking me on a bank heist one morning instead of church…no joke. Oh, and a little update…the picture with Mary never worked out…will have to burn the mental image.

So, I’ve had some interesting/humorous conversations with kids here about the complexion of my skin. I recently bought some island sandals with bright Rasta colors (red, green, and gold) as my other sandals bit the dust after two years of faithful service. While I have gotten a bit less white in complexion,(I’m still not sure “tan” or “darker” would entirely be accurate, so we’ll refrain from those terms), my feet have remained as white as snow. Now that I’ve got my stylish, shockingly bright Rasta slippers, which have minimal coverage, the whiteness of my feet is accentuated to the nth degree. It’s kind of funny looking, and I’ve definitely got some interesting comments, but I could care less. I had a funny interchange with a 5 year girl a few days ago.

Little Girl: What’s your name?
Me: Ben. What’ yours?
Little Girl: Kiana
Me: How are you, Kiana?
Kiana: Fine. What happened to your feet?
Me: What do you mean?
Kiana: Huh?
Me: Why do you ask that?
Kiana: The’re white

I also fielded an interesting comment in my 4th grade recorder class a few months back that cracked me up. I was in the middle of teaching the recorder, having just recently established that I want seriousness for the remainder of the class, when one of the precocious ones, Phoebe, raises her hand. After calling on her, she boldly asked, “Mr. Wiechman…how come you so white?” I couldn’t help but laugh, and told her, as we had already gotten off topic a number of times, that we would have to discuss that later. In conversations with the other teachers about it, I was informed that I should have responded, “Phoebe, well how come you so black?” Kids really are curious about differences in appearance and certainly don’t have any reservations in making their observations or queries known. Good for them.

Jenny Schneider, this section is for you. As my close of service is soon approaching, I’ve had to undergo a number of medical examinations to ensure that I’m as healthy going out as I was coming in. One of these medical tests required that I deliver 3 consecutive stool samples to the lab to have examined parasites or any other friendly critter. So we weren’t given much information as to how this was exactly to be done, where exactly to take the samples, etc. So one day I called my medical director to find out more information. She told me the place to take the samples and advised me to go ahead and bring up the samples I come up to Castries. So with this info I assumed (you know that they say about assumptions) that I had to simply transport a few terds to Castries using whatever means, methodology, I deem fitting. So, after much careful forethought and planning (similar to the process of deciding to recycle mice glue traps), I solidified my collection methodology and the rest of the plan. I’ll spare you the details here. After wondering what to put to store the samples in , I decided to use a 1 kg Sunflower Margarine container, tinged with the light red stain of Del Monte pasta sauce. As my first sample was relatively petite, I decided not to waste containers but rather double down and store the 2nd sample in the butter tub as well, even though it was significantly larger than the first. I couldn’t produce a 3rd sample before going up to Castries (though the 2nd sample might have arguably counted double), as I had been enjoying the mango season to the full earlier in the week and was having some consistency issues. So, I traveled to Castries with my butter tug in a black plastic bag full of deliverables to drop for the doctor. Shortly after entering the doctors’ office, another PCV coincidentally enters, and after greeting me, tells the secretary that he’s here to collect the containers needed for his stool samples. I turn to him and surprisingly say, “eh eh? They have special containers for them?” He replied, “yeah, we’re supposed to collect the containers first to use for the samples.” Just then, the secretary whips out 3 containers, each no larger than a tiny restaurant sauce cup of BBQ sauce. Beginning to laugh, I turn to my friend and tell him, “I brought my samples together in an old butter tub and one of them is about 5 times the size of one of those containers. Shortly thereafter, the doctor emerged. Still laughing, I explained the misunderstanding to the doctor (except for the tid bit about the size of my 2nd deliverable) and asked him whether or not that will be ok. He paused, took the container from me, which was beginning to emit a foul odor, most likely due to the size of sample number 2, and replied, “well, it’s not ideal, but we’ll see if we can work with what we’ve got.” Little did he know the nature of the surprise awaiting within.

I’m starting to really process the fact that I’m leaving very soon now that I’m saying goodbye to people, doing certain things for the last time, etc. It’s been an interesting ride. I’ve honestly been looking forward to the completion of my service for a few months, as it’ll be nice to get off the rollercoaster, travel for a bit, and finally reconnect with family/friends, but now that the end is staring me in the face, I feel sad and a bit confused about the range of emotions I’m experiencing. I think that even though St. Lucia has come with its fair share of challenges, nothing can change that I’ve lived her for two years and it has certainly become a home.

I'm not sure how much internet access I will have while traveling in Central America, but I'll try and post a time or two about the trip. But for now, take care, and God bless.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Project Success, 4th of July, and Engaged Brother!!!

I am pleased to report that the composting project proposal that I have been working with a local farmers’ co-operative on for the past year and a half was finally submitted and fully funded by the United Nations! After continually having run into speed-bump after speed-bump, and experiencing a near red-tape mummification associated with trying to get money from international donors, it was becoming increasingly difficult not to think that I would leave here in September not having accomplished anything tangible with the co-op. God is faithful, however, and has his own perfect timing. The project will take place over the course of 2 years and construct 24 wind-row aerated compost pits at the co-operative, co-operative members’ farms, and at 9 schools. Kitchen waste will be collected from area hotels and paper waste will be collected from schools to provide some of the raw materials needed to sustain the pits. We also plan to conduct educational initiatives with schools and farmers to inform the public about the environmental benefits of composting. Even though it’s a shame that I won’t be around for much of the project’s implementation, I feel blessed to have been able to help the co-operative at least secure the funding.

The 4th of July was a couple of days ago and to celebrate, our Peace Corps Country Director had us over to her house for a barbecue. The 2nd Eastern Caribbean group to serve on St. Lucia (back in the 1960’s) was having a reunion on St. Lucia and joined us at the party. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences and about all the change that has happened in St. Lucia over the past 30 odd years. For example, the fact that it used to take 2 full days to get around the island rather than 3-4 hours. Or, that Pigeon Point, which is now connected to St. Lucia, used to be an island. One of the EC2 return volunteers expressed that “it’s hard not to feel old when geographic landmarks have changed during the course of your lifetime.” One of the volunteers also grew up in Vermont and lives about 15 minutes away from Middlebury. Peculiar…

So as my time is wrapping up I’m starting to think about what life post Peace Corps will look like. Besides teasing with the idea of applying to be a Peace Corps recruiter, I honestly don’t have much of a clue, so throw those suggestions at me. I do know one thing though. Before heading back home, I am going traveling with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers to Central America for about a month. First stop, Honduras. With the coup and everything plane tickets are dirt cheap, so we’ve got to capitalize. Sorry mom…bad joke. We’re still working out all the details, but we’re planning on starting out in Guatemala, hitting El Salvador and Nicaragua, and ending up in Costa Rica where we’ll meet up with a couple other volunteers, one of whom has a sister living there. I then plan to fly back to Middlebury in early October to visit some friends, and drop down to Boston and NYC as well before heading back to Kansas sometime in mid to late October. So, if you live in any of these places, let me know so I can hunt you down! After traveling I’m looking forward to heading back home to reconnect with my family, which seems to be pretty busy while I’m away. Cousins/friends getting married, babies on the way, and my brother’s engagement within the last week, which I couldn’t be more thrilled to hear. CONGRATS!!!

Monday, June 15, 2009

End of the Strike, Mosquitos, and Funeral Requests

After roughly 2 weeks of striking, the civil service unions and the government have finally reached a compromise. Teachers were out of school during the strike, while nurses, fireman, and some policemen were on a “go slow.” Firemen had to be brought in from neighboring islands in order to keep the airports open and national exams for a number of primary school students were cancelled. Fortunately, however, everything is back to normal now.

So I’ve finally put up my mosquito net in my bedroom…3 months before the end of my service. What’s the use at this point, you might ask? Wouldn’t you have crossed that off the to-do list within the 1st month or two? Well, I could jokingly defend my lack of action as my own unique attempt at cultural integration, as things oftentimes find a way of getting put on the backburner here (“just now”), but that wouldn’t altogether be true. In fact, for the first ½ year I had a fan, which prohibited mosquitoes from bothering me too much. Then, my parents came, so in trying to make them feel as comfortable as possible, I put the net up in the guest room. While I ultimately proved successful in this endeavor, the process of hanging the net was about as easy as eating Halloween candy with a sense of restraint and self-control. Needless to say, it was not a process I wished to repeat. Just after my parents left, the fan went kaputt. I decided not to buy a new one as it was the “colder” (yeah, right) time of the year and wasn’t essential. Then, upon realizing how much cheaper my power bill was having not had a fan, I vowed never to buy another one. Strangely enough, the mosquitoes didn’t give me too much trouble for that year following. At present, however, they’re determined to make up for lost time and are attacking at full force. I couldn’t sleep well at nights because of the incessant buzzing in my ears. I would even try to position myself so my entire body was covered, excluding a small hole for air, but they still managed to successfully be a nuisance. So, in the end, 2 years into my Peace Corps service, I decided it was high time to hang the mosquito net in my room. While my nights are now peaceful and undisturbed, my days remain spent wildly running around my house clapping my hands enough to make a passerby think a fireworks show was happening inside.

MaPego, my landlord and former host mom, once again gave me something to laugh about. She came up to me after a funeral service and informed me, with a sense of unaffected, calculated determinedness, that she wanted me to do her a favor. The conversation went something like this.

MaPego: Ben!
Ben: Yeah, MaPego. What’s up?
MaPego: I’m alright. Let me tell you that.
Ben: What’s that?
MaPego: (resolutely; to the point) I want you to come to the garden and take out my picture of me and the flowers, so that when I die, they can put a nice picture in the program.
Ben: (taken aback, but somehow not terribly surprised) No problem. Anytime.

The favor she asked wasn’t in and of itself what struck me as so funny, but rather the matter-of-fact manner in which she asked it.

My good friend, Alison Duquette, recently came for a short visit. It was great to see her and catch up on post-college life. Her trip was very short, so we weren’t able to see everything, but we squeezed just about as much as we could in. Having the chance to reunite with a good friend makes me look forward to reconnecting with friends once I return to the States.

I just recently got back from the close of service (COS) conference. All the volunteers in my Eastern Caribbean class (EC77) came together for 3 days to be briefed on all the medical and administrative forms we have to fill out before our service ends, as well as discuss wrapping up our time and the process of reintegrating to life back in the States. It was nice to see all the other volunteers from other islands again and I particularly enjoyed our Peace Corps Olympics competition. We had a variety of competitions including swimming, Frisbee, geography bee, chess, eating, and, of course, staring. It was a close race, but fortunately St. Lucia emerged victorious. :) The conference really put it in perspective that the end of my time here in St. Lucia is fast approaching. I’m ambivalent about this, but think that I’ll be ready when the time comes.

In the work world, the farmers’ co-operative I’ve been working with has submitted our composting proposal and should be receiving funding sometime soon. I’m also collaborating with a Japanese Volunteer to facilitate a recorder workshop at the primary school to teach the teachers how to play the recorder and have a solid understanding of music theory.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sad news, Strike, and Playing Violin in a Kimono

I have a bit of sad news. My dog, Mr. Bojangles a.k.a Bo, recently died. As would occasionally happen from time to time but never cause much of a problem, his chain came unhooked one night. Usually if this happened he would come back by himself or a neighbor would come and tell me he/she saw him wandering around. This time, however, when I woke up the next morning I couldn’t find him. After asking around, a couple of my neighbors helped me look for him. We eventually found him next to the drain in front of my house, his jaw clenched close with grass inside of it. He apparently must have eaten some rat poison and was eating the grass to try and vomit it up. My neighbors helped me bury him under my grapefruit tree, which I’m grateful for. It was difficult to do, and he is missed, but I’m thankful to have had his company during the majority of my time down here. I couldn’t help but smile and think it a bit coincidental that a couple days after Bo died, the Obama family named their new dog Bo. A friend of mine jokingly said that he must have been reincarnated. I initially said that he must not have improved much in terms of his behavior from his previous life, as he didn’t come back as something better than a dog. But then again, if it is him, he is now living a life of doggy luxury in the White House, so he must have gotten something right, eh?

I’m still killing cockroaches like it’s a part-time job, but sometimes apathy takes over and I adopt the “in sight, out of mind” mentality. After all, if my neighbors all report the same problems despite spraying endless amounts of insecticide spray, what’s the use? The new development, however, is the sound of scampering coming from between the inside of my roof and the galvanized outer bit. At night I’ll occasionally hear feet pitter-patting around followed by a thud, as whatever it is running around bumps into the wall. I guess it must be a rat/mouse or something of the sort, but as I walk around my house I see absolutely no point of entry, which leaves me baffled as to how the little putz got in there. In the end, I honestly could care less whether it lives up there rent-free. As long as it doesn’t find it’s way downstairs, or worse yet decide to kick the can up there, we’re good to go. Too bad you already booked your plane ticket, Alison! Ha! :)

Several months ago the government promised the teachers a pay raise, a chunk of which was to take effect the end of this month. Given the economic crisis and absence of projected growth, the government has recently asked the teachers for deferral of their pay raise. Last Monday was supposed to be the first day back at school after Easter break, but the teachers’ union called a special meeting with the Ministry of Education to demand their promised money. The Union and the Government weren’t able to reach a compromise, so as the teachers did not receive their pay increase due on Wednesday, they went on strike Thursday and Friday. Today (Monday) the Union is calling another meeting with Government, so hopefully they will be able to reach a compromise so school can resume tomorrow. I can understand where both sides are coming from. We’ll see what happens.

Japan has an overseas volunteer organization equivalent to Peace Corps that is also in St. Lucia. One of the Japanese volunteers who recently finished her service worked at a home for senior citizens and disabled persons in Soufriere. She plays the piano, and put on a farewell concert for the people at the home. Another Japanese volunteer and myself joined her, playing the recorder and the violin. A couple of nights before the concert Emi (the Japanese volunteer) called to tell me that they would be wearing traditional Japanese clothes and were wondering whether I would also like to dress in Japanese attire. Sure, why the heck not? After all, how many chances does an American get to play traditional Creole songs with a couple of Japanese people for St. Lucian senior citizens, all while wearing a kimono? Check.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Independence Day, Birthday Surprises :)

On February 22nd, St. Lucia celebrated its 30th anniversary as an independent nation. Like last year, Fond St. Jacques held a wide range of fun traditional activities as well as different sporting events. Fortunately this year the activities were a bit better organized and less stressful to plan. Unlike last year, when my friend and I took the monkey (actually, more realistically a gorilla) on our backs and weren’t very successful in recruiting help along the way, this year the Youth and Sports Club we had formed last year collectively took on the task. Even though the arrangements still proved to be a bit hectic and stressful at times, it was much more manageable this year with more hands on deck. This year we had an 8 person relay marathon, a football competition, and a day of fun activities (sprints, sack & 3-legged races, lime & spoon, endurance contest, etc.) which culminated with the greasy pole and pig extravaganzas. The greasy pole contest was particularly fun to watch this year, as the pole was a bit taller and took a solid hour plus to successfully summit. Time after time a group of guys would get ½ to ¾ of the way up in quest to attain the prized cash and bottle of rum, only to come crashing down to the cheers and jeers of spectators. The greasy pig catch was a bit anti-climactic, because upon its release, the pig slowly turned and walked in the opposite direction of the mass of people sprinting after it. It was therefore oblivious to the fact that a mob of pork-eating fiends (including myself) were barreling down upon it, and that running might have been the appropriate course of action. In the end, a big mass of people piled atop the poor creature, very much like a fumble in football (except in this case, they were grabbing for a live pig skin).

So I recently turned 24 and had a birthday unlike any other. It started off pretty normally. I took the morning off and went to a fellow PCV’s house to hang out, watch a movie, and eat lunch. As there was a funeral in Fond St. Jacques that afternoon to attend, and I’m not one that is typically fond of crazy parties with lots of people, I didn’t have any big birthday plans for after the funeral besides having my best friend from St. Lucia over for dinner. As I went to the funeral to play my violin with the church choir, things started to take a few twists and turns. During the funeral service, one of the teachers at the school who’s part of the church choir quietly said to me, “mwen ka vini a kay ou oswe-a pou manje ek ni a bon tan” (I am coming at your home tonight to eat and have a good time). As the funeral service was just starting I didn’t properly respond but just chuckled a bit, all the while wondering if she was serious or just giving me a joke. Had my friend invited her over for dinner without telling me, or had he told her and she was just pulling my leg? Things got even more interesting after the service finished. The burial site of the deceased was about an hour’s drive away in Vieux Fort, and I originally intended on just attending the service itself and not going to the gravesite. As I left the church to check my friend about coming over for dinner, I saw that he was in the back of the choir bus that would soon be heading to the gravesite. As I approached the bus, which just so happened to be full of people that I know from the choir, my friend told me that he invited a mutual friend (not the one mentioned earlier) to come over as well. A few other people then said that they’d be coming as well. My best pal then asked whether I’d had a chance to get some drinks and stuff in town for later. Slightly confused, I responded that I had been in town earlier and had gotten a couple of things for dinner, but that I didn’t have much of anything substantial at my house to have a party perse. He then asked whether I would have a chance to go back into town and get some things for later. Now here’s when my mind started to send up little red flags and had just a tad bit of trouble understanding what was going on. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as though I was nearly being thrown into the position of preparing everything for a birthday party which I essentially didn’t expect, plan for, or even in the least bit want to have. Hmmm….as a bus full of people, some of whom potentially could be invading my house in hopes of Ben’s Birthday Bash 2009, quietly sat, I searched, and searched, and searched some more for an appropriate response. Finally, I replied with, “well…I was actually going to head down to the gravesite since the whole choir is going.” Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that someone (who just so happens to be me) would go as far as to see a burial just to avoid planning a joyful celebration of his or her own life? Oh, the irony of it all. Upon returning to Fond St. Jacques, I explained to my friend that I didn’t really expect or plan to have a lot of people at my house, and that I didn’t feel like going to town last minute to rush and arrange things. Fortunately, he had already put 2 and 2 together, told me not to worry, and went to town himself to shop. More fortunately still, nobody else ended up coming over and I was allowed to have a quiet evening, largely I suspect because people were otherwise engaged at the funeral “after-party” of sorts.

In comparison to the United States, roles are sometimes reversed in St. Lucia when it comes to certain social occasions and celebrations. I mentioned a bit about it in my last blog post how this manifests itself at funerals, and as you can see, a similar trend carries through for birthdays. Except when you’re a child, if it’s your birthday and you’re celebrating it, you are expected to do so by throwing a party for everybody else. So, for example, instead of your friends taking you out for a birthday dinner, you would be expected to provide food and drink for all your friends. Fortunately I was able to get out of it. After all, it’s my party and I can not have it if I don’t want to.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cockroaches, Dirty Towels, & Funerals

So, at one point during my time here in St. Lucia I had a little problem with mice in my house. As most of you know, I gracefully took care of it. Then they came back. Once again, I was able to remedy the problem (with a little more grace, if that’s even possible). No, they have not returned to discover if the 3rd time’s a charm with respect to permanently moving into my pretty, pink little abode. A new breed of infestation, however, has decided to storm my residence. Cockroaches. The troublesome little pests have invaded with full force, and given that there are dozens of easy access entrances into my house, it has been impossible to completely exterminate them. They also seem to have built up immunity against the insecticide spray, as I still occasionally find them in my utensil drawer, even after taking out all the drawers and spraying tons of poison into the dark abyss found behind them. And now little ones have appeared. Wonderful…

One day as I opened the cabinet under my kitchen sink to grab food for Mr. Bojangles, I couldn’t help but notice that there were approximately 15-20 roaches inside the nearly full bag of dog food. Grrrrreat. What to do? Do I force myself to believe it was only a figment of my imagination and move on? Do I throw the entire bag of perfectly good dog food out? Do I take the insecticide and spray the whole cockroach clan along with the dog food? While option 1 is convenient, I’m a realist. Those are definitely real roaches. Dog food is expensive, and I’m cheap, so that eliminates option 2. Wait a second, you must be thinking. Wouldn’t spraying insecticide all over a bag of dog food imply that one would then be obligated to dispose of the poisoned food? Well, evidently not in my twisted mind. I started to contemplate about the nature and purpose of cockroach insecticide spray. Would it really prove that much of a health hazard to Bo? After all, it’s designed to kill small crawling insects, and Bo is quite a bit larger than them (though it is arguable that, left to their own devices, some of the roaches would soon be of comparable size to Bo). So yep, you guessed it. I decided to put Mr. Bojangle’s life in jeopardy to save about 45EC dollars (18US). I sprayed the insecticide inside the bag as if I were a 16 year old girl trying to get her hair to stay just right for prom, sealed the bag, and listened to the sound of scurrying cockroach feet helplessly trying to escape their death chamber. After 20 minutes of marinating, it’s dinner time for Bo! Before you all go calling PETA on me, I did ultimately decide to dispose of the top layer of dog food directly affected by the spray before feeding Bo a helping of nutritious Trail Blazer dog food. And yes, in case you were wondering, Mr. Bojangles is still alive and well. In fact, he’s stronger than ever. You know what they say…

I’ve posted a few interesting conversations I’ve had with my host mom from training. Well, here’s another classic one that happened to be over the phone.

Ben: Hello, good afternoon MaPego. How are you?
MaPego: I’m good. How are you?
Ben: Good.
MaPego: Ok, that’s good. I haven’t seen you for a few days and I noticed that you’ve had a towel out on the line all week.
Ben: (laughing to myself) Oh yeah. I had accidentally left it wet in my bag overnight and didn’t want it to smell up my house, so I decided to leave it there until I do laundry again.
MaPego: Oh, ok. You know, I just wanted to check and see that everything was ok. As long as you’re alright.
Ben: Yeah, I’m great. Thanks for checking in. I’ll drop by and see you sometime soon. Take care.
MaPego: Ok, you too. Bye.

Strangely enough, I knew that my dirty towel that had been permanently chillin’ on the line would make it way into a conversation at one point or another. lol

Funerals in St. Lucia are very different than those back in the States. I’ve been to a few since I’ve been here, but recently my Fond St. Jacques supervisor’s mother-in-law passed away and my experience at the funeral really struck me. I would describe funerals here as more of a celebration of life than a mournful time of sadness. After the funeral I rode down to the cemetery with the church choir. Along the way, we joyously sang praise songs as if on the way to a youth revival or summer camp. Many songs were also sung in a lively fashion at the grave site. Later on that night at the reception, people generously drank, ate, danced, and sang. Somehow I wondered whether I was at a funeral or I had missed the memo and a wedding had actually occurred. While it was a very surreal experience, and made me feel somewhat strange given the funeral tradition I’m used to, it was interesting to look at funerals from a different perspective that emphasizes rejoicing in life rather than mourning death.

The other aspect of funerals that differs from those in the States is that the grieving family is expected to throw a big party in honor of the deceased. This seemed strange to me, as I would think that since the family is coping with the loss and arranging so many things for the funeral itself that others would take care of bringing food and drinks for the party, if there were to be a party at all. As I sat with the choir upstairs in my supervisor’s home, I was taken aback by the fact that the only daughter of the deceased was frantically running around and stressed out, making sure everyone had enough drinks, food, etc. In my mind I was thinking that she should be seated and resting herself after having just buried her mother. In talking with my supervisor, I learned that this expectation that the family takes on the responsibility of throwing a party for the deceased is tied to traditions of times past. Back when there wasn’t the convenience of a funeral home to take care of preserving the body, providing the coffin, etc. people from the community would come together at the home of the deceased the very night of the death and work through the night to help take care of everything that needed to be done (building the coffin, arranging flowers, etc.). The family would provide food and drinks for the workers to keep them going, and jokes and stories would also be told to keep people lively and awake. Even though funeral homes now take care of most all that needs to be done, and the family of the deceased doesn’t rely on the community as much to help with the arrangements, the tradition of the family providing food and drinks for others is still upheld and expected.