I am sitting in my host family’s dining room. The mid-day sun seeps through light jade curtained windows, and the ajar front door (with wooden hanging beads swaying in unison from a light breeze) permits perfect light for writing. I want to say the breeze smells like heated, sunlit spices these islands are known for, but it is a familiar smell, albeit it faint, of burning trash.
Three sheep, surprisingly not my most talkative neighbors, graze in an abundance of Earth’s greens, chewing like camels and giving me a lazy eyed acknowledgement when I step on the cement front porch for a breath of island air. They are tied up, but not bound, to this location. I bet they could escape and fly off if they wanted, but something tells me they justify their eventual fate with their current pleasant surroundings- like so many do.
Faint chirps of birds, I am not familiar with, blend with the crinkling sound of bowing palms, while distant echoes of dogs are sure to not be forgotten in the afternoon performance. There is not a cloud in the sky on this Tuesday.
White, coral, and yellow butterflies weave their way through leaves of tall heirloom grass. The sheep do not acknowledge them- either they are too quick, or too familiar; neither one am I yet.
An overgrown ivy fortress of cement blocks shelters none that need a roof- perhaps it flew off in the hurricane late last year. But the ivy seems to be making use of the space. Wait, what’s that? The sheep stop their intake for just a moment to silently observe a vibrant and neon green iguana climbing up the side of the structure. A dinosaur in the wild, he (or she!) disappears into the green tangles of vine. I lied, yet another force utilizing the could-be home. A small lizard, as if it knew I was writing about its distant cousin, scuttles across the floor; its color unknown, as the shadows lie and tell me it is grey. All this I see through the open front door. It’s always there, but today I am tuned in.
My belly is full from a peanut butter (creamy L) and local banana wheat sandwich with freshly ground cinnamon stick shavings. I am waiting for the water I just boiled (to avoid frequent bathroom trips courtesy of all-too-friendly bacteria) to cool in the fridge. Shorts and a tank top are indoor attire, and I am happy to oblige.
I have been on St. Vincent now for 10 days- in the Caribbean for 18. It feels like at least three months have gone by, if not more… days seem to pass slowly here. That is not to say I do not feel occupied, on the contrary, so much is happening it is difficult to believe the duration has been so short. My home stay is comfortable. Almost too much so for a Peace Corps trainee. Am I getting spoiled with fast Wi-Fi, cable TV (cable here means Lifetime to HBO, BBC to the Science Channel, get the drift?), a wonderful and friendly family, a clean and comfortable full size bed, and cooking lessons in local cuisine? Maybe. But I am aware of how fortunate I am to be placed here, and already in the community I will call home for the next 26 months.
Although only 14 miles from the capitol, Kingstown, it is about a 40 to 50 minute van trip that I make twice Mondays through Fridays. Have you been to Big Sur? If not, have you seen a Hitchcock film? Imagine a pristine coastline highway that is made for one lane, but squeezes in two. Vans (similar to mutatus, in that people are viewed as sardines, but deodorant is more acknowledged here than in Uganda) adhere to the non-existent speed limit of “go as fast as you want, but do not a) kill anyone (in the vehicle) b) drive off a cliff, and c) stop for anything but a fare. Yes folks, this means a) a driver can carry a mysterious (is it?!) bottle in a brown paper bag and occasionally partake of it, b) a baby will be put on your lap, and you just hope the mother remembers it when she gets off, and c) don’t throw up when you see your first (or second) street dog dividing the non-divided highway. Oh wait, did I mention the best part? Do you know what SOCA music is? Google it if you cannot imagine a soothing blend of disco/ techno reggae, hip hop from way back when, and a bass that would shame any low-rider in downtown LA. Catching a ride with the host dad and brother and sister in the morning, I can avoid getting too sweaty, I mean glow-y before training in Kingstown, but on the way home after a long day, a friend from training and I head down to the bus-park to hope the regular drivers recognize us, before we make fools of ourselves asking if they are going to Barrouallie. This is how it works. The leeward side of the island, and the windward, has vans that make that route every day, until about 7 or 8 at night. You get to slowly know your van driver, and the unique names each van is given, help you to get on the right ride. So far, Liz and I have been successful with “Krome” (yup a ball of silver metal flashing lights on wheels), Allie, Alliance, Jay-Zee, Raptor, and Precious (near and dear to my heart). This is not to take attention away from the creativity and prestige of such vans as: Dr. Dre, Black Pride, Hard for da Monies, and Jew-cy, among so many more… But we get home (Liz two towns before I), and we pay our $4EC, roughly 99 cents. The juxtaposition of clouded black exhaust from unregulated vans, and beats that rock my sox with the open Caribbean Sea freckled with foreign sailing boats is priceless. Coming home on the leeward highway, to my right are shacks all-but sliding down steep tropical green cliffs, street dogs, rum shacks, colonial-inspired houses and people watching time good bye. To my left, is the wide-open ocean, with no agenda but to cool and warm with the surface sunlight. It is amusing, to say the least.
Training, is well… training. After being in school for 21 years straight, I am doing okay. But for those that have been out in the real world prior to this, god bless ‘em, every one! Granted it is not nearly as intense as what I have heard Peace Corps Uganda and Lesotho to be, but it is still M-F, 9-4. Mr. Cool, no really, that is what he goes by- because he is pretty cool, our APCD (associate peace corps director, and essentially the head haunch here in SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines)) is one for longer lunch breaks and a no-rush kind of attitude. If I were to properly model his “island time” mentality, all would be good in the world. The content of the sessions themselves are interesting when Vincentian culture is being discussed or integrated into the topic, but others feel like they drag due to these topics already being so explored through my graduate education. But, for those with no background in facilitation, evaluation, and project planning, I think the sessions are helpful. Everything is pretty intuitive, but it is good to put a proper “development name” on the concepts. Nothing in training has been monumental or ground shattering yet…
So what am I actually going to be doing here? I am glad you asked :) My official role is an Institution/ NGO Developer. Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean has a particular focus on youth development, so essentially every volunteer’s job, whether teaching literacy or developing programs, is youth-focused. I will be working (and actually just had my first meeting today) with the Keartons United Community Organization, or da “clubhouse”, as locals refer to the organization. It is a CBO, community based organization, that needs some extra TLC (you diggin’ the acronyms???). Keartons itself is an old farming and whaling rural town on the Caribbean side of the island. No more than a couple blocks long, by a few blocks wide (on either side of the leeward highway), it is pretty sleepy, except for Saturday night when karaoke begins at 7pm then waits for gospel to begin at 7am on Sunday morning… ahh the joys of weekend (lack of) restfulness… No, it’s not too bad, and it is good I am getting used to not being such a light sleeper (right old roomies???). So, the primary objective of the clubhouse is to “ develop members and the community in a holistic manner, thus [to] empower them to make meaningful contributions to the community and the country.” Okay, so MIIS MPA-ers, what is wrong with this mission statement? Ding, ding, ding! “You cannot empower people, but you can create an environment in which they will be empowered.” Aw, I love being a nerd. So, through creating an environment of empowerment, the clubhouse hopes to engage the community, but in particular the youth, through sports, cultural activities, and education to be prepared for a meaningful and rewarding future.
Where do I come in? Well… let’s just say that I am going to unleash their potential… allowing a phoenix to emerge from flames. In laymen’s terms, we got a building, and some weeds. With all respect, the clubhouse is sponsoring some local futbol, cricket, and table tennis teams, but the facility itself could be so much more, and this is recognized by the (all-volunteer!) “staff”. These people are busy, and requested a “Peace Corps” (as Peace Corps volunteers here are lovingly referred to) to get the job going. I am here for a while, and am honestly excited and motivated to work for an emerging organization. I have a head full of ideas, and a pocket full of sunshine, let’s do it! There is a lot of work to be done (beginning with cleaning up the building and emptying all the hurricane and disaster relief materials), but why else did I get a Masters in Public Administration from an international school? I am not being unrealistic, as I know times will be challenging, and there will be days that I question if anything is really getting done… but to that I say, I am here to do the best I can, and I can only control my being. What use is stress and frustration? Will it help the job get done any faster or smoother? My objective is to partner with this CBO and pass on all the knowledge I can to those who will listen so that I can leave in two years knowing that what we built a) is owned by the community, b) is sustainable, and c) meets the primary objectives (and perhaps surpasses) the goals of the executive committee. The piece of knowledge that has stuck with me throughout training thus far, is that “development is a process”, i.e., end results will not happen overnight, so take it easy on yourself! This is, foreseeably, one of the largest challenges I will face: to not put so much pressure on myself, in personal and professional life. All I can do is the best I can do. Ommmmmmm, (thank you daily yoga practices ;) )
So… if you are still reading, thanks! It means a lot to know people care, or at least wanted an extended lunch break and chose to visit my blog:)
Once I get a routine down at the clubhouse, and some momentum develops (through planning projects, and community events), I am exploring the idea of starting my own NGO. SVG is the only Caribbean nation without any formal animal welfare services, besides a few scattered veterinary offices. The abundance of street animals, in particular dogs, breaks my heart. Without getting into details, I was passionately prompted to begin such an organization (which will hopefully be affiliated with the International Humane Society) after awaking to sounds and sights of a puppy being abused the other day. An animal rights person first and foremost, this broke my heart. But, instead of letting my emotions get the best of me, as they tend to do at times, I have been trained to be more solution focused, and identify opportunities for (in this case, VAST) improvement. This is a concept that is still developing, but is fully supported by Mr. Cool, and that gives me hope that animal welfare and rights will be integrated into educational programs throughout the country. Being 100% respectful of culture, I want to approach this with sensitivity, compassion, and action. Spay and neuter programs are nowhere to be found, and I believe, would benefit all, as some people treat animals with such disrespect as to show they wish them never to be born. I have a million and two ideas, but welcome input. There is SO much to be done, and most know animals are my passion, “the least I can do is speak for those who cannot speak for themselves” (thanks Dr. Goodall). I cannot fall asleep anymore hearing yelps of pain without knowing that I am doing something about it. A few other friends have shown interest and support, and I hope this pursuit does not fizzle in vain- even if that means extending my time here (surprise mom!).
To wrap things up, things, for the most part, are great. Six more weeks of training and living my host family, then I am sworn in a legit Peace Corps Volunteer (for those wanting to attend, please by here on April 4th) and move into my own casa (which I fully intend to paint, landlord permitting) and adopt a local pup to be most lovingly called, “Coconut”. Mosquitos compete with developing sun kisses (freckles) for space on my bronzed bod, and I eat peanut butter and jelly almost every day. Daily meditation is allowing me to observe vividly, speak slowly, listen deeply, and relax about a lot of things. I am here for two years, and although that seems like a long time now, I am sure it will seem like a blink of my life in hindsight. I am a blended banana coconut smoothie of being excited, overwhelmed, passionate, calm, curious, motivated, receptive and open… to be enjoyed chilled with an umbrella, cinnamon, and a curly straw.
Have a wonderful week all. Please write me, email and snail mail are most welcome:)
Peace and <3,