Saturday, September 13, 2014

You've Been Here How Long????

I recently (April 2014, I'm a little behind in my posting) traveled to Dominica (OMG gorgeous! But that’s a separate blog post).  Anyways, I stayed with other Peace Corps Volunteers. And when they introduced me I got the same reaction. It went something like this:
PCV Friend (to their friends (locals or other volunteers): This is my friend, Valarie, she’s a third year volunteer in St. Vincent. She’s been here 3.5 years.
Friend: ohhhhhhh (with an equally inquisitive and confused look).
Yeah.  That’s the typical reaction; people cannot understand why I am still here.  But it was nice to be in good company in Dominica with a fellow volunteer who also extended for as along and as many times as I have and encounters the same confused expressions.
Sometimes I have the same thoughts.  Why AM I still here? (However, after having the opportunity (not entirely my own idea) to travel back to the States twice in the past year, it has been solidified in my mind that I am not ready to go back to America).
Extending for so many times is particularly challenging at this time of year.  April is the time of year that most volunteers COS and go back home.  This year marks the third group of volunteers I have become good friends with and have left.  It’s starting to get extremely tiresome becoming so close to people and having them leave.
Finally, now I am the one to say Good-Bye!


Volunteer Vignette

Each Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience is completely their own.  No two experiences are the same. And you cannot judge another’s experience based on your own. And from experience it seems as though you either love it or you hate it.  By the end of your two years, you’re either ready to get the F out, or you are scratching your head wondering where the time went, filling out paperwork to extend your service. I am just such a person.
I was assigned to a semi-private/semi-government-operated rural secondary school, serving in the capacity of a remedial reading teacher and librarian.  I have worked to establish a library by procuring library books from several US based non-profit organizations. I have taught remedial reading classes.  And on more than one occasion filled in for teachers on maternity leave or for other reasons; teaching subjects ranging from integrated science, maths, and physics.
I can’t say that my service has always been positive or productive. There were many times where I felt very frustrated and unsupported and discouraged. It seemed like at every turn there was a roadblock, preventing me from doing my assignment.  Other times, it seemed as though there were barriers obstructing my visions and ideas for improved remedial classes, a functional library, educational afterschool clubs, and other initiatives, such as life skills classes, from becoming a reality.
From the beginning I formed a strong and special bond with the school Guidance Counselor.  Together we have created a Guidance Committee aimed at tackling some of the school’s toughest social issues. This has been one of the most rewarding bonds and positive programs I have been involved with.
From early on, I decided that I would want to extend my stay.  Due to the nature of how Peace Corps operates, my group arrived in February, dictating that we would be leaving in April.  This falls in the middle of the school term. I knew that I would want to finish the school year, as otherwise I would feel as though I abandoned my students, the teachers, and the Guidance Counselor/Committee. I would feel incomplete, as things would seem to have been left unfinished, and abruptly.
Furthermore, from the day that I arrived in St. Vincent, I began looking around for a rugby team.  It took nearly a year before I accidentally stumbled upon/ found them.  When I first came on the rugby scene in SVG, there were only a handful of players, and maybe one other girl. In the beginning I was a dedicated player, albeit for fun and not competitive at all, since I am not male, nor a citizen. But, I always had plans for developing rugby in the back of my mind. On my own, I tried various times to initiate a youth rugby team at the school I taught at, but to no avail. After about a year of trying on my own, the men’s national team initiated an informal and unorganized youth rugby program, whereby some of the players go to different schools to teach/coach rugby.  Some players have even started youth rugby teams in their communities.  While it was a slow go, progress had been made, and it was a step in the right direction, toward increasing awareness and interest in rugby in SVG.
To this end, I proposed that the SVG National Rugby team organize and conduct a youth rugby camp over the summer 2013 (as a way I could extend my service even longer). Much to my surprise, the team was very receptive and extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the idea.  Although, there were some hiccups in the planning and execution of the inaugural summer youth rugby camp, it was relatively successful and it served as the springboard for formally launching the Grassroots Rugby Programme in SVG (also another reason to extend my service!). What was once a fun pastime to stay active and meet new people, soon transformed into my primary project.
After working tirelessly with the newly elected SVG RUFC Executive Board, which focused first on restructuring and reorganizing the Club, focusing primarily on building up rugby in SVG by targeting youth, we collaborated with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture, Department of Sports to introduce rugby into the PE curriculum at the primary school level. Traveling to numerous primary schools, teaching rugby to third and fourth graders became my full time job.  It was the best thing to happen during my service and resulted in me extending my time, yet again!
The pilot Grassroots Rugby Programme was well received and highly successful. We conducted another summer youth rugby camp.  Now, after over three and a half years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and nearly two years as the Youth Programme Coordinator for the SVG RUFC, I am handing over my duties.  The Executive Board searched extensively for a new coach to take over the Youth Programme.  To that end, a Welsh coach will be volunteering with the SVG RUFC for six months starting in October 2014.  Not a moment too soon, as I officially complete my service Oct 4.

Bus Experience-Grenada and Dominica Editions

In September 2013, there was a PEPFAR funded conference for all Peace Corps Volunteers in the Eastern Caribbean concerning gender-based violence.  For volunteers serving in St. Vincent, we got to travel to Grenada for the conference. Since we already had our flights paid for by the Peace Corps some of us decided to stay an extra few days to visit other volunteers and see part of Grenada. Unfortunately, we could not stay as long as we wanted due to some policy changes concerning vacation time.
Nonetheless, Grenada was amazing.  It was much like St Vincent.  People were nice and friendly but it was just a bit more developed.  In order of increasing development and decreasing hospitality I would rank the countries in the following order: St. VincentàGrenadaàDominicaàSt. Lucia. I would rank Grenada and Dominica equally.  People there were very helpful and friendly, however, it was more developed than St. Vincent. St. Vincent has the friendliest and most welcoming people, in my opinion, but that’s probably because I live here, but is the least developed.  While, St Lucia is considerably more developed, I find people there to not be as helpful or warm and welcoming.  Grenada was a nice medium.
This applies to the bus experience as well.  In St. Vincent every van has a conductor which is responsible for alerting the driver of stops to pick up/drop off passengers, collecting money and helping passengers with packages and bags or small children. However, it is rather difficult to identify the correct van going to the village you want to travel to, as there are no labels, only van names. In addition, the vans tend to be very overcrowded sometimes holding as many as 21 passengers in a 14-passenger van.  Most times you must be a contortionist to ride in a van.
In St. Lucia there are no conductors at all, which slows down the process significantly, as drivers need to make change and cant drive at the same time.  It is also more difficult when you are traveling with large/heavy bags (as I most often am when I am in St. Lucia).  While the vans are marked for easy identification of routes, they also usually play no music.  In St. Lucia they are strict on the number of passengers they carry.  Hardly ever more than 14.
Grenada was kind of a mix of the two.  Sometimes there were conductors, sometimes there weren’t. There was a very orderly and organized bus terminal, something that St. Vincent is lacking entirely. Some vans played music and some had names, while others didn’t. Some had no problem helping us with our luggage while others insisted we could not travel on a van with it, which is crap because we had already been traveling a few days on numerous vans with all our bags. Grenada also has nicely paved roads and a road that goes all the way around the island, unlike St. Vincent.  Additionally, there is a road that goes through the interior (which vans don’t run on).  This road and surrounding areas reminded me a lot of most of St. Vincent.
In St. Vincent, since there is a conductor, you alert the conductor as to where you are getting off.  The conductor in turns uses a system of clicks from the door handle to communicate to the driver that the van will be stopping.  In St. Lucia, a passenger simply yells “Stopping Please” to the driver.  In Grenada, the passenger knocks on the ceiling to alert the driver of their bus stop.  Each island has its own system that works for them.  It’s interesting to see the differences and similarities.
Over the Easter holiday 2014, I traveled to Dominica.  Unfortunately/fortunately, I had the pleasure of having a friend from the States join me who rented a vehicle.  Therefore, I did not get to experience the bus system in Dominica. However, Dominica is approximately twice the size of St. Vincent with half the population.  This means, that communities are much more spread out.  It is rather difficult to travel in Dominica. Buses are far and few in between.  Most people have vehicles or hitchhike. Dominica has the most amazing roads I have seen in a very long time.  They were recently paved with no potholes, every one, rural or not had lines and reflectors.  There was adequate signage denoting speed limits or other road hazards.  These are all things that are lacking in St. Vincent.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Detours, Diversions, Disturbances

              Nearly a year ago (holy crap, that went fast!), there was a massive landslide on the main road to/from Town to my community. The landslide washed away part of the road.  Since then the road has been closed and there has been a diversion through surrounding communities.  In the village, where the road washed away, there is another road; lets call it a shortcut, which eventually connects to the main road.  However, this road is incredibly steep and narrow, and has numerous right angle bends.  Only one vehicle can fit at a time.  Technically, legally, this road is a one way, in the direction coming FROM town. But it’s a shortcut, so every one wants to take it both ways. It makes for some interesting maneuvering, and can some times take a while, as vehicles often have to back up, down or around to let traffic coming down pass. Yet, its still faster than the directed diversion. However, to get TO town, traffic is to continue on the diversion road, past the shortcut road, through various other communities, and loop back to the village where the road washed out.  This adds about 15 minutes to the trip to Town. 
            Then just before the roundabout where the main road to my village connects to the Windward Highway, there was construction work to rebuild the gutters, sidewalk and repair the mashed up road.  This created another diversion, through yet more various other communities.  Of course this diversion was a one way, and was actually strictly enforced. See Diagram 1. 
Diagram 1: Map of route To/From Town.  If you add all the Purple and Red sections, you get the actual route.  Diversions are green and the short cut is blue.  Obviously this is not drawn to scale, and neither are the curves. Anyways, you can see that the green diversions are quite lengthy and add significant amounts of time to the trip.

         So, to get back home, instead of turning left at the roundabout to go up to Mespo, we needed to continue past through many more villages, just to loop back to the main road just before where the other diversion was circuited.  This is all best explained via diagram 2. It is a nightmare.
 Diagram 2: Map showing diversion coming FROM Town.  Again, not drawn to scale.  If you add the purple section coming from the right up until the roundabout and the red section and subsequent red and purple sections, you will get the actual route.  However, construction, road work and road closures has resulted in lengthy diversions.  The new route is: coming from the right on the purple section, continue around the roundabout on purple, take left on green.  This green section is the diversion to bring you back to purple after the red.  It add about 15 minutes to the trip.

Shortly after the landslide and subsequent road closure and further diversions along the route, van drivers started taking a “short cut” through a different village along the way to Town. This prompted me to just start taking different van routes altogether. If the original van route I was taking, was going through this new route, why not just take that one. So that’s what I have been doing ever since. Besides, Van Route B drops me much closer to my house, and it’s a downhill walk, as opposed to Van Route A which drops me at the bottom of a massive hill.  See Diagram 3.                                                                         Diagram 3: The orange section is the actual route (condensed) of my original Van Route (A).  After the landslide, Van Route A drivers would turn off of orange and connect onto the purple route (about half way up the pay on the very left side).  Van Route B is the purple  It is in fact, a bit longer, but with all the diversions it ends up being about the same or 10 minutes longer.  It is still better to walk 5 minutes downhill than 15 minutes uphill though. Van Route A takes approximately 40 or more minutes depending on the time of day and whether the shortcut (in diagram 1) is used.  Van Route B takes approximately 45 or more minutes depending on the time of day and other factors.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

If You Walk the Footsteps of a Stranger, You'll Learn Things You Never Knew You Never Knew

I don’t know where I got the idea to blog my experiences throughout this Peace Corps adventure but I’m glad that I did. I was never really one to keep a journal (though I have tried) and to be honest I wasn’t too sure what I would write on my blog. I was apprehensive about sharing my thoughts with the whole world to see.  I also didn’t think many people aside from my small family and friend circle would follow it. At the very least, though, I thought it would be a good place to showcase all the pictures I take.
It turns out that not only do my family and friends follow my life updates, but so too have many strangers.  People have stumbled upon my blog, others have found it by searching for something related (Caribbean vacations perhaps?), and prospective volunteers have sited it.  I know this, for one, because BlogSpot records data pertaining to number of site visits and ip locations, and referring sites, etc., but also because the number of people who have left me comments, or who have contacted me directly.
This blog has served its purpose, but has also gone above and beyond my wildest hopes for its purpose and expectations. Of course I am happy that I have had a platform to keep my family and friends in the loop, in a fashion that they can follow on their own schedule (sometimes skyping and email can be too cumbersome).  But what I am most happy about is the fact that this blog has brought so many good things into my life and my Peace Corps experience.   The president of a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing literacy rates in the Caribbean contacted me asking how to donate books, all because she saw my blog. Countless times, at this point there’s too many to count, I have been contacted by prospective or future volunteers that will be serving in the EC, or who are interested to learn more about it.  I guess ultimately, it was these unforeseen reasons that my blog was really supposed to serve.
I never would have imagined that people all across the globe (literally!-people in over 90 countries have viewed my blog!) would be interested in my small life.  I am thrilled that I could shed insight into my experience as a volunteer serving in the Eastern Caribbean and what life is like here.
I also have to thank many people who have shown support and comfort (both strangers, as well as coworkers, and of course family and friends).  My blog, unexpectedly and kinda ironically, actually ended up providing an easier outlet to vent/share some very difficult and dark times.  I never imagined that a space for all to see and judge, would actually end up being one of the places I found it easiest to share some of my deepest darkest moments with for the first time. But it has. It was like walking into a field, and screaming at the top of your lungs for help and hoping some one would hear you.  People (strangers, old friends and new friends) did hear me, and shouted back their support and for that I am ever grateful.
As I wrap up my Peace Corps service after almost 4 years, I don’t know what the future holds. But I have learned that everything will work out as it’s supposed to. Maybe I will continue to blog (under a different blog title), so check back soon!