Thursday, May 31, 2012

Life Lessons: Reaching Higher

Although the sights in St Lucia were breathtaking and the things we got to experience were absolutely amazing, the best part about spending time there was getting to stay with a fellow PCV friend. 
We had some really amazing discussions about our experiences and how they differ, things we have learned, and shared some insightful tips. The first thing I realized is how similar our situations are, yet how different they really are. Again, it all seems to go back to perspective and how we perceive the challenges and triumphs we are faced with.
One thing that is interesting to note is the various living standards each volunteer has (even within a similar region).  Some volunteers live in very nice houses, with beautiful tile floors, spacious rooms, wash machines, hot water, in nicer neighborhoods, with great views and others live in simple concrete houses with tin roofs, “floor paper” or bare concrete floors, and no “comforts”.  Some volunteers regularly have issues with their water; either it is frequently dirty or cut off, and similar issues. Some volunteers live in communities that are densely populated and have close neighbors, others are kind of floating there by themselves (figuratively and literally). Some volunteers must travel real far to get groceries, pay bills, etc., while others can get mostly everything within a walking distance of their house.
Other noteworthy differences are the level of integration.  Some volunteers have integrated quite well, while still others are dealing with getting accustomed to “life in De Caribbean”, the harassment, making friends, starting meaningful projects, gaining the respect of the community/counterparts, building trust, all for various reasons, some of which fall not on the shoulders of volunteers.  Some of this also rests in the fact that we are sometimes placed in communities that are distrustful of Americans, volunteers, what have you, which makes integrating and gaining people’s trust difficult, subsequently making it nearly impossible to start any meaningful work.  No work can be done with out the community’s involvement and support.
Lastly, our work area greatly affects our service.  Those with positive work experiences (read: supportive counterparts, eager and enthusiastic community members, trusting and trustworthy friends, etc.) seemed to have a more positive overall experience. A serious concern for volunteers is being placed to serve where the requested skills do not match those of the volunteer or showing up to a worksite that does not “want you” or does not “know how to use you”.  How is this even possible? Why is Peace Corps attaching us to a site that has no use or no want for us.
I find it particularly excruciatingly frustrating that we were refereed to as “Generalist Volunteers” during MST.  For one thing, we all have certain specific and specialized skills.  Secondly, it made me think back to when I was interviewing with the PC recruiter and she told me based on my degree and experience I would be a perfect match for serving as a environmental engineer in South/Latin America, but she would not nominate me since I have no Spanish language skills.  I find it hard to believe that a) so many engineers that already speak Spanish are applying, and b) there are no other posts that could use my science/engineering/math skills.  No offense but many more liberal arts majors apply to Peace Corps than those holding a Master’s Degree in Materials Science and Engineering.  I would think it would be easier to attach them to something such as literacy than to attach an engineer to literacy (but maybe its not?).  Perhaps my problem is that I am so specialized that I have essentially and effectively reduced myself to a generalist? Had I known that I would be teaching literacy, I would not have accepted my invitation to serve.  Part of my reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to share what I know.  Of course there are many other things I can share other than math/science/engineering/literacy, but I would have preferred my primary responsibility to be sometime I am qualified to do, or at least have passion for. The fact that I have absolutely no interest in teaching literacy, coupled with the fact that I have no qualifications or knowledge as to how to teach some one to read (note: just because you know how to read does not mean you can teach some one else to read) has been the bane of my existence as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Similar sentiments about volunteer/worksite agreement seem apparent among many other volunteers in my group as well.
 Dealing with the challenges of having little experience or technical skill in a particular area are one thing, and part of being a volunteer is overcoming these, but dealing with a worksite that is unwilling to work with you, cooperate, collaborate, or provide support is another thing.
All of these factors affect whether we view our service as meaningful and positive, or not so much. By the end of all this reflecting, discussing, debating, we determined that your Peace Corps experience is what you make it.  It is NOT, as once previously thought, what you put in is what you get back out.
A noteworthy anecdote (again relating to perspective).  As we were hiking, rather, literally crawling up Petit Piton, as it is in my estimation about a 40degree incline, a very apparent fear of heights took over me.  As a result, I was not able to reach the summit, as the last section of Petit Piton is a sheer rock wall, in which you must climb up using only ropes.  I was utterly embarrassed that I had a panic attack while climbing up the first set of ropes and turned back to wait at the lookout point before the summit. However, a fellow volunteer had raised an interesting question: how am I measuring my successes?  Was I measuring them by challenging myself and tackling fears (or attempting to, I guess. I honestly had no idea my fear of height was this severe), or is it by “climbing to the top of some stupid rock?”  I think this is very insightful and should be extended to the greater sense of my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Using ropes (long before the summit)

holding on for dear life after "crossing the precipice" at the look out.  Unfortunately, this is not exaggerated for effect.

On the first set up ropes ascending the summit of Petit Piton, shortly, if not during my panic attack.

Right after reaching the top of the first set of ropes.  Kind of stuck, paralyzed by fear.

Thank You to Hands Across the Sea

I interviewed a number of students (but, in the interest of time, did not include all of them) to create this small video thank you message to Hands Across the Sea for providing us with so many wonderful, new, exciting books.  I am so proud of them.  Their answers are all their own. All I did was ask them to answer in their own words one of the following questions:

1. Why are these books important to you?
2. Why is reading important?
3. How will these books benefit you?
4. Why are you grateful/thankful for these donated books?
5. What do the books mean to you?
6. etc.

My Perception of Time

The longer I have been living in SVG, the more I realize that my concept of time has drastically changed.  I really don’t even know how to explain it.  Time goes by extremely fast here.  Even when I am waiting for hours for meetings to start, or for a van to come, in lines at the bank, post office, supermarket, or for any other various reasons that I am left waiting for something to begin/end, time goes by fast.  Time even goes by fast when the sun sets at 6pm, and I have many long hours to myself waste reading, perusing the web, cooking, cleaning, and doing random stuff before bed.
Like the nerd that I am, I did some research on the perception of the passage of time.  What I have learned is that time seems to go faster when you form positive memories in relaxed environments.  Time goes slower during stressful situations.  Additionally, time goes by faster as fewer memories are formed.  Adults tend to perceive the passage of time as faster than children, because they are not creating as many new memories.
All this contradicts how I feel and the situation I am in.  I am making an incredibly large amount of new memories, and I'm still relatively young. Additionally, I would call Peace Corps a “stressful situation”.  So why isn’t time going slower? Perhaps the passage of time here seems to be flying by because in the back of my mind I know I have limited time here. I need to savor every day, every minute, every second I have here. Perhaps, I’m not as stressed as I thought I was?  Perhaps, since I have so much down time, I'm really not making that many new memories.  Although, I don’t think any of this is the case.  I am constantly doing new things, trying new foods, meeting new people, learning new names, and learning new things.  I am usually always stressed about something (I actually prefer the feeling of being stressed); whether its money (or lack there of), work, things going on back home, etc. So, I can’t really conclude why time is going faster. It must be because I am closer to the equator?
I have noticed recently that more and more people (both in SVG and at home) keep mentioning that I don’t have that much longer in SVG.  Why do people keep pointing this out?  I am really only half way through my service, as I have just completed our Mid Service Training.  I still have half my service left, and a year to go, technically.  I do not want this experience to be over, and the fact that people keep pointing out that my time is limited, is stressing me out.
Just Let Me Be.
It’s interesting because different people have different perceptions of time (obviously).  But its fascinating to note who finds my remaining year of service to be “only a little while” and those who think or thought, that two years is an eternity, and the remaining year an equally long time. I have always asserted that two years really isn’t that long.  I find now that it is going by even faster than I had originally thought it would.
We talked a lot about perspectives at MST. Perspectives and how it pertains to reading comprehension, perspectives in service, etc.  I think time fits into that concept very well.  It’s all about your perspective.

Mid Service Revelations

I recently returned from St Lucia where PCEC 83’s Mid Service Training (MST) was held. St Lucia is the headquarters for Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean (which comprises Grenada, Dominica, SVG, SLU, and the recently closed St Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda). We were put up in a nice hotel with hot water and air conditioning, unlimited food, pools, and comfy beds.  However, it was pretty chaotic getting there.  Although we were traveling a mere 20 miles, a 30-minute flight away, we had to first travel to Barbados for a connecting flight, which we almost missed for reasons which completely our own fault. In all it took ~9 hours to travel ~20 miles. Upon landing and arriving at the hotel, confusion ensued. The hotel we were supposed to be staying at did not have us booked until two days later, and to top it off, was completely full up due to the internationally recognized Jazz Fest being held nearby.  This made it really difficult to find a hotel with enough rooms for 40+ volunteers.  It resulted in us all being dispersed in nearby hotels for a night, and being bussed back and forth for meals at the original hotel.  
one of the nice hotels we stayed at..sort of.
Luckily (?) we returned the following day to all be together again. I lost two shirts during all the commotion L.  It was complete chaos, frustration and confusion; with no one knowing what’s going on or what was going to happen. In the end everything worked out fine, and there were no other major problems during MST. But for MST to start off in that direction, I was a little more than concerned.
In fact, MST was a lot better than I had originally thought.  Most of it focused on us sharing our experiences and one session of technical training, which I thought was going to be a waste of time, but ended up being really helpful. We even managed to have some fun; such as MSTIIIC-our Mid Service Training Inter Island Integration Competition, which included activities ranging from a coconut water drinking relay race, ring games, hair styling competition, wining, among others; all the essential components of integrating in the Caribbean.
coconut water is delicious

The most interesting and beneficial part of MST was hearing about everyone else’s experiences. It was remarkable, the array of experiences; some very positive, some not so positive, and everything in between on the spectrum. It was thought-provoking to learn that everyone’s experiences are so different and unique even though we are all doing relatively the same thing on a relatively similar island. Although, we face similar challenges and struggles, each volunteers experiences are completely their own.
peace corps eastern caribbean problems....

In the end, the nice hotel was merely a tease.  I find myself now longing for American comforts and commodities, when I was not before.
In fact, when I went to St Lucia, I thought it would be the same as St. Vincent, but that was far from the case. The whole “vibe” of the island was different.  At first, during MST we were stationed in a very touristy area.  I felt like I was back in America.  There were large supermarkets that literally had everything you could ever want (just like in America); that’s not the case in SVG.  You can get some things, but I never realized how little we can actually get (even if we could afford it). There was a shopping mall with designer shops, a casino, nice restaurants, etc.  The roads are wide, there are traffic lights, multiple lane roads, vans ran quietly and peacefully, no loud music, no conductors, no mashing up.
mashed up in the van with all my stuff

After MST wrapped up, I spent some time with a friend who is serving in a community just outside Vieux Fort, at the southern tip of St. Lucia.  We had to travel about 2 hours from Castries in the north to Vieux Fort in the south, traversing the entire island.  It was a great way to see the island (if you like being mashed up in a van with a 25lb backpack on your lap). Luckily the ride was nice; the roads are wide, fairly straight and flat. The drivers don’t drive that fast, although it was too quiet for me. Once we got to Vieux Fort, it was like being in Town all over again, only this wasn’t the capital. Castries felt like being back in Philly compared to Kingstown in SVG.  Vieux Fort felt more like Town in SVG.  My friend had virtually no reason to travel the nearly 2 hours to the capital for groceries, to pay bills or run other errands, as she could travel about 20 minutes to Vieux Fort and do all those things.  She even gets her mail forwarded to her community’s post office. It was amazing.
gross piton as seen from my friends village

you can see my friends house (lower right) and her school (lower left) and all the beautiful mountains in the background

While visiting my friend, we hiked Petit Piton with a few other amazing volunteers, which was quite the experience (more on that later), we went to the beach (think white sand and touristy), saw amazing views from a lighthouse, saw some communities outside of Vieux Fort after we got a ride from some workers after walking back from the lighthouse, saw some very beautiful waterfalls, jumped off a rope swing, saw more of the country after getting more rides with some people, ate some mangoes, hung out, cooked, etc.
Petit Piton (kicked my butt)

view from the top (courtesy of Rachel!)

Gros Piton as seen from Petit Piton

so we got a ride to the top of this mountain to go to the light house, we somehow ended up at the cell tower instead (equally nice view though)

Vieux Fort and surrounding areas

On top of the world

Walking to LaTille Falls through a banana plantation

LaTille Falls, it was absolutely gorgeous and run by a Rasta guy who was completely self sufficient, he even generated electricity from a dam.

Swinging from the rope swing into the pond.

After all the excitement, it was nice to get back home.  It was such a good feeling to be back, with new perspectives, new insights, new experiences, all of which will help me in the next year to come.  But it was especially nice being back and having all my neighbors tell me how nice it is to see me, how much they missed me; they thought I had gone back to the States.
Here’s to another amazing year!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Bus Experience (SLU Edition)

             Remember all I said about riding a van in SVG?  Well if not, I know it was a while ago, let me refresh your memory for you.  It is not uncommon to be riding in a 14 passenger van with 18+ passengers, a driver and a conductor.  Just the other night I was riding a van with 21 passengers, a driver, and the conductor was riding on the back bumper holding on. The conductor is the man who collects your passage fare, helps you on and off with large parcels, helps small children climb on and off, packs the van in the most efficient way possible so as to fit the maximum number of passengers, and what ever other assistance you may need while riding a van. I find that the conductor helps things run smoothly and fast.  There’s not much time between when a person gets off and the van pulls away.  The van is almost always playing dancehall, reggae, soca, or pop music and loudly.  The van drivers and conductors are almost always young men.  It is rare to ride in a van that does not play music, or with an old driver. Furthermore, most vans have catchy names in cool graphics painted on the front/side of the van.  Some vans have the destination of the van labeled in small print on the windshield.  But mostly, you know which van goes where by its graphics/name. And if you don’t know which van is going where, no worries because the conductor will most likely yell the destination as the van is passing by, or if
            Now lets compare that with the vans in SLU.  They only hold 14 passengers; 3 people to a row, and two in the front.  It was so roomy and spacious.  I didn’t have to touch (sit on top of or be sat on) the person next to me. I didn’t have to feel their sweat.  It seemed like most passengers kept the windows closed too.  I guess when you aren’t packed in it doesn’t get as hot and steamy. It was also unbearably quiet in the vans.  No music at all, no one talking.  You could hear a pin drop. It was really quite uncomfortable.  However, when any one got on the bus they said the appropriate greeting (good morning, afternoon, evening).   Everyone said hello.
            In SLU there is no conductor. This causes stops to take a while.  For some trips, mostly when traveling out of Town, the van drivers collect passage fares before leaving the bus terminal. However, other times it took a while for the driver to make the appropriate change. Groceries and other parcels are stored in the “trunk” underneath the seat benches.  When the person calls their bus stop (by saying “driver, stopping”), the driver must get out of the bus and open the trunk to collect the packages for the passengers. In addition to this, its also kind of difficult to work the van sliding doors.  Especially on hills, the doors can be heavy and tend to slide back, its also difficult when you are trying to manage large luggage or other bags. People rarely “make a squeeze” to fit more than the allotted 14 people on a van.
            One of the best parts about SLU van rides was that the roads are straight, flat, and smooth.  There are significantly less hills, turns, curves, corners, and markedly less potholes.
            Even though the bus rides in SLU were spacious, and fairly comfortable, I still prefer being mashed up with loud music and the organized chaos that is the Vincy Van experience.