Thursday, November 7, 2013

Back Ah Yard

Let us rewind to January 2011 when I first left for Peace Corps.  If you remember it was quite the hassle trying to leave. First, the programme I was accepted into was canceled and my application was put on hold until they could find a new programme that would fit my skill set.  (That’s a whole other story, but clearly they dropped the ball when it came to finding a programme that would match my skill set, considering my primary assignment is teaching remedial reading, and I have a masters degree in materials science and engineering, but I digress).
Anyhow, when I finally was accepted into a programme I was due to leave in January. In the beginning I was set to leave January 27th.  However, the Peace Corps was going to bump my flight due to a huge snowstorm on the forecast.  In the end though they didn’t end up moving up my flight. Yet when I arrived at the airport, the ticket agent told me that I was not booked for the flight. Way to go Peace Corps.  After many calls to Peace Corps and working with the airline, most of which were canceled due to weather, I finally got another flight to Miami for staging.  Not first without having to go back home until later in the day and having two layovers and arriving a day late, thereby missing all the staging seminars.
At the time I clearly remember thinking.  Maybe I am not meant to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  If the first programme was canceled, and they had difficulty finding a new programme and now its taking so much stress and effort to leave, maybe I shouldn’t go.
Obviously nothing in my life is easy. That’s just the way it is. So why would this experience be any different? I had a rough start to my Peace Corps journey, the entire experience has been rocky and now trying to return is not going well “none ah tall”.
It started out fine, only because I had an early flight out of St. Vincent.  I was even lucky enough to get my neighbor to drive me to the airport. When I got to the airport, things continued smoothly. I boarded in St. Vincent with only a 10-minute delay, which in LIAT terms should be considered on time.
Next, I arrived in Antigua for a connecting flight to St. Maarten. I have flown thru here before, and although it’s annoying, you must get off the plane, go through security again and wait for your connection, it shouldn’t be too big of a problem. My layover was only about an hour.  However at the time I should have been taking off (10am), an announcement came over the system stating that the flight was delayed due to “maintenance issues”. The next message that I heard stated that the plane was late because it would be arriving late? That was at 11am. That was the last I heard until about 1pm. At which point an announcement came on to begin boarding for the flight.  When I got in line, the ticket agent made an announcement stating that the flight was no longer going to St. Maarten but instead straight on to Tortola. She said to wait until further instruction.  After some time, we were allowed to board the plane after all and the plane would be going to Tortola first and then St. Maarten.
Once boarding the plane (at around 130pm), we proceeded to wait in a hot cabin with absolutely no information concerning the delay.  We waited for about an hour, at which point passengers started to get perturbed and began speaking up. Sometime afterwards, the flight attendant made an “announcement” asking two volunteers to step off the plane so that two others could get on, as all the seats were full.  They would receive a “small fee” of $150 (though we are still not sure whether that was in EC or US dollars) and be put on the 4pm flight to St. Maarten. It took about another hour to sort out that issue.  Once that was sorted out, it appeared as though some maintenance workers were inspecting the engine.  Again, we were not informed of what was going on at all.  Soon, it was realized that the two people that needed to get on the plane were two other LIAT employees, one of whom was a captain in training and another captain, who had been on the plane the entire time who we were under the impression were the captains of this flight. We continued to wait in the heat; hungry, annoyed, hot, tired.  Again after waiting, an announcement from the “actual” captain of the plane stated that the LIAT employees were to disembark the plane and remain in Antigua.  We therefore waited for over two hours to sort out seating arrangements for these two LIAT employees who eventually ended up not flying.  All the passengers were about to throw a coup.  It’s frustrating that the two volunteers had to get off the plane and the seats remained empty.  Not that they lost much, considering we only left about 15 minutes before their flight (was due to leave). In total, we waited on the hot plane for 2 hours on the tarmac, in addition to the 4 hours in the airport. 
Needless to say I missed my connecting flight to the States.  Surprisingly when I got to immigration, the officer was extremely friendly and helpful. What a first!  I was instructed to speak with the LIAT agents in regards to them putting me up in a hotel, seeing as though it’s their fault I missed my flight.  When I got to the counter, there were approximately 8 ticket agents, however 6 of them were wearing visitor training badges, all having personal conversations. I stood there a minute without any one of them acknowledging my presence. After sometime, I demanded that some one help me, do they not see me, really? I told them the situation where they proceeded to look up my information.  They told me that my flight was not a “true confirmation” meaning they did not have any knowledge that I was connecting with US Airways, so therefore it was not their responsibility to put me up for the night.  You have to be freaking kidding me. 
Additionally, there were no ticket agents or US Airways Representatives at the time.  Evidently they had all left for the day as all the flights had left.  My only option was to arrive early in the morning to sort out a new flight since I could not check the status of flights with no Internet.
The only redeeming aspect of the entire LIAT experience is that all my luggage arrived in St. Maarten, on time, and nothing seems to be missing or broken.
Again, Peace Corps, really? First you tell me I have a flight and I get there and its not booked, now you cant even confirm the flight?  So what do I do now? My phone doesn’t work in St. Maarten and the airport doesn’t have Internet.  What airport doesn’t have Internet? Even little ol’ St. Vincent has free Wi-Fi. WTF? So I was literally stranded, I could not call anyone or check my email to inform Peace Corps or my family of the situation. I finally was able to use a telephone at a shop in the airport; the man was kind enough to lend me.
Luckily I got through to Peace Corps who made arrangements for me to stay in a hotel for the night. This did not go without its own challenges. First, they could not get thru to the hotels, because the telephone numbers were invalid, and they could not get on to me, since my phone was not working. I was very grateful the shop owner lent me their phone for a small fee of $5US. It was around 6pm now, it was dark and pouring rain and I had two bags that each weighed approximately 50lbs. I had to navigate to find a taxi.  I should also mention the other significant challenge in this puzzle. I only had $6US dollars.  Thanks to my grandmother, or I wouldn’t have even had that. I only had EC dollars, which no place in St. Maarten accepts, except this nice man who owns the shop, however I didn’t know that at the time.  Therefore, when I got into the taxi, just as a polite courtesy I told the man I only had ECdollars.  He kind of thru a fit.  But it’s all I had. What did he want me to do? I wasn’t planning on staying in this country. He seemed to think that the hotel would exchange the money, and I didn’t really think twice about it, why wouldn’t EC be accepted or easily exchanged here, we are in the Caribbean after all.  This proved na├»ve. The man ended up getting $3US and $30EC.  I think he made out in the end, for a 6-minute taxi ride, with no hills.
The lady at the front desk of the hotel was nice enough, I guess.  Although she did give me some attitude about the EC dollar issue.  I really don’t see the issue.  Its not like I wasn’t willing to pay the taxi driver. Its just all I had was EC.  They seemed to think that there would be no place to exchange it, which I find hard to believe. Anyways, she already knew who I was, when I proceeded to check in.  This went smoothly enough as Peace Corps already made the arrangements.  She asked if I needed anything else, at which point I asked if there was an Internet code.  She told me I had to purchase Internet.  There was a bit of pity in her heart after all and she gave me the code for free. She said after the hell I been thru for the day, if she didn’t do this for me then she had no heart at all. Thank you.  Unfortunately, it did not work.  Not sure if the code was not working or the Internet itself was not working.  I almost tend to think it’s the Internet in this country that it does not exist.
I tried to call the front desk to get a new code, but she was unhelpful and said she would call back, but never did.  I still have not spoken to my mother to let her know where I am or what has happened.
Which brings me to the next point. Since I was not expecting to be staying in St. Maarten for more than the 4-hour layover, I had no change of clothes, no toothbrush, no deodorant, nothing. Thankfully the hotel itself provided some shampoo. Otherwise I don’t think it would get even a terrible review. There was a dead coach on the floor, no Internet, horribly uncomfortable bed, and no hot water. The service was minimal and below expectation and quality of such an esteemed country.
The only redeeming quality of the hotel is the morning front desk attendant. She was personally willing to exchange EC dollars for US dollars (she often travels to St. Kitts and Anguilla where they use EC), if the security guard was not able to drive me to the airport.  I was so grateful that she was able to get the security guard to drive me to the airport and/or personal exchange money to eliminate another fiasco with the taxi drivers.
Overall, I would not recommend travelling to St. Maarten. I found the overall atmosphere uninviting, unfriendly and just generally unpleasant. Aside from the LIAT employees mostly every one else was ok.  The immigration officer who was nice, though minimally helpful, the shop owner who was extremely helpful, and the night front desk attendant who had good intentions, though again was not very helpful, and the morning front desk attendant who was not only pleasant at such an early hour but willing to help and actually followed thru.
At long last I made it back to NY, only to freeze in 40F temperatures.

Ah Gone Ah Mountain

For quite a while now I have been asking numerous friends to take me with them when they go ah mountain to farm or to the river to fish.  I had been once with a Peace Corps friend’s host brother, however, she lived in the next village and their farm was in the next village over from that so it was close to my house. The walk up there didn’t take very long and it was mostly along paved roads. We went crawfishing in the river with a basket. It was a lot of fun, but I wanted more. I wanted to go again at night, because apparently that’s when the river lobsters come out. Every time I planned to go it would be after/during a big rain, which means the river would be running heavy. So here we are, more than a year later, and I still have not made it up to the mountain.
I have another friend whose mother farms ground provisions in the mountains near Soufriere in Georgetown. I have always wanted to go. However, every time I'm up country, something always comes up and I never make it to the mountain.  I have always wanted to experience what every day life is like for him and his family. He has told me many stories about his childhood going ah mountain with mommy and coming back to sell vegetables in Georgetown before going to school.
My opportunity finally presented itself. Of course it had to be after a particularly exhausting week and on a day that I had to be running around for rugby for the whole day. But I figured this is my opportunity I must take it.
We woke up at 5am to get ready to go ah mountain. Mommy left at close to 6am and we left closer to 7am.  I had no idea how long it would take to get there or what kind of journey it would be.  Judging from the first experience I had had I figured it would be a relatively easy stroll along crudely paved roads. I should have known better, considering I was up country where the infrastructure is considerably less.
The “walk” which was what we would consider more of a hike took about 45 minutes. We started out on a relatively flat dirt road for about 20 minutes. Strangely, in the middle of nowhere, there was a section of road that was paved, seemingly going nowhere. Up until the paved section of road is land farmed and owned by a prominent farmer in Georgetown that owns a large swath of land leading to my friends village just inland of Georgetown.  The dirt road is lined with coconut palms and other bushes separated by barbed wired.  Just beyond the barbed wire are crops of sweet potatoes and other ground provisions, bananas, and cows. At the edge of his land began the paved section of road. It crossed a stream at which was another swath of cropland.  We met a neighbor there picking dry coconuts to sell. From there began the journey up the mountain.  It was heavily vegetated with tropical ferns, large trees and palms. It was very wet as though it just rained.  The path was indistinguishable from the rest of the bush in most sections.  You would not notice it unless you were accustomed to traveling the path or were familiar with the lands. I think I would have gotten lost if I was not with my friend and his aunt and two young cousins. The mountain path was very difficult to navigate; in some places it was nearly vertical, very steep. I still do not know how they can climb this path with slippers (flip flops), shoes that have only half a bottom, or no shoes at all.
There were really nice views of Georgetown and the Windward coast from atop the mountain path where his family farms. Once we reached the land, my friends mother and another aunt were already there digging up dasheen.  When we arrived, my friend began cleaning the dasheen, cutting off the callaloo, and scarping the stringy roots from the root vegetable. For a while I just sat there and watched, feeling rather helpless, as there was only one knife/cutlass. I couldn’t pick the dasheen because I had no idea which ones to pick and the stalks of the dasheen (callalloo) are extremely irritating to the skin. I sat there observing the scenery, the lush green vegetation and the most magnificent hummingbird I have ever seen.
Eventually I was given the task of separating the bad callalloo from the good ones to bring back home to make soup with, taking precaution not to irritate my skin.
After sometime, my friend’s brother joined us and started collecting the dasheen. We weren’t up ah mountain long before we filled nearly two sacks with dasheen.  In no time at all, my friend’s two young cousins left to head back home both carrying load of dasheen. Once our sacks were full my friend and his aunt and I left with our load, leaving mommy, his other aunt and brother to dig up and carry more dasheen.  Unfortunately at this time, dasheen sell by the sack, roughly only $70EC per sack, not by the pound (approximately $4EC/lb).  There’s close to 50 lbs in a sack, I would venture to estimate.
When we left the piece of land, my friend and his aunt both carried a sack of dasheen placed on top of their heads.  Luckily I had the easy task of carrying down the callalloo.  My friend tied up the callalloo with dry banana leaf, and made a hook also out of banana leaf so I wouldn’t have to touch the irritating callaloo. Going down was more difficult that going up because it was so steep and slippery.  Both my friend and his aunt walked barefoot carrying 50lbs of dasheen on their head.  I could barely do it wearing hiking shoes, carrying no load.
When we reached down to the clearing at the end of the paved section of road, we drank from the stream.  It was probably one of the best tasting water I have ever had.  So fresh and so clean. Cleaner than my pipe water in Mespo that’s for sure.
I can’t imagine doing that day in and day out. That is real hard work.  If you think you know what hard work is you’re kidding yourself. Not to mention, we got there after and left before mommy.  When mommy reach back she had to cook lunch, make coconut oil and wash all her grown kids (including mine) laundry (by hand).  Not sure if you have ever done laundry by hand, but that in itself is hard work. All this on top of an hour and a half walk up/down a mountain with 50lb of load on your head at 50years old.
Two days later when I was up country again, I was woken up by loud voices at 3am. Mommy was calling out to my friend letting him know she was going to the river to get Tri Tri.  Tri Tri are tiny fish (they look like sperm) that come down the river to the mouth of the sea only once a year.  People go early in the morning with buckets to collect the tiny fish to sell at the market.  They are bit of a delicacy since they are only available for a short period of time.