Tuesday, September 30, 2014

So This Is It?

            It has been so incredibly long since I last updated you all.  I am sure by now most of you have forgotten that I am still in the Peace Corps. Firstly, that is because I extended my service, yet again/so many times. And secondly, because during that time I was so incredibly busy with my project of starting a youth rugby programme, in addition to teaching/librarian at the secondary school, and traveling, that I barely had time for myself let alone to update my blog or send emails! But today, I write to you all only mere days from my COS (close of service).  The end is imminent.
            After nearly 4 years, it is finally coming to an end (and its surreal).  It has been an incredible journey in many regards.  It most definitely started out pretty rough, from having my original assignment canceled one week prior to leaving, to being in limbo for 3 months and then being sent to a completely different region teaching literacy (I'm an engineer after all!). Honestly I cannot believe that I extended my service so many times, nearly doubling the required 2 years.  But I have fallen in love with my life in St. Vincent.  My entire Peace Corps experience has been life changing and eye opening.
            Since the last update there have been many accomplishments and things happening. I organized and directed two successful month long summer youth rugby camps (2013, 2014); I developed and implemented a grassroots youth rugby programme, introducing tag rugby into primary school students during PE classes and starting Nov 2014 secondary school students too; I traveled to Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia, and Tortola; some for work, some for rugby and some for play J.  I’ve spent a total of 11 weeks (October 2013, June/July 2014) in the States trying to catch up with friends and family. I have seen many of my Peace Corps friends finish their service and start careers and have welcomed that many more new Peace Corps Volunteers to St. Vincent. I have also worked with the SVGRUFC executive to hire a new coach to replace me and continue the youth rugby programme.  I am so incredibly happy/proud to know that the project that I poured my heart and soul into will continue (and grow) in my absence.
            Overall, my Peace Corps experience has been just that, an experience and an adventure. And one that I would never take back or change.  If nothing else, at all times it has been a roller coaster. I have seen challenge after challenge, both personally and professionally, but I have seen an equal number of triumphs, albeit some small. I have risen to the occasion(s), surprising even myself with creativity, resourcefulness, patience, perseverance and resilience; so far as overcoming a period of major depression. I have made so many deep meaning friendships and have had to say goodbye to a few of those.  Some have passed on, for others the distance was too great. No matter I am grateful to have had them in the first place. I may have missed many new chapters beginning in the States, but I have started a number of my own or shared in others’ here in SVG. While I was assigned to SVG to serve as a literacy teacher, I actually learned more than I taught. I have experienced a number of severe natural disasters (most recently, the Christmas Eve Floods which resulted in 12 deaths), while ironically missing two major hurricanes that affected the North East US, and have also been fortunate to explore such a beautiful and environmentally rich island nation, hiking volcanoes, swimming in rivers, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and many waterfalls, just to name a few of the amazing eco adventures available. Although I am a vegetarian, I have had the opportunity to try iguana, sting ray, blackfish (a type of dolphin), shark, lionfish, conch, armadillo, tripe, goat balls and goat head, cattle skin, chicken backs, necks and feet, pork (that was reared in a friends back yard), manicou (opossum), and yard fowl.  I have eaten more fruits than I can even list. Unfortunately, I have had numerous health incidents/injuries; ranging from mysterious rashes and fevers (dengue?), to infections, and the worst of them all: a root canal and crown on my front tooth.  Luckily I have learned some new rather interesting remedies, consisting of many different leaves, bushes, fruits, herbs, etc. Whatever the ailment, there is a remedy and probably a superstition to go along with it. Also can’t forget the local rum (84.5%, that’s percent not proof!), which is said to cure basically everything.
Prior to Peace Corps, Never Have I Ever: really known how to cook; how to wash clothes by hand; been a contortionist (van rides will test your flexibility); bathed in a river; bathed out of a bucket; swam with sea turtles; hitchhiked; eaten so many different foods; been warmly invited into stranger’s homes and offered a meal, or even a place to stay (I was stuck in another island!), but more importantly I have learned to see things as they are and to never take anything for granted. I have a much more positive outlook on life, eternally grateful for the things I do have: health, love and support from family and friends; a roof over my head and food in my belly, and to a much greater extent than those whom I live around, choices. I have a totally new perspective; I can and will adapt, I can and will change and grow, I can and do go without, things that were “necessities”, no longer seem so important. Many people think that Peace Corps is so difficult because of the lack of amenities, but it’s actually quite easy to adjust.  It’s the emotional and psychological side of things that makes Peace Corps difficult: the isolation and loneliness, but at the same time, being surrounded by people and constantly being on display (the fish bowl effect). Alternatively, many people think the Caribbean is some paradise.  While it has stunningly beautiful scenery, what they don’t show you in the travel guides is the high rates of unemployment and poverty, the poor education system and health care and the social impacts as a result of these shortcomings. All of these factors have contributed to my evolved outlook and perspective on life. I have also learned to live in the moment, because you really don’t know what could happen tomorrow. Nothing is guaranteed.
         At this point, no doubt, you are wondering what my next move will be. I will be staying in St. Vincent looking for a job. Preferably something more engineering related, or at the very least science and math focused.  We will see what the future holds.
      Please note that my address will change as will my phone number.  If you are interested in sending me mail, please ask me for my new address!

         Lastly, thank you for your support, encouragement, love and friendship throughout my entire journey of pursuing the Peace Corps.  I could not have gotten here were it not for your support and encouragement, and I could not have continued without you sharing in my joys, nor without your words of encouragement and advice so help me through the rough patches. Thank you.

        Please check back soon though, as I will be posting LONG OVER DUE posts, since I will have more time to finally catch up with my blog.

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.