31 August 2011

Ah So Dey Be

Have you ever tasted a ripe mango so soft and sweet, that it made your gums tingle? 
Have you ever heard the screech of a baby monkey calling for its mother?
Have you ever seen the lights of a cruise liner go trundling off at dusk toward its next port-of-call?
Have you ever smelled the mildewy aroma of a stagnant pond in the crater of a volcano?
Have you ever felt the velvety inside of a passion fruit husk?

I have.  But on the other hand...

Have you ever smelled the scent of rotting meat permeating the entire grocery store?
Have you ever seen a 10-year-old boy fail to hold back tears after receiving six lashes on the hand?
Have you ever tasted the acrid sweetness of undiscovered mold on bread purchased the day before?
Have you ever felt the dead corpse of a lizard under your bare feet?
Have you ever heard a tropical rainstorm pound the roof so hard, it sounded like a train?

I have.

I'll keep this entry brief, to maintain some of its intrigue.  I'm a mere one activity away from having an even 20 in the collection, and then I'm going to have it proofread before submitting the final edition to the Curriculum Development Unit to have it printed and distributed.  Wish me the best!

29 August 2011

My Hair Is Getting Pretty Long Now

I'm going to take this opportunity to catch up on a few items left over from this weekend.

My girlfriend finally had her floor repaired.  As it turns out, it was merely tiles cracking above a solid concrete floor, with an inch of grout in-between; not really a threat to fall through to the floor below.  But this hardly explains the violent cracking and sharp angles of the sinking tiles – were they really just breaking and shifting the dried grout underneath?  This would have been hard to imagine for anybody that had been there when the damage was taking place.  But, after all that, a tiler came in on the weekend and replaced the cracked floor tiles, and my girlfriend and I spent the rest of the day cleaning up the dust and rearranging the furniture in her room.  So everything is back to some semblance of normalcy now, though she is still dealing with not being able go home for her two-week summer break.

I mentioned on Friday I delivered a presentation on MS Excel; this morning I finished the two-part Office Applications lecture with a demonstration of MS PowerPoint.  The class is very small: just two of my coworkers, and occasionally my boss drops in if she is free.  We spent two hours on each of Friday and Monday morning going over the bare basics of what Excel and PPoint can do; I was pleased with the broad base of topics we were able to cover in such a short period:
E1 > Cells, Rows, Columns, and Sheets
E2 > Basic Functions and Formulas
E3 > Charts & Graphs
P1 > Adding Text, Pictures, and Sound
P2 > Tools for Creating a Memorable Presentation
P3 > Examples
The participants were grateful for the free training, though one expressed a request for an even lower-level introduction to computer basics, seeming to have some difficulty grasping many of the concepts I covered in the overview.  So I may find myself doing some very directed, remedial tutoring in Windows and computer usage.

In addition, this weekend I continued to add to my Math Activities booklet with three new classroom games.  I have to thank my girlfriend here for her brilliant contributions to the creative process, the gem of our musings being one activity based on the traditional Towers of Hanoi puzzle, but reworked so that the shape of the constituent parts is reminiscent of Mt. Liamuiga.  I think students could really get excited about this one, not least of all since the problem is rather compelling in itself.  (Ooh!  I just came up with another game for dice and a number line – better write it down before I forget.)  I'm hoping to get to work with the Department of Curriculum Development this school year to distribute my booklet of ideas to schools that are interested in incorporating the activities into their math departments.  I'll include more details as things continue to unfold.

26 August 2011

Funnyquote Friday

In one of our great post-workday conversations, my coworker and I were discussing getting back and forth from the country.  I mentioned that I was grateful that my girlfriend only lives a short jaunt away on the bus.  "Jaunt?" she asked, as though never hearing the word before – in fact, she had not: they don't use it around here.  I explained what it meant, and added, "Besides, if I don't want to take the bus, I can always walk."  She gave me the incredulous look she always keeps for me when I start talking about walking distances strictly reserved for car travel.  I was anticipating this, and pointed out that it only takes 20 minutes along the road to walk to Ross University, near to where my girlfriend lives.  She responded:

*gasp* "That's almost thirty minutes!"

I have a lecture this morning, so I am making this post brief.  I will be presenting a basics tutorial on MS Excel to staff of the NSTP.  If it goes well, I'll continue on Monday with a similar lecture on MS PowerPoint.  At our last office meeting, some of the employees specifically asked me to take on this project.  In truth, I put it on the back burner for a while, and now it seems that one of the interested parties will be taking an extended hiatus to the States, so we're cramming in these two sessions before she leaves next week.  Hopefully some of what I teach will stick and prove useful in the future.

Looking forward to catching up on some projects this weekend, namely fleshing out the proposal for the youth group with St. George's Anglican, and adding some activities to the book of math games.  I need a de-tuner after yesterday, in which I spent the entire day finishing up the Serious Ting, making the edits from PC St. Lucia (EC HQ) and exporting high-quality .pdfs of all 44 pages (40 pages of content, plus inside and outside covers).  Here's hoping the printing goes well... I'm so entirely burnt out of that project now, I can't give it another thought.

24 August 2011

The Issues We Face, Part 2

The second half of my manifest on the manifold obstacles of serving in the West Indies continues today.  On nearly a daily basis, we PCVs in St. Kitts and Nevis deal with some societal beliefs that are all too often in direct conflict with our goals or plans of action.  Some are popular misconceptions, others are just different philosophies on how to deal with life.  But so many, whatever the source or reason, are actually detrimental to the development of a burgeoning society – take this first one, for example:

A problem that plagues many of the isles of the West Indies, and especially their nonprofit service organizations, is the lack of a spirit of volunteerism.  For reasons that of yet escape me, it is highly uncommon for a West Indian to volunteer his or her time to any cause, without the promise of some form of compensation.  Now, this isn't to say that the islanders here do not believe strongly in good causes; many work tirelessly to see positive social and economic change in their country, and do so out of national pride or a sense of duty to their fellow man, not unlike in the United States.  The difference?  Here, one is expected to be fairly compensated for these efforts, whether in the form of money, goods, favors, connections, travel, whatever.  No one believes it is fair, good and right to do these good works just for their own sake.  This has two practical offshoots, then, that radically affect our work here.  The first is that it is exceedingly difficult for nonprofit organizations, whether small or large, domestic or foreign, rich or poor, government or non-government, to organize workers and service providers without racking up a hefty bill in goods and labor, which certainly limits their ability to do simple things like spread awareness of their cause, their existence, and their own services.  The second thing I find very troubling: when actual volunteers like myself do make ourselves available to these nonprofits or community groups, we are often initially looked on with suspicion.  The prevailing thought is, "Why are you helping me for nothing?  Clearly, though I don't know what it is yet, you are angling to gain something though helping me."  And, in all fairness, why would you trust someone who is unwilling to tell you what he or she stood to gain in working on your project with you?  Why would you put your trust in someone who is clearly willing to withhold important information from you?  And without the ability to size you up, sometimes people would rather work without the risk involved.  At best, when organizations are able to move past this initial misunderstanding, often these same organizations have so little experience coordinating with volunteers, that they are unsure how to go about utilizing their services, leaving us PCVs to do menial tasks that would better be handled by someone without our specialized training.  This might all seem a bit of a stretch, and I don't know for certain the relevance of this outside the Eastern Caribbean, but you might be surprised to hear how common these obstacles are to volunteers starting out here.  For my part, I was lucky to be placed at a nonprofit who had hosted PCVs before, and thus were more or less prepared for my arrival with a handful of projects for me to work on at the outset.

One difficulty my institution is not set up to deal with, however, is the under-education of so many unemployed persons and, yes, even employed people here.  The literacy rate is lower than it should be, considering the free public education available island-wise through primary and secondary school, and even tertiary education facilities available on-island, some of which are affordable for lower income families.  With all of this said, then, there is no excuse why primary schools are graduating students where at least half of the lowest-stream sixth grade classrooms are still under-literate.  In my time here, I've learned a very interesting but also very serious tidbit: it is a commonly held misconception that, when youth reach a certain (though distinctly undefined) age, their ability to learn to read diminishes.  This means that, despite the plentiful signs around primary schools with pithy sayings like, "You're never too old to learn to read!" there are still wide swaths of people who will not attempt to teach one of the graduated sixth graders how to read.  Basic literacy as a supplement to secondary school remedial curricula is, to my knowledge, not included at most high schools.  Aware of this as a widespread problem, we volunteers are trained to approach under-literate students and work with them on basic literacy skills, like letter recognition, phonics, etc.  While I have not got to use this myself yet, I won't be surprised if the need presents itself in my time here.

One challenge that particularly affects my everyday work at the NSTP is the oversight of utilizing strategic planning in everyday operations.  That is to say, most nonprofits we volunteers are assigned to do not engage in common business planning processes, like identifying human, monetary, and other resources, and matching those up to community and operational needs in order to better serve their stakeholders and clientele.  This is common practice in commercial businesses and nonprofits alike in the States, and many other places around the world.  I have heard it said that the culture in the West Indies is such that, compared to other Western cultures, people here put more stock, and awareness in the present, as opposed to the past and future.  So while businesses in other countries maintain historical industry and enterprise data from the past, in order to better predict market conditions and client actions in the future, the islanders tend to put more consideration into questions like, "What are we doing right now that is working?  What could we be doing right now that we are not?"  And while this tends to be effective towards immediate problem solving, it does precious little to address resource management, a skill that is oft overlooked by government institutions, private businesses, and nonprofits here in the Caribbean.  For example, a problem that plagues the NSTP is a lack of incoming funds with which to improve the quality and availability of services that they offer.  That's natural; everybody is facing the same dilemma, all around the Caribbean and all around the world.  However, rather than do one of two things to relieve the effects of the problem, i.e. discuss and plan alternative ways to supplement the limited income they do receive so as to expand programs, or else prioritize the existing programs so that the little money that does come in goes to the most effective programs first, instead the typical m.o. is to spend the money on a needy project just as soon as it is available.  This means that the NSTP is left virtually penniless about 99% of the time, leaving no room to introduce new programs or even continue to operate all of the existing ones.

I hope that you can now better appreciate some of the challenges we PCVs are equipped to handle, albeit perhaps begrudgingly, on a daily basis.  It's not all bad, of course: as I mentioned a few times during PreService Training to my fellow volunteers, all of these problems, potential and real, would be magnified a couple times over if we had to learn a foreign language on top of all of that.  So there are many things to be grateful for, not least of which is the ability for me to type this message and send it off to you, my readers, from virtually anywhere on island.  Yay Internet!

22 August 2011

TS Irene Does Her Thing

Let's start with the good news: My girlfriend, a second-year student at the Ross University Vet School, did well enough on her final exams to pass each of her classes, and indeed raise her overall GPA.  She will thus be allowed to continue her schooling here in the Caribbean.

...That might be about it.  In what proved to be a very difficult weekend for both of us, there were not a lot of upsides to lean on, apparently.  What followed this happy news was Tropical Storm Irene, which effectively knocked out all on- and off-island travel for all of Saturday and Sunday.  The flight that my girlfriend had been scheduled to leave on was booked Sunday, and summarily canceled.  However, apparently contrary to standard airlines procedure, she was not contacted regarding the cancellation, and did not find out about it until she checked online at the recommendation of her school friends, most of whom were also vying for available flights to the States.  By the time she checked, the earliest flight available was Thursday, four days later than originally scheduled.  In lieu of using her local phone and rapidly running down the minutes, she needed to get to a landline at the school, something that under the conditions of the storm proved to be difficult: we hitched a lift with a friend, whose car ran headlong into the first 18-inch deep puddle it saw, and flooded.  In a drive that takes less than 5 minutes, we were stalled outside the gate to the Ross University parking lot for about 15 minutes.

When we finally got to the student center, the facility was happily open to students, but naturally most of the services, including the coffee shop and telephones, were unavailable.  With no phone, breakfast or dry feet to comfort us, we walked about a quarter of a mile in the storm to the on-campus dorms, where we were able to use a friend's phone to call American Airlines.  By this point, nearly an hour after checking online, the first available flight out of St. Kitts left Saturday.  Over the course of a long and fretful conversation with the sales representative, even that changed to the following Sunday, meaning that all American Airlines flights were booked solid for a week.  What with students all leaving at the same time, in addition to the usual travelers, plus the two daily flights that had been canceled, my girlfriend could not book a flight in the time that she had to leave.  Unwilling to pay full fare for a trip that would now last, at best, 5 days, she refunded her ticket and is now looking for ways to occupy herself in the two weeks she has free now.

All this might have been enough to deal with, had it not been for an incident, somewhat existentially comical in nature, that happened Saturday night: while laying in bed, she heard creaking and cracking under her, and presumed the cats were being particularly vigorous and unrestrained in their faux boxing.  But instead, when she looked, she observed a perceptible incline in certain tiles on the floor of her bedroom, both directly under the bed and around the large vanity dresser.  She quickly jumped out of bed to safer, not-sinking ground, and alerted her landlady to the increasing displacement in the slope of her room, and the subsequent cracking of tiles at the joints.  Naturally, her landlady dismissed it, citing a similar incident in an adjacent apartment the previous summer.  This scenario would cause any reasonable person discomfort, but doubly so to one who was dealing with the realities that she will not get to see her family as planned, in conjunction with all of the stresses and concerns over the most difficult semester of graduate school she had faced yet.  The poor girl felt like the ground really was sinking right underneath her at this point.

So what all this means for me is that I was stuck away from my apartment for the duration of the storm, and even stuck in it for some.  Fortunately, though the rainfall was torrential, the winds and flooding were not destructive, and the island and my apartment look not too worse for the wear.  I had never planned on leaving my apartment through a storm without my being there, however, and a few oversights may yet come back to haunt me: I left my grill out on the porch after preparing Grilled Jerk Chicken on Friday night, and the exterior window in my kitchen was left open all weekend, ensuring that my previously-clean dishes got an extra washing, and the floor accumulated just a smattering of moisture as well.  By all appearances, everything else remained dry and intact.  Though I was caught off-guard this time, I'll be extra cautious and prepared to get even a last-minute lift back home in time for the next big storm, whenever that may be.

19 August 2011

Funnyquote Friday

Last Sunday at church, during the notices:

"...And a very happy birthday to Ms. Janet Caines.
She was born on the same day as Fidel Castro."

I've avoided the issue long enough: it is getting increasingly difficult for me to post on a regular thrice-weekly schedule.  The combination of getting caught up in other projects, sporadic Internet connectivity, and a full-on collision with the summer doldrums has left me both incapable and moderately unmotivated.  So apologies if you've pulled up the page in recent weeks and didn't experience something dramatic and new.  I guess the same goes for new video blog entries as well.

On to the news for the week.  I was successful in putting in motion two new projects for the upcoming school year, namely a youth group associated with the St. George's Anglican Church, as well as a distribution outlet for my Math Games curriculum.  I'll put a little time into a couple different entries next week elaborating on the direction of both projects, but for now, the good news is that both meetings went better than expected, and I've got some new developments that will, hopefully, ultimately supplant the school's projects that I finished up at the end of last school year.  Also, the word back from St. Lucia on the Serious Ting is that we are very close to going to print with it, and we may be able to cajole full-color output for it!  So that's very exciting.

My girlfriend has finished her final exams for this trimester, and will be heading home to the States for an overdue two-week vacation.  In that time, I'll be responsible for watching her two cats, Nebula and Pigeon.  I'm happy to do it; the way I see it, at worst I'll have some additional company while she's away, and at best, I'll have a better understanding of whether or not I would enjoy keeping a pet in the 14 months I have remaining here.  I'm also taking advantage of the excuse to give my apartment a good scrub-down, mostly of the wash dirty dishes + clear cobwebs variety.

In other news, apparently, I am a cruciverbalist.  I never knew there was such a thing, until now.  So watch out for any future updates involving crisscrossing words.

17 August 2011

The Issues We Face, Part 1

In a throw back to days when I had a little more time and creative energy to spare, I'm going to attempt once again to fit this very long idea into a two-parter.  The topic: the issues currently facing the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, and what Peace Corps can do and is doing to try and remedy those problems.

One of the biggest problems that the small island nation faces is so pervasive that it directly affects my choices and lifestyle every single time I reach for my wallet: the dire economic situation.  Below is an excerpt from an e-mail that I previously sent to friends from my Sunday School class, laying out the circumstances responsible, at least in part, for the local economic issues:
The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis faces some serious issues right now: the sugarcane farmers were the last vestige of agricultural production on the island until this decade, when the revenues from even that crop couldn't support the laborers, and the market collapsed.  This means that St. Kitts has no valuable exports anymore, making its only real source of income tourism, which can fluctuate greatly on public appeal and is seasonal at best.  In addition, since the island is forced to import nearly all its food goods, foodstuffs are expensive for the people, and the government has used up all its money in trade and providing unsustainable local services.  So now, needing funds to continue these services, the government is instituting the Value-Added Tax to goods purchases, meaning that these goods will become even more expensive and the people even less able to purchase daily foodstuffs.  Not to mention the decreased purchasing power facing we Peace Corps Volunteers, who must live on St. Kitts minimum wage, or roughly US$370 a month.
With the passing of the sugarcane industry back in 2006, the job market was suddenly flooded with hundreds of limited-skilled workers and laborers looking for new careers.  The largest employer on island was and is, naturally, the government.  And since government jobs are limited, like every other opportunity, they are generally well-regarded and prized, held on to by their tenants for as long as possible.  This has become so common, in fact, that the government passed a law forcing civil servants to retire at the age of 55, a law that occasionally goes unnoticed.  The practical offshoot of this is an ever-increasing number of unemployed and underemployed persons waiting below for jobs to open up above in the bureaucratic ladder.

As with everywhere in the world, the downturn in the economy has resulted in an equal and opposite upswing in violence and crimes of desperation.  Most of the lethal crimes in these islands come in the form of gang violence, the result of many boys too old to go to school and too young to be a viable candidate for a government job looking for belonging and acceptance among their peers.  But the Federation-wide demographics are such that, to my understanding, roughly 66% of the population is under the age of 35; as the age for effectively beginning a career has risen higher and higher above 30, so has the upper end of what defines "youth" in Kittitian society.  In summary, if you are a 24 year-old male in St. Kitts and are not driving a bus, helping out on day jobs for a construction company, or one of the lucky few that uses social connections to land a job in the Ministry, you are most likely unemployed and have an astronomically higher chance of joining one of the gangs of boys whose plights are oh-so-similar to yours.

Separate but not unrelated to this disturbing trend is the constantly high rate of teenage pregnancy and single-parent households.  The spread of sexually transmitted infections is a serious concern anywhere in the world; but with a significantly small, relatively isolated population such as St. Kitts / Nevis (boasting a population of roughly 40,000 Federation-wide), the number of reported HIV/AIDS incidences does not need to be very large at all to reach a critically high potential rate of infection.  In fact, according to many of my acquaintances, the islands experienced their fair share of AIDS awareness movements some years ago, many having diminished in more recent years.  And while efforts continue to deal with the lack of public discourse and societal stigma associated with the more threatening STIs, there is still much work to be done.

This is all to ignore the perhaps more pressing issue of raising the kids: as with so many family-oriented cultures of developing societies, the grandparents are often sought in the nurturing and moral development of a child while the young mother is spending the majority of her day being the household breadwinner.  And with minimal parental contact comes the absence of gender role models, which in turn begins a destructive cycle that spans generations, only serving to increase the likelihood of the appalling occurrences above.

I'm grateful, therefore, for my placement at the National Skills Training Programme.  Despite being a quasi-governmental organization and thus subject to some of the same bureaucratic and political challenges that plague the Federation, the mission of the NSTP is to provide youth in the community with basic employment skills, life skills, and training in a marketable trade.  I aver that, in short, the only way to heal a heavily indebted country's small economy that is lacking in either a plentiful cash crop or service-industry boon is to see a sharp upswing in reinvestment in industry and production in the form of entrepreneurship and small-business development.  These basic, low-level cogs in the macroeconomic machinery slowly (often too slowly for public approval, as in the case of the current US economic recovery) begin to form larger wheels, as sectors flourish and the overflow from one sector benefits another (think the tech boom and the rise of the Internet).  The number of elements in the case of St. Kitts and Nevis is small enough, incidentally, to have much more rapid effects in the miniscule island economy – possibly on the order of years, rather than decades.  These are encouraging thoughts, but unfortunately the reality is becoming increasingly disparate from the ideal.

05 August 2011

Funnyquote Friday

Catching up with a good buddy of mine Wednesday night on Skype, and mentioning that the Peace Corps is phasing out the program on St. Kitts following my term of service, led to this gem:

"So they figured, [after you,] how could they do better?"

Something like that.  Whatever the reason, though, it's true that my class of EC82 will be the last bunch sent by the U.S. Peace Corps to St. Kitts and Nevis for the foreseeable future.  The disappointment that each one of us volunteers feels is, as you might expect, a fraction of what the host-country national stakeholders feel: projects, burgeoning NGOs, government institutions that have all recently been approved for a new PCV have since been told that their request, while always subject to last minute change, will not be honored.  This change is most likely due to the combined effects of the manifest limitations on the government agency's budget, and the continued rise of living expenses for volunteers (and indeed, everyone) living in this corner of the world.  Speaking just from personal experience, the purchasing power of the average individual here is very small, despite the image that everyone and their kid walks around with a Blackberry®.  Curiously, this seems more often true than not; as first-world amenities come to this developing nation, so does the vanity of having, and more importantly being seen having them.

As for updates, where to start?  The island did experience the threat of Tropical Storm Emily late Monday night and Tuesday morning, but was thoroughly underwhelmed when it only skirted our island to the south, headed for Hispaniola.  I had taken special precautions, "battening down the hatches at the fort" as it were, and was prepared to be awakened at 3AM by what could sound like a train passing just outside my window.  Instead, the electricity came back on at precisely 10PM, never going out again, and it only rained off and on over the course of the night.  We volunteers were on Standfast mode, prepared in the event of a sudden call to consolidate at one of the hotels in town.  This did not happen either, (wisely it seems now,) and the rest of the week has been a calm week like any other in the Caribbean.  Why, Emily didn't even throw off our work schedules: Monday and Tuesday of this week was a national work holiday for SKN in honor of Emancipation Day.  And the long weekend is perfect for revelers to partake in Carnival-styled festivities on Nevis, known as Culturama.  I was not able to see the events this year, but will keep my schedule open for next year.

In other news, the long weekend guaranteed that I finish up my work on the newest issue of the Serious Ting, expected for publication at the end of this month or the start of next.  I'm simultaneously very proud and very tired of the work that went into this issue.  It was my first experience laying out an entire magazine, composed of 40 pages of content, and the outside and inside covers, making 44 individual 8 1/2" x 11" layouts in the span of around 3 weeks.  And while each on is, barring instruction otherwise, set up to be in full color, the big question mark now is whether or not we have the budget to accommodate that luxury.  Time will tell, I guess.  At least there is some talk about hosting a virtual copy on the internet, free to readers.  Should that pan out, I will certainly post the link here for all of you – I recommend it heartily.  I'm also thrilled to say that I finally found a forum for my crosswords, in only my fourth attempt to get one published.  They are high quality, matching all the rules of the best newspaper crosswords (i.e. no less-than-three letter words, every letter goes to two words, radial symmetry) and is to the New York Times puzzle what Junior Varsity football is to Varsity.  So I'm surprised it has taken this long.

That's it on my end for now.  Did I forget anything?  Post a comment!