Sunday, January 25, 2009

“Don’t Let the Peace Corps Ruin Your Peace Corps Experience”

I first heard the above quote during the first days of Staging in Miami. I heard it again while in St. Lucia during our first 3 days of meetings, and many, many times during our training sessions. At first I didn’t know what it meant. How could this big, wonderful organization that I had heard and read so much about ruin my experience? Volunteers who had been in service for a while always said it. It was said as a warning and said with great emphasis and I soon learned exactly what they meant and how very true the saying is.

After struggling, long nights of no sleep, last Wednesday I resigned my position with the Peace Corps. For the past 6 months you’ve clicked on this blog and told me how much you enjoyed reading about my adventure and seeing the pretty pictures. What you didn’t know was that the Peace Corps monitors our blogs and we are not allowed to ‘tell it like it really is.’ By resigning, now I finally can.

There were many factors contributing to my resignation, chief among them was concern for my personal safety and security. As you know my apartment was broken into and I was robbed while sleeping in my bed. What you don’t know is that the Peace Corps did absolutely nothing! No one called, came by, or even sent a ‘how ya doing?’ email. It took several weeks for me to once again sleep soundly and I can never thank Aaron Harris enough for staying over the first few nights to make sure I was okay, that the new burglar bars and the lock on my bedroom door were installed to his high standards.

You also don’t know, because I couldn’t tell you, that just 2 weeks ago London’s Economist listed St. Kitts/Nevis as the ‘murder capital of the world’. (Based on per capita population - 23 murders in ‘08 to a population of 40,000.) The first shooting of 2009 was last Saturday and the victim died on the sidewalk just a block and a half from my apartment. On Thursday, two Peace Corps volunteers and their visiting nephew were robbed at knife point, in broad daylight, while walking up the drive of one of the most exclusive guest plantations on the island. These islands are not a tropical paradise – just tropical, dirty, and loud and not ‘welcoming.’

During a meeting last week with the Country Director of the Eastern Caribbean, discussing the escalating violence on the island, her response to me was that I really shouldn’t be worried as ‘they’re just shooting each other.’

Yes they are! Both the Cripps and the Bloods have established gangs on the island. All one has to do is be in the wrong place at the wrong time and…. Wouldn’t you be afraid when a young volunteer calls you at 6 a.m. to tell you he was awakened by gunshots outside his bedroom window and looked out to see a body down the hill from his home? Or you learn that the pretty young volunteer who left the day you arrived was raped in her home?

So yes, I was scared and worried. My friends were worried, my sons were worried. There is so much talk about maintaining our safety and security by the Peace Corps when you’re in training, but in actuality the Peace Corps can do nothing specific to protect you.

You only hear by word-of-mouth what is happening on these islands as freedom of the press is not allowed. The newspapers, radio and TV stations are all government controlled. These islands exist on tourism and the government rationalizes that by not reporting the shootings, robberies and rapes the thousands of tourists that pour off the massive cruise ships daily will never learn of the violence. But by doing this, the government is also doing a great disservice to the people who live on these islands. We don't know where the worst locations are, where not to go, who to be leary of. The police force is so terribly under-trained and under-staffed that they can’t even take a set of fingerprints at a crime scene. They don’t know how and if they did, they wouldn’t have the equipment to do so.

I also learned what working for a huge, antiquated government agency was all about. I really wanted to believe everything I had read about serving in the Peace Corps. I wanted to believe what volunteers told me about their experiences in the ‘good old days.’ I really wanted to believe this experience would change my life. I wanted to be allowed to share my knowledge and skills with people who would not only be eager to learn, would appreciate my willingness to share and in time become my friends.

Instead, what I faced was inadequate training, poorly researched site placement and nonexistent work projects. I also faced relationships with staff that can best be described as guarded, and at times downright hostile. The local administration was much more concerned with repressing any sort of independent expression from volunteers than they were to listening to ideas and suggestions for change.

The Peace Corps breeds an environment of intimidation, telling volunteers we should feel privileged to even be a part of this organization then constantly threatening administrative separation to those who challenge the rules and regulations. It is a shame to see idealistic and motivated people become disillusioned and forced to go home when they arrive with such hope and drive to help others. But these ideals are quickly extinguished by the archaic and disrespectful manner in which volunteers are treated. (35% of those who volunteer quit before their end-of-service date.)

At some point in time, if the Peace Corps continues to advertise for ‘baby boomers’ to volunteer, they are going to have to change the rules and regulations which were designed for newly-graduated, 21-year old's and not those of us whose hair has grayed and are nearing or over the age of Medicare. They are also going to have to train their staff to treat mature volunteers as peers, realizing we bring a lifetime of skill and knowledge to our positions. They need to assign volunteers to projects in countries that can actually utilize our years of experience. I will say we ‘old folks’ did get a big kick spending a half-day learning how to correctly put a condom on a very large rubber dildo, but we did feel that perhaps there just might have been better use made of that time.

Those who know me know that I fight for change when I see a wrong. I stand up for the underdog or the youngsters of a group, hoping that by speaking out, the entire group will benefit. But I came to realize that nothing I said or did was ever going to make a difference. I was told that my work was ‘irrelevant’ even though in the six months I was on-island I raised over $30,000 in donations and funds for the two projects I worked on. A group of small-business owners even went to the Deputy Prime Minister to see if he could arrange a way for me to stay and continue my work as an independent contractor, saying that if the Peace Corps didn’t appreciate or want me, at least they did. They believed that the islands needed and could use my knowledge and skills. Their kindness and concern helped ease a lot of hurt and validated my work, but as they say, ‘you can’t fight City Hall’ and I just got tired of the fight.

So to my dear and wonderful friends – George, Kelly, Lauren, Aaron, Ed, Georgia and Jim – thank you for your support and your hugs. Keep up the good work. I"ll miss you and the good times we shared.

AND NOW FOR MY FUTURE – A NEW ADVENTURE AWAITS! I’m planning on purchasing a small RV and criss-crossing the US, stopping to volunteer and work where needed along the way. And of course, I’ll be pulling into the driveways of all my friends and family. I will begin a brand-new blog as soon as I purchase my literally “mobile home” and we can travel across this great, wide wonderful country together. Until then…..

Take care of each other.

ReAnn

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Had My First Visitor From Home!





What fun to have my good friend Cindy Kilkenny arrive for a week. She is the first to come for a visit since my arrival on St. Kitts - and she could rent and drive a car! We had such fun exploring the islands(s). This is the first time I had the chance to go all around St. Kitts. We spent the weekend on Nevis at the lovely Oualie Beach Resort as Cindy requested sun on her body and sand in her toes. It was -13 degrees in Milwaukee where she lives, so 80 and sunny was the perfect antidote for a harsh, Midwestern winter. We both loved the hammocks that hang outside of each beach cottage. We would plop with a book and let the breezes gently rock us - usually to sleep or just enough to dream. We had an unscientific test of which place on the island made the best rum punch - Golden Rock won hands down and their lunch was fabulous as well. We spent a fantastic evening with my good friends Carol and Gavin, wandered through Charlestown, and basically enjoyed doing 'nothin' much.'

We returned to St. Kitts on Sunday and Cindy got to meet and know the nice bunch of PCVs I hang out with. We toured Romney Manner and Caribelle Batik, had an absolutely marvelous time meeting and talking with Kate Spencer, our islands' resident, world-famous artist. She is featured in this month's issue of Coastal Living and you should check out her work at http://www.katedesign.com. We spent an entire morning taking pictures of churches and an old, deserted sugar plantation (we sneaked over the wall and actually into the old house!) We wandered down to Dieppe Bay and The Golden Lemon where we accidentally met the owner of one of the private villas that literally hang over the sea. Alan and his wife Heidi just refurbished the entire place and it's for rent - at a great rate and you actually step into the pool right from your living room! Check out http://thekingsretreat.freesitespace.net/index.html - It's fabulous.

Cindy was my 'mule' and it was so nice, like Christmas, to have new undies, a printers, some new t-shirts and even shoes! We spent a lot of time discussing what being a Peace Corps volunteer really means - things you aren't allowed to write on a public forum such as this blog - and she allowed me to bounce a lot off her and I certainly appreciated an intelligent, outsider's viewpoint.

One of the biggest events that occurred while she was here was that I finally saw my first monkey! Cindy almost drove off the road when I screamed and she managed to stop long enough for me to take pictures. These little monsters outnumber the island residents (about 60,000 monkeys to 40,000 people). They absolutely destroy any crops that are planted on the island - eat or pull out anything - and are one of the major reasons that farming is not a viable industry here.

It was sad to put her on the plane on Wednesday, and she sure wasn't looking forward to returning to piles of snow and ice and frigid temperatures. But it was a fantastic visit and I miss her already!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Carnival St. Kitts '09







The Carnival parade started just on time - Kittian time, that is. Scheduled to start at 2 p.m., it got underway at 3:45. The noise, the costumes, the number of participants and viewers was really quite wonderful. I had friends over and the landlord let us up on the rooftop to watch. Perfect, as the parade came right down my street. It was very slow moving as each 'troupe' stopped and performed along the way. The entire parade took about 2 1/2 hours to move past my building and then they looped all the way out and back into the Circus where the music? continued until 3 a.m. Today is 'Last Lap', a much shorter parade, just a loud and now blaring so loud from the Circus that this desk is vibrating from the bass speakers! Tonight is the last celebration and we all go back to work or school or whatever on Monday. It was an interesting 3 weeks of 'vacation' but will be happy to return to the peace and quiet - and hopefully Mr. Challenger will discontinue blaring Christmas music from his speakers around the corner!

Happy New Year Everyone! Take care of each other.

ReAnn

Pictures: The little girl is my upstairs neighbor's daughter, Ricki, in her Masquerade costume. She has been dancing in the Carnival parade for 5 years! She just had to come and show me her costume and for me to take her picture!

Carnival St. Kitts - cond.







Pictures:

1. My favorite parade participant was this little 'tree or scrub' Haven't a clue what he was suppose to be.

2. The ladies were out in force and in various stages of undress - opps - costume.

3. The landlord opened the door so we could watch the parade from my rooftop. I took more shots of the view than the parade. This is looking toward the north end of the island with Nevis towering in the back.

4. Right across the street is St. George's Anglican Church.

5. Looking straight down on the parade - did I mention it was LOUD!

New Year's Eve on St. Kitts





We rang out the old and brought in the new with dinner for 10 at Ballyhoo, in the Circus. Great food and service but bad choice for sound. Had one of those wonderful flatbeds with 10,000 speakers ramped up to HIGH right under the balcony and it was impossible to have any type of conversation. We all got 'gussied up.' (I had been digging around in one of the local fabric stores and actually found Georgio Armani embroidered black linen, so whipped up a 'little black dress.' So glad I have the opportunity to continue to sew while here.) We all certainly enjoyed meeting George's daughter Courtney and her friend Sharon who were here for a week's vacation. Grace, George's granddaughter was enjoying a 'pj party' at the Marriott arranged for just the kids. The lobster was fantastic - and very pretty - as you can see. Dinner was at 7 p.m. and I had my earplugs in place and sound asleep by 10:15p.m. Why is New Year's Eve just not as exciting as it was when I was young? Of course 'the kids' headed out after dinner for more fun, but we old folks just enjoyed dinner and good, nights sleep!