Last week was Youth Week (and last Friday Youth Day), which is a national holiday in the TCI. The whole week there were various activities running throughout each day, and Friday the kids had no school (we did though) but a field day instead. It didn’t mean too much for us at the Center, but we headed out to join whatever activities we could in between classes.
Tuesday before dinner my roommate Aimee and I walked to town to see the little kids play softball, and we had the cutest moment ever with some local kids. This is so typical of South Caicos too: as we were walking down the street (which, by the way, had random horses walking down it), two little kids came running up to us and the girl immediately put her arm around me and told us to come sit with her! We walked with them to the dirt field and then took turns taking pictures because they were so enamored with our cameras. After twenty minutes the little girl, Kalia, had to go home and she urged us to come home with her and her mom would make us dinner, but we weren’t sure her mom knew about that ;) plus we had to get back to the center for our own dinner. Still it was an awesome evening as the sun set to be with the community and get to know some of the kids.
Wednesday I was in the kindergarten class for outreach and our task was to present on cultures/geography of the world. My peer, Hannah, and I weren’t sure what would be attention-span-appropriate for that age group, but we decided on drawing a world map and talking a little about the continents; then letting them have at it with the crayons. We didn’t get too far with our geography lesson (they definitely thought their island was Australia, next choice was Antarctica… so hopefully we got that cleared up) and then they took off with the crayons. It was a struggle to keep everyone occupied, even with various groups reading books and playing games as well. At one point I had someone on my lap and 3 others leaning on me, and one boy “shampooing” my hair… he came over and started rubbing it and I was a bit concerned until he told me he was doing my hair. All the kids are infatuated with our hair (since it is a different consistency than theirs) and they all wanted to take off my headcovering so they could shampoo it better. I tried to tone them down. And then I got questions about why I had hair on my legs… what to do?;) I explained that when they were older than their current age of 5 they would too (yes part of it is that we don’t shave quite as frequently as the states but it’s not that bad!;). They were pretty crazy…high energy, lots of shouting, some crying when they couldn’t all sit on our laps or color with the markers, … I don’t know how their teacher does it!
Thursday night we headed out after dinner to the community talent show, which was outside at the Regatta. We were told it started at 7:30, but clearly it was 7:30 “island time” which meant 8:20. Our SFS group was definitely the only ones there for a good 45 minutes, and even when it started we were at least half the audience (and the loudest cheerers). It was a nice surprise to hear them start the talent show with a prayer and the first few song performances (by middle and high school girls) were all praise songs. Then they announced a “skit” which was actually an hour-long drama about everything you can think of. It was performed by the third grade teacher, the policeman, the fireman, and some other local adults and it was almost more fun to hear the community’s reaction to their acting… they were being complete goofs and the kids were dying laughing. By the end they had kids even crawling on stage to see them better!
We had a reading quiz the next day so after we came back (we finally walked out at 10pm but it was still going!) we all scattered around the center to do homework. Around 11 I was reading a paper and someone came up to talk and said we were only going to talk for 10 minutes (of course this always happens), and we got talking about church and then he started asking all sorts of questions… those that know me have heard how I have explained faith based marriage so many times and yes it happened again;). Another person who I knew was a Christian heard our conversation and came over to talk, and then someone else was heading to their room after reading the Bible for the night and ended up stopping as well. Charlie just kept asking questions and it was so cool to see how three of us, with totally different backgrounds, still had faith in the same God and based our lives on the same Word. It was so encouraging to have a spiritual conversation… I would say that is what I am homesick the most for—my young group and the wonderful spiritual talks we have. We ended up talking for hours and no one wanted to leave except we knew we should get some sleep (and finish our reading… oh the joys of school!;).
…Plus, some of us were getting up to watch the sunrise the next morning! I ended up getting 3 hours of sleep before waking at 5:30 to join a group of about 15 to drive up to the east side of the island to watch the sunrise. It was a half hour drive over a terribly pot-hole-y road and then a 10 minute hike over a dune to a completely untouched beach. We waded in the water and watched as the sun slowly peaked from behind the clouds and it was totally gorgeous.
We got back just in time for breakfast, morning meeting, and class; afternoon class had more fun in store: diving for research! We were doing a lionfish assessment because lionfish are invasive to this area, and that entailed each 4 person team diving along a transect and marking lionfish on our dive slates. While my group didn’t see many lionfish (actually zero), we did see a 6 ft stingray and a sea turtle! It was a new dive site—The Grotto—and all of the fish were supersized… regular reef fish were at least a foot wide and beautiful. It was fun to imagine this sort of scientist life… just another afternoon doing research! ;)
The rest of the afternoon—when I should have been napping—I went with Ross and Lisa to the Regatta to help with games for the local kids. They had no school that day and the teachers were running out of ideas; immediately when we got there they pulled us on stage, introduced us, and gave us the mic—pretty much saying ‘go for it!’’. We took turns playing MC with the microphone and running various games that got less and less structured until we were just doing whatever we could think of…tag, obstacle courses, red light green light, etc. The kids kept at it with suggestions and energy and smiles. When we finally petered out, there were many kids drinking out of my water bottle (and a couple dogs definitely licked it too) and tired bodies sitting on the stage. It was fun to learn more of their names and personalities… I know Laquacia has a lot of sass, Makia has a big attitude, Kylie and Kaylie are adorable but trouble-making twins…
We wrapped up the week with a night snorkel on Friday night (seeing jellyfish, lots of fish, lobster) and then watching the stars and lightning. There was crazy amounts of lighting for hours and some of us were about to sleep outside but headed in around midnight because the concrete was a tad bit uncomfortable (even with a yoga mat); thank goodness we did because that night we had a terrible thunderstorm that soaked everything, blew a ton of our clothes off the line, and leaked into some of the rooms. I love thunderstorms though so I thought it was awesome! It was a pretty great week in the community and a lot of fun experiences and good chats that I know will make awesome memories. God is watching out for me!
Those that know me know that I sometimes have “a day for change” where I try something new. (This is usually food because I am a terribly picky eater;). But here I have tried so many new things and have had so many new experiences that it is hard to remember everything that is now so commonplace but I NEVER would have been comfortable with a month ago. Just a few of those new experiences that are now my life…
Last Friday was hands-down the biggest thrill of my life. This is going to be a long story but it’s a good one..;)
My marine ecology professor, Aaron (in the Irish jersey and headlight in the pictures... he’s from Ireland), does elasmobranch [shark] research in addition to teaching at the School for Field Studies, and he lets 5 studies come with him every time he goes out “sharking”. Since we are so busy all the time with school, this event is relegated to Friday nights, leaving after dinner around 7:30 and staying out until 11 or midnight. Since we are only on week 3, it is an immensely popular activity and when the sign-up goes on the whiteboard, we all race over to get our names on the list! Someone backed out of this week so I made it… and I think I can safely say that this was the craziest sharking escapade that has happened yet (in the history of SFS sharking)! So glad that I got to go! ;)
It was raining a bit when we headed out, but we were all prepared with rashguards and swimsuits (and leggings for some), plus it was a tropical rain so it was pretty warm. The sky was dark and cloudy, but the water was mirror calm. In our first 10 minutes out, a huge eagle ray jumped out of the water just a few feet off the side of the boat… what an amazing sight! It is so rare to see eagle rays jumping (and no one really knows why they do it), but seeing the white and gray spotted body launch itself a few feet in the air was unreal!
For those who have seen what the Turks & Caicos Islands look like, they are all (except for Grand Turk and Salt Cay) in an area called the Caicos Bank, which is a very shallow area of ocean. Around the edges is “the Wall”, where it drops off to 7000ft, but in and around the islands (and especially South), it only gets down to 70 ft max. Anyway, the path around to the north end of the island goes over some sand flats where it is literally less than 2 feet deep! There are wide expanses of this (and some shallower) and so it is hard to see at night, so we had to go extremely slow and pull the motor up a bit to keep it from hitting sand. Anyway, the trip took longer than expected and we ended up arriving at the site an HOUR later (expected to be 20-25 minutes), with a boat full of at least 4 inches of water from riding so low. But the ride was neat with the stars coming out through the clouds and bioluminescent diatoms in the water… plus you could see the bottom for most of the trip!
Once we arrived, we set up the net: a wide mesh net about 4ft by 300ft, with buoyant float/handles on top to keep one side of the net upright in the water. We all slipped over the side of the boat, trying to be quiet, and waded through waist-deep water to tie one end of the net to some stakes near the mangrove forest. Then we took the other end of the net and walked straight out from land towards the ocean; there was actually a plane wreck directly in sight that stands half above water since it is so shallow. The net was way longer than us students had expected because we made it within 30ft of the wreck before it ended! As soon as we had staked that end, we heard splashing which meant sharks had swam into the net! Aaron took one person with him they could “walk” the shark back to the boat after he had untangled it, holding it in one hand underwater the whole time. We kept a pretty good grip on them, but if we felt them thrashing and we didn’t think we could hold on, we were told to just push them away so they would swim away rather than back at us (and someone did have to let go at one time.. we had a couple feisty ones;). Back at the boat we all helped/watched Aaron measure, weigh (using a hanging scale like you weigh your luggage with), tag, and take a tissue sample. Then someone else got to walk the shark away from our area and get some water moving over its gills, then push it on its way.
During the first shark measuring time, we heard more splashes, and that continued for the next hour… we caught shark after shark after shark. The groups before us in prior weeks had only caught 1 and 4 sharks, consecutively, so we were shocked to keep catching them. And Aaron’s record ever is 9…by the end of the night we had caught 7 (not counting one shark that swam back into the net at least 4 times).
There had been spotty lightning during the whole trip but it was only off-and-on raining, so we didn’t pay it much mind. But at 9:40 it had gotten a lot closer and so Aaron said we could stay 10 more minutes and then we had to leave. At the end of the 10 minutes, the storm had moved much closer and was almost on top of us. Aaron yelled for the whole group to head out to the end of the net to start taking it down, and so we sloshed through the water as the sky opened up and started downpouring. Lauren and I went first and shook the net out between us—to get any seagrass, algae, etc. out of it—and the others and Aaron rolled it back into the tote box. The only problem with our job is that sharks may still be in the net... (which Aaron only told us after we had started;). Soon after he said that I saw a dark shadow under the water by my legs and then another one swam through Kate’s legs, and we were getting a bit jumpy! She screamed, and then I saw another shark stuck in the net and so Aaron had to come to untangle it. He ran over and got it out, and then fake shoved it at me and yelled “Ahhh!!” …needless to say I freaked out! The funniest part about it is that Aaron is such an intimidating and serious professor in class, we are all hesitant to talk to him; but out in his element—sharking—he is a ton of fun. At that moment tensions were already high and then some lightning struck the water just a few hundred feet away, and thunder cracked at the same time…Aaron shouted for us to get moving and so we picked up the pace and tried to get out of there! We were now half-running through the water and Aaron said to stop shaking the net, just pick it up and get on the boat. Lightning was cracking right overhead and I have never seen it so close before…literally it would be blinding white and then back to the black sky and pouring rain. We found 3 more sharks stuck in the net before we had gotten to the end of it, and then we all raced back to the boat to leave.
Aaron and Sophie, the intern, said to get down in the boat so we wouldn’t be the highest point; so we all hunched over on the benches and were now shivering (ironically cold for the first time since getting here. But the rain wasn’t warm anymore and there was a lot of it). Those of us on benches together started huddling together but we had to keep the weight even so we were spread out. Aaron started heading back for the center, but then decided that the path over open ocean like we came would put us as direct targets for lightning so he decided to follow the shoreline. We knew it was serious when Aaron even crouched down; he tried to radio the center but the radio wouldn’t work, so he had Sophie call on a cell phone but even that was cutting in and out. Finally they got the center director on the phone and Sophie said over and over that we needed to get off the water, could they please come in a truck to pick us up at the north end of the island? Heidi, the director, couldn’t hear half of what was being said but finally got the message and said she was on her way. Aaron said we were 10 minutes away from the airport and we were going to pull off there and leave the boat. He dropped anchor in the shallows and told us all to get ashore and then get down on the pavement; we immediately jumped over and waded in, leaving all of our stuff on the boat. We waited for at least 10 minutes crouched on the cement as Sophie told us proper lightning positions so any currents would have the shortest possible distance through our body back to the ground. It was a little nerve-wracking but mostly exciting because I felt pretty safe and knew that God had it under control anyway; it was just cold and hard sitting on the wet gravel and hearing the lightning overhead. Aaron tried to hide the boat closer to shore and then pulled his research equipment to land so when Heidi arrived in the pickup we loaded the bed with his gear and jumped in. It had an extended cab but it was still pretty tight with Heidi and Aaron in the front, us 5 (yes all 5!) students in the backseat, and Sophie riding in the open back. That was pretty much the end of our adventure as we got back to the center and put on warm clothes and made tea (shocker right?! First time in this place I’ve actually wanted something hot) and talked about the adventure. The power didn’t go out and soon after the storm had passed.
(Side note: this night was scheduled to be our camping trip and so while we were sharking, the rest of the group set up tents and ate s’mores and got mauled by mosquitos (no joke actually)….and then got stormed out. After saving us from our lightning adventure, Heidi was going to start making runs to the campsite to pick up all the wet students and wet tents and sandy everything. What fun. Originally we were supposed to meet them camping after sharking, but on our way back we all said no way, we have had enough for tonight; and it ended up that no one stayed camping anyway because it was too dangerous. Ironic actually, that it has rained multiple times since we got here and the one night we plan for camping it gets stormed out. Such is life. ;)
That was my Friday night. Crazy, scary, ridiculous, but tons of fun too. All since God has it in control ;).
My opportunities to interact with the local community have been such a blessing so far. The School for Field Studies (SFS) realizes that we are guests on the island, and so we do what we can do give back to the community; whether that be through environmental education, youth outreach, conducting research to benefit country-wide decisions, or scientific consultation for DEMA (the TCI government department for marine/development issues) . Today I had a really great talk with my environmental policy professor—it’s so weird to call him a professor, here we only use first names so he is just Edd—about his role as an individual of higher education in the TCI. There are so few scientific institutions here to monitor and give advice for government decisions (like none), so when issues happen throughout the TCI, he often gets called for guidance. He was just telling us today about a case currently still in court about a yacht that dragged its anchor through the reef in Provo and Edd (along with some outside consultation) was called to do some economic valuation of the damages to assign appropriate reparations. Few locals have higher education to his level, or even to the bachelor degree level, and it is an interesting dynamic to see who is in positions to make government or development decisions—and likely NOT locals. Edd is working with the high school students and encouraging those interested in environmental science to pursue that; most currently go to Provo or Grand Turk for a 2 year hospitality degree, which I’m not sure would ever allow them to rise very far up in the career sector. Such a quandary to observe… how to help these people improve their quality of life without desecrating their beautiful island.
Anyway, for the small steps towards change, we work with the youth on Wednesdays and Saturdays in a variety of ways: teaching science education in schools elementary through high, playing with the kids, taking them on nature walks, involving some of the older ones in water testing, teaching swim lessons, etc. The hope is to instill in them an appreciation and awareness for the environment around them, which is not prevalent currently. Last week I worked with what they call the “infant class”, which is really kindergarten; my SFS colleague and I did puzzles and books in the classroom for half an hour, and then just played with them outside… AN EXHAUSTING UNDERTAKING! Picture 8-10 kids for both of us, all pulling on our hands, wanting us to push them on the swings, give piggy-back rides, run around the playground, and touching our faces (shocked that we’re white? I don’t know). They were adorable in their little school uniforms and beaded cornrows, and full of life and energy—I was pooped and thirsty after 40 minutes of running around but they were going strong!
Saturdays are when the kids come to us—we open the center from 1:30 – 3:30 and have stations for painting, crafts, books, games, sports, swim lessons, ping pong, foosball, nature walks, water testing, etc. At the same time we send SFS students out to clean up beaches or collect ghost traps—helping to keep the environment in its pristine quality. The first week I played foosball with some preteen boys and then many rounds of Uno and dominoes (the official game of the island---seriously, the kids are taught it from their parents and grandparents). The kids are so friendly and wanting to be with us, I had a little girl who pulled my hand to go read books… but she wanted to read to me. Last week I was painting (repairing) a sign for one of the local churches and I had so many kids come up and want to help. I got some of them their own paints so they could paint next to me, and they were just content to sit and paint oceans and skies to their hearts content. It is always a tiring afternoon (and BAKING hot), but the kids don’t seem to notice: they are at the outside gate by 11am some days, waiting to come in and we have to tell them that it’s not time yet, come back at 1:30!
Another evening we had the Soroptomists—a women’s group on the island that strives to improve the community and futures of islanders---come speak to us. They talked about their work and then taught us some local dances, which mostly consisted of skipping around, and then limbo, and then some middle-school boys played the traditional “ricksaw” music for us. The kids were actually REALLY good at it—and you could tell the adults were proud;): ricksaw was formed when the locals didn’t have much instrument-wise, so it is a combination of drums and rubbing knives against metal “saws” (used to be real saws, now just whatever). It was fun to get to see part of their culture and to get to know some who really have a love for their island. One of the soroptomists is leading a tourism development council for South to talk about how they might deal with/support/encourage tourism for their community, and I’m hoping I can get more involved with this. It is so cool that these decisions are happening right now… in another decade, who knows, maybe full scale tourism will be the norm here, maybe just eco-tourism, or maybe something else!
Last weekend before the drinking crowd went out, some girls and I went for ice cream which meant we went to the Haitian store, bought 2 pints of chocolate ice cream (OH MY GOODNESS SO GOOD), and took it to the community docks to eat it. Yes we ate all of it. It was delicious and since we don’t have dessert (except for birthdays…thank goodness just about everybody has a birthday during this program. No joke), I was definitely having a chocolate craving!! I actually really enjoy the weekends even when most people go out, because it gives me time to think, to have some quiet time at the center, to Skype my sisters and my parents, and to just be me. Watching the ocean while I read and the sun sets is priceless, and swinging in the hammocks is something that I will surely miss. Some of us usually sit around and play games in the open air area as well, so bananagrams (some reason our favorite?) as the stars come out is another common occurrence. The slow pace of the island is a blessing, it is good to remember we don’t need all of the “stuff” that we are used to in the US.
...there is me, swimming with the Thalassia testudinum and Diploria labyrinthiformis (turtle grass and grooved brain coral)
See? I am actually learning stuff… evidence of my marine ecology class, which is very challenging. For these first three weeks, we are getting a crash-course-overload with marine organisms: last week we learned 30ish seagrasses, mangroves, and related fish; this week we is 30ish types of coral and echinoderms; next week is 50ish (??!) reef fishes. We learn scientific names and how to identify them, which is actually VERY difficult for this round, because all of the corals look alike! There are 4 types of brain coral and they are all extremely similar, differing only in the size of their groves and patterns. So we’ll see how this one goes.. who knows?! But it is neat to be able to swim over stuff at the beach and know exactly what it is;) This class is very overwhelming because the professor, with an accent, goes very fast and covers a mass amount of material in each lecture. The dynamics of tropical coastlines and oceanic environments are very complex, but interesting too for the most part. Index cards and online flashcards are visible at any time of day as we are all studying 24/7 for the next round of these tests. And we’re all getting really good at making up pneumonic devices;)
Marine resource management so far is not what I expected—it is largely focused on managing marine fisheries. The economic and social ties of managing these resources are good to see, but I am hoping we at least cover other important island resources as well. The amount of theory and calculation that goes into the management parameters is much more complex than I’d realized, so it is a new but beneficial perspective to tropical development. There are a lot of scientific papers and journals that we have to read, so I most evenings are spent in a hammock or sprawled around my room (with FANS) taking notes on these concepts.
Environmental policy and socio-economic values is my favorite class of the three because the development aspect of the island is so intriguing. We’ve focused a lot on the dynamics of South (and TCI), the importance of local participation in science and development, and tools for valuing the environment. Today we acted as consultants for the TCI government and started an economic valuation assessment for East Bay beach: this is a stunning and accessible portion of land that is a likely development tract. We measured the mangrove forest and seagrass beds to get parameters we could use to calculate the monetary value of these ecosystems and services, as part of a larger report looking at cost-benefit analysis for tourism development here. I love thinking about these problems, and especially after seeing the town (and meeting the people) I am intrigued with how the economy could be improved.
So that is school…busy but great! Mornings are pretty full with lectures or field exercises, but since we go in shifts for afternoon waterfront activities (marine ecology ID snorkeling), we have varying breaks in the afternoon and evening to relax, read, and study (and NAP..a big one. I am always exhausted!!).
The bugs here have been quite an adventure. I am getting used to them, but last week and my first week here there were a number of critter-led escapades that probably took 10 years off my life. No joke.
So the cockroaches have taken the most getting used to, because they are huge and nasty and fast and brown and crunchy and won't die. Even after getting stomped on multiple times. Going back to our rooms and turning on the light is always a cringe-worthy activity because you never know if a cockroach (or a family) is in the middle of your floor, and since I am always barefoot that is kind of frightening. And you just have to hope they aren't clinging to the door as you open it because since it is dark, you will have no idea until the light is on and you realize your face was mere inches away... AHHHH (and definitely happened). So Week 1, I was getting some stuff off the windowsill by my and Aimee's bunk, and suddenly a cockroach ran along the top bunk board about 3 inches from my head!!! It moved so fast and was so nasty that without even thinking I started screaming! According to my roommates, I screamed bloody murder and was shaking and they all ran over and girls down the hall came running to see what was up. I just moved aside and Aimee took a shoe at it which involved trying to find it (it ran under the top bunk.. mine!!), scrape it off onto the floor, flick it with a broom out the door (lots of screaming), and then bash it with a tennis shoe at least 6 times till it stops twitching. And then flick it even further down the porch so we won't walk on it with our bare feet in the dark sometime. Ew. But as life goes, they are becoming a normal occurrence. Not too normal, but definitely a few a week (that we see. I don't even want to know what we don't see).
A few days after the cockroach scare of my life, our room got a another wonderful surprise: ANTS. And not just any ants, fire ants that are really tiny and thus super hard to kill. They infested the windowsill and come out of the floor behind me and Aimee's bunk (joy. Thank goodness I am on the top), and then crawl across the wall to our table (desk) and crawl around all of our stuff there. And my laptop... last week they completely took over and were crawling out of the keys and up the screen and for the whole week I was killing them and watching them continually crawl out of the keyboard. The only solution for the room (literally all of the girls rooms got them) was to spray them with Lysol or bleach, which kills them instantly and for those who are disgusted and lazy (that would be us), just leave the dead ants stuck to the wall after you spray. Sorry if that was a gross description. But it's true, and we only learned later that the pheromones of the dead ones attract more, hence why we kept having the problem. Some girls a couple rooms down had a MASSIVE infestation and they had a mass ant grave and seriously killed and cleaned them all. Last weekend we finally cleaned up the mess and bleached excessively, so we only have sporadic (ok still regular) ants now. Just not quite in the same quantities as before.
Other common sights: lizards. Hermit crabs trying to crawl in the rooms. Gnat armies crawling on our sheets (after this one I decided to at least TRY to tuck in my mosquito netting, which doesn't ever stay around my bunk. At least it looks somewhat protective). Spiders (and spider bites). I just about walked into a hairy spider the other night as I was Skyping Kyla and just about had a heart attack. Ahhk.
So on a slightly related topic.. injuries... the number is growing. I didn't notice bug bites for the first 2 weeks, but now they are out in full force. I have quite a few bites, and one on my face which is not fun. Aimee has a spider bite that is super hot to touch and that's not fun. Charlie has some skin disease that after a week the doctor had to come out to look at, and now he has serious medicine for it: it started as a rash-ish, and then was open scabs, and now he can't really be outside (because of the medicine). He has to wear full length rash guards and today when we were practicing IDing in the field for our coral test on Thursday, he started feeling dizzy and had to go back to the boat. So that's not too fun. They say another week and he might be better. Also, on Friday nights one of the professors takes students out to help with his elasmobranch (shark) research, which consists of going out in the boat from 7 to midnight-ish and catching sharks and then doing some research/tagging? on them. Not exactly sure, I'm going out this Friday so I will know for sure! Anyway, last week one girl was standing in the water and a jellyfish wrapped around/between her legs and so she had to be driven back early and had white burn lines around her thighs where the tentacles were. Hers was pretty bad, but when the group came back at the end of the night someone else had gotten stung as well! By the next day the bandages were off and it seemed to have mostly healed (no huge scars.. just little scratches). We're keeping the student affairs manager busy with the first aid!
So to catch up on our time in the ocean (which is ALL the time), we have had 2 dives and so many many snorkels so far. Sundays and Wednesdays are dive days, and other days during the week are snorkeling both recreationally and for marine ecology. For these first three weeks, we spend Monday and Tuesday afternoons snorkeling for 2 hours identifying various marine organisms; Thursdays are the ID tests where we bring our dive slates and identify certain species by scientific name and/or phylum.
So the first dive, which many of you know I was freaking out about.... went absolutely fine. We had to do all of our skills as a refresher in the pool (e.g. taking off our mask... my fav) so we were checked off to dive, but still most of us had nerves last Saturday before we went out. The dive groups go in 2 shifts, two groups at 8am and 2 groups at 10am, to different dive sites so there are smaller numbers of divers. I was at 10 and my group was going to Fishbowl... a 10 minute boat ride on glassy calm water to a spot in the middle of the ocean. Here--since all dives are off boats--we do backroll water entrances, which means after gearing up, everyone sits on the edges of the boat (3 on one side, 3 on the other) and the intern driving the boat counts us in.."6 divers going in: 3, 2, ..1" and then we all backroll off the sides of the boat. Which is actually a TON of fun because your tank pretty much pulls you over and since we have BCs on, you immediately pop back up to the surface. Then we swim to the mooring buoy and all start the descent together. This is probably some of the best water I will ever see: 50 ft visibility on a "not so good" day, and so many fish and colors you can't even imagine! The reefs are absolutely gorgeous and schools of fish literally swim past our fin tips. Barracuda are always watching or swimming near us, and on one of the snorkels we saw a hawksbill turtle! Manta and eagle rays are always cool to see, and one of these days I'm going to see a nurse or reef shark!! (Other groups have seen them already). Anyway, the dive was a ton of fun and not scary at all because the water was so clear...we could always see the surface (even when we were 60 ft down).
On our way back to the center, we had to stop at another dive site so the interns could fix a mooring line that had come off its anchor at the bottom. We had James, our Scottish dive instructor with us, and he had the interns jump in snorkeling to see if they could find the mooring bar on the ocean floor (clearly it is shallow because you can swim in 50+ ft water and scan the bottom!). After 5 minutes we offered to join them (who wouldn't want to??) so we got to snorkel around as well, and someone actually found the line. We got another 20 minutes of water time while the interns donned scuba gear and went down to fix the line... what an awesome deal ;). And the best part... we are only diving in booties and rash guards... no wetsuit! Of course this means we are all quickly getting "bootie lines".. the term around here for the awkward tan lines around our ankles from wearing dive booties. (And farmers tan lines from short-sleeve rash guards).
Snorkeling has been amazing, even when it is for class. In the pictures, I am with my ID group when we go out to various marine environments to practice identifying the organisms on our lists. This first week was organisms in seagrass & mangrove environment, so now I can tell you that Gerres cinereus is a yellowfin mojarra and Thalassia testudinum is turtle grass (and 31 others). In the mangrove areas, water gets super shallow so we are literally floating in 2 feet of water. It looks so cool to see us, way out in the ocean, walking in knee-deep water across the horizon.... unreal!
Our second dive, this past Wednesday, was a little less fun. My group was diving at 8am, right after breakfast (probably the first negative), but more importantly the ocean had returned to its normal, more choppy waves (we have been spoiled with mirror calm waters so far). The boat dipped and bounced across swells all the way out to the dive site--which was a ton of fun at first, it was like a ride (but one we could fall out of). But when we moored and started gearing up, still rocking crazily in the waves, I started to feel queasy and not good at all. As soon as we got in the water and descended I felt better, but to make a perfect storm, my mask fogged up. So this is actually a bigger deal than you think: for various reasons, you have to spit in your mask before every dive so it won't fog; however I have learned that my spit isn't acidic enough for this to work (weird, I know). So I toothpaste the inside of my mask before I go, and that usually works.. just not this time;(. So since my mask fogged, I had to spend most of the dive focused on filling up my mask with water and then clearing it, which clears the lens for a couple minutes tops. ;(. And of course during one of my mask clears--- I was about to take it all the way off, that's how bad it was, I inhaled some water and started coughing into my reg... one of my worst fears. But I coughed it out and didn't die, so it was all good. And kept breathing. Yay. So this dive was at The Arch, which is a natural arch in the reef made out of stone that you can actually swim under, and it is surrounded by schools of fish and tons of coral. The dive was actually beautiful, I was just a bit distracted.
One we surfaced though, we started getting tossed around in the waves and I did NOT feel good. I had all of my group get on board first and I kept my face in the water on snorkel until the last possible minute. The ride back was tolerable and I was SO GLAD to be on solid land again. Once we met up with the other dive group, we heard they had 5 people who didn't feel good and 1 person who threw up... so it wasn't just me! We were all a bit bummed about our reaction to the "normal" waves, but prepared to take Dramamine next time! The other bummer was that I felt like I was on a rocking boat seriously until 10 pm that night ;(. Oh well, the tradeoffs of ocean adventures ;).
The other really awesome water outing we had this week was a night snorkel! We all went out in boats--my group went to Shark Alley--and with our dive lights, swam around to spot things. We saw huge eagle rays, octopus, weird marine worms, lobster, and tons of fish (no sharks though). And when we turned our lights off and moved our fins, you could see bioluminescence in the water! Leah and I did a repeat of this tonight (we went snorkeling in the swim zone), and there was a whole school of tiny neon fish attracted to her dive light. We spent about 10 minutes trying to catch them and finally (with a few screams), I got one with my hands! What a ton of fun! The ocean is kind of creepy when you can't see around you, but it is pretty cool in the same way.
After we got back tonight, a group of us played Sardines around the center/campus, which is actually a huge territory when you don't know it well and it is almost pitch black. We let Brent, the ROTC guy, hide first (smart, I know), and we spent 45 MINUTES trying to find him! We even teamed up at the end and had covered the entire campus multiple times and everyone was thinking he hiding 20 ft underwater or covered in black paint and leaves or some other crazy-army-type thing. We finally gave up and started playing BananaGrams after calling his name for AGES, and yes he did come out. After hiding in a ridiculously hard spot by the front compost pile... who knew??! Haha it was a blast. It felt great to finally take a night off because we had our first ID test yesterday and then today spent 4 hours in class in the morning, and then another 4 hours sitting IN THE SAME ROOM working on some complicated equations and graphing for resource management. The assignment didn't seem like it would be so involved, but I have huge spreadsheets of calculations and at least 15 graphs to show for it. It was pretty great to be back in the math world though..I admit I kind of miss that part of my life since I haven't had to take math since high school.
It was a pretty great day. Even had a little taste of home because throughout our math work and lectures, the ocean was foggy and the sky downpoured. Not quite like home because it was still warm and the rain was more like a monsoon (seriously after running 20 feet we were SOAKED), but still, it was great because I've been missing Oregon fall weather. Plus you can tell we live in a tropical island because at the sight of rain we all ran to put out water basins so we could have fresh water to do laundry in;).
So Sunday was a little weird being here and not in church, but so far it was ok. Since Sundays are our only unscheduled day (to not get up before 7), I slept in until 10:30 (come on... everyone who knows me should not be surprised;). Then I had a relaxing time getting ready before our 11am brunch, cooked by the students on Sunday's kitchen crew. We usually have 2 local women who cook for us, but they are off on Sundays so we come up with and cook our own meals. The group made breakfast burritos and waffles and they were DELICIOUS.
Then a group of us headed out to East Bay beach which was a 15 minute walk from the Center. We were dripping sweat by the time we got there, and the ocean was PERFECT. It was literally a perfect Caribbean beach.. white sands, gently sloping deeper, green-blue water so clear you can always see the bottom. Some of us floated to where it was 20 feet deep and you could still see the bottom! This beach is outside of a new resort complex (one of 2 on the island) that has some complicated history.. it isn't open and may be a front for drugs..? No one really knows, but it is a really nice brand-new resort that isn't open. Such is the tourism-sector on South (nothing is really open yet or ready). Plus there is no infrastructure in place... good roads, eating facilities, regular ferry/plane access... to support large crowds.
I came back to spend the afternoon in my room (my roommates were out) with fans blowing on me, listening to a sermon from earlier this summer. I tried to use the AC streamer app but apparently internet wasn't fast enough to get that to work.. maybe later this trip. It was wonderful to relax and refresh with some really good direction from the Word. But even though I am not a great singer I missed being able to sing in church--- I love the messages in our hymns and I love singing them.
The hours of the afternoon seemed to drag on for most of us, and I read, studied (marine identification test on Thursday), and listened to music in the hammocks and by the pool. Pretty much moving around to avoid the sun and find some cool (it has been even hotter and no breeze).
The dinner kitchen crew made Chinese food... and snickerdoodles!! We don't have dessert here except for special occasions (like birthdays), and the cooks make very healthy stuff. There are always vegetarian and vegan options, and it has been pretty good so far (even for a picky eater like me;). We have a lot of cooked vegetable stir fries, rice, beans, spaghetti, pizza (one time so far.. delicious!!), hamburgers, bonefish, sweet potatoes, and fresh/canned fruit. The food comes in every 2 weeks on a shipment from Miami, so towards the end of the 2 weeks there is less variety (so we've heard, we haven't really experienced yet. But definitely less fresh fruit towards the end). We also have Meatless Mondays and Seafood Saturdays, and we compost most of the food or feed it to the dogs that hang around the center. Anyway, the crew yesterday is trying to set a precedent that Sunday kitchen crew makes desserts because everyone is craving sweets (I am soooo glad that Mom sent me some "surprises" including s'mores pop-tarts because I am going through chocolate withdrawal right now!!;).
Last night was more of the same.. studying, reading, and enjoying the sunset. Island time (at least on non-scheduled days) goes by really slow, which is kind of nice. I literally swung in a hammock with my music for a good hour last night when the stars came out. That part will be hard to adjust to coming back, but the cockroach on my door last night will not be missed!! (I didn't scream though!).
So as I'm sitting here writing this--5 feet away from the ocean, waves are crashing and hundreds of stars are shining in the black black sky. Lights from fishing boats are out on the water and I can hear crickets from all directions. It is so calm, but disorienting in a way as well. I know that on a Saturday night at home I would probably be at young group, singing for Jesus and laughing with great friends; instead, while most of the group has gone out to town, I curled up with a book and the ocean. Some of my non-drinking friends and I went out to the dock to stargaze for a while because the beauty here is just amazing... stars all the way down to the horizon line since there is nothing surrounding us but water. God's creation as it spans the world is so cool--- how it changes so much across the miles and oceans!! I am glad for this chance to see and experience life in another corner of the world, both the good and the bad.
I'll admit that living on a Caribbean island sounds (and sounded) idyllic, and now that I'm here God has shown me that living anywhere has its challenges. I have felt pulled in some different directions in the past year and was praying God would use these months to show me what I can handle and what His plan for me is... hopefully with fewer distractions than I find in my routine at home. I am not saying I couldn't handle moving to an area like this, but it isn't just beaches and sunshine. Yes, the water is GORGEOUS and the skies are perpetually sunny, but days are sticky hot and sweat is present almost every waking hour. It is so much that we survive only by seeking shade or water to jump in, coveting the breezes, drinking gallons every day, and lathering on "sun cream" (as my UK prof calls it). My skin is a bit puffy from so much sun exposure and I had headaches the first few days because my body isn't used to this heat and sun. With no AC and only 1 freshwater shower a week, the griminess of our clothes and our bodies is beyond what we are used to. Today, Aimee and I "did a load of laundry" for the first time, which entailed going down to the dock with tote bins full of our clothes and bags of laundry detergent. The SFS dock is actually public, so there were at least 15 kids down there splashing around and playing on the dock. Kids immediately gathered around to watch us and ask what we were doing--- all either Haitian or local, 4- 10 years old. It was quite an experience, as I (barefoot---smart, I know) hopped around on the hot cement and swirled my clothes around in ocean water + soap. The clothes didn't actually smell much cleaner, but one of our new friends informed us that they smell better after they dry. And then we strung them up on clotheslines outside the girls' wing. While it may have been due to my salty skin, my clothes didn't actually feel much cleaner and most of them had dried salt streaks on them. Such is life on a water-restricted island.
But clearly all is not bad in this place because I am loving it for the most part. Snorkeling and diving are indescribable, as are the sunsets. After dinner, the weather cools off and there is usually a breeze through the hammock area-- then it is absolutely wonderful to be out. It is kind of nice to be a bit disconnected from so much technology and phones; a lot of the materialism and outward vanity of the US is gone as well-- you don't have much but it is so easy to be happy with what you have. It's pointless even if you wanted to spend a lot of time getting ready, because the heat destroys everything. And it's a hard environment so fancy clothes would be ruined anyway. It is easier to appreciate God and be close to him personally here, because it is just me and Him. He is what keeps me going and reminds me of why I am the way I am. Sometimes back home it is easy to fall into a rut of YG and church without really focusing on a personal relationship with God. But it is hard not having family around me, close friends who understand me, the support of my brothers and sisters, and the spoken direction of the Word. But I know God will make me stronger because of this and will draw me closer to Him.
So at the end of the day God is here and this place is pretty awesome, even with the cockroaches and the salt.
Biggest differences between school here and school in the US:
I'm a twenty-something from the Pacific NW making home in new places as I follow where God leads.
My intent is to show Christ's love to the world and use business to solve some of the social problems we face: hunger, illiteracy, healthcare, economic hardship. For now, I'm in a stage of learning. A little adventuring, a few books, some good friends, and a whole lot of prayer and life runs on.