I did not realize how much of a challenge my living arrangements and the internet availability in Dominica would pose to my updating the blog. However, from here on out, I will be much more consistent in my posts. In this first story, I will attempt to take you through the first 5 days of my summer on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
Day 1, Friday, June 1
What a whirlwind. I left the Las Vegas airport at 10:45pm on Thursday after a day of last-minute shopping with my mom in an attempt to prepare for an experience I could not yet imagine. The 13-hour trip included layovers in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. I lost 3 hours from changing time zones and landed in Dominica at 2:30pm. I was amazed to see that landscape looked exactly like the most stunning pictures of the island that I had been able to find online. The Dominica Olympic Committee had arranged for Mally's taxi-bus service to pick me up from the airport and drive me to the Garraway Hotel on the shore in Roseau. After confused coversations with pushy taxi drivers, I found mine and got into the van. The driver told me the trip would take an hour-and-a-half instead of an hour because we had to take an alternate route. I was in no rush, and looked forward to seeing more of the island. Before we had driven more than a mile from the airport, the driver pulled over to shout out the window at a woman sitting on her porch. They spoke in broken English and Creole for about five minutes until the driver honked at her and drove away. I was then informed that this woman was his friend, but he had not seen her for more than a year because she had been in the U.S. He did not seem apologetic for stopping while he was hired to drive me somewhere, and I supposed this might be the norm. It was a swelteringly hot and humid day, and we drove with the windows down the entire way, all the while dodging the multitude of potholes on the 1.5 lane unpainted "highway." Dominicans drive on the left side of the road, and the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle. This is one of a number of traditions they inherited from Great Britain when Dominica was a British colony. It gained its independence in 1978, but still has close ties to Britain through the Commonwealth.
I arrived at the Garraway, where the front desk attendant said they had been expecting me. I took the key up to room 407, and stared open-mouthed at the panoramic view of the ocean from my window. The DOC had been very kind in making accomodations for me. My next thought was slight panic as I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. How would I contact Mr. Thomas Dorsett, Secretary General of the DOC and my main contact with regards to this project. Before I could locate the ethernet outlet to access internet, my room phone rang and Mr. Dorsett asked me to meet him downstairs in a half hour. We met at 6pm, and I learned that I would be meeting with him and the President of the DOC at 10am the next day. Before Thomas left, he asked if I needed anything. i asked where I could find an ATM to get East Caribbean Dollars and then find a good place to eat. He smiled and said, "Take your backpack upstairs, and when you come down, I'll take you to the ATM." I insisted he didn't have to accompany me, but I suppose he did not have other plans for the evening.
I was relieved to find that my debit card worked at the ATM, and we went to find food across the street at the Fort Young Hotel. it was apparently the local happy hour spot that evening, and Thomas asked me, "So what do you drink?" While my excuse of being an athlete and underage works fine in the States, it was harder to make him understand why a 20-year-old would choose not to drink alcohol in a country without a drinking age. He shrugged his shoulders and ultimately showed up to our table with barbecue chicken, fish, salad, a rum punch for him, and a virgin piña colada for me. Good guess! I love those pineapple-coconut smoothies. We shouted to hear each other over the reggae-bumping DJ for a little while before agreeing I should get some extra rest that night. We parted ways, and I tried to prepare to meet the President the next morning. Meanwhile, I think Thomas returned to the happy hour...
Day 2, Saturday, June 2
After eating breakfast alone at the hotel, I met with Thomas and the DOC President, Felix Wilson, in the lobby. I learned that Mr. Wilson had in fact been the Coach of Jerome Romain, who was my jumps coach when I first joined the track and field team at Brown. Small world. After our brief meeting and discussion of plans for the summer, Thomas told me to be ready by 1pm to travel with him to a meeting with the Southeast District Olympic Academy (SEDOA) in Delices. Thomas' "lady" as he introduced her, accompanied us on the trip. The state of the roads on the trip to Delices told me that this was one of the poorest parts of the island. The 13 mile trip took 1.5 hours. Seriously.
We arrived at the local youth center, hidden away at the bottom of a hill behind a small neighborhood. In a building next to a dilapidated basketball court, I met the 8 young people who would be leading the SEDOA. I listened and occasionally gave my input as Thomas presented the Youth Role Model Program outline to the group. After they learned who I was, the youth were much more comfortable opening up about the sorry state of sports opportunities in their small, poor community. I was grateful to have this intimate opportunity to get their perspective. They were motivated but slightly skeptical, and I tried to reassure them that they had the power to make this a successful program. One of the young men said something about sports that really stuck with me, "You know, when you're a kid, you're only going to play the sports available in your neighborhood." It seems obvious, but if structured sports opportunities aren't available, then do the kids not play any sport at all?
Day 3, Sunday, June 3
I enjoyed a morning run around Roseau and a late breakfast to prepare for the move from Roseau in southern Dominica to Portsmouth in the north. Thomas and his lady (relationship TBD), picked me up with my heavy, broken luggage and we began our trip. We had to stop by the airport again for DOC business "on the way" to Portsmouth, but during the 2.5 hour trip, we stopped at a beautiful seaside restaurant near Portsmouth. My options for lunch were either fried fish or grilled fish. I chose grilled, and was met with a full blackened fish on my plate. It came with rice, fresh green salad, and breadfruit salad. The fish was rather tough, but the overall meal was very pleasant. I learned that tap water is known as "sky juice" in Dominica because it comes from their abundant rainwater (the island receives multiple meters of rainfall each year).
After lunch, I quickly met Ms. Frederica James at her home in Picard (a suburb of Portsmouth) to drop off my things. Before settling in, I had to accompany Thomas to another DOA training session, this time with the Portsmouth NWDOA. There were 10 youth in attendance, and the one father who came with his son received much commendation for being there. Apparently, fathers are notoriously absent from their children's activities in Dominica. As the meeting started, Mr. Dorsett was trying to get a feel for how dedicated the local officials were to serving on the steering committee. Only one of the five members was present, and a young girl walked in late to declare that her sister was no longer interested in being secretary. I realized that what I was observing was only a taste of the challenges of community organizing to come. The two adults present were, however, deeply invested in local youth sports and development. I believe I'll be working with them again in the future.
As Thomas presented the program and DOA constitution to the youth at the meeting, he tried to spark their excitement about Dominica. I could tell from the looks on their faces that they had been brought up to believe that there is nothing special about Dominica. They could not fathom that their small country might be competitive on the world scale. That is what we're up against. How do you inspire kids to be dedicated to local sports if they have no athlete role models at an elite level? if they don't believe that their country has the potential to be competitive on the world stage?
I returned to Frederica's for the night and said goodbye to Thomas, deciding that Monday would be my first real "day off." Frederica was so welcoming and motherly in a very Dominican way. She has a no-nonsense manner about her and went out of her way to make me comfortable. It is also fun to note that she is the older sister of the same Jerome Romain I mentioned above. Did I say that he was also the 2008 Dominica Olympic coach as well as the nation's most elite athlete ever in the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he had been seeded 5th in the world in Triple Jump. Frederica and I will at least be able to talk about track while I'm here.
To be continued in part 2.