The Opportunity of a Lifetime

A strong, warm breeze blows in from the Sea as sizable waves crash on the surf. Plopping down onto a blanket covering the soft sand, I leaned back on an elbow and cast an eye to the nighttime sky. Gray clouds stifled the stars in the heavens, leaving me dissatisfied as I wondered what awe-striking beauty lay behind those clouds. I had finally made it to Levera Beach, my favorite spot on Grenada, at night. It was May, which meant it was the time of year in which the leatherback sea turtles, native to Grenada’s waters, come ashore to nest. Through some fortunate circumstances, I was able to join fellow Peace Corps Volunteers Sarah Bowman, Riley Doerrler, and their visiting friend Lexi Pretter to try and witness the nesting of the leatherback sea turtles.

So here we were, laying out on Levera Beach and passing time until our tour guide, Harviel, would hopefully return with the good news that a sea turtle was nesting on the beach. We were told the waiting process could take anywhere from two to five hours. Harviel, our knowledgeable, articulate, and soft-spoken guide, was to walk the length of the beach at half-hour intervals in search of a nesting sea turtle and retrieve us when he found one. Although May is peak season for sea turtle nesting, it doesn’t necessarily mean one will nest tonight.

But I was really hoping one would. From the time I arrived to Grenada, I heard about the sea turtles nesting at Levera Beach. Upon learning about it, witnessing the sea turtle nesting immediately became Grenada Bucket List Item #1. There were a lot of factors in the way, however, that would make witnessing such a beautiful phenomenon difficult. The first being that Levera Beach, one of the top five leatherback sea turtle nesting sites in the region, was also one of the most isolated and remote beaches on the island. The closest town to the beach is Sauters, but the buses coming out of there don’t run a route near Levera. This essentially forces you to hike roughly over an hour just to get there from Sauters. This goes without mentioning that the sea turtles come in to nest at night, when buses aren’t running anyway.

Given those circumstances, the only way one could see the sea turtles nesting was if a private vehicle was involved. Then considering that it is against Peace Corps policy to drive a vehicle in your host country and violation of this policy would lead to immediate termination of service, the realistic possibility for me to see the nesting was slim to none.

Then came some unexpected good fortune. Lexi, a sailing instructor who has lived on various islands throughout the Caribbean, returned to Grenada to visit PCVs Sarah and Riley, whom she met and befriended in Bequia last year. Since she wasn’t Peace Corps, she could rent a vehicle; all of a sudden, we had a car.

Let that sink in: we had a CAR.

That may not seem like too big of a deal to you at home, but at this point in my Grenadian life, riding in an actual car is a luxurious experience. Having become accustomed to relying on the over-packed, restrictive-timed buses of the island, I almost forgot what the term “leg-room” even means. This goes without mentioning the complete and total freedom that comes with having a vehicle at your disposal that you can take wherever you wish, whenever you wish. Suddenly, the doors of possibility opened as we could literally “drive around” all the obstacles that previously stood in the way of us and the nesting sea turtles.

But I digress. So let’s go back to waiting for Harviel while laying out on blankets in the soft sand, the waves of the Atlantic crashing on the shore while the warm Sea breeze blows in under a cloudy, night sky.

“All right, time to go! There’s one out there now,” Harviel calls out, his silhouette becoming visible in the darkness as he approaches.

I hopped to my feet instantly, hardly believing that the moment was finally here. Honestly, it came sooner than I thought. I was finally going to see a leatherback sea turtle.

We were on the eastern end of the beachhead and as Harviel explained, the sea turtle was on the western end around the bend of the coastline. So following the red light shining from Harviel’s headlamp, we began trekking toward the water (red lights were used so as not to disturb the sea turtles while they were nesting). My toes dug into the sand with each step as we made our way from the back of the beach toward the shoreline. The closer I came to the water, the more the damp, tangled mess of seaweed that washed ashore seemed to try and hold me back from reaching the ocean. Broken, saturated driftwood jabbed at my ankles in the dark, as if they too, were trying to prevent me from reaching the water. But finally reaching the drop-off of sand to the ocean water, I let the sand cave beneath my feet and slid down to the firm, hard-soaked sand of the shore. Turning left and walking along the water, the incoming tide slapped playfully at my ankles before receding back to the ocean, only to return again a moment later.

Off to the right, Sugar Loaf Island’s hump-backed silhouette loomed peacefully just off-shore. A single light shone from the home at the base of the island, carrying a mysterious aura with it like that of the green light resonating from Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby. Looking up, the clouds were shifting with the sea breeze, finally beginning to unveil the glimmering array of stars they had been hiding. We rounded the bend that marks the northern turning point of the island, where the churning waters of the Atlantic meets the calming waters of the Caribbean Sea. Then without warning, a rogue wave crashes into our knees, as we all make a break for higher ground. But the rogue wave had done its deed and my shorts were now soaked just above the knees. I didn’t mind, however, as up ahead three figures could be seen huddled around a sole red light in the distance. We were almost there.

A fallen hush came over the tour group the moment that lone red light came into view. The previously bubbly atmosphere had become tense with anticipation. We weren’t to speak above a whisper, Harviel told us, so as not to disturb the sea turtle. Climbing up into the higher ground of the beachhead, we prepared to approach the sea turtle discreetly from behind, another precautionary measure we were to take so as not to disturb her. As we walked upon the huddled figures, two of them were crouched under red headlamps, scribbling away at chart paper on clipboards. A third figure, bigger than the other two, was laying down on his stomach and digging deep into the sand. We stepped up just behind him and following his hands, I then realized it wasn’t the sand he was digging into. He was reaching into the nest made by a large leatherback sea turtle!

Just above his hands, what at first appeared like a smooth, sandy surface was really the sea turtle’s shell. Beginning from her tail, a simple ridge ran along the center of her back to her neck. The breadth of her teardrop-shaped shell was masked in a thin coat of sand, essentially disguising the sea turtle from view. Her large rear flippers, in an alternating fashion, were pushing more and more sand out from the nest so she could make it as deep as possible. Underneath her shell next to her right, rear flipper, a metal tag glinted in the light, signifying she had been marked for research. This sea turtle was by no means small, either. Envisioning myself laying down next to it, the sea turtle would likely stretch from my feet to my shoulders, well over five feet long. Evidently, they can grow as long as seven feet and weigh upwards of two thousand pounds!

Forming a semi-circle around the back of the sea turtle, we watched intently as the conservationists went to work. The man lying on his stomach reached deep into the bowels of the nest, underneath the sea turtle. Then, a handful at a time, he began pulling out slimy, tennis-ball-sized eggs and placed them in a black, plastic bucket. As he did this, the other two conservationists kept scribbling away at their clipboards, marking down whatever information deemed relevant to their research.

“These people are from Ocean Spirits, a research-based organization evaluating the current status of leatherback sea turtles in the region,” Harviel, now standing next to the sea turtle, whispered softly to the group.

“They are gathering these eggs to move them to a more secure part of the beach, as this sea turtle has made her nest too close to the water,”  Harviel’s whisper was surprisingly audible in the strong, relentless breeze from the Sea.

Harviel, before the tour, had previously explained to us the mating and nesting process for the sea turtles. Every two to three years, the female sea turtle will mate with multiple males during the mating season. Now, the mating season for sea turtles is entirely separate from nesting season. The female sea turtle during the mating season stores all the sperm from her partners before internally fertilizing anywhere from 100-150 eggs. She then returns to land in order to nest at the very same beach that she, herself, had hatched. After digging her nest and laying her eggs, she will then cover up the nest and scatter the sand around it to mask the nest’s true location from potential predators. Returning back to sea, she will then internally fertilize another 100-150 more eggs with the stored sperm before coming back to nest again within the next nine days. This process will continue until the female sea turtle has laid up to seven to nine nests during the nesting season.

Within the nests, small, golf-ball sized eggs are laid with the larger, tennis-ball-sized ones. These golf-ball-sized eggs are non-viable. They will not produce any baby sea turtles, but rather serve the purpose to humidify the nest in order for the viable eggs to develop. Warm temperature nests tend to produce females, while cooler ones tend to produce more males. Therefore, as Harviel smiled slyly, “We like to say that sea turtles produce cool dudes and hot chicks.”

Despite the high-production rates of each nest, realistically, one out of every one thousand sea turtles will live to reach adulthood. Before hatching, a nest can be destroyed by another nesting sea turtle that may be unaware that she is building her nest on top of pre-existing one, incidentally destroying it and the eggs already laid inside. After hatching, young sea turtles face a list of predators that include birds, lizards, and mongooses, most of whom take advantage of the opportunity to prey on them as they crawl from their nest toward the ocean. Once in the ocean, however, the sea turtles are still threatened by sharks and other large fish. Sadly, leatherback sea turtles may also fall victim by human means, ranging from boats, fishing nets, plastic, and poaching.

Consequently, organizations like Ocean Spirits conduct their research and work in the best interest of the leatherback sea turtle population. Through the work of these organizations, the population status of leatherback sea turtles has been upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable, according to the World Wildlife Organization (https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/leatherback-turtle).

“If you guys would like, one at a time, you may come and take a photo with her,” Harviel whispers. “But remember, move slowly, quietly, and absolutely NO flash photography.”

My eyes lit up with excitement. Not only was I witnessing the leatherback sea turtle lay her eggs, I was going to be able to take a photo with her as well. Cautiously, I followed the others around the back and when my turn arrived, crouched beside the sea turtle. Placing a hand on her smooth, leathery shell (thus, the namesake), I was enthralled. She was absolutely majestic; she was focused, breathing, and birthing, all with me right beside her, yet somehow unbothered.

When she lays her eggs, the female sea turtle falls under a trance to ease the birthing process. Consequently, we were able to approach her from the side and touch her shell in a manner that was safe for the sea turtle. However, that’s not to stress enough the importance that we followed the rules set before us by Harviel. For, if we were to disturb her from the trance, we not only would harm her, but disrupt the whole nesting process altogether.

Having taken my turn, I climbed back up and around the back of the semi-circle and made my way to the far end on the left side. I looked on attentively as she lay there, the man on his stomach filling the black bucket with more and more eggs each time he reached down. Looking off to my right, the silhouettes of palm trees extended out in the dark night sky over the foliage of the shoreline behind us. The gray clouds were all but gone now, the sky now filled with a sparkling display of stars. I watched intently, scanning the heavens and almost willing a star to shoot across the sky. As much as I wanted one to, none ever did. So turning my attention up ahead, the hump-back silhouette of Sugar Loaf Island now seemed to look the other way, disinterested in what was happening on this side of the beach. To the left, the white water of the breakers washed onto shore in a soothing, rhythmic pattern. Beyond the breaking waters was a steep darkness, conveying the true immensity of the ocean. In the far distance, however, a faint, light haze hovered on the horizon. It was light pollution coming from the small island of Carriacou, just off-shore from the northern coast of Grenada. We couldn’t see Carriacou itself, but evidently there was enough light coming from its town to be seen from here. Looking back in front of me, the female sea turtle still lay there, basking under the surgical glow of red lights.

“Okay, she’s finished,” Harviel says, as the man collecting the eggs abruptly got up and gathered his materials from the sand. “Everyone, let’s step back now. Remember, it’s important that we stay remain behind her and not be seen.”

We all take a step back onto higher ground, a little over ten feet away from the sea turtle. She begins shifting back and forth, forcing sand back into her unknowingly empty nest. Once filled, she crawled slowly back and forth to mash up the sand all around the nest to mask its location. While she did this, the two researchers from Ocean Spirits quickly sprang to action, expertly and tactfully taking measurements of the sea turtle. She measured 149″ in length, 107″ in width. After scribbling the measurements onto their clipboards. The three conservationists gathered the rest of their materials, the bucket of eggs, and disappeared into the darkness behind us. Their job wasn’t over, as they still had work to do: the bucket of freshly-laid eggs was to be moved to a new nest they created in a safer location farther from the water.

A suction-cup sound suddenly drew my attention, as the sea turtle’s flippers slapped against the wet sand. She was getting frustrated, Harviel explained, as the wet sand was making it difficult for her to move and cover her nest. Despite her struggles, she eventually managed to mask her nest after a short while by turning in slow, 180-degree angles. Consequently, as we tried to maintain a safe distance behind her and remain out of sight, we often found ourselves shuffling as a group from left to right to left again. Taken out of context, it must have been quite comical to see us rotating angles as we shuffled back and forth behind the sea turtle for such a length of time.

The red lights were turned off and her figure momentarily vanished in the surrounding darkness, but she was still there. As my eyes began adjusting to the full darkness of the night, a faint silhouette could be seen slowly crawling toward the incoming tide. She would linger, Harviel said, until she feels that the nest is safe and confident that the nesting process had gone unnoticed. Hypnotized by her presence, we began walking out to the sea, quietly following her into the waters. The whites of the crashing waves wrapped around her darkened silhouette as they washed ashore. With each incoming wave, it was becoming even harder and harder to see her. Then a wave suddenly wiped over the top of her shell and she disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen by us again.

We stood there, watching, waiting, wondering. Wondering where she was headed next and wondering when she might return.

Looking back, the beach seemed as surreal and untouched as ever in the peaceful, Caribbean night. The waves crashed rhythmically onto the shore. The silhouettes of palm trees stretched into a sparkling, starry sky. Sugar Loaf Island loomed peacefully offshore. A strong, warm breeze was still blowing in hard from the Sea. But in the sand, not a trace of the leatherback sea turtle could be found.

It was as if she was never there, as if what I just witnessed didn’t happen.

But it did.

Witnessing the nesting of a leatherback sea turtle was not only the coolest night of my life…

It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

And I loved every minute of it.

Cheers!

 

Note: If you would like to learn more about Ocean Spirits or S.P.E.C.T.O. (the tour group we went out with), you can find their websites listed below.

http://www.oceanspirits.org/

http://spectogrenada.com/

 

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The Ultimate Game

Laying back on a broken-down concrete stoop, I tilted my wide-brim cap over my eyes to shade them from the blinding light of the early morning sun. Waiting on the side of the road with me were Katie Riley and Lili Gradilla, two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers joining me on the hike from Concord Waterfalls to Grand Etang Lake. The hired bus full of Institute Hikers was to pick us up on their way to the first of the Concord falls.

“Morning, morning,” a woman pleasantly greeted us as she walks down the hill.

“Morning,” we respond.

This was my third time going to the Concord Waterfalls. Each time I’ve gone, one thing has remained constant: the locals of Concord are always sure to greet you with a “Good morning,” or “Enjoy the falls,” already knowing that’s where we foreigners were headed.

A few moments later a bus pulls up; it’s the Institute Hikers. The door slides open and rising from my somewhat uncomfortable but satisfactory resting spot, I pile into the van behind the others. The bus takes off and hustles quickly up a narrow, paved road into the mountains. The nutmeg, papya, cocoa, and other roadside trees flew past in a blur. The farther up into the mountains we went, the fewer houses we saw. Out of the few homes we did see, some were missing walls, roofs, and doors; they were covered in ivy with foliage growing inside as if left over from a fateful apocalypse. Within minutes, we came upon the welcome center to the first waterfall. Bustling right past it, we came to a stop at a clearing of pavement overlooking the first fall. One by one we unloaded from the bus, looking on in awe at the towering green mountains that surrounded us. We then gathered around in a circle to introduce ourselves, set the agenda, and assign numbers. There were fewer of us this time around, only about a dozen or so, probably due to the long hike ahead of us.

We break the circle to begin the hike. Taking up my usual position toward the back of the line, I followed the brightly colored shirts of the hikers ahead of me. The trail began like most trails here start, a simple dirt path destined to penetrate deep into the depths of the forest. A few streams and fallen logs interrupt the path along the way, but we climb over and around them. A ravine runs along the right side of us while a mass of bamboo shoots explode from the hillside to our left. The deeper into the forest we go, the trail transitions from the simple dirt path to the boulder-riddled ravine. We hiked onward, tucked in between two forested hillsides. Looking on, the hikers ahead of me appeared the size of ants as they climbed over and around the massive boulders. Then jumping from one boulder to the next, I climbed to the top of a certain boulder where I knew the second waterfall initially comes into view. A scene of untouched beauty and raw power, the water stampedes over the crest and plummets down the rock chute into a subtle spring below. More boulders form a semi-circle around the spring, serving as a natural-made pier from which one could jump into its cool and refreshingly chilly waters. Mosquitoes, hovering in the glimmering haze of sunlight that poked through the trees, were determined to pester any hiker they could. On the far-left boulder, a pile of stones delicately balances on top of each other, evidently a cairn left behind by some clever hikers wishing to leave their mark.

We didn’t stay long at the second fall, knowing we still had a long way to go that morning. So after back-tracking the boulder-ridden ravine a couple hundred feet, one of the lead hikers suddenly slid down a hill and leaped across the stream. He disappeared into the wilderness on the other side, seeking the yellow-ribbons that mark the trail we were to follow. After finding it, one by one we slid down the mud and danced across the rocks, reaching the other side. Now for the hard part: it was all uphill from here.

I started the steep climb up with long, high strides. Grabbing anything I could from bamboo shoots and branches to shrubs and vines, I pulled myself up to ease the stress the incline put on my legs. This continued until the path hooked to the right, flattening into a narrow strip that ran along the side of an even steeper hill. The trees had somewhat cleared away, as now only waist-high foliage of various shades of green surrounded us. A rope lay strewn carelessly on the ground, barely visible in the vegetation but tethered to a tree at the top of the hill. Taking it up, the rope felt rough and worn in my hands as I started the vertical climb up the hillside. I began high-stepping systematically through the bush in much the same way you would trek through three feet of snow. With every step upward, gasps of excitement could be heard from the hikers above me, indicating the stunning view to come. Pausing for a moment, I looked over my shoulder to sneak a peek at the ridge-line of mountains protruding over the canopy of trees. Glancing down, the hillside was so steep that all I could see was the tops of the heads of the hikers below me. A single slip of the foot could send me tumbling down to the bottom, all but guaranteeing a few broken bones along the way. At this moment, however, I realized I wasn’t as nervous about heights as I used to be; I suppose jumping off a couple bridges and waterfalls will ease that concern for you. But knowing the view was only going to get better at the top, I turned back around to continue my ascent.

Upon reaching the top, the view was as humble as it was scenic. The sun cast its light on the mountains while shadows from the clouds lingered in varied spots. It was a view straight from a postcard. Unfortunately, I only had a brief moment to take it in as we still had a-ways to go. So turning around, I followed the others into the overgrown and narrow path of the bush ahead. Fallen leaves crunched beneath my feet with each step, indicating the ground for once was actually dry (outside of a few strategically-placed patches of soft mud, of course). The narrow path weaved through the woods before dropping sharply into another ravine. I began side-stepping down to the ravine when:

“Ahh!”

Turning abruptly, I saw two hikers tactfully hopping from tree to tree down into the ravine. Apparently, one of the hikers had slipped and fallen halfway down the hill. The previously easy-going atmosphere suddenly became tense, as the rest of us were apprehensively waiting to hear if she was all right. The tension was relieved when she soon reappeared from the ravine with the aid of the two other hikers. Despite the hard fall, she came up with a strained but relieved smile on her face.

Moving on, I stepped-down the path to the boulder-ridden stream below. Standing on a rock in the center of the stream, I surveyed my surroundings. The water of the stream flowed peacefully and undisturbed through the rocks, pooling at the bottom. The soft, trickling sound of the stream completed the natural soundtrack of rustling trees, creaking bamboo, and chirping birds of the forest. Dancing across the rocks to the other side, the path once again shot upward. Hiking the trail up, spindly trees now stretched skyward, each seemingly attempting to out-reach one another to the sun. Rocks and fallen logs were strewn carelessly across the trail, each being overtaken by a crawling coat of moss. The incline eased itself into a slightly forested clearing, where everyone had paused to gather around what was probably one of the largest trees I have ever seen. Now, I have never been to the Redwood Forest in California, but I hope I am lucky enough to hike through there someday. That being said, I’d like to think this tree would rival those Redwoods due to its daunting height, width, and overall size. At the base of the tree, its roots were so large and con-caved in such a way, one could practically build a small home inside of it. I could only imagine how much this tree has lived through in all its years.

After appreciating the dominating presence of the tree, we re-grouped to continue on. The path progressed at a slight incline while the foliage became more sparse around the trail, giving us elbow room as we hiked along. A short while later, the group stopped altogether again. This time, we found ourselves in front of two large boulders pressed firmly into the hillside. Underneath the two boulders was yet another boulder. But this one was buried by damp, brown fallen leaves and had a black hole pitched discreetly underneath it. It was said this hole was one of the many caves used by Julien Fedon during the rebellion.

Frankie, a well-built man with dreadlocks pulled back by a rubber-band into a Rasta-style pony-tail, hopped down the edge and crawled cautiously into the mouth of the cave. A passing breeze rustled the leaves of the trees above while a few isolated songbirds sang their chorus. Outside of that, however, all was silent as we waited eagerly to see if he would find anything inside.

“Shhh!” he turns, his index finger pressed to his lips. “I hear something.”

A smirk cracked across my face, convinced he was putting on a show. Then suddenly, as if sent out by Frankie himself, a bat hurdled wildly out of the cave and narrowly passed over our heads. Everyone ducked out of its way, caught in a moment of fright before laughter broke out among the group. No one had seen that coming.

“I told you I heard something!” Frankie laughed.

Having altogether recovered from the momentary heart attack, it was time to move forward. The path maintained its somewhat flat terrain, to which my already aching legs were very much grateful. But the foliage pressed back into the trail, as branches and vines were trying to grab hold of us like fan-girls at a country concert. Consequently, the hikers dispersed into a spacious single-file line. Lili, who was at this point directly in front of me, picked up a fallen branch to use as a walking stick. Trekking through the bush, I watched intently as she planted the branch in a ditch to hold her steady as she stepped over it when…

*Snap

What once was a head-height branch snapped like a baseball bat right in her hand, leaving nothing but its top in her grasp. Waving her arms frantically, she then quickly recovered her balance. After realizing that we were the only two that witnessed what had just happened, laughter broke out between the two of us. Clapping my hands together in amusement, I couldn’t help but giggle at the theatrical performance of her maintaining her balance. So goes life hiking through the woods, with so many close calls, sometimes you just have to laugh.

As the hike went on, the line of hikers thinned out even more and I soon found myself entirely alone. Noticing this, I took a moment to look around, seeing a path of boulders in front of me and a tangled mess of branches, vines, and trees on all sides around me. The sunlight was forcing its way through the canopy above, adorning the forest floor with swaying splotches of sunshine. It was quaint little scene, yet something felt unusual. Here I was, deep in the mountainous bush that makes up inland Grenada. Yet, out of all the wildlife in the forest, there was not a single sound to be heard. Let me repeat: Not. A. Single. Sound.

This was probably the first time in my eleven months here that I have found myself engulfed in complete and utter silence. It was like everything was frozen in time. Everything captured in that moment was so serene, so peaceful, that I was wishing I could linger there forever. The silence itself was so captivating, I did not dare to move or hardly even breathe. In that moment, I realized how much I’ve missed the quiet. After all, living in the heart of Grenada’s, “City That Never Sleeps,” my home isn’t exactly forgiving when it comes to finding peace and quiet. Although over time, I have become accustomed to the incessant noise outside my apartment windows at all ungodly hours of the night that I hardly even notice them anymore. Yet, in this moment of solitude in the depths of the Grand Etang National Forest, I had found bliss. It was baffling still, that even the rustling of the trees and the songs of the birds had fallen mum. All that was left in this moment was me, the trees, and a humbling reminder of the power of silence.

*Crack

A few branches snapped somewhere in the distance and a murmur of voices announced that hikers were breaking through the bush behind me. I, likewise, was snapped out of my frozen trance. Disappointed the moment of tranquility didn’t last longer, I decided it was time to move forward. Climbing on all fours over the boulders, I reached back to the path and proceeded upward. By now, the foliage seemed to back off, deciding once again to respect my personal space. With each step, sunlight filled the trail as it was becoming less and less shaded. The canopy cleared away the closer I came to the summit. I picked up my pace, dragging along the heavy weight my legs now seemed to carry. But I was eager to see the views that awaited me at the top. Upon finally reaching the clearing at the peak, all I could say was…

“Oh, my.”                                                                                                                                                                                                         In front of me sprawled a network of ridge-line mountains, coated in vibrant shades of green. Thick, gray, cotton-ball clouds hovered just above them, nearly grazing their peaks. Much like before, the sun cast its light on the mountains, highlighting the green as the clouds left their dark shadows in various, intermittent spots. I sighed deeply, awestruck by the sheer beauty before me. Suddenly, my legs didn’t quite feel so heavy anymore. The burning cuts and scrapes on my arms left by the whipping branches and vines began to fade. The growling of my empty stomach, too, seemed to have subsided with the dazzling view before me.

“Hey, look over here!” Someone called.

I followed the voice, turning the corner where in front of me, clearly visible in the distance was the capital city of St. George’s. Beyond it, the arm-like coastline of Grand Anse Beach stretched out into the Caribbean Sea. To my left, peeking through the branches, Grand Etang Lake could be seen resting subtly at the center of its crater. Just like that, multiple staples of Grenada’s jaw-dropping landscape was before me in one panoramic view. Beyond the island’s shores, a blue haze stretched far into the horizon; thus, solidifying the reality that I am on an island and surrounded entirely by water.

Turning back, I followed the others hiking the path in the other direction. The footfalls of past hikers marked an indelible, dirt-ridden spine that ran along the top of the ridge. Small trees bordered the path like a gauntlet of paparazzi on the red carpet. I could almost envision myself from a bird’s-eye view, a small speck running along the spine of a mountain ridge on this island. When I finally reached the end, I had arrived to the top of Mt. Qua-Qua. Some of the hikers were already there, sitting around three wooden poles that stood from the ground in a tee-pee like manner. At the cross-hairs of the poles, two high-heeled shoes were hooked on the top. How they got there I haven’t a clue, but we had a good laugh about it nonetheless.

Next to the wooden tee-pee-like structure was a boulder so large, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the very same boulder Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to roll up a hill for eternity. Only this boulder, atop Mt. Qua-Qua on the island of Grenada, evidently came to a rest at the summit. Sisyphus had paid his price.

Frankie was already standing on top of the boulder, having taken off his hiking shoes to allow himself to grip the boulder’s smooth surface while he climbed. Conflicted, I wanted to get on top of the boulder to see what view it would provide, but I still wanted to keep my boots on. The mud and rivers from all the previous rain-soaked hikes have taken a toll on my boots, as the laces have toughened and lost their elasticity; putting them on and taking them off is now barely possible without a shoe-horn (which I don’t have). Consequently, I made the decision to get up there, boots and all. A soft impression marked the boulder, roughly at the height of my chest; it was going to take all I could to hop up there on my own.

“Careful Scott, we don’t want you to have a Grenadian funeral,” one of the local hikers teased as I sized up the jump.

Gathering all my weight, I jumped for the impression. My shin bashed on the rock-face, as my feet barely reached the edge of the impression. Just then, all my weight began taking me backward. Quickly collecting what grip I could, I jumped straight into the air, buying myself time to ensure I landed safely flat on the ground.

Back on solid ground, my shin was now throbbing. But I re-gathered myself anyway to prepare for take number two.

Like a box-jump in a high school gym, I squatted down to once again gather all I could before jumping for the impression. However, it again proved too high, too smooth, and at too much of an incline and my weight took me backward off the boulder. This time, however, as I landed on the ground my momentum continued backward. Flailing my arms, I maintained my balance by grabbing hold of some branches to prevent me from falling into the bush. After finally collecting myself, I stepped back out into the sunlight to find a concerned look on everyone’s faces.

“You know I was kidding about the whole Grenadian funeral thing, right?” The same hiker said, as a nervous laughter broke out.

I laughed along with them, then turned around to find nothing but thick foliage and steep darkness where my weight would have carried me down. It would have been a long and violent tumble down the mountain through the bush.

Having learned my lesson, I dropped my backpack to ease the unnecessary weight on my back and had one of the hikers help push me up. I grabbed hold of Frankie’s outstretched forearm as he pulled me the rest of the way. Just goes to show that sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and accept help when you need it.

It was all worth it, too. As now, in front of me was the entire eastern half of Grenada, including the town of Grenville sitting on the coastline in the distance. Atop this boulder, I was practically at eye-level with the clouds, almost having to duck just to see Grenville. The wind pounded relentlessly, as I held my hat back so it wouldn’t blow away. Looking off to the right, red and orange rooftops snaked through the lush, green mountains. These humble homes traced the road of the #6 bus route from St. George’s to Grenville through the Grand Etang National Forest. Along that route was Grand Etang Lake, the very same lake that was originally on my left from the last viewpoint. I couldn’t see St. George’s from this boulder, but I could envision it just past the trees to my right. I knew Grenada was a small island. I just didn’t realize how small it really was. You could just about see half of the island right from where I was standing.

Having taken in what I could, I sat down on the boulder and slid my way down, dropping the last six feet or so to solid ground. Picking up my backpack, I pulled out a PB&J and a roll of crackers I had packed that morning and began the trek down to the lake with the others. Back-tracking down the path that pointed toward St. George’s, we hiked down the spine of the mountain ridge before again being swallowed by the foliage of Grand Etang National Forest.

An hour or so later, we eventually did reach Grand Etang Lake. At the end of it all, all my energy was entirely spent. It was honestly the longest hike I had been on with this group, well over eight miles and almost exclusively uphill. My legs felt like Jell-o. Small, red cuts and scrapes from the bush marked my arms from my wrists to my elbows. My shin was bruised and bleeding, having already swelled into a knot. After finding a pipe to rinse off my mud-ridden pants and boots, I slipped into sandals and a fresh set of clothes. Then hopping into a car with some other hikers, I was on my way toward St. George’s, where I could then catch a bus back home to Gouyave. Snaking through the #6 route road through Grand Etang National Forest, we started swapping stories and sharing thoughts on the hike, laughing about all that had happened.

But soon my mind drifted off. I started thinking about those views at the top. Then I thought about that moment of silence along the way. It was a simple moment, gone before you could almost notice it was there. It was so fleeting, in fact, that I had almost forgotten it had happened. But the silence was deafening. In that moment, there was nothing but the glimmering forest floor and a surrounding earthly scene of natural, untouched forest beauty; all this frozen in a moment of time that was apologetically and unequivocally peaceful.

I wish I could go back to that moment. To me, that moment was the highlight of the entire day’s hike. Yes, the stunning panoramic views atop Mt. Qua-Qua were breathtaking. But there’s something to be said about those moments of complete tranquility in the forest that calms the soul. It’s reflective in nature, soothing of stress, and brings peace to the mind. These moments of peace are so powerful, they compel you to stop dead in your tracks and embrace them. You can’t help but acknowledge the power they hold. Yet, they are fleeting, an oxymoron of complete stillness while perpetually moving. It’s as though these moments are meant to be chased. They are all out there somewhere, begging to be captured.

It’s the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.

Only in this game, when we win, we capture the ultimate prize:

Peace.

Peace for the mind. Peace for the soul. Peace in our lives.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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The One That Says, “Play”

Picture this:

You’re sitting in your living room and all the lights are out. A storm is raging in the night outside. Rain is pounding heavily on the roof while on the window pane, droplets nonchalantly race down the glass. The trees are swaying, surrendering to the storm’s strong gusts of wind. A crack of lightning brightens the room momentarily, followed by a distant rumbling of thunder. The storm has knocked the power out in the area. Candles you’ve lit flicker ominously around the room. All is silent, besides the angry storm that is. When a storm of this nature rages through, knocking out all the power on every block in its path, sometimes there isn’t a whole lot you can do.

Getting up from the sofa you’ve been sitting in, you walk over to a dusty, old cabinet in the corner of the room. You grab the handle, opening the door gently. A series of photo albums lay askew inside, stowed away safely in various-colored binders. In the corner of the cabinet, next to all the binders, is a gray stereo. It’s tall, but slim. You reach in and grab it by the handle that runs across the top. Pulling out the stereo, you sink back into your spot on the sofa.

The stereo now sits on the coffee table in front of you. Its speakers, two round black discs, look back at you like beady, expectant eyes. A small, square compartment sits between the speakers; it’s a cassette player. You punch a button and it pops open. Finding a cassette and slipping it inside, the door snaps shut. Back in these days, when the power was out and a storm was raging, sometimes a battery-powered stereo was all you needed to pass the time.

In front of you, along the top of the stereo, are a series of buttons each with its own symbol.

The sideways triangle is the Play button.

Two sideways triangles pointing to the right is Skip.

Two sideways triangles pointing the left, Rewind.

Two vertical lines mean Pause.

The block square means Stop.

You sit back, contemplating if what you’re doing to pass the time is in your best interest, mentally. But what other way could you?

So as another rumble of thunder echoes from the heavens. You punch the button that says Play

* * *

It’s a quiet Caribbean night. The thunder is gone, having been replaced by the resonating murmur of the crickets as they begin to wake from their diurnal slumber to sing their nighttime choruses. The lightning has been replaced by the humming industrial park lights above you. Instead of sitting on your sofa, you’re on a white, wooden bench. You’re on a basketball court; one with wooden backboards, black iron rims, freshly painted lines, and cracks in the surface of the concrete.

You’ve joined a basketball team for the island-wide knockout tournament in your community. You pull out a pair of basketball shoes, already worn-down in just three months’ time. They were brand new when you brought them back with you from the States just a few months prior. But the nightly practices for the past month have put a number on them, as holes have opened up underneath each big toe, nearly exposing them entirely. You laugh with your teammates about it, poking your finger through the holes. Your shoes are just another victim of the concrete court, notorious for “eating shoes.”

But your shoes weren’t the only ones banged up. You glance down at the abrasion on your right knee that hasn’t quite healed yet, having skinned it in a fall during practice a few weeks ago. Getting up from the bench, you run through a simple routine of calisthenics, just something to begin to get the body loose before the team stretches together. You place your hands on a concrete wall, rotating your right ankle in various patterns. In another practice two weeks’ prior, you re-aggravated an old injury when you sprained it contesting for a rebound, coming down on another player’s foot. You ignored it when it happened and played on, your pride getting the best of you. Due to that, you had to return to an old-school remedy of icing and small exercises. You even threw in a taste of the new-school: drinking a glass of water with a teaspoon of turmeric powder to ease the inflammation (a local remedy). A soft, worn-down Ace brace now supports it underneath your black, mid-calf sock. Realistically, the brace probably doesn’t help much, but you figure it’s better than nothing.

You jog out to join your other teammates shooting at the far end of the court. Various members of the community have begun to trickle in. Some set up chairs outside the fencing, others take their seats on a fallen telephone pole. A couple stray dogs run to and from the field behind the court.

Looking to your right, you notice the silhouette of a palm tree peering over the concrete wall. Behind its leaves, however, it looked as if God had spilled buckets of pink, purple, and orange paint across the sky. It was nothing short of majestic.

As time went on the night took over, laying a thick black blanket across the sky. We began a series of team warm-ups, complete with lay-ups and shooting drills. You size up the competition on the other side of the court, butterflies fluttering in your stomach. This was to be your first competitive basketball game in years. Your heart begins racing with adrenaline, pumping alongside the soca music now blasting from the DJ’s tent. A whistle blows, signaling us to return to our benches. It was time to start.

Skip

You’re on the right wing of the court. Byron, the point guard, dribbles the ball past the half-court line and into the teeth of a pressing defense. He flips the ball over the top to Kitty, our tall and lanky center, who gathered himself at the high post of the key. The defense collapses fast on him. Seeing an opening on the block, you dart toward the basket and connect eyes with him, as he’s immediately swarmed. He dishes the ball right into your hands. Everything seemed to freeze, as you were wide open on the block with the ball in hand. You put the ball off the backboard and it falls in for an easy two points.

We’re back on defense now. Due to an injury to one of your teammates, you’ve moved from the top of the 2-3 zone defense to the bottom right block. The man in your zone is twice your size. It was no secret that you were at a mismatch here. But you’re up to the challenge. Their point guard lofts the ball up across the zone toward the basket in a half-shot, half-pass manner. You hold your breath, realizing your man is reaching for glory at the end of an alley-oop pass and you were to be the poster child of that dunk. You jump in to contest it and he fumbles with the high pass, coming down with the ball. When he gathers himself, he’s beside the basket. He knows you’re behind him, but jumps to put in a lay-up, boldly thinking you didn’t really have a chance at blocking him anyway.

What he didn’t know, however, was your entire youth was spent playing basketball in the paint. In that time, you’ve learned a thing or two about blocking shots. Back then you were bigger than everyone else so it was easy, but now you’ve learned different strategies to make up for the height you now lack. The ball comes up over his head and you time your jump with him, slapping your left hand hard on the ball. It pins on the backboard and you remain airborne, as if lifted with the shot (given your size and having what’s called “white boy hops,” you’re still figuring out how that happened). The ball bounces off the board and falls back into the hands of the shooter, as you both land on the ground. A thrill rushes through you as the crowd reacts to the unexpected white-boy’s block. He gathers himself and jumps again, determined to put the ball in the hoop this time. You jump again to contest, excited with the last block and determined to embarrass him again. This time, however, instead of blocking the ball, you got his elbow and a whistle blows.

You slap your hands together in frustration at the missed opportunity for a second block, as instead you were called for a foul. But then one of your teammates comes up, bumping into your chest.

“Nice block, King!”

“Good trouble!” Another says, reaching out for a high-five.

You find consolation in that, being reminded of the first block before the foul. After all, it’s not every day a white boy gets a block against the backboard on this court.

By the final buzzer, you and your teammates were run to exhaustion, coated in glistening sweat. Despite the loss, you guys walked out with your heads held high. It was a hard-fought game, but unfortunately the other team came away with it in the end.

You had picked up a couple more scrapes and bruises in the game. You’re reminded that diving for a loose ball isn’t exactly a good idea on a concrete court, particularly when a 6″4′ beast of a man is going for it too and you’re bounced off of him like a pinball. But the ‘battle scars’ don’t matter much to you. You were just happy to have experienced playing in a competitive basketball game again.

At this point in your service, joining this team was one of the best decisions you made. The practices got you out of the house and exercising regularly. You returned to the suicide runs, shooting and ball-handling drills, and full-court scrimmages. You were re-acquainted with the frustration of seemingly having no free time, having to give up your time and energy every night to practice. Your commitment to the team changed how you spent your spare time, at that. Therefore, you were making better decisions about taking care of yourself and your body. You began making a more conscious effort to cook and eat better.

But like the end of every season, all good things must come to an end.

Skip

You’re standing in a clearing on the top of a hill. The ground is covered in dead grass and fallen leaves. Two large wooden poles protrude from each corner of the clearing. The poles are the only remnants left of the fort that used to stand on the top of this hill, overlooking the town of Gouyave. The cannon that used to be posted here you’re told now sits inside the secondary school down the hill. Past the green foliage surrounding the summit, music echoes from the town. It’s Easter Sunday and celebrations are taking place across Gouyave.

Your two host brothers take turns throwing small kites into the air, trying to catch a passing breeze. Their children, two girls and a boy between them, run around aimlessly as their wives sit and watch. It’s a picture-perfect family scene.

There’s a serenity to it all. An overcast sky of bluish-gray clouds float above the sea in the distance. The setting sun casts an orange glow beneath them. The Sea was calm yet pale, matching the placid sky. The air was still, outside of the distant music that is. The children giggled as they ran in circles until my host brothers, finally having raised a kite up, gathered them in to fly it.

It’s moments like these you’re grateful to have a host family with whom to spend a holiday. Being in a strong family environment helps ease the feeling that comes from the constant reminder that you’re over 2,000 miles away from yours. Seeing your host brothers interact with their wives and kids makes you envision a similar life of your own in the future. A life in which the holidays are once again spent with the people you love most.

Skip

It’s Easter Monday. Due to the holiday, buses aren’t running. This means the last sliver of hope you had in catching the ferry to Carriacou with some other Volunteers just went out the window.

So you go up the road a-ways to the house of some guys you’ve gotten to know. They have a PlayStation, one in which you can play NBA 2k17. Let’s be honest here, playing 2k was not something you think you’d be able to do when you signed up for the Peace Corps. But you spend a hot afternoon sitting on a couch, sweating in the stifling heat and taking turns playing the game. They make up a pot of mannish waters, a local soup containing various parts of goat cooked with herbs, spices, and vegetables. They hand you a serving. It’s not exactly appealing, but you dig in anyway. At this point, you’ve become accustomed to eating things in which you’re better off not knowing what it is until after you ate it. When you finish, they tease you for hardly touching the best parts (the goat, that is). You laugh, shrugging to acknowledge the fact that at least you tried.

You go with them down into The Lance, the part of Gouyave across the river. You step over a construction rope and cross the new bridge that is currently being built over the river. The structure and foundation have already been built, as all that needs to be done now is the surface of the pavement.

The road in The Lance spills out before you as you come off the bridge. Small, colored homes are intermingled among the shops and bars on either side of the road. Various people sit on the street corners, verandas, and shop stoops. A white tent is set up on the corner of a junction. Music booms from the stacked speakers, shaking not only the ground below your feet, but your ear drums as well. A group of girls stand in a circle on the corner of the junction, taking turns dancing in front of and with each other. A drunk man stumbles back and forth, dancing in the middle of the street. He’s swaying and twirling with the music while somehow managing to avoid the occasional passing vehicle (or was it the other way around?). Other patrons are set up around the tent, standing on the side of the road, or sitting on empty crates with beers in hand. It’s holiday time in the Caribbean.

Pause 

* * *

Snapping back into the present, you sit back, sinking into your sofa. Your chest rises and falls with a heaving sigh. The rain is still falling and the power is still out. The thought of where this storm came from or how it came to be puzzles you. It was as if it came out of nowhere just to knock out the lights and leave you in the dark. You’re not sure what to do, or even can do. You go back to trying to pass the time, turning back to the stereo…

Play

* * *

You’re riding in the back right corner of a bus, weaving up and down the hills outside of Grenville. The seats next to you have emptied out. You’re relieved because of this, as this means no one will have to move so you can climb out at your stop. You keep one eye out the window, looking for any familiar marker but still not sure if you’ll know it to see it. The conductor, a young man with a flat-brimmed Miami Heat hat cocked to the side, turns around and gives you a look as if to say, “Where you going?”

“The school junction,” you say to him confidently.

He looks to the woman beside him, puzzled. She shrugs, not knowing what I mean by that, either.

“By the school,” you explain. “St. Mary’s RC.”

“Oh, we pass already,” he nods, finally understanding. “We drop you back.”

“That’s fine,” you shrug passively, conceding to the fact that you missed your stop.

After dropping, you walk down the road to PCV Katelyn’s house. A cool breeze blows past, providing the natural air conditioning that comes with living in the mountains. Houses line either side of the road, giving it a suburban community-type of feeling. The air is quiet and tranquil. The green mountains loom in the distance. When you arrive at her home, Katelyn gets up from her veranda to greet you.

“So…I went all the way to Paraclete,” you smile slyly, explaining why it took you so long to get there.

“I figured you did,” she laughs.

The rest of the day and night was spent in the company of friends, both PCV and local, that passed through to give Katelyn’s mother, who had been visiting for the holiday, a proper Grenadian send-off.

Skip

You’re wading into the refreshingly cool and transparent waters of Grand Anse Beach. Soft waves roll past, crashing behind you onto the shore. Off to your right, the lush green coast is speckled with vibrantly colored houses leading the way to the town of St. George’s. Mountains rise up behind the town, looking over the capital city like a big brother in the schoolyard. A blue haze seems to hover over the mountains, a humble reminder of the jaw-dropping beauty that this tropical island has.

You dive under the surface. The cool water soothes your body, hot from the sweltering sun. You turn your shoulders as you come up to the surface and begin floating on your back. Then letting your feet fall to the ground, you look back at the shore in front of you. Resorts line the coast as vacationers are passed out on beach chairs with books in their laps. Palm trees run along the coast behind the beachhead. You turn around, taking in the vast, empty expanse of the turquoise waters before you.

It’s a picturesque panoramic view, like a calendar photo you would find in the month of July. People dream all their lives of visiting places like this and here you are, living that dream. You should be relishing in this moment, in this environment. But something is off. You don’t quite feel like yourself, haven’t really for the past couple of days come to think of it. It doesn’t feel right, like something is missing…

Skip

You’re back at the basketball court in Gouyave. Only this time instead of being on the inside playing, you’re on the outside watching. You stand on the hillside along many of the friends you’ve made in the past year.

Wait, did you just say past year? Yeah, it’s almost been that long. You’re still trying to wrap your head around reaching your 11th month of service.

To your right is the guys you went out with the other night in The Lance, then there’s Mansa, after him is your neighbor Roseanne and one of your students. To your left is some of the guys from your own basketball team, guys you can now call friends. It seems everyone in the community has come out to watch The Sparklers (Gouyave’s primary basketball team and traditionally the best team on the island, who we scrimmaged many times to prepare for the tournament) as they play in their semi-final match.

Skip

You’re lying in bed with a pit in your stomach, staring at a framed photograph. It was given to you as a gift by a close friend from home. In it, a dozen graduates dressed in black cap and gowns smile broadly arm-in-arm. They had just reached the pinnacle of their undergraduate studies at Capital University. Four years ago they were complete strangers. But now, they were practically family. Your very own, “Capfam.” It’s hard to believe that at this time last year, you all lived across the street from each other.

Just the week prior, someone had asked you what item you were the most grateful to have brought down with you. They probably anticipated an answer of something practical like a tablet, adapter, or computer.

Nope, none of the above.

It was this photo, along with another one of your family that you brought down, that gives you comfort when you’re down. They are the gentle reminder of the people you left behind and the support and love they provide you on a daily basis. It may not come regularly in verbal or written form, but that’s no matter, you can still feel it. There’s solace in knowing one day you’ll return to them.

Sometimes, however, that’s what makes being here all the more difficult. Periodically, the homesickness becomes almost unbearable, to the point you find yourself sitting alone in your room, crying as you stare at a photograph. It’s times like these you realize how long two years really is. You wipe away a tear. Sometimes, you just want your service to be over.

Skip

It’s the first day back at school. You’re not as prepared as you should be, so you’re standing behind your desk desperately digging through your box of school supplies. You feel a presence that someone has just entered the stage area where you conduct your pull-out sessions. You look up to find a student of yours cautiously peering in.

The student, who we’ll call “K,” is a 14-year-old seventh grader at the school. At the start of the previous term, you were asked by your principal to include him in your tutoring schedule. Upon initial assessment, he could identify only six letters in the alphabet. Over the course of the last term you’ve worked your way down the alphabet with him, building vocabulary and reading CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words along the way.

“Afternoon, sir. We going to work today?” He asks you, eyes fixed on the floor.

“Uhmm,” you hesitate.

Your priority at school is your third graders. You usually work with K on Thursday afternoons, as that’s when your third-graders have Physical Education. But you have his lessons already planned out through the rest of the alphabet. His attendance isn’t regular, either, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get with him. You already admitted you weren’t prepared to pull-out any of your third-graders today, so you decide to run with it.

“Actually, yeah. Go ahead and take a seat right there” you respond.

You sit down and get to work. He was doing well the past couple times you worked with him. You decide to push the pace and tackle four letters today: M, N, O, and P. After a quick review of the letter shapes and sounds. You move to the chalkboard, where all the real learning happens.

“You remember your alphabet, right?” I say, as he nods (As it turns out, K was always able to recite the alphabet verbally, but lacks letter recognition).

“Good. Then put it on the board like you’ve done before, up to the letter P this time,” you toss him a piece of chalk, which he catches.

He gets to work writing his capital and common letters on the board. He makes it to Ff when he pauses and says, “Sir, I forget.”

“Nope,” you respond cheerfully but curtly, “You’re not allowed. Saying ‘I forget’ means you’re giving up. How about you think of a question to ask me so I can help you.”

Together we work out how to draw a proper Gg.

We sit in our respective chairs, staring at the CVC words you scrawled on the chalkboard as he forcibly sounds them out. You encourage him to take his time, reminding him that there is no rush or outside pressure. Occasionally, he scans the alphabet across the top of the board, reciting his alphabet to decipher the name of an unfamiliar letter and try to determine its correlating sound. His decoding and fluency has gotten stronger, but he still forcibly strings the sounds of each letter together until the word finally clicks. But now he’s getting to the point where he’s reading words successfully on his second or third try.

“That’s it!” You exclaim as he reads the word map aloud. “You’re crushing this, K! And not only that, allow me to let you in on a little secret: Have you noticed some of these words have letters in them that we haven’t even covered yet?”

A look of surprise pops on his face, as he eagerly scans the alphabet and the words on the board to see if what you told him was true.

“I noticed you already knew some of these other letters, so I’ve been slipping them in there and you haven’t missed a beat. I think you’re ready for a sentence.”

“A sentence?”

“Yes, a sentence. It’s a series of words put together that says something. You want to try one?”

“Okay.”

On the board you write: The dog bit the cat.

The was a challenge for him but you help him through it. He read dog easily, before he struggled but successfully decoded bit. He then finished repeating the before finally sounding out the word cat.

“Give me a bounce!” You laugh, reaching out for a fist bump. He returns it proudly, yet with a look of disbelief.

You write another sentence on the board. As you do this, he buries his head in his hands.

“Sir, my head is hurting,” he says.

“Your head is hurting?” You laugh. “Good! That means you’re learning. But you know how when you’re training for a sport you have to keep going even though you’re tired? Well this has to work the same way, as you’re working out your brain right now. You’ve been doing amazing so far. Let’s try two more and we’ll call it a day. Think you can handle two more?”

He nods.

You write two more simple sentences on the board. They challenged him, but he overcame each word to read the sentences without any of my assistance. After the last one, he turns his head to the side, away from you.

“What’s wrong?”

“I want to read,” he says turning back to you and wiping a tear from his eye.

Your heart breaks. It’s the first time he’s said something like this. Tears of your own start welling up inside. You hold them back, but damn you’re proud of him.

“You know, I’m happy to hear that,” you say. “And you are reading. You read all of this without any of my help!”

He smiles.

The bell rings, signaling the end of the day.

“You’re doing well, K. Keep it up. But if you want to read, it’s important that you be at school every day. Last term there were days where I could have met with you, but you weren’t here. If you want to continue making progress, you need to make sure you’re here. Especially on Thursdays, as that’s when I have the whole afternoon reserved just for you.”

He agrees. You hope he follows through on his word, as attendance was still a problem last term.

“Nice work today, K.”

“Thanks,” he replies as he gets up from his chair, turning to leave the room.

“Hey.”

He stops and looks back at you. “I’m proud of you, K.”

A smirk creeps across his face. Putting his head back down, he turns and walks out of the door.

Stop

* * *

You sit up, not sure exactly what just happened. You wipe a tear from your eye. Standing up to look outside, you find that the storm has passed. Just then various beeps ring through the house as it comes back to life, the power returning.

* * *

For the past two weeks, I have been on break for the Easter holiday. It was an eventful two weeks, in which I once again removed myself from this blog in order to just try and experience what I could. The last break from school I had was a four-week break at Christmastime, in which I spent traveling across three countries and reuniting with family and friends, new and old. This one was a little bit different.

Due to obligations, I had to remain in my community for most of it, which I’m happy to have done. However, I did jump at the first opportunity to escape and do anything that remotely felt like a vacation. I took my own personal tour of Grenada, visiting the other Volunteers and seeing their communities. I re-visited some of my favorite spots around the island. However, over the course of those two weeks, something just felt off.

It felt like something was missing. It’s something you can mindlessly pass over when caught up in the day-to-day obligations of the work week. I felt like I should be enjoying all of my free time, but the something that was missing just kept pressing itself in the back of my mind. I tried distracting myself from it with the same people, places, and activities that lead me to fall in love with this country in the first place. So I continued passing the time, but the figurative storm still raged outside. I think it all came to a head on that final night, when after wiping the tears from my eyes, I was still staring at the framed photograph I brought from home.

Yep, you guessed it. That something that was missing was home. It was my friends. It was my family. It was the fact that I was not able to spend the Easter holiday with them that was weighing on my mind all this time. It just took me awhile to realize it.

So while this storm of homesickness swirled around my head I just kept pressing Skip, trying to pass the time with the stories on the figurative stereo. Honestly, deep down I think I was just trying to distract myself from acknowledging what was truly affecting me.

On the surface, everything operated as normal and I acted as such. I didn’t want anyone to know I was feeling this way. Even now, I have mixed feelings writing about my homesickness. After all, I am living on an island in the Caribbean and I know there’s many people out there that would dream of an opportunity like this. They tell me how lucky I am to experience life down here; and truly, I am. But whenever I’m told that, I can’t help but think how lucky they are to be able to spend their free time during the holidays with their friends and family at home.

I guess the old saying rings true that, “We all want what we ain’t got.”

But then it wasn’t until I was back in school last week that everything fell back into place. In working with K and seeing the advancements he’s made, I was reminded of why I’m here. I was reminded of why I’ve given up that free time and holidays with family in order to do this. Witnessing the breakthrough that K made in our first session of the new term, it made all the mixed feelings wash away. It re-motivated me and inspired me to continue doing what I can to get my students, who I have come to know and love, reading and writing. Sure, I’m over 2,000 miles away from home. Yes, I miss my friends and family immensely. But never was I as proud as the moment K was reading his first sentences.

My mother recently told me that by coming here I had put my life on hold, pressing the Pause button, so to speak. So while a passing storm of homesickness swirled around me, I kept pressing Skip in hopes of fast-forwarding to the day where I actually could go home. But now that I’m back at school, I have re-discovered why I pressed the Pause button to begin with.

Time is moving right along and I’ll be home before I know it. When I do come home, I know I will miss these days spent as a school teacher in the Caribbean. I love what I’m doing here and who I’m becoming because of it. But that’s not to say there aren’t days that I wish it were already over. I dream of the day I’ll be able hop in a car and drive home for a holiday dinner. Now, if only there were a way of having both: a love of a foreign experience with an ability to come home whenever you want.

In the meantime, I’m learning to leave the Skip button alone. After all, what’s playing is life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s a life with a lot of exhilarating highs and some pretty challenging lows.

But I guess that’s why they call Peace Corps, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”

Sometimes you need a reminder that the only button that needs pressing, is the one that says: Play.

Cheers!

 

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In the Words of Jimmy Buffett

A couple months ago I found myself in the Peace Corps office in St. George’s. Inside one of the rooms are two large bookcases, filled with various worn and used books that serve as the “Volunteer Library.” It’s not much, but it’s something.

While scanning the shelves, a certain book caught my attention. It had clearly seen better days, missing both front and back covers with faded, discolored-yellow pages. All that was remaining of the cover was the spine, worn-down and wrinkled. It read: Jimmy Buffett: A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I wasn’t surprised about the condition the book was in, it seemed fitting to his profile: worn with experience but still intact. Curious, I picked it up and threw it into my backpack to take home with me.  After all, how could I resist? It’s Jimmy Buffett.

We all know his name. We all know his music. We all know his image–one of sunshine, crystal blue waters, sandy beaches, margaritas, and 5:00 happy hours. He is a man of many talents: a musician, songwriter, author, actor, and businessman. There is a lot to admire about him and the lifestyle he has come to represent.

After all, who doesn’t want to waste away in Margaritaville?

My family has always been made up of Jimmy Buffett fans, or “Parrotheads” as they’re often called. His Greatest Hits Album was one of the few CDs we had in the house growing up. Consequently, I grew up very familiar with his music. On family vacations to the Sunset Beach, North Carolina, the days were spent in beach chairs chasing the tide while his music played from a portable speaker.

My 21st birthday was spent road-tripping down to Cincinnati, Ohio where I saw him in concert with some family and friends. It was my first time seeing him live. His performance lived up to the hype and consequently, I solidified my position in his following of Parrotheads.

During the first week of September my senior year in college, I had just officially accepted the invitation to serve in the Eastern Caribbean with the Peace Corps. Closing my laptop, I plugged my phone into my roommate’s speaker system and began playing, none other than, Jimmy Buffett. I’m not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

I didn’t know what to expect moving to the Caribbean or even what it would be like living here. It had all just seemed like a far-away, distant dream. I’ve been here for around ten months now, almost a full year, and it still sometimes feels that way.

Over the past ten months I have gotten to experience the hot sun, sandy beaches, crystal waters, and even a margarita or two during happy hour. To that extent, life in the Caribbean and the story of Jimmy Buffett met some of my expectations both in my personal experience here, as well as reading about his. There was one other thing that I have come to learn about since moving down here and as it turns out, Jimmy Buffett knows a thing or two about it, too. The funny thing is, it’s got nothing to do with the Caribbean. It has everything to do with life.

When I saw the worn-out book that was Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, I figured I could learn a thing or two from him. After all, he’s spent a significant part of his life in the Caribbean and I was curious to see what he had to say about it. I wanted to know if his experience paralleled mine in any way.

Let me tell you, his autobiography blew me away.

I feel as though I can relate to him on a personal level and it has nothing to do with our mutual connection to the Caribbean. I found that he has an incredible perspective on things. I admire the way he has lived and continues to live his life. From his first and only year at Auburn, to busking in New Orleans, to his failed attempt at country music in Nashville, he was just a man trying to find a niche to fit in. When he didn’t find one, he joined a friend on a trip to Key West. The rest, you could say, is history. He never found his niche, so he created one. To hear him tell his story is captivating. His writing is plain, straight-forward, and easy to read. His writing style is very much personal, giving you a feeling as if he were sitting right beside you while he tells his story. His literary voice is as casual as the lifestyle he represents.

Jimmy Buffett has come to embody what’s referred to as the “island-escapism” lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle engulfed in the concept of vacation, where you bask in the care-free moment and let go of the stresses of your life. It’s a life where your biggest concern is making sure you put on enough sunscreen. Parrotheads flock to his shows for this very reason, as Jimmy Buffett, through his music, brings the Caribbean beaches to stadiums and concert venues across the world. Parrotheads are a loyal fanbase, traveling far and wide to see him perform and to forget about life for awhile. What people fail to realize, however, is that although Buffett represents what it means to “escape” life, it’s really quite the opposite.

Allow me to elaborate. Rather, allow me to elaborate in the words of Buffet himself.

What follows is a series of quotes I’ve pulled from his autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. These are excerpts that caught my attention and made me think. They are quotes that moved me in such a way that I wrote them down so as not to forget them. They gave me an opportunity to reflect on what they mean and how they pertain to not only my life, but life as a whole. With each quote, I have provided an interpretation of what he means based on my personal experiences both at home and abroad. You may agree, disagree, or what have you. But either way, I hope you find as much meaning in them as I did.

“Songwriters write songs, but they really belong to the listener.”

Is there a song that whenever it comes on, you’re immediately taken back to a certain time in your life? Does it make you think of a specific place or person? That is because you have attached a meaning to the song, which now forever correlates with whatever memorable experience comes to mind. That’s the beauty of music. We can all be given the same song, but each of us may interpret it differently based on our personal experiences listening to it. Songs are given to us, the listeners, and we have the freedom to interpret and attach meaning to it in any way we like. That’s the power of music that makes it so unique; musicians can create a song, but that same song can take on countless meanings based on the various listeners. With all the various meanings attached to the same song, is it still the same song? Just more food for thought.

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If there’s one thing the Caribbean people know, it’s music.

“Time is something to be used, not saved.”

I once heard of an analogy that coincides nicely with this quote. Think of it this way:

Imagine that at the start of each day you are given $1,440. You have exactly 24 hours to spend the money. The catch is, however, that you lose the money that you don’t spend when the day is over. Therefore, you cannot save the money for tomorrow because it won’t be there, so you must spend what you can of it today. If this were the case, how would you spend your money? Think about it for a moment before moving on.

Fun fact: did you know that there are 1,440 minutes in each day? Now read that over again.

Does your plans for how to spend your “money” change?

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Time is already flying by as I am already ten months into in my Peace Corps service.

“Life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”

This one took some thought. What does he mean by this? The way I’ve come to see it, life as a scavenger hunt means that there’s something to be found. It can come in many forms: a road map, a step-by-step checklist, or even a bucket list. A scavenger hunt gives you a purpose, a mission. It gives you something to find and a means to find it. It forces you to take initiative yourself. At times, it even requires you to be creative in finding what you’re look for. It provides a series of clues and small achievements in increments to encourage you and help you measure your progress along the way. Somewhere along the lines you realize that what you’re really searching for is the experience. You’ll realize that the journey along the way to finding whatever it was you were looking for, sometimes outweighs the attained goal itself.

A surprise party, on the other hand, although enjoyable is ultimately fleeting. It requires a passive approach; one in which you wait for the things you’re supposed to search for to come to you. When the surprises do come, you receive a momentary thrill as they arrive. However, it seems that as soon as they arrive they disappear, leaving you in the exact same position as before. The surprise party is less rewarding than the scavenger hunt, as at least with the scavenger hunt you are not only rewarded by finding what you’re looking for, but you have the comfort of being able to reflect on the experience of your journey to obtaining it as well.

By taking life as a scavenger hunt, you’re able to take things one step at a time. Therefore, you’re in control. Attaining your goals not only becomes more realistic in this way, but the journey itself brings it all together in the end.

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It was once my goal to run a marathon. Looking back now, the months of training leading up to the race made the accomplishment of it all the more rewarding.

“It is my independence and my emergency parachute…I know deep down inside that if it came to it, I could cram what I really need into my backpack, hit the trail, and be perfectly happy.”

Only since my time here have I been able to relate to this. Every now and then I will pack a bag and catch a bus to explore a remote part of the island for the weekend. Sometimes even another country (as I only took my backpack with me to St. Vincent and Bequia, an island Buffett wrote very highly about with good reason). Usually with a packed lunch, a change of clothes, and a few other bare necessities, I can steal away for days at a time. I find solace in the fact that I am able to do that with such ease down here. It’s comforting knowing that the opportunity to condense my life into a backpack and steal away for a weekend is always in my back-pocket, ready to be used whenever I want it or need it. It has certainly helped that my life was already condensed into two suitcases upon coming down here, so now down-sizing even more into a single backpack seems like nothing. But in reality, I’ve learned I don’t really need a whole lot to get by and I’m perfectly content with that. All I really need, can fit into my backpack.

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The backpack I have been basically living my life out of for the past ten months.

“When you go off adventuring, part of the adventure is the unpredictable. That is what really separates travelers from tourists.”

While walking to or from school, and even while at school, I often see large tourist buses pass through Gouyave. Looking through its windows as it passes, there’s always sun-burnt tourists from the cruise ships donning shades and holding maps, binoculars, and cameras. I always wonder what they must think of me and if they wonder what I must be doing here while they pass by. Sometimes I feel as though I am a part of some zoo exhibit, where the tourists are viewing me and my community from the safety of a sheltered bus. The locals don’t seem to mind or take notice, as they’ve grown up having the presence of the large, passing tourist buses their entire life.

While I’m on the topic of cruise ships, I admit I have come to have a conflicting perspective on them. On one hand, I admire and appreciate the cruisers initiative in going out and exploring new places. On the other hand, they know exactly what they’re getting. They disembark from the massive floating cities that are the cruise ships. They’re shuffled into buses that hustle them around the island and allot them only so much time for “excursions” at various sites such as the beaches, waterfalls, and sulfur springs. There’s always a time restraint, as they have to return to the ship before the big horn blares and the ship takes off for the next island with or without them. Although efficient, this method of travel is defined and predictable. You know exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there. I’ve never been on a cruise so I do not speak from experience in this regard. This is simply my interpretation of what they’re like from what I’ve heard and seen down here, so do take what I said there with a grain of salt. That type of experience may exactly be what you’re looking for when traveling and that’s perfectly okay, you can experience a lot on a trip with a cruise. I’m just not sure it would suit me.

Travelers, on the contrary, stray from the rigid schedule and predictability of the cruise ship and bus excursions, seeking to experience the island for themselves. Travelers purchase flights and arrive in countries not necessarily knowing what they are going to experience. They have a general idea about what they’ll be doing and where they’ll be going, but they trust in the process and rely on local guidance to find all the best spots and places to go. They chase the experience of discovery and have become addicted to the life of unpredictability. It’s not necessarily a picture-perfect or glamorous way to explore new countries, as things can often go wrong. Buffett shared some of his mishaps from his time abroad, including getting shot at while flying over Jamaica and having his plane strip-searched for drugs in Columbia. My mishap experiences thankfully haven’t been to that extreme, but I have certainly had some of my own. But isn’t that the point? Sometimes the biggest mistakes you make end up making the best stories. The unpredictability is what makes an adventure just that…an adventure.

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The cruise ships are so large, that especially when they are lit up at night, appear to be like floating cities.

“[I]t is more fun sharing the adventure than doing it yourself.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Buffett on this one. It’s one thing for me to experience not only the beautiful beaches and jaw-dropping waterfalls, but also the challenges and frustrations that come with working in a differentiated classroom. All in all, this experience has been wholly mine; it’s a task I’m glad to have taken but I wish I could share. I am learning and experiencing so much and crave to share my life here with my family and friends back home or even to anyone who would listen. I wish they could see the beaches and waterfalls. I wish they could meet my students and the people in my community. Thankfully, technology comes into play here as opportunities such as this blog can help bridge that void so that others can share this experience with me.

However, having other Volunteers on the island to go through this experience with is both comforting and enjoyable, even if I only see them at best a week or two at a time. From my other volunteer experiences, it was meeting and sharing the experiences with other volunteers from across the world that made our time together abroad all the more exciting. That’s not to mention that the volunteers you meet abroad are some of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet. I am still in contact with many of the friends I’ve made while volunteering abroad. When it comes down to it, life abroad is more fun when you have people to share the experience with, plain and simple.

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The volunteers from my time in Quito, Ecuador.
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The volunteers from my time in Cape Town, South Africa.
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The Volunteers with me in Grenada.

“I think that if you live an interesting life, you have to come face-to-face with death on occasion, and it should scare you.”

I’m lucky and blessed that I haven’t had any necessarily life-threatening experiences (unless I count nearly getting hit by a car my first month in Grenada, which was my own fault, but terrifying nonetheless). That being said, I have done some potentially dangerous things in the name of thrill. The first came when I jumped from a bridge that was 300 feet above a river in Banos, Ecuador, swinging like a pendulum underneath it. It was the first time I had done anything like it. Truth be told, I am deathly afraid of heights as they make me very uncomfortable. But I also consider myself a man of opportunity. Therefore, when this opportunity presented itself, I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. After all, no one remembers the things you “almost did.” All the other volunteers were jumping and I couldn’t be the only one not to do it. So I jumped.

A year later I found myself in South Africa at the world’s fourth largest bungee jump, also the world’s largest bridge bungee at 719 feet. My stomach dropped when I saw how high it was. The other volunteers I was with on the weekend safari tour at the time were all excited to try it. I survived the one in Ecuador and was content with that. But deep down, I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t go back home and tell someone, “Yeah, I went to the world’s fourth largest bungee there, but I didn’t try it.” So my legs were tied together and I placed my arms around the shoulders of the two men who helped me to the edge. Every fiber in my being was telling me not to jump. I honestly didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to look over the edge. But my desire to prove to myself that I could do it outweighed my fear. Knowing there was a camera on me, I painted a nervous smile on my face and tried masking the fear with adrenaline. I took a deep breath, and on the count of three leaped from the ledge.

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The pit in my stomach was lifted airlessly as I fell through the sky toward the ravine below. The cord smoothly caught with tension and I began bouncing upside down through the air as the momentum settled and I simply dangled underneath the bridge. It was a thrill of a lifetime. I could feel my heart pound against my chest. Everything around me was suddenly silent and the blood began rushing to my head as I swayed back and forth, upside down beneath the bridge. I remember laughing to myself, “Here I am, halfway across the world, dangling upside down underneath a bridge. Everyone at home is sound asleep and has no idea.” Looking back now, I can honestly say jumping off that bridge was one of the greatest decisions of my life.

Having conquered my fear of heights for the second time, I went on to go skydiving with some friends a few months later when I finished my undergrad studies. My mother asked me if I had a death wish. After giving it some thought, my answer was: “It’s not a death wish. In fact, it’s really quite the opposite.” (I still had to promise her before I left that I wouldn’t do any bungees or sky-dives in the Caribbean).

Some people have called me an adrenaline-junkie or a thrill-seeker, but I don’t consider myself as such. I’d be perfectly content with keeping my two feet on solid ground. But when these opportunities came along, I wanted to prove to myself I could overcome my fear and do it. Almost daily, my students here ask me if they can watch the videos of me jumping from bridges and planes. They find it interesting and exciting. Therefore, I suppose Buffett’s got a point here.

“That’s the way life is. We all try to make something out of our lives, and some of us are just luckier than others.”

A fellow Volunteer recently asked me if I felt guilty for serving in the Caribbean, as opposed to the more challenging and isolated Peace Corps posts across the world. It is a valid question and one that I have admittedly grappled with since arriving here. At first I did feel guilty, as comparatively speaking, I have it good. I have electricity, access to wi-fi (when I’m at home), running water, and beautiful weather. That’s not to say there aren’t any challenges, it’s just the challenges we have here aren’t the same as the ones a Volunteer in a remote African village might have.

But here’s the thing: I saw this opportunity and took it. Anyone could have applied to come here. But I’m the one that prepared my resume with the necessary experiences, applied, interviewed, and accepted the invitation to serve. I am absolutely blessed to be able to live in a place people dream of visiting. Something that I’ve come to terms with since moving here, one I didn’t think I’d have to learn at that, is that there is nothing wrong with relishing in your blessings. It’s okay to get lucky sometimes, it’s okay to be blessed. Just recognize that you are blessed and do your part to pass on those blessings to those less fortunate than you are. It’s as simple as that.

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Life in the Caribbean has not been without its perks.

“That to me is the way any good romantic would look at his life: Live it first, then write it down before you go.”

When I began this blog back in June, I wasn’t sure what the nature of it was going to be or how I would go about writing it. I’ve since fallen into the routine of letting things happen on their own and waiting for something that makes me go, “Wow, now that was pretty cool.” Luckily for me, that happens just about every day down here. My blog has become a tool for me to reflect on various parts of my Peace Corps experience and share what they have come to mean to me. It also is a form of expression and stress-release, a productive hobby that I’ve come to enjoy. I don’t go out and write things down as they happen, for if I did that then I wouldn’t truly be experiencing my surroundings. Therefore, I guess I’ve taken on that, “Live it first, then write it down before you go,” mentality. Someday, hopefully I can look back on this experience and re-live the lessons I’ve learned from my life in Grenada. It’s just important not to let writing it down part get in the way of living it first.

I never considered myself either a writer or a romantic. But when it comes to this blog, I suppose I fit the profile. Either way, it’s important to live your life first and experience it with all your surroundings, emotions, and feelings. Just don’t forget to write it all down. Someday you’ll have a life-story to tell, as someday our time on Earth will be up. When that day comes, will someone have to tell your story for you? Or will you have your own story written down yourself? There is no right or wrong answer here, as that’s entirely up to you.

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I try to take time every couple weeks or so to write things from my day-to-day life into a journal. (Photo courtesy John Lyness).

“Life does not come without risks. You learn to take them, or you stay home and watch life on TV.”

They say you save the best for last, so I saved this quote for last as it is my favorite from the whole book. Blunt and calling it as it is, Buffett himself is calling out me and everyone else that is jealous of his life. It’s no secret that in today’s world, we are all absorbed in the technology that has become ingrained in our lives. When I first arrived, I was disappointed when I discovered I had a television and cable already set up in my apartment. I was looking forward to the challenge of living without it. So I cancelled the cable, despite the internal concerns I had on how I would fill my time without one. I was nervous about it, but as it turns out, I hardly notice I’m without one. Instead of staying in and watching television, I have come to develop other hobbies such as reading, writing, and playing basketball.

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My TV now gathers dust in the corner of my sitting room.

People have a hard time believing or understanding me when I tell them I don’t have a Netflix account. Honestly, not having one is something I’m kind of proud of. It’s not that I think I’m better in any way, television shows have a tremendous benefit for us. Do you every wonder why we even watch certain shows? Television shows provide an escape from our life by placing us in a fictional one, or someone else’s that we sometimes wish we had. We all have our favorites: my personals being Seinfeld, M*A*S*H, and Friends. Movies provide the same type of entertainment for a solid two or three hours at a time, in the same way also serving as an escape. When you think about it, the stories that play out on the big-screen are often very relevant to our day-to-day lives. That is why we become so attached to and invested in certain characters and shows, because we can relate to them on a personal level. We can relate to them because they’re us. They’re telling stories about life, our lives.

I’m not saying television is a bad thing. But the characters and people on your favorite shows are the very people going out and living their lives, whether it’s a fictional one or not. We spend countless hours of the week watching other people live their lives on the big screen, sometimes even longing to live out what we see ourselves. In reality, though, that very life does await us. Just like what Buffett says himself: sometimes we just have to turn off the television, step out the door, and find it.

The same goes for the life of Buffett, who has lived in exotic places ranging from Key West and St. Bart’s, to Paris and New York, all the while traveling across the world. It’s easy to admire what he’s done and be jealous of him for living in all the beautiful places he’s lived. I for one am jealous.

Originally, I had first opened his book out of curiosity to learn about the man behind the music and the “island-escapism” lifestyle. While reading it, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired. I found a man who was incredibly down-to-earth and just trying to find his way in the world. He’s not afraid of putting in the time and effort to his work, as evident of his overwhelming success across various mediums. But he strives to not forget that although we all must work, we can’t let it get in the way of us living our lives. I have come to admire him not because of the sunshine, beaches, and margaritas. I admire him because it seems like he has it all figured out.

He isn’t escaping life.

He’s living it.

Cheers!

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The Butterfly Effect: The Challenge of Integration

Butterfly Effect: (n.) the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this theory before. You may also recognize it from the Ashton Kutcher movie. But for me, this theory has come to take on an particularly personal meaning. To more accurately depict what it means to me, I’m going to alter the name of it just a bit to: “The Social Butterfly Effect.” This sums up perfectly the challenge that is integrating into a foreign community.

In layman’s terms, the butterfly effect means that every decision you make in the present moment can trigger a series of events later on. On the other hand, “The Social Butterfly Effect,” means that every decision on how you spend your time now will affect how often you are seen by others in your community.

There’s something to be said about the challenge that is integrating into a foreign community. It’s not exactly easy, even for a “social butterfly.” But in order to integrate well into a foreign community, you almost have to become a ‘Yes Man’ of sorts. Any time you are invited to take part in something, no matter whether you want to or not, you almost have to say yes. After all, if you don’t say yes, you may be perceived as anti-social and not get asked again. Consequently, you have to take advantage of every opportunity you can get to make friends, be seen, and integrate.

A problem can develop when, by saying yes to two or three invitations, you find yourself in a conflict of schedules. Not wanting to say no upfront and waiting until the last minute to cancel can also be detrimental, though, as then you can be perceived as flaky when you end up bailing. This can also lead to fewer invitations.

It’s not like you can use the excuse of, “I’ve been busy lately,” either. Let’s be honest here: no one ever really buys that excuse. After all, aren’t we all busy? But sometimes it just so happens that when you try to appease everyone, you lose touch with certain people for a certain stretch of time. You always make an effort to see them again, but sometimes that’s not until after a few weeks have already gone by.

Consequently, you consistently find yourself conflicted in having to decide between the things you need to do, the things you said yes to, and the things you want to do. Sometimes they all can get jumbled up into a mess of a weekend in which you seemingly have to juggle and jump through hoops to make it through it all. Well, for me, that sums up this past weekend.

* * *

“Raise your hand if you shared what you wrote today,” I say, reaching into my backpack for the pack of TeaTime Biscuits (basically off-brand Oreos that are oddly addictive).

Seven out of the dozen or so students gathered raise their hands and I toss a packet of cookies across the room to each one of them. Their eyes light up as they catch the cookies, happy to have been rewarded the treat. The other students, who didn’t share what superpower they would have (as that was the prompt of the day), looked on with a bit of jealousy, disappointed in the fact they didn’t get any cookies. I don’t feel bad. They know I bring the cookies to every Creative Writing Club meeting. At first, I used them as an incentive just for the students to attend. Now I use them to encourage their sharing of the work they come up with. I’ll never force a student to share their work with the rest of the group, as that would not to be true to the nature of creative writing. Yes, ideally any creative writing piece ought to be shared; but creative writing is also a means of personal expression and to an extent, a release or an escape from the outside world. Consequently, I do encourage them to share but the decision to is wholly theirs.

“All right,” I say. “That’s all I had for you today. You’re free to go. Have a good weekend.”

Before I can finish the word ‘weekend,’ they’ve already jumped from their seats and scrambled out the door. A few linger behind to either share what they’ve written in their free time or to try and coax another pack of cookies out of me (jokes on them, I reserve the leftovers for myself). The school bell echoes through the compound. All the students are joyously running free outside while my classroom finally has peace and quiet within. Moving sluggishly after another long day of being on my feet, I slowly piece the room back together.

I gather all my things into my backpack, strap it on, and head for home. On my way out, I run into one of the caretakers of the school who I’ve always made time to speak with. We agree to ‘make a lime later,’ local lingo for going out for a couple drinks. When I reach home, I begin to decompress the moment I step into my apartment. After changing my clothes, I collapse on my bed beside the soothing breeze of my fan. The daily hustle and bustle of the street chatters outside my bedroom window. The pink curtains of my room give off a superficial pink lighting as the sun shines through them. They rustle subtly in the breeze as the sweet scent of barbeque drifts into my room. I sit up in my bed.

“It’s been awhile since you got some chicken,” I say to myself. “You should go.”

I slide out of bed, slip on a pair of sandals, and walk out the door. Turning the corner in front of the market, I hustle across the street to where Thomas has his barbeque chicken grill set up. A tall man, bald with smiling eyes and dressed in a greasy apron, maneuvers efficiently behind the grill as he turns the chicken legs over and lathers a smooth layer of homemade barbeque sauce on them.

“Good afternoon Thomas,” I say. “How have you been?”

“Yeah, afternoon mon,” he replies. “Been awhile since ah seen you. You good?”

He serves me up a leg of barbeque chicken wrapped in foil. I lean against the stone wall, alongside the rest of his patrons as we catch up on what’s been going on. He tells me about his catering service and to look for him cooking his specialty, oil down, on Saturdays at the junction. Cars and buses rumble past on the street. Pedestrians walk along sidewalks so narrow, you have to turn your shoulders to make sure there’s room to pass. A guy walks up, a toothy smile full of green braces, and reaches out to me with a fist-bump. I never met this guy before, but I suppose the fact that I’m ‘liming’ with the rest of them on the street and eating Thomas’s barbeque has earned his respect. Licking my fingers clean and wiping off my chin with a napkin, I thank Thomas for the chicken and turn the corner back home.

Once back, I take this opportunity to sit back on my couch and read Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I have been quite taken by this book lately and have been cruising through it. It’s been awhile since a book has captivated me like this one has. I’ve been trying to take more time to read and this book has enabled me to do just that. As I read, however, I always leave my door open so I can keep an eye on the sky above the bank in front of my apartment. I notice the clouds have taken on a glowing, yellow color–foreshadowing the stunning sunset to come. Engulfed in the book, but pestered by the distracting beauty of the clouds, I finally tear myself away and go for a walk down the road.

By the time I get there, an orange ball of fire burns on the horizon. The yellow of the clouds is all but gone, as they’ve become purple silhouettes floating aimlessly in the sky. Due to the recent sea surge, waves roll in from the far-out sea. They grow progressively bigger until crashing violently on the rock shoreline.

“Many appreciate the beauty of the sea when it’s calm, but few recognize its beauty when it’s angry,” a man says as he approaches me.

His name is Crispin, a thin man with gray stubble on his chin and dressed in a black-and-white checkered shirt, I had met him a few months prior while watching the sun go down. We agree that it’s one thing to appreciate a calm sea, but we must not neglect the intimidating beauty of an angry sea. We talk about the upcoming general election, the hot topic of the past month. He gives me a Grenadian history lesson, telling me tales of Sir Eric Gairy and the rise and fall of Maurice Bishop that preceded the American Invasion in the early 1980s. By this time the sun had vanished, and we parted ways as the stars began appearing in the early nighttime sky.

I return home and read another chapter. One chapter was all I had time for,though, as then it was time for Fish Friday. I had to go a little earlier than usual, to make sure I was home in time for the caretaker at my school to come for me. The DJ was playing reggae from the speakers as I weaved through the dancing patrons all the way to the red tent at the end of the road. I had been meaning to try the fish at this tent, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. While I was there, two familiar faces walk up. It was Roseanne and her son, who I’ll refer to as ‘J.’ Originally from Barabados, they moved into my apartment complex at the start of the new year. I have gotten to know them pretty well, especially considering that J was placed in my class. I hadn’t spent time with them in about two weeks or so, which Roseanne teased me for. We sat down together and began to catch up on all that’s been going on since we last spoke. She told me the two of them will be returning to Barbados in June–just goes to show how much can change in just two weeks’ time.

After checking the time, I excuse myself so I could be home in time for the caretaker to check me. While I waited, I pulled up the Columbus Blue Jackets game online. I spoke to my brother Jeff the night before, and he told me he was going to the game with my sister-in-law Joy. I told him I’d try and catch the game. It’s funny, I lived in Columbus for four years and always somewhat followed the Blue Jackets, but I would only ever sit down and watch their games when I was home in Cleveland on Christmas or Easter Break. Consequently, while watching the game I felt a tinge of homesickness. But it was refreshing to watch a game I would usually be watching if I was home. After about an hour or so, the caretaker still hadn’t come by yet. He doesn’t have a phone, so he wouldn’t have a way of telling me if something came up. I wasn’t going to spend my whole night waiting for him in my apartment, time is too valuable when trying to integrate. I closed my laptop and went up the road to Mansa’s.

All the now-familiar faces at Mansa’s were there. Cosa, a shorter man with a Rasta beanie askew on the top of his head, puts his arm around my shoulder.

“Been awhile since ah seen you boy,” he says.

“Yeah,” I reply with smile. “But I’ll always be coming back.”

“Yeah mon.”

I order a rum and coke and circulate into the rotation of pool games. The Cleveland Cavaliers were playing the LA Clippers that night, the game buffering on the internet TV hung up in the corner of the bar. A G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) discussion then ensues on whether the best player of all time was Lebron James or Michael Jordan. Apparently, some debates truly are global. Although I admit to my hometown bias, I definitely vouched for The King.

After shooting a few games of pool, I walk home under a nighttime sky blanketed with clouds. A few clear patches of stars sporadically poked through. The town is quiet except for a few people standing or sitting idly on the street, the reason Gouyave is known as, “The City That Never Sleeps.” I always enjoy this short walk home, coming at the conclusion of a night well-spent.

The next morning the alarm to my phone goes off and I immediately hit the snooze button. Turning over, the chatter of the vegetable market next door fills my room. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I climb out of bed and begin my morning routine. It was the second Saturday of the month, which for me, means running the Saturday Reading Hour session at the local St. John’s Public Library. The fact that I have a public library in my community is a pretty big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s always utilized the way it should be. Therefore, I’ve joined a group of active and retired teachers to do rotations of literacy activities on Saturday mornings to draw students in.

I walk next door to pick up J, as I’d promised the night before to take him with me. We walked down the road, dodging the passing vehicles, bustling pedestrians, and patrons of the market. I wave to Thomas, who sure enough was on the corner of the junction cooking his oil down. As I’m waiting to cross, a vehicle drives past with a friendly honk. I wave to my host father, Dakka, who was in the driver’s seat.

After reaching the library, I climb the three flights of stairs to reach the top floor, where Reading Hour is held. A group of about a seven girls and a small boy file in shortly after, taking up the seats around a large wooden table. Teacher Rita, my counterpart for these sessions, hadn’t arrived yet. So I begin with the go-to, time-killing game that my third-graders love. The premise of the game is that we are all going on a trip. Each child around the table can go on the trip, but they’re only allowed to go if they bring two certain items. The catch, which they have to figure out, is that the only items they can bring are ones that begin with the first letter of their first and last names. They’re clue to realizing this is that they have to introduce themselves every time before they try. (i.e. “My name is Scott King. On my trip to Disney World I will bring socks and a kite). I always get a kick out of the baffled look of surprise when I tell a student they can’t come on the trip. It usually takes them awhile to understand what they need to do in order to come, but once one students gets it, all the other students become excited to figure out how they can come along, too.

When Teacher Rita arrives, we begin our session. I’ve recently gotten into using Mad Libs, a fun way to get the students to practice using their parts of speech and create their own stories. It’s also an opportunity to use the card game version that my friend Kevin had brought it for me when he visited back in December, which operates much like the game Apples to Apples. The students have started to buy into it, too, which is exciting to see.

Just like that, an hour passes and our session goes about an extra fifteen minutes over. I had made plans to go see the Concord Waterfalls with some other Volunteers at noon, and now was going to be late. I hustle back home and quickly change into clothes for the hike, packing a suit and a lunch as well. I run up the road to pay the rent to my landlord and speak to him for a few minutes. Then I skipped next door to the market to visit Esther, the lady with a pleasant smile I buy my fruits and vegetables from.

“It’s been some time since I’ve seen you,” she says. “Everything good?”

“Yeah, things have picked up a bit for me the past couple weeks.”

I buy saffron, celery, peppers, plantains, and christophenes from her. I enjoy stopping in to see her during Saturday Market because she’ll explain to me what I can do to prepare the various fruits and vegetables I get from her. I’m not experienced in the least bit when it comes to the kitchen, so I can use all the help I can get. I’d never heard of christophene before, so she explains to me how I can prepare it. I run home to drop the produce off and hop on a bus to Concord.

By the time I reach Concord, PCVs Sarah, John, and Hannah are all at the bus stop waiting for me. The door opens and everyone piles out so I can get off. I pay the conductor as he slides back into the bus, closing the door simultaneously as the bus drives off down the road in a moment’s notice. I turn around and we begin our hike up to the falls.

The hike to the first waterfall was up a paved road. It was a steep incline, as we were hiking up into the mountains. Simple homes and stretches of trees and gardens ran alongside the bends and turns of the road, as locals waved to us and wished us well on our journey to the falls (it’s no secret that here foreigners walking up the road are headed to the waterfall). Some children and parents call out, “Mr. John!” recognizing him from school.  Just goes to show that the “fish bowl effect” is alive and well for us Volunteers in the Grenada.

After about forty-five minutes’ walk into the steep hills and mountains of Concord, we arrived at the first waterfall. Tucked behind a simple shop was a sole palm tree over a small, natural pool. The waterfall behind it cascades down the rock chute from about 25 feet up or so. We jump into the refreshingly chilly water. Swimming into the base of the waterfall, the strong, circulating current from the crashing falls pushes me under the water and around the pool. I grab hold of a notch in the stone wall, hanging on as the current pushes past me while I catch my breath. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the falls that day, as various families both local and foreign were bathing in its waters. In the sky, Mother Nature couldn’t seem to decide whether it should be a cloudy day or not. The was sun vanishing and re-appearing periodically, constantly changing the temperature of the water. We took turns climbing up to a small ledge about ten feet above the water and leaping into the pool below.

It was like being a kid again, dancing across the rocks and exploring the small area surrounding the falls. Downstream was another set of waterfalls; this one much more rapid and beautifully violent. I climbed to the edge and peered down, looking on in awe but not daring to go a step further. Part of me wished I could pull a Bear Grylls and find a way to get to the bottom, but I knew that just wasn’t in the cards for me.

After we got our fill bathing in the falls, we decided we had enough time to make a hike to the second waterfall, another thirty minutes’ up through the forest. So we were on our way, leaping across rivers, climbing over rocks, and hiking through soft patches of mud through the bush. The mountains towered over us through the canopy of the trees. We would stop and try to identify the different things we could see: sorrel, pineapples, nutmeg trees, and cocoa trees as well as various animals like blue herons, manicou, and butterflies. At one point, the others had gone ahead as I had fallen a bit behind. I was captivated by a certain simple stream that funneled between large rocks and trickled into a little pool. It was like a baby waterfall hoping to grow up into a big one someday.

Snickering at the little analogy I came up with, I lifted myself onto the large rock above it. Wiping off my hands on my shorts, I look up and…

Wow.

Right in front of me was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. A rush of water stampedes about forty feet down a channel of rocks, tucked away in the bend of another natural pool. I was still quite a-ways from the falls, as massive boulders and fallen logs were impeding my way. I quickly climbed on, along, and around them until I finally reached it. To my left was two large boulders and I jumped from one to another until I reached the final one. This vantage point gave me an unbelievable panoramic view. In front of me were the falls, a faint rainbow protruding from the mist at the base. The pool was a transparent turquoise color of distinctly fresh water. Trees, shrubs, and ferns surrounded the scene like a forest-green wallpaper. The land around it was steep and uneven, the roots of trees exposed and clinging on for dear life. Moss-covered rocks and boulders provided a natural pier from which one could jump into the spring. Birds chirped from the trees and crickets periodically echoed from somewhere in the bush. All of those sounds, however, were drowned out by the powerful rushing of the falls.

This waterfall immediately jumped to my second-favorite spot on the island, outside of Levera Beach on the northern coast. It was beautiful in its isolated and natural surroundings; pure as it was simple. It is a place you could hide away to forget about life for awhile.

But we couldn’t stay for long, unfortunately, as at this point the sun was beginning its descent and rain threatened from the dark clouds in the distance. The hike back went by faster than the hike there and before I knew it, I caught a bus and was back home to my apartment in Gouyave. I had made it back with about half an hour to spare before basketball practice. Yes, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve joined a local team to play in an upcoming knock-out tournament. Consequently, I’ve had to practice and scrimmage against Gouyave’s primary team, the Sparklers, at least three nights a week.

With a snap of the fingers I was at the court, warming and taking shots before our scrimmage. The game starts and for some reason they have me at point guard, a position I never played growing up. Crossing half-court, the Sparklers are playing a 2-3 zone defense and are swarming quick. A teammate of mine is on the right wing. I dish it to him just as the front-men of the zone collapse on me. I take off straight ahead between them, running down the lane as the ball is passed back to me in a classic give-and-go. Grabbing the ball in stride and with a bounce down the lane, I go for the basket. Whiz, the center for the Sparklers who stands at a tall and lanky 6″4′, rushes to me. I leap forward and lay the ball off the backboard, hoping to get the shot off before he can block it. Running past the backboard and into the fence, I look over my shoulder as the ball falls through the net. My team celebrates briefly as we quickly take off to the back-court to play defense.

The reason I tell you about that play is, well, because that was the only basket I scored during the scrimmage. My team is made up of the guys who I play with on Sunday nights. We decided to come together and make a team for the tournament. We’re still figuring out a system and a style of play that works best for us. We’ve found that playing a faster game and going with a man-to-man defense serves us better. The Sparklers are easily the best team on the island, as just about everyone on that team is twice my size. Consequently, they provide a good challenge for us. We’re not where we need to be, but with each practice we are getting better. We have about two more weeks left of training before our game against the Gouyave Police on March 27th.

After the scrimmage, I walk home on the shoreline sidewalk with Livern, a man with a slender build and braided corn-rows who essentially put the team together. The waves are still crashing violently on the shore as we talk about how the scrimmage went and what we need to do moving forward. The conversation then moves to politics, as that’s still the hot topic of the island right now.

When I finally reached home, I felt like I had someplace else to go or somebody else to meet. But I was exhausted. I cut up the produce I purchased at the market earlier that morning and roasted it with chicken drumsticks. The rest of my Saturday night was spent simply: making and eating a meal on my own. I finally had a moment to catch my breath and relax. I wanted to and felt like I should go out and ‘show face’ again in the community. But that’s the thing: as important as it is for me to integrate into the community, it’s just as important, if not more so, that I take time for myself to decompress. Integrating can be a stressful process, even after a couple months. If I have to sacrifice a Saturday night every now and then to do that, then so be it.

But that’s the thing about the so-called, “Social Butterfly Effect.” It’s a Catch-22 of sorts, juggling your time and energy between the things you have to do, the things you said yes to, and the things you want to do. When you spend time with as many people as you can, the amount of times you see them varies. That’s to mention that giving up a Saturday night for yourself means one more night that you won’t see somebody. That’s one more opportunity missed in which someone may later tell you, “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you.”

The next morning, I went to church and sat down next to Dakka, my host father, who quietly says, “You’ve gone and come back.”

“Yeah, I know,” I say. “I’ll always come back.”

It seems like there’s never enough time to spend with everyone you want or need to. When you spend time with one person or group of people, it often comes at the expense of another. Not to mention when you do make plans and they end up falling through anyway. It can become frustrating when it seems you can’t even find time just for yourself.

Integrating is a challenge, particularly on a social aspect. There’s places to go, people to meet, and things to do. It’s next to impossible to please everyone. I’m trying my best to make the most of my short time down here. Between my students, my fellow teachers, the guys at court, the guys at Mansa’s, my host family, and the other PCVs, there’s always something I seemingly have to do. I’m trying to spread myself out as much as I can, to foster a relationship with as many people as I can while I’m here. Sometimes, however, it comes at the expense of not only others, but myself.

It’s important that I reserve time just for myself, something I have not been accustomed to doing in the past. But I’m learning; it’s all part of the process. The important thing is that for every, “It’s been awhile” I receive, it’ll mean that at least I came back for them to tell me that. It also shows that I have integrated into the community, to the point where people notice when I’ve been away.

That’s the big take-away for me from this weekend. I’ve been trying to make the most of my time here with the people I am with in the present moment. Consequently, it may take time before I see others again. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve forgotten about them, it just means I’m investing in the people I’m with at the moment. I may be gone for certain lengths of time, but like I told Dakka this past weekend, “I’ll always come back.”

That doubles for everyone reading this at home. I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m trying my best to Facetime with all those I can. If you’d like to Facetime with me, feel free to reach out, as it’s always good for me to see a familiar face.

But like a butterfly fluttering in a strong breeze, I’m just trying to stay the course. The wind is taking me in all sorts of directions along the route, but I’ll always come back.

In the meantime, however, I’ll also be making time for myself.

After all, sometimes even a butterfly needs to stop and rest.

Cheers!

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P.S. The Rainforest Is You

Julien Fedon, a Grenadian revolutionary, set out to abolish slavery and rid Grenada of British rule in 1795. The destination of my second hike of the year was to the site of his base camp during the rebellion. From this high point overlooking both the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of Grenada, Fedon successfully and simultaneously coordinated attacks on the towns of Grenville and Gouyave. This was a particularly impressive feat; especially given the fact that he conquered two large towns, on opposite sides of the island, at the same time. Fedon’s Rebellion continued to the point where he had gained control over the entire island outside of the parish of St. George, where the British government was seated in the capital city of St. George’s. Unfortunately for Fedon, his rebellion was put down in June of 1796 and British order was restored across the island. Slavery would go on for another 38 years, not being abolished until 1834.

As I was gathered in a circle with my fellow hikers, this brief history lesson left me captivated. It was a dreary, overcast morning complete with a persistent drizzle. The night before, a rainstorm poured heavily throughout the night, promising a muddy hike in the morning.

I took on the hike the same way I’ve taken on the others, sticking toward the back to allow myself time to enjoy the surroundings and take a few photos along the way. This hike, however, I must say was the most challenging one yet. The mud sucked in my boots, dragging my feet like a child bear-hugging his father’s leg. The hills were incredibly steep, forcing me to rely on vines, branches, and trees to pull myself up. It truly felt like I was hiking through a tropical rainforest, surrounded by the sounds of the birds in the trees and trekking through the mud with a cool breeze blowing mist onto my face. At certain points along the way, viewpoints on the mountain opened up so I could overlook the forest-covered hills that stretched all the way out to the coast. Unfortunately, the true potential of the viewpoint was compromised due to the low-hanging, stagnant rain-clouds. I wasn’t upset, however, because the ominous clouds gave the rainforest the kind of foreboding aura that something big was coming; you could feel the impending doom like a chill in your bones. It felt almost as if I was walking through a scene in Jurassic Park, where the fog and mist eerily creeps between the trees. Despite the heavy fog and clouds of the morning, the viewpoints along the way were nonetheless absolutely stunning.

By the time I reached the summit, a simple stone monument marked the site of Fedon’s Camp. Allegedly, this is the only spot on Grenada where you will find Fedon’s name. This is because after his rebellion was put down, the British essentially wiped his name from from the history books. In the small clearing atop the mountain, we stood idly around the monument surrounded by short, green foliage. Beyond the foliage, the clouds were so thick around us that we quite literally were surrounded by a wall of gray. Since this is the site where you can supposedly see both Gouyave and Grenville, I admit I was a little disappointed that the fog was so thick. But it was still enjoyable, though, because I still couldn’t get over how eerie and cool being surrounded by the clouds seemed. It was like I had quite literally hiked my way into heaven.

After a slippery and often-times treacherous trek down the mountain (during which I can proudly say I only fell once), I was exhausted. I rinsed off my clothes and boots in the stream and switched into a dry set of clothes I had stored in my backpack. Climbing into a car that served as my ride back to Gouyave, I passed out the moment we hit the winding roads. Upon arriving home, I stumbled inside and proceeded to shower and go straight to my bed for what became a glorious two-hour nap.

When I woke up, I went through the photos that I had taken that morning and began editing them. As I did this, I found them to be quite jaw-dropping. It was almost hard to accept the fact that I had actually hiked through the surreal beauty of a natural rainforest just a few hours prior. When it came time for me to sit down and translate my experience into this blog, I quite literally was at a loss for words.

But then I had an idea. I found this to be a unique opportunity to switch things up and explore something I’ve been meaning to for quite some time now. I did find the words that accurately reflected my experience hiking to Fedon’s Camp; they come in the form of a poem.

Now before you roll your eyes (as you may already have), bear with me.  Poetry is a complex field of language arts. It often takes time and effort to truly understand and appreciate a poem, which is why it can be often overlooked and neglected. However, when read appropriately it can be an enlightening experience for the reader. Consequently, when I found myself a bit puzzled on where to begin this next post-I turned to poetry to guide me.

Before you begin your own reading of the poem, let me pass on a word of advice from an old college professor of mine: when reading a poem, you must read it at least three times. The first time to become introduced to the main idea or theme of the poem; the second time as an attempt to grasp an understanding; the third time to appreciate and capture meaning from it. It may even help you to read it out loud. Now you don’t have to read it three times over or even reflect on it yourself, as I have done this already. When you hike through a mountainous rainforest, a lot of thoughts cross your mind. Multiple viewpoints offer various opportunities for reflection on many different aspects of life. My thoughts and reflections on this hike covered many things related to life, the rainforest, and the relationship between the two. I have come to find that this poem appropriately and accurately depicts my experience hiking to Fedon’s Camp:

P.S. The Rainforest is You

a young rainforest has yet to know of the world 
the harsh reality of mistrust, humiliation, and disappointment  
but maybe thats the charm of it all 
trees strung about in a wild fun mess of branches 
smells of flowers and mildewy ferns on the floors 
welcomes me to close my eyes and be comfortable 
every little detail has its own story to tell 
every little creature a character of its own 
in between the plants it whispers to me 
songs and tales of the forest’s past, present, and future 
the surface of it so bright and colorful 
and the bottom so dark and wonderfully cool 
for each drop of rain that falls feels warm against the skin 
embracing me as one of its own 
not knowing of what I have seen and felt before. 

But that does not matter, 
for the rainforest is handsome, compelling, and full of surprises, 
it takes when it can and gives even more- 
optimism that everything is alright, 
that when I am in such a beautiful place, 
there is no reason to worry- 
 
in truly heartbreaking silence, 
I think to myself- 
I hope I never have to leave. 

-Victoria Ellison

This first time I read this, I breezed right through and moved on to the next one. Yet, like any good poem, something about it remained in the back of my mind until I couldn’t resist returning to it. The more I read it, the more I found it captured not only my experience with the hike to Fedon’s Camp, but also my relationship with the rainforest and how I have come to fall in love with hikes such as this one. Focusing on simple excerpts at a time, analyzing this poem enabled me to put words to the contemplative experience this hike became for me. What follows is the introspective, line-by-line breakdown of the poem. It is a poem that captures the reflective nature of my hike and what an experience like this truly means.

a young rainforest has yet to know of the world
the harsh reality of mistrust, humiliation, and disappointment
but maybe thats the charm of it all

The rainforest, much like the one I had just trekked through, is largely untouched by human presence. It is purely raw and natural, uncompromised by the development of cities, towns, and communities. Human contact with the rainforest can be deceitful; as although many explore and delve into the forest to appreciate its natural beauty, others take advantage of its resources. This can come in the form of the logging, housing, and trophy-hunting industries which in turn lead not only to the deterioration of the rainforest, but also diminishes the natural habitats and population-rates of the animals existing within. The rainforest, always welcoming the adventurous explorers with open arms, can often be betrayed as its resources are abused by the very same people it aims to please.

Despite what could go wrong, the rainforest maintains the naivety and innocence of a child. It is ‘forever young,’ expecting the best of everyone and always trusting for no rhyme or reason. To the rainforest, everyone arrives with a clean slate. It’s the very same fresh outlook and genuine spirit that we find so appealing in children and seem to have lost ourselves somewhere along the way during our self-righteous, “know-it-all,” teenage years. We can all learn from this confiding characteristic of the rainforest, in the same way we can always learn a thing or two from the unwavering, trusting nature of our children.

trees strung about in a wild fun mess of branches
smells of flowers and mildewy ferns on the floors
welcomes me to close my eyes and be comfortable

Did you capture a visual image in your mind with this passage? Maybe you envisioned a tree standing curved but strong, surrounded by other trees with branches so intermingled, you don’t know where the first one begins and the other one ends. Maybe you pictured a tree fallen over. Held up by its unwavering counterparts, the fallen tree is covered in a thick coat of moss and draped in vines. Maybe you inhaled deep breath of fresh scents coming from exotic and vibrantly-colored flowers. Maybe you envisioned the patterned-layers of green ferns across a sun-spotted forest floor. Visual as much as it is experiential, this passage begins to describe the relationship between man and rainforest.

The forest, not concerned with any opinion you may have of it, exists as itself unapologetically. When you can appreciate and acknowledge this aspect of the rainforest, recognizing there’s no concern for any judgment to be passed, you can free up yourself to be unapologetically you. You feel at home, at peace with yourself: who you are, how far you’ve come, where you’re headed, and why you’ve come here in the first place. You close your eyes, comforted by the sweet seclusion the forest offers you.

every little detail has its own story to tell
every little creature a character of its own

As simple as a forest may seem, it’s truly complicated within. Do you remember those ecosystem graphics in the science textbooks of your early school days? In the river there’s fish, in the sky there’s birds, and there’s various animals pictured in the forest between. Cyclical arrows are drawn around the page to signify that something is always happening. The sun with its light feeds the plants, which in turn gives off the oxygen we breathe. Some animals eat the plants, while other animals higher up in the food chain feed on them. When the animals and plants die, they decompose to feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants and the cycle begins all over again. The cycle is never-ending and constantly moving. Each plant and animal plays a vital role, whether it’s as a minor or major character in the story of the forest. Yet no matter how large or small the role each character plays, the forest would be incomplete without it. On top of it all, each of these “characters,” has its own story entirely unique to itself. Therefore, the variety of characters and their stories are what truly brings the rainforest to life.

in between the plants it whispers to me
songs and tales of the forest’s past, present, and future

Close your eyes and imagine yourself walking alone through the rainforest. Now ask yourself, “Do you feel like you’re alone?” If you’re like me, you never feel alone in the woods. Whether it’s the birds chirping in the trees, the small lizards scurrying on the ground, or the rustling branches in the breeze, there’s always something that seems to give you that ominous feeling that you are not alone. Much like this passage describes, it’s almost as if the forest speaks to you. It speaks to you in a language that you hear, but may not always understand.

Yet, you can feel the history breathing within. It’s like you’ve stepped back into the past, to a time when a small army of rebels and escaped slaves are stalking through the woods to find a proper place to set up camp. It’s a time when your next day isn’t guaranteed, much less your next meal. It’s a time where you have to rely on the natural resources that surround you: the fish in the rivers, the fruits in the trees, and the game in the forest.

The rainforest you find yourself in is one that seems lost in time, enabling you to return to the past despite existing in the present. This rainforest seems not to care about the development of the outside world: where cities literally scrape the sky, stadiums light up the night, and airplanes soar through the air. The forest just continues on its stubborn path, disinterested in the changing world we live in and seeking only mind its own business. It will always maintain this mindset, as the present forever chases the future with each passing second.

the surface of it so bright and colorful
and the bottom so dark and wonderfully cool   

This excerpt simply expresses the beauty of your surroundings in the forest. All around you there are assorted, vibrant shades of green. The rain-soaked palm leaves sparkle from its glimmering coat of rain. Bright red and yellow flowers blossom by your side, opening its bell to take in what rain it can. The fog pushes through the canopy of trees, oddly enlightening the scene around you despite its intimidating presence. The forest floor is thick with mud that stains the otherwise clear streams. Freshly-fallen green leaves, along with the lackluster brown of decomposing ones, blanket the soft ground beneath your boots. The incessant breeze brings the mist, cooling you off with a refreshing, yet hair-tingling chill. The canopy of the trees provides concealment and cover on your hike, as if you were penetrating the forest in secrecy from the omniscient sun.

for each drop of rain that falls feels warm against the skin
embracing me as one of its own
not knowing of what I have seen and felt before.

That’s the beauty about the rain, it falls on everyone. The rain is unbiased and beautifully color-blind. It treats everyone the same. It doesn’t care about who you are or what you’ve done, good or bad, it falls on you just the same. I find the rain to be a fascinating thing in this manner. It’s funny-people often carry a negative connotation with the rain. After all, the rain is synonymous with dreary, lazy days curled up on a couch with a good book. In my time down here, the slightest rain has also come to mean the fear and likelihood of catching a cold (which might sound bizarre at first, but believe me: when you’ve been in the Caribbean long enough, it happens).

Yet despite this negative connotation, I find the rain to be soothing and refreshing in nature. Early on in my Peace Corps journey, I came across a quote from Bob Marley that simply states: “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.” I first came to appreciate this quote when I reached the top of Gros Piton Mountain on a rain-soaked morning in St. Lucia. That morning I cast a glance to the sky, rain falling through the canopy of the trees. My arms outstretched, I embraced the feeling of the rain falling on my skin. It was cool, yet soothing. The rain can certainly be dreary; but more importantly, it can be cleansing. It washes away your past and impresses a self-reflection into the present. When it falls gently, it calmly offers you an opportunity for a fresh start and promises you a clean slate after it passes.

But that does not matter,
for the rainforest is handsome, compelling, and full of surprises,

When I came across this part of the poem, I found the word “compelling” to be a particularly striking way to describe the rainforest. Yet, after some thought I find it accurate. There is a presence about it that convinces you to move forward. It necessitates action on your part, all the while somehow convincing you that the decision to move forward was one of your own accord.

This goes without mentioning, of course, that the forest will always throw a curveball or two your way. You dig your heels into the mud, careful of each step and mindful of where the vines and trees are in the event you need to catch your fall. But right when you think you’re in the clear, your foot slips and gives way. Arms flailing, as if crossed up between the decision of reaching for something to grab or stubbornly thinking they can maintain your balance, you land in the thick mud.

You can’t help but laugh…Rainforest: 1 You: 0. That’s the underlying beauty of the rainforest, it’s not afraid to knock you on your ass and remind you who’s boss. Which leads us to the next excerpt…

it takes when it can and gives even more-
optimism that everything is alright,
that when I am in such a beautiful place,
there is no reason to worry-

The rainforest is by no means a gift-giver. It can disorient you, take advantage of you, and manipulate you unforgivingly. But as much as it takes from you, it leaves as compensation that beautiful word called, “optimism.” To have optimism is to maintain hope. This hope can take the form of many things: hope for a better future, hope for a successful career, hope for a healthy family, hope for a peaceful world. There is a saying that goes: “Hope is seeing the light in spite of being surrounded by darkness.” This reinforces the point that as long as we have hope, in reality that is all we really need. Hope provides the motivation to make our dreams become reality. Hope inspires us to overcome our setbacks and challenges us to reach our goals. So for every setback and challenge the rainforest throws your way, as long as you maintain hope that you will make it to your destination, you will. The rainforest teaches you patience, as you may not reach your destination right away. But as long as you maintain that hope and continue moving forward, there is no need to worry. You will reach your destination and your goal. I find comfort in this.

in truly heartbreaking silence,
I think to myself-
I hope I never have to leave.

Ahh-the feeling that comes at the completion of every successful hike. Your limbs ache with exhaustion, but spiritually you are rejuvenated and alive. You’re disappointed that your journey has to come to an end and you have to return to the world of schedules and responsibilities. The rainforest is the epitome of an escape, a sanctuary from the stressful and often irrelevant cares of the world. It provides an opportunity for self-reflection and promises hope for the future. It reminds you that there are things in the world larger than you. It humbles you and reminds you to be patient, re-assuring you that you will overcome your struggles all in due time. It serves as a distraction from the seemingly overwhelming responsibilities the societal world forces upon you. It takes you back in time, all while appreciating the present and contemplative of what the future holds. It reminds you that even on a rainy, dreary day there is awe-inspiring beauty to be found in this world. It leaves you comforted by the thought that one day you’ll return to the sanctuary of ‘escapism’ that the rainforest has become.

Above all, perhaps, it reminds you of the most important thing: you. It reminds you of who you are. It reminds you that you must first understand yourself, before you can truly be yourself. Once you’ve accomplished this, much like the rainforest, you can unapologetically be yourself. You can keep that innocence and trust of a child, seeing the best in people regardless of their past. You can appreciate the various characters that play vital roles in your story, no matter how big or small their roles in your life may be. You can recognize your appearance on the surface and find value in both its beauty and its blemishes, the flowers and the mud. Much like the rain, you can embrace the fact that we are all in this life together, despite how checkered our past may or may not be. You can acknowledge the fact that despite the challenges that darken our surroundings, you don’t ever have to worry because you always have that flashlight we call, ‘Hope.’

Now let’s return to that final line:

I hope I never have to leave.

Now allow me to let you in on a little secret…you don’t have to.

Remember the title?

P.S. The Rainforest Is You

Cheers!

 

“On to De Next One”; St. Peter’s RC Sports Day

The school system here is structured into three academic terms. The first one, from the first week of September to the first week of December, is essentially when the majority of classroom learning is done. The second term, known as “Sports Term,” runs from January to Easter and is usually the shortest of the three terms. This is the term where sports takes priority, as students are pulled from the classrooms to train for Sports Day. The third term, from after Easter until about the first week of July, is largely focused on assessments and preparing the students for the next level.

I can’t speak much to the third term, given I’ve only been here for the first term and now halfway through the second. Knowing my schedule will be more challenging, I set out at the start of January to seize every opportunity I would have to work with my pull-out students.

Thank God for rain.

Grenada’s rainy season on a calendar-year historically runs from June 1st to January 1st. It’s now late February, and still raining nearly every day (keep in mind by raining, I mean passing showers that last a few minutes at a time throughout the day). Due to the unusual lingering of the rainy season this year, much of the sports training has gotten pushed back and postponed due to the wet and muddy field conditions. As a result, I’ve been able to meet with my pull-out students pretty regularly; I’m happy with the progress we’re making with long vowel sounds and the “Silent E.” With my two students reading at the Pre-K level, we’re building up fluency skills before moving on to the next step. That being said, for the past two weeks the weather has been more favorable and I have had to compete with sports training for time with my students. But as I’ve learned, Sports Day is a pretty big deal for the school and the community.

Now I know why.

I showed up at school early on Friday morning, dressed in my casual pair of khaki pants and my bright yellow Ecuador football jersey and wearing a yellow hat. All the teachers were dressed in their respective red, green, blue, and yellow colors. Much like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, the students and teachers here are divided into one of four houses: red, green, blue, and yellow. When I first arrived I was placed in blue house, but was soon moved to yellow. In recent years tending to finish toward the bottom of the totem pole in sports, yellow house is the school underdog. But luckily since I’m from Cleveland, the home of the underdog story, yellow house suits me just fine.

I quickly hopped into my principal’s car with one of the caretakers of the school, and the three of us went down to the park to begin preparing the field for Sports Day. Stepping out of the car and unloading the trunk, we carried the miscellaneous contents to the field. It was a picturesque summer morning. Birds chirped from the trees and the sun seemed to  burn increasingly hotter by the minute. A few, puffy white clouds drifted gently in the sky, pushed by a warm breeze that passed through.

The first task at hand was staking in small flags of various colors around the track. Hammer in hand, I squatted down in the hot sun, pounding the wooden-staked flags into the soft ground. As I did this, flashbacks of preparing ball fields for baseball tournaments came to mind. This time, instead of measuring and chalking baselines, I was pounding in flags marking the inside perimeter of the track.

The next step was carrying chairs out to the two tents set-up in the center of the field, where the scoreboard and special invited guests were to be seated. Students from a local secondary school were completing their javelin and discus training. As I dropped a set of three chairs under a tent, one of the female students turns to me and says hello. Looking up, I acknowledge her with a smile and hello before turning to double-back for more chairs.

“I like you,” she says. “Do you like me?”

I paused, caught off guard and not sure what to say. So with a polite smile I said, “Sure, I do.”

“You like me to be your girlfriend?”

Well this is awkward.

“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry no, I can’t. But have a good day.”

I shuffled off and went to get more chairs. You know, I knew I was signing up for a lot of unexpected things when I joined the Peace Corps, but being asked out by a fifteen-year-old was not one of those things.

The rest of the morning was spent carrying chairs, tables, benches, coolers, and those metal barricade fencing you always see at parades downtown. The DJ set up his speaker system in front of the stands. “I Feel It Coming,” by The Weeknd was blasting on repeat from the speakers with a delayed echo reverberating off the surrounding mountains. The DJ would cut in intermittently, “Check. One. Two. Sound check. One. Two.” By this time I was seated in the chairs under the tent in the center of the field. Wiping the sweat from my brow and resting my legs, I was exhausted from being on my feet all morning. I was taking a brief moment to rest alongside the caretaker and the physical education teacher, who had been helping set up the field all morning as well. Somehow the microphones found their way out to us, and we laughed as we passed it around sound-checking it ourselves and throwing our own karaoke-take into “Skankin’ Sweet,” the song by reggae artist Chronixx the DJ now had blaring.

The environment of the morning at this point was exciting and anticipatory. You could feel the impending excitement ahead, envisioning when the stands would be full, the athletes on the track, and the races taking place. Drifting off in thought, I was sitting in a chair underneath the same type of large, white tents you would always see at graduation parties. The last time I was sitting under one of these tents before an event was before my going-away party the day before I left for the Peace Corps. Back then I was seated under a white tent in my parent’s backyard. The birds were chirping on a cool, spring morning and much like today, you could feel the sun get increasingly hotter as the morning went on. The excitement I felt at this moment was similar to that of my going-away party, when you’re tired from the morning’s preparations but excited for the day’s events to come. I’ve come a long way since that cool, spring morning, but I look fondly back on that day frequently as it was easily one of the best days of my life.

I suppose that’s what happens when you’re living abroad by yourself, simple things trigger your memories of home.

The morning drifted into the early afternoon and the sun continued beating down mercilessly. A few people began trickling into the stands. Carrying the two blackboards out to the scorer’s tent, I pulled out the chalk and began writing down the current standings. It took a couple of tries, as I’m not even sure why I was the one assigned this task in the first place, given my lack of artistic ability. Needless to say, I was somewhat relieved when another teacher arrived and ‘fixed’ my scoreboard so it looked more like a scoreboard and less like a neighborhood sidewalk.

Drums thundered from down the road, as the students were about to arrive. I ran over to the entrance and watched the students, dressed in their colorful costumes and covered in glitter, march to the field. A few remarks were said and after some formalities, including a singing of Grenada’s national anthem, St. Peter’s RC Sports Day was officially underway. I took my seat alongside the three other teachers assigned to scoreboard-duty. We kicked back under the life-saving shade of the tent and watched as race after race unfolded before us. The students would line up in their respective lanes and take their mark; some were donning sneakers or cleats, others opted to run barefoot in the grass. The official would raise the gun and fire, unleashing a puff of smoke as the students took off in a sprint for the finish. I would step out into the sun, calling out and cheering my yellow house students on. I needed yellow house to do well, as pride was at stake. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who takes house pride more seriously: the students or the teachers. All the teachers, myself included, would laugh and ‘talk smack’ back and forth about each race, depending on which house won or lost. I would return to the scoreboard, taking turns reading the scores, rubbing off the board, counting, and re-writing the scores with the other teachers.

Somewhere along the way my chair was taken, but I was too busy running back and forth from the track and scoreboard to mind. A group of kindergartners were lined up in the distance, prepared for their inauguration into Sports Day with a 100-meter dash. The gun goes off and the children take off with it, running as fast as their little legs could carry them.

“Go Williams!” one of the teachers, a member of Williams House (otherwise known as red house), calls as she jumps from her seat and pounds on the desk of score-papers.

“Come on, Glean!” I shout louder, rooting for my girl in yellow running neck-in-neck with the girl in red.

The competition between the two girls quickly unfolded into a competition of pride between the two of us, cheering our respective girl on so we can thumb our nose in the others’ face afterwards with a laugh.

The girl in red out-stepped the girl in yellow as they crossed the finish line. I shake my head and laugh, “We almost had you there,” I tell the red house teacher. “Don’t lie you were nervous for a second there.”

“Nope. We had it the whole way,” she remarks slyly.

Then an uproar of calls captures our attention. I turn around to realize (along with everyone else in the park), that the kindergarten girls were still running! Caught up in the adrenaline of the race, they ran right past the finish line and kept right on going. They didn’t realize the race was over, much to the amusement of everyone watching. After that, a teacher was placed behind the finish line to ‘catch’ and stop the younger students after the finish.

As the day progressed, the races for the older children began taking place. My feet began to ache but I continued on, running back and forth between the scoreboard and the track to cheer on my yellow house students. Before I knew it, the sun had begun its descent and we had reached the day’s intermission. Seeing an open chair as an opportunity, I plopped down with a sigh. Being on my feet all day under the overbearing heat of the sun, combined with the emotional roller-coaster of excitement that was the races, my energy level was depleted. I stretched my legs out and crossed them at the ankles. Tilting my cap over my eyes, I closed them to try and catch a moment’s rest.

“Mr. King,” I was roused awake with a nudge on the shoulder. “Have you eaten your meal yet?”

“No, not since lunch,” I replied, still dazed and confused from the snooze and unsure of what she was talking about.

I was then handed a styrofoam box, inside of which was a typical Grenadian meal complete with a leg of barbeque chicken, macaroni pie, dasheen, rice, beans, plantains, and a small side-salad. It was just the hearty pick-me-up meal that I needed.

In the distance, I could see a group of police officers arrive at the gate. They strode out to the center of the field, as if on official business. A secondary school drum corps played rhythmically as the houses gathered to make their march pass. Dressed in full uniform and carrying the banner to their respective house, the four houses performed their “eyes right,” marching in unison and passing in front of the now-packed audience in the stands. After each house made their military-esque march pass, the police officers of the community gathered to score each house’s performance.

While they did this, it was time for the cheerleading performances to take place. Now, over the course of the term so far, groups of students would frequently lock and barricade themselves into a classroom after school. They took extreme measures to ensure that no one could see the rehearsal unfolding inside, while many idle students did everything they could to sneak a peek to see what that respective house’s cheerleading performance was going to be. There was a lot of talk about the cheerleading performances, as it is one of the focal points of Sports Day. It didn’t disappoint either, as it was wildly entertaining.

The blue house students started it off, dancing to various excerpts of music dressed as sailors. They completed their performance with a student in a cardboard boat ‘eliminating the enemy,’ by throwing water balloon ‘cannonballs’ at three students dressed in a red, green, and yellow shirts.

Green house went next. A Peter-Pan themed performance, the girls were dressed as fairies as the boys danced with them chivalrously. Frequent prop changes occurred with each song that was played, culminating in one of the boys wearing a dread-locked Rastafarian hat as the sweet reggae tune of “Skankin’ Sweet,” boomed yet again from the speakers. I might be a little biased, as all the students that performed for green house are part of my third grade class, but theirs was already my favorite.

Next was red house, dressed in beautiful, flowing African garb and decorative hats. A boy brought out a drum and beat it while the girls danced and twirled in a circle around him. Two other boys ran back and forth in front of them, catapulting themselves into somersaults and front-flips before the crowd. A blue, green, and yellow-painted fence was brought out, to which the girls knocked down and destroyed. At the conclusion of their dance, the crowd erupted in applause.

It was at this time I happened to look behind me. The sun was down, and a jaw-dropping shade of pink, purple, and dark blue was cast across the sky while a remnant trace of yellow lingered on the horizon. The stadium lights around the park had kicked on, illuminating the field around us. But quite honestly, the sky was doing enough of that already.

The music of yellow house’s performance kicked off with the all-too-familiar, “Are you ready kids?” “Eye, eye, captain!” call-and-response of the Spongebob Squarepants introduction. Snapping myself out the trance that was the sky, I ran back over to see the yellow house performance. Dressed in bright, yellow sailor uniforms, the students danced in circles, swaying back and forth to the music. They carried a yellow-painted cardboard coffin, moving systematically with and around it while twirling foam pirate swords. It concluded with three of the girls losing in a sword fight with the boy sailor. The three ‘casualties’ were then placed in the coffin as red, blue, and green shirts were thrown on each of one of them.

All the performances were wildly entertaining and incredibly creative. I got great amusement, particularly, out of the creative ways each house “destroyed,” their competition. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have seen it from the stands, particularly with the lavish-colored sky in the background. But now I can see why it was such a big deal to keep their rehearsals concealed and in-secret. By the end of the cheerleading performances, my cheeks were sore from smiling.

Now it was time for the relays and medleys to complete the second half of the Sports Day. The races unfolded much like they did earlier in the day, as I ran back and forth from the scoreboard and the track to cheer on my yellows.

I called out to one of my students in yellow, “Get us going strong now! You got this!”

He looked up, a wide grin spreading across his face as he nodded in acknowledgement. I ran over to where the second leg of the race was to begin.

I call out to the boy in yellow and he looks up.

“[He] is going to get us going,” I said, pointing to the first yellow runner. “Then it’s your turn to get us through!”

He jumped up excitedly and clapped his hands, ready for the challenge.

Bang!

The gun went off and the students in the first leg took off to a roar of the crowd.

“Let’s go Gleeaaaaaannn!!” I called.

The students came around the bend and handed off the batons, passing right in front of me. Blue and red were out front, followed by green, and then tailed by my guy in yellow. I bit my lip and smacked my hands together as I began walking back to the tent, eyes still on the race. This one just didn’t seem like it was to be our race. I looked down momentarily, as the third leg came around the far side of the track to the final hand-off of the 4×100 relay. My yellows had closed the gap and we’re still looking at a third place finish at-best, still trailing blue and red. As my third yellow handed the baton to the fourth, it was like the boy was touched by the speed-inducing golden mushroom from Mario Kart. The boy in yellow quickly jumped to the pace of blue before sprinting past him to catch up with red. The crowd simultaneously jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering the students on. It was shaping up to be a close finish.

“Go! Go! Go Glean! Go!” I called out, sprinting past the tent toward the finish line.

Coming down the home stretch, the boys in red and yellow were running stride-for-stride. Students chased them along the edge of the track, urging their housemates on. Teachers were jumping up and down, waving their arms frantically, trying to be heard over the crowd and their opposing colleagues. I ran right up alongside the teachers, calling out with a rough and now-strained voice. The boys’ had grimaces on their sweaty faces, pushing as hard as they could to beat the other to the finish. As they leaned across the finish line, it was clear which one had won. In the last few steps, he had created enough separation to out-step the other at the finish. The underdog yellow house won the race!

I leaped in the air, throwing my fist forward and yelling victoriously. Arms raised in celebration, I also made sure to throw a wide grin at the other teachers in red.

“Now that was a relay,” one of them says.

This is what sports is all about. Oh, how I’ve missed playing sports. I primarily played baseball my entire life,  including two years in college. When I stopped playing, I channeled my competitive drive toward running: completing a half-marathon and a full-marathon in subsequent years. I stayed around the game of baseball by coaching a youth travel team in the summer. It’s hard to lose that competitive drive when its been ingrained into who you are.

But someone once said, “Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.”

Well, my wish came true. The second-to-last race on Sports Day is known as, “The Teachers Race.” Myself and the other teachers were divided into four teams for a 4×100 meter relay race. I was to take the last leg for my team, so I ran through an old calisthenics routine from my baseball days to warm-up.  My heartbeat quickened, as the familiar feeling of adrenaline began pumping through my body.

At this point I’d like to digress by letting you in on a little secret about the King family: we’re all built like runners, but we’re notorious for seemingly running in slow-motion. During my time playing baseball, I largely played in the corner outfield spots. Laying out for a diving catch was always my favorite part. It’s a feeling like none other when you dive to the grass, the baseball falling seamlessly into the leather pocket of the glove. It’s a good thing I enjoyed diving for catches anyway, because fact of the matter is I wasn’t fast enough to catch those fly balls on the run. But when it came to running, I was always preferential to the endurance races anyway; the races where I can strategically set a proper pace before sprinting to the finish. But this was to be a plain, good old-fashioned sprint to the finish. So I took my place in Lane 5, the adjacent lane to my principal. The word on the street is he was quite the runner, so I knew I was going to have to put in some work to keep up with him.

The gun was fired and the teachers in the first leg took off. I could see a little bit of the race unfolding in the distance, but it was hard to see through the tents and spectators on the field. The batons were handed off to the second leg. The second leg on my relay team was taken by the District Education Officer for the parish of St. John’s. Due to some unexpected last-minute changes, he had joined the race lineup despite being dressed in full shirt and tie. But that didn’t stop him, as he ran a great leg and just about gave my team the lead coming into the third leg.

He handed the baton off to his daughter, whom came around the bend a step behind the leading team. Reaching back, I grabbed the baton from her and took off.  I knew there was no way I could beat the physical education teacher of the school, whose team was in first place at the final leg. So I had just one goal: give my principal a run for his money. At this point I was in second place, receiving my baton a moment ahead of him.

I came around the last of the bend to the straight-away, pumping my arms and lengthening my stride. I was running as hard and as fast as my legs could take me. My principal quickly caught up to me and forged ahead. A dark mountainside momentarily concealed the stands and stadium lights from our view, but as we hit the lights of the straight-away it was unveiled to the crowd that it might be a tight finish for second place. I pushed to keep up my pace, giving all I had to make this a close race for second. I think the crowd realized this, too, almost gasping collectively in anticipation as I tailed the pace of my principal closely; that is, until he took over the final stretch with a closing speed that I just didn’t have. I kept pushing my pace, but I was already going as fast as I could. I strode through the finish line in third place, a smile on my face.

I was happy with the race; I finished it strong. For a moment I gave the crowd hope that I could beat my principal, but for them it was just a tease before realizing my little ‘King family secret.’ I walked over to my principal and shook his hand as we laughed about the race.

“I almost had you there!” I grinned, panting and out of breath.

Next thing I knew, a flurry of students came running up to my side. They grabbed my hands and jumped on my arms, wanting their own opportunity to race Mr. King (as this was the first time they’ve seen me do anything remotely active). I just laughed, still needing to catch my breath first. That was the hardest I ran in a long time. I was going to be sore the next morning.

But it was worth it; it was all worth it. Yes, it is more challenging to accomplish what I’m here to do during Sports Term. But there is a value in having a term primarily devoted to sports. It stresses to the students the importance of maintaining good, physical health. There’s a reason every one here seems so fit, even the elderly are active. It’s also the reason, I believe, the Caribbean nations are so competitive during the Summer Olympics.

By the end of the night, blue house had won both the boys and girls division championship, sweeping St. Peter’s RC Sports Day. Red house, however, won the march pass and cheerleading competition. My yellow house finished third in the girls division, last in the boys division, and third in the march pass.

But like any unreasonably faithful underdog would say, “Maybe next year.”

In the meantime, the focus now shifts to the Branch Sports Championship. In two weeks’ time, St. Peter’s RC will go against our rival school, St. John’s Anglican. Other schools like Concord Government, Grand Roy Primary, and Florida Government will be competing as well to determine which school has the best sports in the parish of St. John’s. St. Peter’s RC won the Branch Sports last year, so this year we will have a target on our backs. If my school’s Sports Day was this exciting, I can’t wait to see what the Branch Sports will be like.

Last year the St. Peter’s RC rallying anthem was, “Take it to dem,” which they did. This year, our motto for Branch Sports will be, “On to de next one.”

So until that day comes, there’s work to be done.

“On to de next one.”

Cheers!

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From the Stars and Stripes to the Isle of Spice; Independence Day in Grenada

I stepped in front of the school yard, facing the compound of St. Peter’s RC School. A sea of children dressed in bright red, green, and yellow colors were congregated in a somewhat orderly fashion. A colorful banner hung over the school entrance with Independence Day scripted across it. Alternating-colored pennants zig-zagged back and forth over the lot. Two large trucks hauling massive speakers boomed with patriotic Grenadian folk music. The vibrations from the booming speakers shook not only the ground below my feet, but my ear drums as well.

The first truck kicked to a start and left the compound as the children of the pre-school followed behind it, shuffled along by the teachers like sheep in a flock. Following them was the kindergartners, first graders, second graders, and so on. Once the whole student body of St. Peter’s RC had begun the parade, the students of the remaining schools in Gouyave followed suit. All in all, there were about four or five different schools gathered that morning for the traditional community parade to celebrate Grenada’s National Day of Colours.

Each year on February 6, the day before Independence Day, Grenada celebrates National Colours Day with parades, songs, dancing, and other cultural performances. Much like the 4th of July in the States, everyone wears at least one, if not all, of the national colors that day. The color red represents courage and vitality, yellow for wisdom and warmth, and green for vegetation and agriculture.  Also a tribute to the Rastafarian influence in the heritage of the country, the red, yellow, and green colors serve for a brilliant display of national pride. There’s a certain vibrancy to the colors that conveys a passion for life that I believe properly suits the culture and people of Grenada. It is much different from the red, white, and blue of the USA that I was used to wearing when celebrating every 4th of July. But that was okay with me; these are their colors, their country, their pride.

I walked alongside the parade, keeping an eye on the whereabouts of my third graders and doing my part to ensure we returned with as many students as we had when we left. That didn’t stop me, however, from taking in the tremendous scene around me. I stopped frequently for pictures, blown away by the almost overwhelming mass of red, yellow, and green that snaked endlessly along the road in front of me and behind me. Humble homes of other various colors stood above and below us on either side of the hilly road. Trees reached to the sky above them, some of them tall enough to cast a merciful shade from the overbearing sun. The sun was burning hot that day, as it was the first cloudless, clear day we’ve had in weeks. (Attributed to the influence of global warming, this year the rainy season has long-passed its traditional January 1st deadline and has now stretched into February).

A small hand grasps my palm and I look down to find one of the second-grade girls by my side. An array of colorful beads decorated her hair and as she held a small, Grenadian flag and nervously sucked her thumb. With a personality true to the nature of the word ‘sweetheart,’ she has been the highlight of my day more times than not. Whether I’m walking down the corridor, through the school grounds, or to and from school, she oftentimes will grab my hand to walk with me. I could just be standing on the school grounds and she’ll run up just for the sake of holding my hand. Its incredible how much of a difference little, innocent gestures like that can make. What I did to deserve her faithful accompaniment, I don’t know, but she has certainly been a highlight of my service. So we continued walking together, hand-in-hand, stopping and starting with the parade as we came around bends and turns along the community streets.

After a short while we came around another forested bend and came upon the main stretch of road leading back into the heart of Gouyave. Leaving the shaded roads of the forest, we entered the fully-exposed streets in the glaring sun as the previously merciful trees were replaced by homes and buildings of various sizes. But the parade marched on, the sweet, rhythmic melody of Zedel Jefrey’s Happy Birthday (Grenada’s very-catchy Independence Song) blasted on repeat from the truck speakers. As we reached back into the town, members of the community were lined along both sides of the street. It felt like any other parade back in the States, as the parade-watchers on the sidewalks called out to the friends and family in the parade. They held their phones out, recording their loved ones as they waved back.

“Sir! Ah thirsty,” one of your third grade girls says as she tugs on your shirt sleeve.

“You want your water bottle?” I ask as she nods.

Flipping my backpack to the front, I reach in and pull out the water bottle she gave me before we left. I couldn’t help but feel like that father you would see at the zoo, playing the role of pack mule for the family, carrying all the water bottles and snacks for the children.

As we reached closer back to school, I looked back to see the parade had somewhat diminished behind us, as the other schools diverted from the parade as we passed their school grounds. As we crossed a bridge over a streaming river, the students, faculty, and staff of St. Peter’s RC were all that was left of the parade. By the time I reached my classroom, I plopped into my desk chair tired and sweaty, my ears ringing from the blaring music of the parade trucks.

After the classes held their respective lunch parties, the students gathered together for an assembly. Each class performed some sort of cultural song, dance, or presentation in front of the whole school. I kept one eye on the clock, however, as I had to leave school early. A US diplomat was in Grenada for the Independence Day festivities, and it was arranged for the Volunteers to meet her for a dinner. I lingered at the school as long as possible, wanting to see my third graders perform. After they performed their rendition of the song Coconut Woman, I snuck out around the back and hustled home. Quickly ironing a blue dress shirt and a fresh pair of khakis, I switched from my national colors attire into something a little more professional. Throwing a tie in my backpack, I locked the door and ran out to catch a bus.

Two bus rides later, I reached the Peace Corps office in St. George’s just in time. Myself and the other Volunteers able to make the dinner piled into two vehicles driven by on-island Peace Corps staff, off to the home of the Chargé d’Affaires, Mr. Stephen Frahm,  (the highest-ranking US diplomat on Grenada). Driving through a part of Grenada that was unchartered territory for me, elegant homes with grand gate entrances lined the roads. On the right-hand side we passed by the US Embassy, one of the smallest embassies in the world. Finally, we arrived to a large house with a security guard standing out front. The gate lifted and he waved us through. Stepping out of the vehicles, we were greeted on the veranda by Mr. Frahm and Ms. Laura Griesmer, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Barbados, among other local staff.

We took our seats in the high-backed chairs and the firm, red couches in the sitting area. Through the glass doors was a pool, shimmering in the setting sun, on a patio overlooking a seaside bay. The high-vaulted ceiling, tile floors, intricate paintings, and glass tables left the impression that this place belonged to someone of great significance. Glass bowls of roasted peanuts were even scattered throughout the home, almost as if they were simply for show.

As we were seated around the sitting room, myself and the other Volunteers introduced ourselves and explained a little bit about what we do at each of our sites. After my turn, I realized I neglected to mention where from the States I was originally from, but I shrugged it off as not a big deal and the meeting carried on. We discussed foreign matters as it relates to Grenada and the US, and were given the opportunity to ask the two diplomats questions pertaining to their job and field of foreign affairs in general. After all was said and done, we all shook hands and agreed to meet again.

I asked Mr. Frahm for his business card or contact information, as opportunities to meet prominent individuals such as himself and Ms. Griesmer really don’t come all that often. After receiving his card, I asked Ms. Griesmer for hers, of which she did not have. So she wrote down her information on the back of the business card Mr. Frahm gave me. While she did this, she asked me about my background, how I came to join the Peace Corps, and what I plan on doing after my service. When I told her I just graduated with a degree in Professional Writing from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, she nodded in acknowledgement.

“Wait,” I paused, “You know about Capital?”

“Sure I do,” she laughed. “I’m from Ohio; Cleveland, actually.”

“No way!” I smiled. “Me too! Where from in Cleveland?”

“Cleveland Heights, by Forrest Hills Park.”

“That’s crazy! I’m from Richmond Heights!”

The world just got small, but it was about to get smaller. Not only did she grow up about five minutes from where I did (I played baseball and worked at the very same Forrest Hills Park growing up), but also attended Beaumont High School. I knew many students who attended Beaumont, an all-girls Catholic high school on the East side of Cleveland. But her brother attended St. Ignatius High School, an all-boys Catholic high school in Cleveland and my alma mater. What a small, small world we live in. I mean really, what are the odds? To think, I had neglected to mention where I was from and if I hadn’t asked Ms. Griesmer for her business card, this conversation never would have happened.

The next morning was Independence Day, which meant no school. It was an opportunity to sleep in, and I took advantage by not getting out of bed until 9:00 a.m. After a quick breakfast, I threw on my newly-purchased Grenada flag t-shirt and walked up the road to my host family’s house. Out of breath hiking up the steep drive to their house, I waved to my host mother, Donna, who was waiting on the veranda balcony for me. We had arranged a few days prior for her to show me how to make oil down, Grenada’s national dish.

It was my first time in that home, my first in Grenada, in a couple months. After a pleasant greeting and hug, I placed my bag on a chair and joined Donna in the kitchen. She already had pig tail boiling in a pot of water, the first step to making a proper oil down. While catching up on the happenings in our lives since the last we’ve seen each other, she walked me through the steps to make oil down. An avid cook, her experience was on display as she effortlessly cut the coconut out of its shell. She let me try, handing me the knife and the open-faced coconut. Careful not to cut myself and moving painstakingly slow, she laughed as I chipped away at it, popping pieces of the coconut from the shell. She explained to me that her daughter has gone back to school in Oklahoma, a place she appreciates for its quietness. She throws the contents of the coconut into a blender, but not until after showing me the proper way to grate it, as they would in the old days. She peeled the breadfruit and cut out its core. I asked her if it’s possible to find all the necessary ingredients to make oil down in the States. She said it’s possible, but you can only find breadfruit in New York as far she knew. Pulling out the callaloo, she rinsed it and threw it into the pot along with the blended coconut, breadfruit, saffron powder, chicken wings, back, and neck. She explains her homemade seasoning that she makes from scratch, which she used with the chicken for this oil down. A small, black bird flutters into the kitchen and lands on the table. She waves it away as I laugh. Due to the broad width of the open windows, birds frequently fly into the house, much to her chagrin. Reaching into the cupboard, she pulls out flour and salt, kneading it and rolling it together into the long shape of dumplings.

“We’ll use a lot of dumplings,” she says. “Everyone loves dumplings.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Adding the dumplings to the pot, she threw in another layer of callaloo, onions, sweet peppers, carrots, and green figs (bananas). She turned up the heat under the pot.

“Why don’t you turn on the television and rest a little bit,” she tells me. “It’ll be some time now until it’s ready.”

Walking into their sitting area, I flipped on the television to find a movie just beginning to start. I didn’t recognize it, but it caught my attention as one of the lead roles was Jeff Bridges (cue my love for his role as ‘The Dude” in The Big Lebowski). I sat down and was immediately dialed into the movie, a story about a handful of young, teenage boys joining a school on a small sailing ship through the Caribbean.

My host father, Dakka, and host brother, Dexter, entered the room. Hot and sweaty from a morning working the land on their property up in Maran, they cleaned up before joining me on the couch to watch the movie. Dakka, an avid movie enthusiast (particularly the American Westerns), explained to me the true backstory of the movie White Squall. Much of the movie, in fact, was shot in St. George’s as the Albatross and its crew of schoolboys spend a significant amount of time in Grenada throughout the story. He beamed with pride as he pointed out the different buildings and features of Grenada he was able to identify in the background. Even the Piton Mountains of St. Lucia, one of which I hiked during my time there, was featured in passing.

I caught up with my host brother, the member of the family that played the most pivotal role in my early days of integrating into Gouyave. A welder, his work has slowed down as boating season is now in full gear (as opposed to the heavy workload he carries from October-December to prepare and repair boats for the upcoming season). He’s happy to have more time at home to spend time with his daughter, Denae, who is just about two years old now. Walking around freely in her Pampers and a tiny tank-top, she manages to utter, “Cot,” an attempt at saying my name. As it turns out, she hasn’t forgotten me after all this time. I suppose all the times my host father repeated my name to her in an attempt to get her to say it had finally paid off. As per usual, she would grab random items in the room and hand them to me. Whether it was the television remote, a juice box, or one of her toys, she was always generous to me in this regard. I was sorry that I didn’t bring my flip-flops, as she would always steal those and try to walk in them with her tiny feet.

After a short while, the oil down was ready. My host mother fixed me a dish, along with one for Dexter and one for herself. We sat on the balcony, with a view that overlooks Gouyave, while we ate. A filling and sustainable meal for any point in the day, the oil down was as good as ever. I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle making it on my own, but at least now I’ll have something to work from with the notes I took. Despite the meal in front of us, however, we all kept a watchful eye on the television. The movie was just getting good, and we took turns guessing what would happen next.

When the meal was finished, I cleaned the dish and returned to my spot on the couch. I was just hooked on this movie. I suppose it was because I could see myself in the boys on the ship. They were young, inexperienced, and learning not only about sailing, but about life as a whole while they journeyed throughout the Caribbean. I’ll spare the ending for those who have seen it already. If you haven’t, I certainly recommend it. It was the first movie I had seen start-to-finish in quite some time, and it didn’t disappoint. I was left thinking about it the rest of the day, a mark of a quality film if you ask me.

When the movie ended, I thanked Donna, Dakka, and Dexter for such a pleasant morning and made my way down the road to school. It was time to head to the National Stadium for the ceremonial military parade. I arrived at the school where a handful of students and teachers were waiting for the buses to take us down. While waiting, I checked with my principal if I could use the washroom in his office, as the staff room was locked. He nodded and I took the opportunity to use the commode. As I was washing my hands, however, I heard the thud of two heavy locks turning. My eyes got big in my reflection in the mirror. Yep, I was locked inside my principal’s office. Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up.

I wasn’t concerned, however, as 1) I had packed a sandwich and orange in my bag so was inadvertently prepared for an overnight and 2) I doubt they would leave without noticing they were missing the only white guy. I opened the shutter window and stuck my arm out, waving and calling out to the bus driver who had just arrived. He had a puzzled look on his face, one which I wish you could see. Put yourself in his shoes for a moment, for he just arrived to simply take students and teachers to the National Stadium, and here’s an arm of a white guy waving to him outside an otherwise closed office window.

He got my message though, laughing when I told him I was locked in. My principal then came to unlock the door and let me out, as we laughed heartily about the whole ordeal that resulted from a minor miscommunication.

We climbed into the buses and made our way to the National Stadium. The ceremony started as the various branches of military and police came marching out in their sharp, pristine uniforms. A unit that was evidently their own military band marched along with them. The ceremony that ensued was very formally and professionally done. The Prime Minister and Governor General of Grenada were welcomed with a thundering applause as the crowd of red, yellow, and green waved their mini-flags vigorously. After the ceremonial marches around the stadium field by each unit, the Prime Minister of Grenada, The Right Honorable Dr. Kieth Mitchell, gave a short speech acknowledging the importance of recognizing and celebrating Grenada’s Independence. Rain had come and gone, as the mountains in the backdrop beyond the stadium disappeared and reappeared with the passing clouds. When the parade was finished and the politicians were escorted out, a crew began preparing the stage for a concert that was going to take place soon thereafter. I considered staying, but after a lengthy ceremony, I admit I was ready to head back home.

It was a good decision, ultimately, as the rain came back in torrential downpours as we waited outside the stadium for the buses to pick us up. The other students and teachers huddled under their umbrellas. I just raised my backpack over my head, doing the little I could to stay dry and accepting my rain-soaked fate. When the buses arrived, I piled in with the rest of the students and teachers and was on my home. My weight shifting with every bend and turn, I rested my head on the seat back behind me and closed my eyes.

Instead of seeing the black darkness of the back of my eyelids, all I could envision was the flowing rush of red, yellow, and green from the past two days. It was a busy two days, after all. They were filled with celebrations, parades, cultural performances, meeting diplomats, cooking oil down, and ceremonial marches.

Not quite your 4th of July cookout or firework display, but I enjoyed it all the same. Independence is a tremendous thing to celebrate, no matter where you are or how you do it. I was happy to be a part of it.

Happy Independence Day, Grenada.

Cheers!

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Which Would You Choose?

You stand on the side of the road, hands on the shoulder-straps of your backpack as you wait for a car to pass. In front of you there is an open field, a silhouette of trees running along the back. A faded shade of blue spans across the dawning sky, while a burning yellow from the rising sun gently touches the underside of the clouds above them. The early morning breeze is cool and soothing.

A car appears on the road and you point to your left, indicating the direction you want to go. The car flashes its lights as it passes by, acknowledging your request for a ride but politely declining with the signal. A few minutes later a bus appears and your spirits lift, because surely they’ll have room to take you. But the bus, too, flashes its lights as it is already packed full.

This goes on for about forty-five minutes or so, as cars continue to pass you by. You’ve hitch-hiked before; it’s relatively easy here. But this is the longest you’ve ever waited and if you don’t catch a ride in the next fifteen minutes, you’re going to miss your next ride to the hike.

Just as you’re about to give up hope, a white sedan comes up slowly along the road. He pulls to the side right in front of you. He removes the items from the passenger seat as you climb in.

“Thanks so much,” you tell him. “I appreciate it.”

You ride along silently, as the man shuffles through his reggae music until he finds his song of choice. You pass through communities, winding up and down hills and crossing bridges until reaching a road along the shoreline. The sun is burning bright now, hovering just over the top of the horizon and casting its light like a lighthouse through the beachfront shops, homes, and trees to your right.

A small, billboard sign greets you to the town Grenville, the second largest town on Grenada. Usually a bustling hub during the day, the town was evidently still waking up in the early morning as shops began opening and preparing for the Saturday market rush.

“How far you going?” the driver asks.

“You can just drop me up there,” pointing to a spot on the side of the road in front of a shop.

After graciously thanking him again, you step out of the vehicle and gently close the door. He drives off as you strap on your backpack and make your way to the meeting point. When you reach the photo studio, you dial the number you were given of the person arranged to meet you.

“Yes, I just parked and will be right there,” she answers.

A short while later Nevlyn appears, introducing herself with an upbeat personality and giddiness about her. You’ve seen her before as a member of Institute Hikers, the hiking group you’ve joined, but this is the first time you’ve spoken to her. Together you walk to the bus terminal where you await a third person before getting on the bus. You check your watch as it lists 7:15 a.m. The hike was scheduled for 7:00 a.m., but you’re not concerned about being late because she is in contact with the head of the group and they won’t start the hike until you get there. They won’t start on time anyway. You know, because ‘island time’ and all.

After the next girl arrives, you all hop on a bus. Nevlyn laughs with the bus driver, clearly indicating that they know each other well. You rest your head on your backpack, trying to catch a quick snooze while on the way to the hike. You snap awake as the bus halts to a stop and climb out when the door opens. You reach into your pocket to collect the coins to pay the fare but as you do so, the bus takes off down the road. You must have had a befuddled look on your face, as Nevlyn laughs as she tells you we didn’t have to pay because she personally knew the driver. Just goes to show no matter where you are: it’s not what you know, but who you know.

The hiking group was gathered on the side of the road, tucked in behind a red van. The lush, green trees stood tall on either side of the road. The air was cool and the ground was wet with dew. It’s been raining heavily and frequently lately, so everyone is gearing up for a muddy hike. Some were tying the laces on their boots, others spraying on bug repellent, while some others took photos together. As you scan the faces of the twenty people or so gathered, you notice there were smiles all around. It was the first hike of 2018, a ‘Hills and Valleys Challenge’ starting from Black Forest in St. George and finishing in Windsor Forest in St. David. After a two-month hiatus from the hikes due to the holidays, everyone seemed genuinely happy to be back together again.

“Scott!” Peter, a man with glasses and a bucket hat sitting on the bumper of the van, calls out as he puts on a pair of long socks and rubber boots. “Where are your Peace Corps friends?”

“Just me today,” you smile back.

Peter, the head of the Institute Hikers group, then gathers everyone in a large circle and we number ourselves off. After Peter gives a brief, welcoming message and explanation of the hiking trail ahead of us, it was time to begin.

The circle quickly mashes into a column as we line up to make our way into the bush. It stops suddenly, as you realize your feet has sunken into mud an inch-thick. A nervous yet excited laughter spreads down the line as the reality that the weeks of rain we’ve been having in Grenada literally ‘sinks in.’ But you wager on with a smile on your face, knowing full-well that sometimes the best hikes are often meant to be muddy.

The morning was spent hiking up and down hills, enveloped by brilliant shades of green. A stream, deep enough to have flowing waters but shallow enough to step in without soaking your socks, runs alongside and often intersects with the trail. Whenever the trail cuts into the stream, you dance delicately across the rocks until fearlessly leaping to the other side. Trees of various sizes fan out all around you: some with thin trunks, others with trunks broader than your shoulders, some trees stand erect, while others are fallen as if pushed over by a bullying breeze. Broad leaves reach skyward in hopes of catching the few rays of sunshine able to breach the heavy cover of the canopy. A muddy trail appears and vanishes sporadically, often covered by the thick layer of fallen leaves and foliage.

When climbing up the hills, you place your steps into the footfalls of the hikers ahead of you. That doesn’t account for a time or two when your foot gives way in the mud as you desperately grab a tree or vine to catch yourself from falling.

Going down the hills calls for strategic planning: calculating the firmest ground and being conscious of the streaks of mud where hikers’ feet gave way before. You delicately step sideways down each decline, as you know that’s the most efficient and steady way down a hill. You’re particularly mindful of ‘stable’ trees, branches, and vines around you, just in case you start sliding and need a safety measure.

A part of the group ventures far ahead, out of sight in the thick foliage of the forest. They call back occasionally, looking to ensure you are still within earshot. You elected to stay back with the slower group, particularly at the end of the line. You recently have taken an interest in photography, and want to stop often to take pictures. You notice some of the ladies in the group struggling getting traction with their tennis shoes in the thick mud. So you often work alongside Drake, one of the lead guys in the group, in helping them along. Their pace is perfect for what you’re looking for. Not only can you stop to take photos, but take your time to appreciate the serenity that is the forest. A soft, cool breeze rustles the leaves of the trees. The trickling sound of the stream provides the melody to coincide with the harmony that is the songs of the birds in the trees. Rays of sunshine poke through the trees to give the surrounding forest a sparkle. Bamboo shoots seem to burst from the ground, congregated at the base but reaching out so broadly almost as in the shape of a fire. You’re reminded why hiking has always been a favorite hobby of yours.

You think back to the time you went backpacking through the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania with your brother. The terrain was very similar, the path going up and down hills and often narrowing to the point where a wrong step would lead you cascading down the side of a hill so steep, it’s as if you’d slide into oblivion. You look around to the spots you could theoretically set up camp for the night, wishing you could do so here like you did back in Allegheny. Life can be so simple when backpacking through the woods.

It’s at this point you return to the old adage you have that says there are two types of people in this world: the “cabin-in-the-woods type,” and the “cottage-on-the-beach type.” You always identified as a cottage-on-the-beach type of person. But now you’re thinking twice. You’ve seen the beauty of the Caribbean beaches, but there is a simplicity to the forest that is unmatched by anything in the world. There’s an appeal to the raw, untouched nature that brings you back to the roots of humankind. There’s a sense of preserved history and a connection with the life of your ancestors that have gone before you. You decide you might just be a cabin-in-the-woods type of person after all.

As you come to this realization, the sound of rushing water echoes through the trees. You hustle through the mud to the edge and grabbing a tree to lean from, find that the stream spills into a waterfall. A natural wonder no matter how big or small, waterfalls never cease to amaze you. Ever since you were little, you always found great joy and amusement from eyeing a drop of water and watch it get thrown from the top and cascade through the air, time seeming to slow down until it’s lost into the turmoil at the bottom.

A short while later, the trail gives way to a road. The road weaves through a humble little community until reaching a preschool that marked the ending point of the hike, as that was the location of everyone’s cars. All the hikers began changing into alternate clothes and shoes while laughing, smiling, and sharing stories from the hike. It was another Saturday morning well-spent.

You check the time: 11:36 a.m.

“Wow, I still have all day,” you say to yourself.

You pull your phone out of your bag and call fellow PCV John Lyness.

After a short conversation, it was agreed upon to meet at BBC Beach to spend the afternoon. You hop in the car of a friend you made along the hike, Lucille, who is originally from England but of Grenadian descent and has lived in St. David for the past twenty years.

She drives you back to town, dropping you near Grand Anse Beach. Meeting up with John, you two walk over the hill to BBC Beach. You lay your towels in the sand underneath a tree in front of the Kalinago Resort. White clouds with a touch of gray underneath flatten out across the sky, while pockets of blue sky attempt to break free from the concealment of the clouds. The sun was hot but the air was cool while you rest underneath the protected shade of the tree.

A short time later you make your way out into the transparent water. A chill numbs your feet and crawls farther up your back with each step you take. You take off your hat and fall backwards into the water, submerging yourself in the cold water; it soothingly cools your body, tired and aching from that morning’s hike. The waves push through you, causing your toes to momentarily lose their grip from the sandy bottom until falling back into place. You spread yourself out, feeling the waves as your arms rise and fall with each passing one.

A blonde woman in a leopard-print bikini had been running back and forth along the shoreline. Eventually, she steps into the water and swims out to you and John.

“You here on holiday?” she asks in a tough, almost-Russian accent.

The three of you strike up conversation. Originally from Croatia, she traveled the world as a model before ending up in Grenada with her husband. After a divorce, her ex-husband returned to Croatia while she opted to stay, running a business of her own for the past seven years. You discuss different features of Grenada, along with the culture of the locals from the shared “outside perspective,” that you all have. You talk about accents, in which she pleads her case that the thick, tough, accent of Croatians often leads to impress an arrogant, pompous personality on foreigners not used to hearing it. It opens your eyes (and ears to that point), that her accent certainly led you to attach that personality to her. But to her point, it’s simply just the way she talks.

A short while later, you guys drift over to some vacationing Canadians from Winnipeg that were scattered about in the water. Doug, with short white hair and stubble of a beard, speaks in a manner that almost reminds you of Oaken, the “Woo hoo, big summer blowout,” guy in the Disney movie Frozen. Their accent and way of conversation remind you how the term “Canadian-nice” must have come about. They have been coming to the Kalinago Resort annually for almost twelve years now to escape the cold in Winnipeg at this time of year. You guys trade stories of the way life is in cold, northern winters.

Eventually you step out of the water, ringing your suit dry as the sun begins its initial descent from the top of the sky in its desire to be reunited with the horizon. You fall back onto your towel in the sand, under the same tree, but this time directly in the sun. You tilt your cap over your eyes, blocking the direct sunlight but leaving a tunnel of vision to the shimmering water in front of you.

A metallic, tropical sound all of sudden resonates somewhere in the distance behind you. Sitting up and lifting your cap, you notice a steel pan group has begun playing at the resort. With a smirk creeping across your face, you lie back down and drop the hat back over your eyes. You let the familiar tropical sounds of the steel pan serenade you as feel the warmth of the sun on your skin.

The steel pan group plays song after song, hit after hit. They were playing songs you never heard of, and songs you didn’t know could sound so good on steel pan. Eventually, persuaded by the music, you and John gather your things and make your way to the resort. A few people sat on the stools of the pool-side bar, but no one was seated in the patio area where the steel pan was playing. You order a beer and take a seat in front of the steel pan trio. All of a sudden, it was as if they were playing just for you. They play their separate rhythms, but their parts all intertwined so seamlessly into a thing of beauty. They were smiling, moving, and literally feeling the music as they played in unison not only with each other, but also the drums as well.

Content with the late afternoon well-spent, you and John make a move to La Plywood, the restaurant with fantastic fish tacos at the end of the beach. A group of SGU students, clearly identifiable as Americans, were playing a game of spike ball on the beach. John, walking a little bit ahead of you, laughs with them about something before moving on toward La Plywood.

“Love it!” you call out to them as you pass by.

“Yeah, you want to play?” the one with a backwards mesh hat and green cutoff asks.

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah,” they all wave you in.

“Hey John, hold up!” you call out. “Cool if I play a quick game?”

“Oh yeah!” he laughs, coming back to watch the game.

While the sun begins creeping closer to the horizon, you pass, shuffle, spike, and dive around the small, trampoline net. You angle your hat to try and block the sun, which now has come to the point of blinding you every time you look to your right. But you were having too much fun to care. You hadn’t played spike ball in over a year, since college, so it brings up some fond memories while you play. Your team ends up winning. With some high-fives all around and an exchange of numbers, you agree to meet up with them sometime to play again.

You make your way through the warm sand until you reach La Plywood, climbing the multi-colored balcony steps fit only for a beach-side bar. You place an order of your go-to, fish tacos, while John goes for the fish sandwich that was recommended by the Croatian model from earlier. After getting a taste of both, you wish you got the fish sandwich. You thought the tacos were good? Wow. You realize you’ve developed a taste for fish in your time here.

A young couple from England takes a seat at the table next to you. You guys strike up conversation. They’ve been traveling on a sailboat all through the Caribbean, and frequently come to Grenada on their trips here. The four of you talk while the sun fades behind the horizon until finally disappearing. While the sun has finally gone down, a burnt orange now paints itself across the sky. Night begins to fall as the stars come out to glitter the sky. You and John agree that it’s time you begin working your way back to your respective homes on the northern side of the island.

On the bus ride back to Gouyave, you begin reflecting on the beauty of the beach that afternoon and evening. From the turquoise waters and blue skies, sailboats decorating the horizon, and rhythmic steel pan sound of the tropics, to the people from from various parts of the world, you acknowledge that a beach is an awe-inspiring place to be. There’s a peacefulness and a greater sense of meaning to life when at the beach. It reminds you not to take life too seriously and to enjoy what time you have. Living out the rest of your life on a beach wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

So you think back again to the old adage: cabin-in-the-woods person, or cottage-on-the-beach person?

For me, right now it’s a toss-up. I’ve always identified as a beach-person, but lately the woods is having a greater appeal. I suppose I’m fascinated so much with this question because someday I see myself having to make that decision, on where I would be happiest to live out the rest of my life. But for now, I am grateful to be able to experience both in one day, from sun-up to sun-down.

There’s a beauty and appeal to both. Ultimately, though, I think it’s a win-win.

But I’ll leave it you, as now you’ve experienced a bit of both: if you had to decide where you would live the rest of your life, either a cabin-in-the-woods or a cottage-on-the-beach…which would you choose?

Cheers!

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A Flip of the Switch; My Return to Life on Grenada

Returning to Grenada was a particularly conflicting experience. It was conflicting because although every fiber in my being wanted more time at home, I still remembered the fact that I did not even want to leave Grenada in the first place just a week before.

“Wasn’t it just two weeks ago, leaving for St. Vincent that you said you didn’t want to leave Grenada?” I tried consoling myself, but to no avail.

I didn’t have any time to process my time at home in the grand scheme of things. Consequently, I was forced to overwhelmingly try and process it all during my flight from Cleveland to Miami. The three prior weeks were an incredible stretch of time in which I did so much and saw so many people in such a short span of time. Having burnt out from this non-stop, three-countries-in-three-weeks itinerary, I was straight exhausted. I was drained emotionally, and had just become numb to my surroundings. I was constantly trapped in thought, and had flat-lined from an energy standpoint.

Fitting to my less-than-exuberant state when arriving in Miami, I found out I missed my connecting flight to Trinidad. Consequently, I was stranded in Miami, a place I didn’t know a soul.

So I called my mother.

“Hold on, let me call your Aunt Colleen,” she told me. “I think she actually might be in Miami.”

I hung up the phone, looking at it puzzlingly. I have family in Northern Florida, but not in Miami.

“No way,” I shook my head. “What would they be doing in Miami?”

A moment later my phone lit up with a call from one of my cousins.

“Wait, so you guys are in Miami?” I asked.

“Yeah! We’re on our way to get you right now,” she answered.

Grabbing my suitcase and stepping out into a bright, sunny Miami day, I waited outside as cars circled past like a never-ending carousel. While waiting, I dialed the airline number and was put on hold, forever trying to get through so I could re-schedule my flight (the airliner’s desk had already closed).

Eventually a car rolled up, with two familiar, smiling faces inside.

“Boy, am I glad to see you guys,” I laughed, hugging my cousins as they helped me load my luggage into the rental car.

Riding in the backseat along a Miami highway, I was re-familiarized with the sight of palm trees and a blue summer sky. I wasn’t able to appreciate the passing views much, however, as I still had a phone pressed to my ear waiting for the incessant ‘elevator music’ to end. As we reached the hotel, just to my luck, the call dropped. So, putting it off for the time being, I was reunited with the Willis family: my aunt, uncle, and cousins on my mother’s side. They helped me get situated into their hotel room and waited at the lobby bar while I paced aimlessly back and forth, once again on the phone with the airline. Then about forty-five minutes to an hour later, my flight the next morning was booked. Crisis averted. I was still going to make it to Grenada.

I was down, but with my flight resolved I could now enjoy my time with the extended family. Being with them was exactly the pick-me-up I needed. I hadn’t seen any of them since my cousin Billy’s wedding back in April. I tagged along as they had a family gathering to attend. In a quiet, retirement community, we spent time together around a dinner table while the young children ran around in games of hide and seek. My uncle showed me his father’s office space. Old, faded photos hung on the walls and shelves. In many of the photos, vintage race cars were on a track, a helmet peeking out of the seat behind the wheel. The helmeted man was his father, a former racer and avid car-enthusiast, whose home I was graciously welcomed into despite being teased for my Notre Dame shirt.

I needed a night like this for many reasons. Mostly, it served as a buffer. For me, it was one final home-cooked meal. It was one more night in the States. It was one more hot-water, strong-pressure shower. It was one more night’s rest in complete silence. It was one more night of being with family, catching up on each other’s lives and re-telling of old family tales.

Although appreciative of one extra night in the States, it was still time for me to return. The next morning it was yet another round of goodbyes, this time in a hotel parking lot, as they then took me back to the airport.

I made it through check-in and TSA seamlessly, boarded my flight and was off to Trinidad.

In all the airports I’ve flown in to, I am always somewhat lost in terms of where I should go, particularly after disembarking from the airplane. When I arrived in Trinidad, it was no different. I stepped off the plane and proceeded to follow the people in front of me, presuming I was headed in the right direction. After making a couple turns and going down a set of stairs, I found myself in the immigration line.

“Okay, something’s not right,” I thought to myself.

I walked around to the front of the line and asked for assistance, given I was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Grenada. The lady asked me to wait for a moment, disappearing behind the desk. Re-emerging she asked me to come with her, along with the two other Americans also going to Grenada that had followed me to the desk.

“Your flight has been canceled,” she tells us. “You will be put on the next flight that leaves at 5:30 tomorrow morning.”

“Okay,” I shrugged passively.

I didn’t mind. I saw this simply as an opportunity, as it brought back a memory of the last time a flight of mine was canceled. On my way back from Cape Town last year, I had a connecting flight to Cleveland from JFK Airport in New York City. At the time I had never been to New York City, so when they requested for someone to offer up their seat I quickly jumped at the opportunity. As it turned out, the flight was canceled anyway due to weather. But regardless, the airline put me up in the Holiday Inn at Times Square. So late that night and early the next morning, I took advantage of staying in the heart of the City, running around and finding sights such as Times Square and the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center (not to mention getting lost a time or two). It was an awe-inspiring experience seeing the towering skyscrapers, endless traffic, and bright lights. Although I only got to spend a few hours in the Big Apple, I hope to return someday to experience it more fully.

Anyway, after waiting for quite some time, a taxi finally arrived at the airport to take us to the nearby hotel. We stepped out in the hot, humid, Caribbean air as standing puddles from a recent rainfall were spotted the street. We piled in the van and after arriving, checked in to the hotel.

I was giddy. After another day of dwelling on what I left behind in the States, the overnight stay in Trinidad reminded me why I love international travel so much. I got the same excitement I have whenever I arrive in a new country. It was that bubbly, new, not-sure-what’s-going-to-happen-next type of feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve become addicted to, a feeling otherwise known as the travel bug.

The hotel and the accommodation I was provided was nothing short of fantastic. The tile floors of the halls were polished and clean. A glass chandelier hung elegantly in the lobby. Adventures of a Lifetime, a song from Coldplay’s ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ album played over the lobby speakers. (This was particularly ironic, as it was that very same Coldplay album that I listened on repeat during my twelve-hour flights to and from South Africa). The hotel room itself was pristine, yet subtle, as a hotel room should be in order for one to relax and truly be at ease. The bed was large and the pillows were firm, but comfortable nonetheless. A single lounge chair sat in the corner and a flat screen TV was mounted on the wall.

With my new-found energy, I went over to the bar next to the lobby. The only individual there was the bartender, a light-skinned woman with her hair pulled back into a pony-tail as wiped down the countertop. I took a seat at one of the stools and ordered a beer. But the beer really wasn’t what I was looking for.

While a tennis match played idly on the television in the background, we struck up conversation. She was a local Trinidadian. With a pleasant smile, she began to explain to me how Trinidad differs from the other islands. A large producer of oil, the economy is a lot stronger and the population is a lot bigger than many of the other, smaller Eastern Caribbean islands. But with the higher population, she noted, inevitably comes higher crime rates. She described a country that benefited from the stable rule as a British colony before gaining its own Independence. She delved into the make-up of ‘Trini’s’, as one half of the population comes from African descent, while the other comes from Indian descent; meanwhile, with the addition of the original Carib people, a melting pot of cultures and people have come to fruition here.

She spent some time bartending on Turks and Caicos, an island-nation made up of countless, smaller islands on both the Turks-side and the Caicos-side. Her favorite part, she said, was a part of Caicos with a highway on a stretch of land so narrow, the Caribbean Sea straddled you on either side.

She hasn’t visited much of the Eastern Caribbean islands, with the exception of St. Lucia. However, she mentioned there was one thing that remained the same no matter where you went in the Caribbean: the generosity of the people. The best island, in her opinion, was the Bahamas. With an economy almost solely reliant on tourism, she described the people as willing to go above and beyond to accommodate their visitors. They are the type of people that would open your door and lay their jacket down so you wouldn’t have to step in the mud. Of course, that’s not to mention the pristine, white-sand beaches and turquoise waters unmatched by the rest of the Caribbean. To her, the Bahamas is the penultimate Caribbean experience.

Rejuvenated from the conversation, I thanked her and bid her good night, returning to my room. Leaping into the finely-made bed, I shut the lights and flipped on the television, where I found Ohio State playing in their bowl game. Now it was time for me to relax, and enjoy one more night to myself, doing what I would be if I were at home: watching football.

But ultimately, the overnight in Trinidad was just another blessing for me to count. It meant another opportunity to learn about and experience (to a small extent), a new country. It meant one more night’s rest in complete silence. It meant one more night of having access to a television. It meant one more night with a hot water, strong-pressure shower. This goes without mentioning my favorite part, that it also meant one more stamp on my passport.

By sunrise the next morning, I had arrived in Grenada after a twenty minute flight. Jumping into the first available taxi, I cruised up the coast to Gouyave. I passed the same beaches, the same resorts, the same towns, the same mountains, and the Caribbean Sea was as beautiful as ever. Flashbacks from my first ride up to Gouyave, in the shotgun seat with my host dad on a late July afternoon, ran through my mind. The views were just as stunning, but this time I wasn’t so thrilled. Having come down from the ‘high’ that Trinidad was for me, I was back to ‘old, familiar Grenada.’ Truthfully, it took a couple days for me to re-gather my bearings. After all, my break from school was a non-stop emotional roller coaster that included traveling for three weeks straight. All of a sudden, I was brought back to reality.

Thankfully, school has started up and since then I’ve had time to process all that has happened and reflect on the experience. I have come to terms with my return and I can assure you, I am happy to be back.

Which brings me to this: While I was at home I was frequently asked the question, “What is it like to be back home?”

My answer: “It was like a flip of the switch.”

It was such a seamless transition back into my life at home that it almost seemed as if the past six months never happened.

From the beginning they always said, “The culture shock when returning home is tougher than the culture shock upon arriving in your host country.”

So when coming home for this past Christmas I had mentally prepared for the impending culture shock. I had a taste of it when I toured St. George’s University’s campus a couple months prior: when the sight of water fountains, clean public restrooms, spacious roads, and air-conditioning units was almost overwhelming. That experience largely led to my uneasiness about what it would be like for me to return home.

But as my previous post showed, it was like I had never left in the first place.

While I was home, everything was go-go-go. I had places to go, people to see. I had a full agenda to see as many of my family and friends as I possibly could in the short week I was allotted at home. Although I did not see everyone, I am satisfied with how many of my family and friends I was able to see.

But that would not have been possible if not for you guys. You guys stepped up; and I mean stepped UP.

It was an incredibly touching and heart-warming experience for me to witness those that went entirely out of their way to see me. For those that tried and weren’t able to, the conversation and effort you gave was truly appreciated.

It humbled me and reminded me about what I gave up in coming here. Let me tell you, I gave up a lot.

From meeting out to get breakfast, to buying a drink, to covering the uber, to stopping by my home, and everything in between I am truly grateful for everyone that made my time at home so enjoyable.

So when it came time for me to leave, it’s not surprising that I wasn’t ready. I had returned to the place I’m from, with the people I love. I was home.

But home is not where I need to be right now. I need to be here.

I need to be here because I have a purpose. During the first week of school, I re-evaluated my pull-out students. There were a total of fourteen students from the third grade that I worked with over the course of the last term. Using the same assessment I used to gauge their reading levels when I first arrived, I went to measure their progress. From the results, I discovered that seven out of my fourteen students’ reading improved by one grade level. By this, I mean a student could have improved from a Pre-K reading level to Kindergarten, Kindergarten to grade one, or grade one to grade two, etc. Out of the seven students that showed one grade level of progress, three of them improved from a grade two to grade three. Given that those three are now reading at their actual grade level, I will no longer be pulling them out for additional work. Aside from the seven that improved, four maintained their initial reading level and three actually declined.

I’m very encouraged by the results of my second assessment. I only met with the students once per week. I’m also not a true teacher by any means. But having witnessed a student read something they couldn’t before is incredibly rewarding, to say the least.

I can’t take full credit, however. Some of the students could have had a difficult time or been lackadaisical the day of the first assessment, and been at full focus on the second assessment, or vice versa. But, these results are what I’ve measured. I’m proud of my students and the work they put in, but I’m not satisfied.

I now have additional time available after releasing the three students from the pull-out program. Having two third-graders reading at a Pre-K level, I aim to meet with them twice a week to provide them that much more one-on-one attention. I will also be adding a second grader and a seventh grader to my schedule. Assessing the seventh grader, I discovered he was able to identify only fourteen letters and make just six letter sounds. He’s fifteen years old and now I am now his last chance at being able to read. Just another humble reminder of why Peace Corps is needed here.

Having spent the past term in a Caribbean classroom, I can see how a student like my seventh-grader can slip through the cracks. It might seem unbelievable or implausible at home, but believe me, differentiated classrooms are a very real thing and a difficult problem to address.

During our parent-teacher conferences, it was clear which students had a family foundation at home. It was not surprising which ones didn’t. Consequently, I have witnessed how a solid family foundation can positively influence a student’s academic abilities.

Being here has led me to realize that I am a product of the efforts of my parents and the family foundation they provided for me. Without them, or any of my teachers throughout my years of education, I don’t know where I would be. I certainly wouldn’t be here.

That foundation was exactly why leaving the States was so difficult for me. I wasn’t ready to come back. I was thriving in the blessings I was born with and was provided all my life. I admit, I didn’t feel much regret for having grown up with more than what my students have grown up with here. I’ve just come to recognize the blessings I have and truly appreciate them. What I can do, however, is do everything in my power to take the same blessings and opportunities I received, and relay them to my students here. So, in this sense, it was a humbling reminder and a re-kindling of motivation for me to return home.

In the meantime, I have once again flipped the switch. I flipped back into my alternative life that is uniquely my own, and distinctly Caribbean. The same students still passes by my window, calling my name in requests to go to the park and throw the frisbee or the “American football.” The same group of guys still play basketball every Sunday night. I returned to the Fish Fridays and shoot pool at Mansah’s. I have returned to my community walks to see the sun set. I even shook the hand of Grenada’s only Olympic gold medalist Kirani James, who hails from Gouyave, at the local church.

Last weekend, I met up with the other Volunteers at Grand Anse Beach. Every time we have gone, some local men with their speedboats and inflatable couches and tubes persistently offer to take us for a ride, wanting our business. I always turn them down. But last Saturday, after initially declining the offer out of reflex, I joined some other Volunteers for a water-tubing joyride. White-knuckling the handles to my sides, I hung on for dear life as the boat accelerated at tremendous speeds. We sped back and forth along the coast, the beach and resorts passing in a blur. Mist from the wakes of the boat sprayed on my face as I laughed uncontrollably, doing everything in my power not to get tossed from my seat. What a thrill.

So yes, I did have a difficult time re-adjusting to Grenada. But now that I’ve had time to process all that has happened in the past two months, I am happy to be back. I’m back into the swing of things.

My time at home reminded me of what I’m missing. But it also left me comforted with the thought of knowing what I’ll be blessed to return to when my service is up.

In the meantime, the switch is flipped. When I originally left the States, I was only here for six months. Those six months, although they felt long, really went by like a snap of the fingers. But I still have a year and a half left. I certainly aim to make the most of it.

Here’s to looking ahead at the adventures and the progress to come.

Cheers!

 

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