Catch Your Breath First

It’s like that time you were a kid; that hot summer day in the middle of July. School was out so you had time to kill. You’re at the top of the steepest hill in the neighborhood, straddling the bike that came as a birthday gift two summers ago. The road seems as long as it is wide, dropping sharply down and sneaking into the distance like a storybook sketch. You click the buckle of your chinstrap and adjust your helmet. Taking a deep breath, you whisper to yourself:

“Ready. Set. GO!”

You kick the bike forward and push the pedals as hard as you can, sprinting on the top of the bike. A breeze brushes past, your bike picking up speed as you approach the descent. You stop pedaling abruptly, crouching low over the top of the handlebars. Feeling the weight of your momentum take you over the peak of the hill, you break into the sharp descent. The chains of the bike whirr beneath your feet, the soundtrack of your ride. Leaning left and leaning right, you cascade down the hill with a smile on your face. Excitement builds up in your chest, the type of exhilaration that comes from a high-speed thrill. You weave past the broken pieces and pockets of the road, the remaining evidence of the past winter’s toll. The streaming wind feels warm against your cheeks as you careen around a bend in the road.

Just then a vehicle blows past you on your right. Startling you, the bike nearly tumbles as you flinch to your left. Overcompensating back to the right, you wobble back into control. Quickly easing back onto the seat, you press onto the brakes of the handlebar. You pull off into the apron of a driveway, skidding to a stop under a shaded tree on the sidewalk lawn.

Placing your feet on the ground, you take a moment to slowly gain back your breath. You know that road receives traffic, you just usually hear it coming first. As your heart rate settles back down, you begin to think…

Sometimes it seems we get too comfortable. Sometimes when we’ve done something for a long time, we just kind of fall into the routine of things. Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and all of a sudden, it’s another year gone. Lost in routine, we sometimes lose sight of what we should expect; then are somehow surprised when they actually happen.  We know better, but somehow whether it’s the thrill or the routine or both, we still manage to lose track every time.

This year, much like riding down that hill, has been nothing but a thrill. I had gotten comfortable, though, quickly cruising along this road to who I am becoming. However, things as they often do, began moving fast. Almost too fast. Then just like the day I was careening down the hill, something I should have expected caught me off guard. 

It’s nothing new. Just as I should have expected traffic to be on the road, I should have expected the year to be approaching its inevitable end. These things should be expected to happen, simply because they always do. That doesn’t mean they still can’t surprise you when they come. 

I recently took the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). I spent the past few months studying and preparing for it, adding more stress but less time to my days after school. I’ve been making time to figure out my next step, trying to keep moving fast and stay ahead of the game. But as exciting as the future can be, it can also be overwhelming.  

There’s been a teachers’ strike taking place on and off for the past two weeks across the island here. The details of the strike I won’t get into, as I’m certainly not in a position to divulge in either way. So the few days I’ve had off from school have been spent studying and now that the test has been taken, I’ve been exploring the different possibilities that the future might hold for me.

During that process, the realization has come that 2018 is almost over and the final homestretch to the finish of this journey is right around the corner. I got comfortable in my routine of life and school, cruising down a high-speed hill. Then just as the thrill of the ride seems to peak, an unsuspecting reality check forced me to pump the brakes and regain control. These reality checks, although sometimes surprising, are often necessary. Sometimes when they catch you off guard, you just have to pull off to the side of the road and recapture your breath. 

I think I’m ready to discover what 2019 has in store, but I’m not exactly ready for 2018 to end. It seems like I’m caught between worlds, just needing a little bit more time to figure all of this out. I’m almost to where I want to be; but there’s more work to be done. I’m not there yet.

And that’s okay, because there’s still time. I still have the rest of the hill to go. And I know exactly what I need to do to get there.

Sometimes you just have to catch your breath first.

…so like that July afternoon, I’ll walk my bike back to the curb, kick forward, and careen the rest of the way down the hill.

Cheers!

 

 

(A few snapshots of my students’ work over the past couple of weeks).

The Sky is the Limit

Pacing back and forth from the classroom to the gate of the school, I peek once more to see if anyone else is coming up the road. A few children chase each other around the carpark beside me.

“You guys coming in for Story Night?” I ask curiously. 

“Yes!” one of the boys exclaimed. “We’re just waiting for our mother.” 

Not sure if I should take their word for it, I walk back down the corridor toward the classroom at the end of the building. Reaching the final door, I step in and take another look around. Four families sit scattered throughout an assembly of empty chairs. A feeling of uncertainty bubbles up inside me. To the right my laptop sits on a small, brown table next to a projector. A large, canvas screen is stretched across the stage. The words, “Welcome to Story Night at St. Peter’s R.C.!” shines brightly from the humming projector.  

“What do you think?” Teacher Rita, my counterpart teacher, asks me. “About five more minutes?” 

Glancing down at my watch, it read 4:42 p.m. 

Biting my lip, I hesitate. The first-ever “Story Night at the RC” was scheduled to begin at 4:30. We were already behind schedule, but I didn’t want to start just yet. I was still hoping more than just four families would show up. As many as eighteen families had indicated interest in attending when I had first announced the event just a few weeks prior. 

“There has to be more coming,” I think to myself. After all, scheduled events do tend to run on their own time here in the West Indies.  

“Yeah, let’s start in five more minutes,” I finally concede. 

I pace back down the corridor, climbing the stairs to the second level of the school to see if I could get a better vantage point of the road. The same kids continue running around the carpark, still without a parent to accompany them.  

“Oh!” I exclaim, remembering something I should’ve done already.  

Hustling back down the stairs, I slip into the principal’s office and grab the keys to the library. Running back upstairs, I hurry down the corridor to the library at the far end of the school. Unlocking the padlocked gate and turning loose the deadbolt on the door, I poke my head inside to see if everything is in place. Content with what I saw, I switch back off the lights and close the gate softly. 

A light rain had begun to fall, the soft sprinkling sound of the rain on the rooftop subtly drawing my attention. Looking out to the mountains beyond the school, the rain visibly fell from the approaching gray clouds and into the rugged, green landscape below. The palm leaves of the banana trees in the small farm adjacent to the school rustles in the breeze. Just beyond a house in the near distance, a bright rainbow appears like a promise, waving its way from the clouds to the trees to assure me it was all going to turn out all right. 

“That’s gotta be a good sign,” I exhale hopefully.  

Returning downstairs, I step into the classroom and pick up the microphone. It was time to get the Story Night started.  

“Good afternoon, and welcome to the first-ever Story Night at St. Peter’s RC!” 

After welcoming the families, I explain the itinerary for the evening. As I do this, a family appears in the doorway at the back of the classroom and quietly takes a seat. A few minutes later, the children from the carpark walk in with their mother, who evidently had finally arrived. Then another family walks in, followed by another. My heart began to skip with excitement, relieved to have more families arriving.  By the time all was said and done and the story was about to begin, thirteen families were seated throughout the assembly. The rainbow’s promise had held true. 

Handing the microphone to Teacher Rita, she takes a seat in front of the audience. In an animated and enthusiastic fashion, she reads Chicken Licken (a spin-off tale of Chicken Little), the featured story of the night. On the big screen behind her, the pages of the story appear, as I had taken pictures of the pages and put them in a slideshow for the audience to follow along (a tip I picked up from fellow PCV Deb Campelia). With a green pointer, I trace underneath each word on the screen as Teacher Rita reads along. With every voice change and exaggeration Teacher Rita would make with each of the characters, the children would giggle to the delight of their parents. Taking a peek back at the audience, all their eyes were fixed on the screen, anxiously following along to see what would happen to Chicken Licken and his friends. A few fellow staff members, evidently not having left the school yet, discreetly linger in the back as they, too, listen along to the reading. When Teacher Rita finished the story, the families erupted in applause.  

“All right, thank you Teacher Rita for such a great and enthusiastic reading of our story,” I say, taking back the mic. “Now that we have finished our story, I have some questions I’d like us to answer.” 

Picking up my list of questions, I ask the audience various questions specific to the characters and events of the story. Hands shot up, some eagerly, others hesitantly. Sometimes a murmur of opinions would break out with each answer; other times, applause. There was one particularly difficult question I had selected, however, to challenge the audience to see who was really paying attention to detail. In the story, it was to be one of the character’s birthdays the next day; I wanted to know whose. Guess after guess, answer after answer, no one seemed to remember whose birthday it was going to be. Then a boy in the middle of the room timidly raises his hand. 

“What do you think?” I ask him, as Teacher Rita passes him a mic. 

“Ducky Lucky?” 

“Yes! It was Ducky Lucky’s birthday, he’s correct!”

The audience boomed in applause as the boy sheepishly smiled, his mother giving him a celebratory high-five. All the questions having been answered from the list, I began explaining the follow-up activity we had in store for the night. 

“Upon arriving, some of you would have received a cut-out of one of our characters from the story. Now, we are going to re-enact the story ourselves. So who does the story start with?”  

“Chicken Licken!” the audience calls. 

“All right, so who has Chicken Licken? Where is Chicken Licken?” 

“Here!” A mother jumps up from her seat, waving her cut-out picture of Chicken Licken excitedly. 

She walks up to the front and faces the audience. Taking the mic, she mimics an acorn falling on her head and proclaims, “Oh! The sky is falling! I must go and tell the King!” 

Laughter breaks out at the passionate performance. 

“Okay, very good,” I laugh. “Now who’s next? Where’s Turkey Lurkey?” 

A boy in the front row cautiously raises his hand, unsure of what’s about to happen. The mother scurries over to the boy. 

“Turkey Lurkey! The sky is falling and we’re all going to die! We must go and tell the King!” she blurts, remembering verbatim the lines from the book. She grabs the boy by his arm and pulls him up to the front as laughter once again breaks out among the audience.  

Handing the microphone to the boy, he then timidly meanders into the audience to the next character. He recites his line to the girl playing the next character, Goosey Loosey, who follows him up to the front. This goes on and on until each of the characters are brought to the front, some reluctantly, some excitedly.  

Finally came the turn for Foxy Loxy, the villain of our story. A small boy apprehensively walks up to one of the older boys, who was playing the role of our villian; the small boy mumbles into the mic that the sky was falling and tells Foxy Loxy that we must all go and tell the king. The older boy, completely in sync with his villainous character, confidently and smoothly asserts, “I know the way to the king. Follow me and I’ll show you the way.”

Standing up, the older boy places his arm around the small boy’s shoulder. He walks him back to the front of the room and to his “den,” where Foxy Loxy’s family then consumes all the poor, unsuspecting birds to bring about the tragic end of our story. The families chuckle in amusement and cheer for the participants as they return to their seats, smiles spread across their faces. 

“Now, Chicken Licken,” I say, taking back the microphone and turning to the mother who acted as protagonist of the story, “How did playing Chicken Licken make you feel?” 

“Bad,” she says.  

“And why did it make you feel bad?” 

“Well, because I thought the sky was falling and in panic, I led the other birds into Foxy Loxy’s den.” 

“Very good!” I reply, surprised and amused by the quick and impressive response. 

We continued on down the line, the parents and children sharing their experiences acting as each of characters, until finally once again reaching Foxy Loxy. 

“And how did being the fox make you feel?” I ask the older boy. 

“Good!” he answers excitedly. 

“And why is that?” 

“Because I just fed my family and didn’t even have to work for it!” he beams proudly, the audience erupting once again in laughter. 

“Well done! Give yourselves all another round of applause,” I laugh. “Now, at the end of every story, we should always ask ourselves a certain question: What was the moral of the story? For those that don’t know what I mean by this, the moral of the story is the lesson to be taken away from the story we just read. What did we learn from our story of Chicken Licken, that we can take and apply to our own lives?” 

The boy who played Foxy Loxy, sitting in the back alongside his mother, raises his hand. Teacher Rita walks the microphone over to him as he announces, “Don’t believe everything people tell you, in case it’s not true.” 

“Good answer!” the audience applauds. “It’s important that we take the time to make sure something is true before we believe it. If one of the characters had simply asked how or why the sky was falling, they might have realized Chicken Licken’s mistake and would never have been tricked into going inside Foxy Loxy’s den.” 

“This concludes the first portion of our night. You are all now invited to come upstairs to our library, Paradise Space Rocket. For the next hour, you can sign out a book to read together, or to each other, as a family. The couches and sitting area in the library are available to you, as well as Teacher Rita’s classroom next door.” 

The families bustle out of their seats and make their way upstairs to the library.

The rest of the night was spent in what would be any librarian’s dream. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, whole family units and single-family units, strong readers and struggling readers, all huddled over books and reading together. I bounced between the library and the classroom, surveying the interaction between the families and the books. My heart was still skipping beats, but it was no longer skipping out of nerves, but out of excitement.

To be perfectly honest, Story Night was everything I could have envisioned and more. It’s hard to believe that a simple idea conjured up in a Literacy Workshop back in February had finally led to this. The idea in February had turned into a phone call in April to my Aunt Nancy, who as a librarian, I sought advice from in how to make my idea of a Story Night a reality. The phone call in April had led to an idea pitch in June to my principal, counterpart teacher, who both fervently and immediately bought into the idea for starting the Story Night at the onset of the new school year. The June idea pitch led to a September announcement to the RC families, as I spoke at my school’s Parent Teacher Association meeting, declaring a date and time of the upcoming Story Night and taking a list of interested families. The September announcement led to this early October night, where parents and their students were huddled together, reading as a family. It all came together so smoothly, so simply, I still almost can’t believe it happened.  

At the start of the night, I was nervous, unsure as to what sort of response I would get from the community. After all, when beginning an event like this, you almost have to start small. When only four families had arrived at the beginning, I’ll be honest when I say I was a bit disappointed. The reception I had received at the PTA meeting was so encouraging, that I just wasn’t convinced we would have so few families show up. But seeing that rainbow in the mountains beyond my school, moments before Story Night began, I was comforted. I took it as a sign that everything would turn out all right. 

And boy, did it. With thirteen families and the presence of various staff from my school, I was blown away by the support I received from not only my school, but my community as a whole. Witnessing the laughter, the joy, and the time spent reading together as a family was such an incredibly humbling experience. 

To have something begin as an idea and come into fruition with enthusiasm, support, and excitement was beyond encouraging; it was inspiring. We now plan to host Story Night once a month for the rest of the term, with our next one in early November. If all goes well and the attendance grows, the sky is the limit with an event like this.

I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. 

Cheers!

 

 

 

Note: Earlier that same day, I had the pleasure of hosting students from Sea|Mester at my school. Sea|Mester is a study abroad program where students engage in academic, leadership, and service-learning activities. I had been in contact with one of their Program Directors when I heard they would be stopping in Grenada. We then arranged for the Sea|Mester students to visit my school, spending the morning in various classrooms teaching the RC students about ships, sailing techniques, marine conservation, and geography. Below are some snapshots from their visit.

 

 

Something About Summer: A Series (4)

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?” 

* * * 

You put your head down on the table, simply wishing for the time to go quickly. The boat rises and falls with each wave of the deep sea. In your previous experiences, rides across the deep sea hasn’t exactly been forgiving. Rising to your feet, you stumble with the swaying of the boat to the outside deck and steadily climb the stairs to the top of the ferry.  

“How are you feeling?” you ask Tom, your brother who’s standing with a camcorder and a smile on his face. 

“Dude, these birds are wild! I’ve been up here watching them this whole time,” he replies. 

“All right,” you sigh. “I’ll be downstairs.” 

You consider staying up to watch the birds to see what he was talking about, but you just didn’t want to risk the uneasy stomach. After all, you feel the rocking of the boat much more on the upper deck than down below. 

So you return to the bottom deck and slide into the booth, aside Peace Corps Volunteers Hannah Melin and Lili Gradilla, with Lili’s extended family of Caroline, Alex, and their baby girl. You put your head back on the table and close your eyes until the ferry reaches the small island of Carriacou. 

Roused awake, you gather your backpack and shuffle along the line and out onto the dock. After a short walk past the incessant offers for a taxi service, you settle into the small hotel room you’ve all rented for the day.

Going back outside, your entourage catches a bus that has pulled over at the small terminal next door. Spray-painted a glittering bright orange, you climb inside and take a seat in the back. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, the metal frames pressing through the worn-in cushions and into your backside. What it lacked in comfort, however, it made up in character. Laminated placards were pinned to the seatbacks of the driver and front passenger seats.  

Ask me for a joke!

Free rides for the grandmothers of anyone 80 years or above.

Free ride tomorrow.

You laugh to yourself, appreciative of the slapstick humor. The bus kicks into gear and you weave through the open roads of Carriacou. The last small island in the Grenadine chain that runs from St. Vincent to Grenada, its roads and landscape is much more open than that of Grenada’s. Small mountains protrude into the sky, but the valleys between them are more spacious than the rugged, cramped nature of the Grenadian mountains. You weave in and around these small mountains, passing cows and goats idly grazing on the side of the road. Simple homes sporadically spot the hillsides, clothes flowing in the breeze as they hang-dry on the line.  

After about fifteen minutes or so, the bus pulls into a dirt lot beside what appears to be a restaurant. 

“Well, here we are!” the driver exclaims. “Paradise Beach!” 

We pile out of the bus and pay the driver the fee, walking past the restaurant and the few small fishing boats mounted on the shore. You kick off your sandals and step out onto the warm, white sands of Paradise Beach. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, the short, sandy beachhead declines sharply into the most transparent, crystal-clear waters you have ever seen. Outside of a local couple off to the right and a few sailboats out on the water, the beach was void of all human life. To the left, two small mountains reach out from the coast like an arm wrapping around to hold you in. Straight ahead, a small green island rose from the sea while beside it lay a sandbar, palm trees fanning out across it. 

Dropping your things in the sand, you dive into the crisp, clear water; it was a truly refreshing reward for the long, early morning ferry ride you had just endured. The day is spent floating aimlessly in the water, getting out only when it was time to grab another drink at the restaurant’s bar. 

“Hey man, you want a drink?” Alex offers as you step up to the bar. “I’m chilling with these guys over here, you should join us.” 

You only met Alex a couple hours ago, but you already realize he’s the type of guy who’ll make friends with anybody he meets, so naturally you follow him to the nearby table.  

Walking up to the table, Alex introduces you to the three local men seated around it. A half-empty bottle of Carriacou Jack rum sits in the center beside a few small bottles of ginger ale. Introductions aside, you’re engulfed into the conversation at hand, ranging from European affairs, Shakespeare, Netflix, and wineries. It wasn’t long, however, until each one of us sat under the umbrella table with them, laughing together with our new-found friends. As it turned out, one of them owns a winery nearby and you’re all invited to dinner.

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* * * 

You hang onto a pole and the side of the small boat, bouncing rhythmically with the high waves of the sea. Off to the right in the distance is another small fishing boat, a lone man driving it at break-neck speed as it goes airborne over each wave. He nods in acknowledgment when you make eye-contact, the unspoken language among boat-riders. He cuts in front of you a safe distance ahead, crossing over toward Union Island, a large strip of mountainous land rising from the water to your left.  

A few smaller islands sit in the distance, rapidly growing larger as we approach them. Although uninhabited, the green strips of land stand proudly, their lush, green trees evident of their untouched beauty. The boat slows to a crawl as you now find yourself in the center of the five small islands that make up the Tobago Cays. The dark blue of the deep sea abruptly turns into a bright, turquoise blue, enabling you to see several feet down to the now-shallow sea floor. As you drift up to a small island, the local tour guide drops an anchor. Jumping off the boat, he tethers it to the base of a palm tree.  

Hopping out into the water, a sandy, open beachhead spans out in front of you. Palm trees decorate the shoreline, giving way to the tropical green hillside behind them. Looking out across the horizon, a small island lies straight ahead while several, larger other ones loom in the hazy distance to the left. There’s a shallow sandbar in front of you, its crystal water sparkling and shimmering in the bright sunlight. Overhead, birds soar through the air with a watchful gaze before plunging sharply into the water. It disappears for a moment before coming up and flying away, its fresh catch of fish hanging from its beak. Distracted in awe at nature’s spectacle, a dark mass slides past your feet in the water.  

“Look!” you exclaim, taking a sudden step back. “A stingray!” 

Amazed, you hadn’t been that close to a stingray since your childhood days visiting the zoo. But right there in front of you, a large stingray was sliding gracefully and blissfully by.

Turning around and heading onto the shore, you and the others decide to hike to the top of the larger of the two hills on the island. Traversing across the beaten path between the two hills, you make your way to the backside of the island. The path gives way to a more rugged and rock-riddled beachhead; unlike the first side that was peacefully tranquil, waves crashed onto this shore. Yet, the water on this side of the island was just as clear, just as beautiful. Various sailboats sit anchored just off the coast, small flags of their home countries fluttering in the wind: Trinidad, France, England, St. Vincent, Grenada, and America. Walking along the beachfront, you find the path that leads to the top of the hill and dives into wood. Taking it and climbing to the top, you find yourself standing on large rocks, weathered and frail trees and shrubs all around you. Atop one of their branches, a large iguana is perched cautiously still.  

Scanning the 180-degree view of the horizon, the open sea spans out as far as the eye can see. The dark blue of the deep sea is speckled with pockets of sandbars where the water takes on that striking turquoise color. The very same boats still remain anchored offshore, bobbing in the waves but appearing much smaller than they did before. To the left a sole island sits in the near distance, while off to the right a few larger, yet also uninhabited islands also loom. The group of us gathered at the top silently take in the captivating panoramic view around us. 

“Whoa!” Alex exclaims, as a large thud and the sound of sliding rocks catches everyone’s attention. “That iguana nearly landed on my head!” 

You break out in laughter with the others as the iguana scrambles into the safety of the foliage.  

 * * *

Hiking cautiously down the front side of the hill, you return to the first shoreline where the tour boat was anchored. Climbing back inside, the rope is loosened and the anchor is pulled in as the boat takes off into the water. Coasting past one island and then another, it careens over to a stretch of open sea. The deep blue of the Sea now gone, suddenly you found yourself seemingly floating over the sea floor as the water was so clear and transparent, that you can see the sandy surface of the floor no more than twenty feet below. Dropping anchor again, your tour guide pulls out snorkel masks and flippers. Wiggling into the flippers and slapping on the mask, you flip your legs over the edge of the boat and drop into the water. 

Splash!

Submerged in the water, you’re momentarily baffled when your vision remains as clear as before. Just when you think the water can’t get any clearer, any more beautiful, you are once again proven wrong. Lifting your head above the water, you playfully bob up and down just to make sure that what you were seeing was real. Convinced, you turn and swim out to the sea, scanning the sea floor below.  

Then, off to the right, a small green leatherback sea turtle coasts through the water. You quickly but cautiously swim toward it, careful not to startle it. The sea turtle gracefully dives to the bottom and you dive down right beside it, unbothered by your presence. Coming back up to the surface, you drift quietly above it, watching it rest peacefully on the floor. Another, larger sea turtle swims by, catching your eye to the left. Your interest taken, you follow after it, swimming within arm’s reach of one of the most beautiful creatures you have ever seen.

* * *

You’re back on the boat, cruising even farther out to sea where a flat, strip of land comes into view. At the end of the narrow-ended strip of the small island of Petit Tabac, stone and coral-built structures stand guard, greeting newcomers to the island. Followed by a stretch of covered land, the island rounds off with a cluster of palm trees standing over an area of tall grass. 

“Hey, that looks vaguely familiar,” you think to yourself as the boat slows to a stop and coasts to the shore. 

“Here we are,” your tour guide says, “Petit Tabac was a site location of a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.” 

Then it clicks. Jumping out and walking on shore, you visual the stranded characters of Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Turner, passing out drunk on the beachhead before a glowing nighttime bonfire. Then come morning, Captain Jack awakens to the smell of smoke as he realizes Elizabeth has burned the remaining rum from the in-ground cellar for a smoke-signal.  

Cue the line: “But why is the RUM GONE?!?” 

* * *

Back in the boat, you’re cruising through the open sea, bouncing up and down on your seat in the boat. The sun has begun its descent, the sky beginning to leak an orange hue as the sun approaches the horizon. A small building comes into view, idly standing in its lonesome on the sea between two large islands. The boat slows down as we circle around the tiny building on the water and dock beside it.  

“Welcome to Happy Island,” the man at the open-sea bar greets with a toothy grin. “Rum punch is our special today and every day; would you like one?” 

You take a seat under the lone tree on this random, special bit of land. An almost mythical place, the bar known as “Happy Island” is built on conch shells, with barely enough space for a few benches and picnic tables for seating. A flag pole stands on the end, the flags of St. Vincent and Grenada flapping in the sea breeze. You sit back and take a sip of your rum punch, a DJ creatively singing freestyle soca on the small speaker system attached to the bar. You look over to Union Island, the sun casting its vibrant glow between its peaks.       

* * * 

A player in a pale green jersey dribbles the ball from the back corner of the pitch at the far end of the field, launching it with a sharp pass toward midfield. A yellow jersey, however, jumps between and intercepts the ball. He kicks the ball back toward the end of the field, where another yellow jersey navigates it between two defenders and hurdles it past the sliding goalie and into the back of the net. 

The crowd erupts in displeasure, the goal occurring just eleven minutes into the game. Jamaica, otherwise known as the “Reggae Boys,” just took a 1-0 lead over Grenada’s “Spice Boys,” in a FIFA-sanctioned international friendly match at Kirani James National Stadium.   

This is your second FIFA match, joined this time with Tom, PCVs Stephanie Peña and Amanda Cady, and fellow Camp GLOW counselor Khadija Browne. You found prime seating for the match, in the front row on the far right side of the field. To your immediate left is Grenada’s 15U girls football team, donning their jerseys and medals from a regional Caribbean competition they had recently won. Farther down the row, a man dressed head-to-toe in the bright red, green, and yellow national colors waves a large Grenadian flag as we walks up and down the aisle. From the lower bowl to the upper deck behind you, fans blow horns and shake clappers as they cheer and react to the match unfolding on the field.  

“One of you want to compete for a prize?” a man in a black polo with field credentials hanging around his neck asks us. 

Everyone in your row exchanges glances, unsure of who would be brave enough to take part in the half-time competition. 

“Yeah, sure,” Tom says, jumping up from his seat. 

The man directs him down to the field and a short while later, he’s the only foreigner at the end of a long queue of local fans on the field. Each fan took a turn spinning a wheel to determine what prize, if any, they would receive. It was unclear what the various prizes were, but what was clear was not everyone spinning the wheel was receiving one. As each fan took a turn, Tom slowly worked his way to the front. A few fans, having already taken their turn, congregated in front of the wheel and blocked your view. Tom disappears behind them, only to appear a moment later coming around the end, victoriously raising a new soccer ball in his hand. 

Laughter breaks out among you, celebrating what would likely be the only victory of the night (Grenada went on to lose 5-1). Tom returns to our seats, tossing the ball to a young fan a few rows back. 

* * * 

You push the chain-link door open and step onto the court. Walking up to those taking shots at the hoop, you introduce Tom to the guys. You quickly lace up your new shoes and hop up from the bench. Picking up your basketball, you begin dribbling around and taking a few warm-up shots. The clouds over the field adjacent to the park have taken on an orange glow from the setting sun. As per usual though, on the nights you play basketball there isn’t much time to take in the gorgeous colors of the sunset.  

Enough guys have gathered to break into three teams. Naturally, you make sure Tom’s not on your team. Attribute it to old sibling rivalries or what have you, regardless you were not going to play together. It worked out, however, as Nose and Alvon, the two brothers that took you to town on J’ouvert morning the week before, were at the court as well. So matching up brother on brother, you guarded Nose while Alvon guarded Tom.  

Alvon dribbles back and forth across the top side of the key, Tom sliding back and forth with him. Driving the ball, he dishes it out Immie, a teammate at the top of the key. Immie drives down the left side of the key and heads hard for a lay-up. Coming around the corner, however, he didn’t see Tom, who because he was in the right place at the right time popped the ball loose and stole it away to the top.  

A few possessions later Alvon once again has the ball, dribbling to create separation from the defense. On the upper right side of the three point line, you see the baseline has opened up. Darting down toward the open space, Alvon sends a pass on the far side of the hoop. Catching it and realizing a defender was on your immediate right, with a quick dribble you cross under the hoop and flip the ball off the backboard and into the basket. 

The night was a prototypical “sweat” as they call it, a few hours of pick-up basketball on a humid Caribbean night. It’s how you often spend your Sunday nights, a reason to get out of the house and into the community, not to mention getting a couple hours of exercise. Having Tom there to play with you and experience your Sunday night “sweats” at the court was one of the things you were most looking forward to in his visit. It didn’t disappoint, either, as the guys welcomed him in with open arms and friendly competition. 

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* * *          

“Just jump out as far as you can toward the middle, and make sure you land straight-in like a pencil,” you call out to Tom. 

You sit cautiously on the rock overhang, water rushing heavily over the waterfall right beside you before it launches over thirty feet into the spring below. With no real easy way to stay balanced, you’ve found a notch in the rockface while clinging onto a nearby branch. Tom slides tactfully down to the edge, where a shelf in the overhang allows steady footing for a jump.  

Standing slowly, he crouches slightly before leaping out over the water, arms flailing momentarily as he disappears over the edge and a splash is heard from somewhere down below.  

“Well,” you mutter to yourself, “I guess you’re next.” 

You slide down to the shelf Tom had just jumped from. Trying to peer over the edge, you couldn’t see much beyond the shelf. You take a couple of breaths and envision where you’re jumping, out toward the middle and in front of the falls. You already searched the bottom of the fall earlier for rocks, so landing on rocks wasn’t in question. That doesn’t necessarily, however, make this jump any easier.  

“Okay. On the count of the three: One. Two. Three!” 

With everything you have, you jump out as far as you can. The air lifted from your lungs in a moment of thrill, followed by a moment of panic as you suddenly realize this jump was from a lot higher than you originally thought. Flailing your arms to regain balance, you splash violently in the water with arms stretched flat, the sensation of a flop instantly burning into your arms and hands as you’re submerged in the cold, icy water.  

You pop back up to the surface, laughing and excited despite the rough landing. A pained expression appears on the faces of Tom and PCV Hannah Melin, their reactions to the sound of your crash-land into the water. 

“So much for following your own advice,” Tom laughs.  

You climb out of the water, its refreshing chill sending goosebumps down your back. Underneath your arms and hands are already pink and swollen from the jump, yet you can’t help but shake your head and laugh. 

The three of you gather your things and hike off into the woods. After finally successfully jumping from the first of the Seven Sisters Waterfalls, it was time to hike into the bush to find the fifth waterfall known locally as “Honeymoon Falls.”  

Crossing rivers and climbing over rocks, you find yourself facing the fourth waterfall. The fourth one is a small one, water cascading down a small rockface and into a river below. Three logs stand up out of the water, bridging across the narrow creek to the top where the water comes down. You turn to Tom, gesturing the way up.  

Straddling the largest of the logs, he shimmies his way up to the top. You follow him up, crawling slowly but doing everything you can to maintain balance and not fall into the river below. Reaching the top, you hike along rockbed adjacent to the rushing water that flows to the fourth waterfall. Coming upon a large boulder on your left, you find a rock slope in front of you with water cascading down it. Stepping into the water, you carefully climb up the streaming rockface and make your way around the boulder to a small clearing on the other side. Gaining balance and standing carefully on the dry rock, another waterfall towers over twenty feet above you. Seemingly falling straight from the canopy of trees above, the water hurdles violently over the top and into a shallow spring before flowing down the slope you just climbed and taking a sharp turn toward the fourth waterfall. A golden orange substance oozes from the rocks surrounding the waterfall, the scent of sulfur filling the air.  

All around you is the overwhelming presence of nature, something that has always fascinated you and Tom since your days growing up and exploring the wooded lot behind your house. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when you two spent afternoons watching Bear Grylls scale waterfalls and climb over raging rivers in episodes of Man vs. Wild. Back then, you’d pretend you were doing the same thing back in the wooded lot. Now, years later, you find yourselves jumping thirty feet from tropical waterfalls and climbing over raging rivers as you explore the inner depths of what nature has to offer. 

* * * 

You’re hiking up the steep, paved road leading up to the first of the Concord Waterfalls. But for the second time this week, rain down-poured from the heavens. You and Tom had tried a few days earlier, but the heavy rains flooded not only the first Concord Waterfall, but the river that’s necessary to cross multiple times in order to reach the second waterfall.  

Knowing this was Tom’s last chance at seeing the second Concord Waterfall, a pit sank heavily in your stomach as you trudged uphill through the pouring rain. However, you were determined to reach the second fall, for Tom had always having been more of a cabin-in-the-woods than a cottage-on-the-beach type of person.

Honk! 

A white pick-up truck pulls up from behind as you step to the side of the road. You gesture up the hill for a ride as the driver rolls down the window. 

“Hey, you’re the Peace Corps in Gouyave, right?” the driver asks. 

“Yeah, I am. Any chance we can get a ride to the falls?” 

“I thought I recognized you. I teach at the Anglican school and have seen you around. Hop in the back!” 

Relieved, you jump into the bed of the pick-up truck. Tom and Peace Corps Response Volunteers Stephanie Peña, Amanda Cady, and Heather Smith hop in behind you. Once everyone is settled, you tap the bed of the truck and it jerks forward as he drives the rest of the way to the top. The rain is still falling heavily, soaking you through your clothes in the open bed of the pick-up. But you don’t mind, at least you caught a ride the rest of the way up.  

The truck pulls to a stop at the first waterfall. The waterfall, typically with beautifully powerful white water cascading down, was now once again overpowered with stampeding, soil-ridden brown water. The spring below, where one would typically bathe in chilly, fresh water was now flooded with the very same brown water that relentlessly filled its basin. Hopping out and thanking the driver, who teaches at the other school in your community, you take shelter in the lone shop overlooking the fall.  

“Good morning,” you greet the tour director, who turned you away the other day due to the dangers of the hike to the second fall. “It’s my brother’s last day on the island, I know it’s still raining but is there any chance we can still make it to the second waterfall?” 

“If you go back there, I don’t want to have to come retrieve you. I’ve had to go back and save people from the flooding river before,” he explains. “But if you must go today then I’d ask that you take one of our guides. I’d feel a lot better if you did.” 

“No problem,” you respond assuredly. “Whatever you want that will get us back there. We’ll take a guide.” 

And boy, were you glad you had Sylvester.  

Sylvester, your guide, was talkative and excited individual who was knowledgeable in the history of Grenada from its geography and history, to its agriculture. He often stopped to point out the various trees and plants along the trail. Equipped with high-set rain boots and a machete, he fearlessly jumps into the river. In the past you could easily dance and skip across the rocks to the other side, something you had to do numerous times on your way to the second fall. But submitting to the fact that you were already soaked from the rain and that all the rocks you’d normally dance across were entirely submerged in waist-high water, you step in after him. Always planted and secure in the water, you often used Sylvester’s support as you hiked through the river’s running waters. With each step, the current would push your feet downstream, making it a challenge to move in a straight line. Not to mention your feet disappeared in the darkness of the water, so you had to tactfully feel out each step before you took it.  

The rain continued falling as you navigated the trail, sliding through the mud, climbing over rocks, and treading through the river. The bush had a different feel that day than from what you’re used to, being the first time you’ve delved into it during heavy rains. The forest seemed void of wildlife, all having taken shelter from the rain. The leaves of the trees took on a shimmering green as the raindrops glistened in the light that managed to poke through the canopy of the trees. Climbing over one rock and jumping to another, you look up to see the top of the waterfall finally appear into view. Crossing over the river and swinging underneath a fallen log, you look up to find the waterfall looming powerfully before you.  

Only this time, it was different. Before the water always seemed to rush violently down, but this time it stampeded angrily down the forty feet from the top and into the overflowing spring below. The foliage and trees that typically clung to the cliffside to the left of the fall was cleared away, evidently having fallen in a landslide from the recent rains. It was here, in this moment, the reality of the power that nature holds began to sink in. What once was a tree-and-foliage covered hillside was now only a bare, rocky cliffside, all the trees and foliage strewn carelessly about at the bottom.  

 

* * * 

The hike to get to the second waterfall that day was one of the most challenging, treacherous hikes I’ve ever done. But having reached it, having completed the goal of showing Tom the second Concord waterfall on his final day in Grenada, I felt nothing but relief.  

In fact, that final hike to the Concord waterfall was largely analogous to my summer as a whole. From start to finish, from when school let out the first week of July to when it began again the first week of September, my calendar was booked straight through. From Camp GLOW, to St. Lucia, to my parents’ visit, to Carnival with friends and a week of exploring Grenada, Carriacou, and the Tobago Cays with Tom, I hardly had a day to catch my breath. In the same way that the rain worked against us that day, it seemed time was always working against me during each week of the summer. There was always someplace to be, something to do, somewhere to go, and someone to look out for with very little time to do it all.

So out of necessity, I once again took time away from my blog. I set everything aside, focusing instead on enjoying every moment with the people that I love, in the place that I have come to love.    

Which brings me to the theme of the series of blogs that I’ve come to title: “Something About Summer: A Series.” When trying to capture the essence of what this summer experience has been like for me, it was hard to break it down into separate, unique stories. After all, they were all interconnected in the same foundation. That same foundation, not only epitomizes my summer, but I believe every summer. Therefore, the only way to share this experience was by sharing the story of my summer as a whole.  

In the very first post of this series, I set out to ask a re-occuring question: “There’s something about summer, isn’t there?” 

Well, have you figured it out?

The answer, actually, is quite simple.  

Think about it: summer was never just about the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass, baseball, and burgers on the grill during a 4th of July cook-out. It was never just about the time away from school, running free from the responsibility of homework and studying. It was never just about the hot, sunny days jumping in the lake and the warm, firefly-filled nights roasting marshmallows by a bonfire. 

It has always been about much more than that.  

It’s about love. 

That’s what makes summer so special. It’s a time spent meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones. It’s a time spent with family and the people you hold dear. It’s a time to explore, seeking out tales of adventure to be shared time and time again. It’s a time for trying something new, something so far out of your comfort zone that it scares you. It’s a time for celebration, whether the holiday calls for barbecue ribs and fireworks or dancing in the streets doused in engine oil.  

This summer, I was blessed to have my parents, my friends, and my brother all visit me in my host country. At times, the conglomeration of family, old friends, and new friends together here was borderline dizzying. But each individual mentioned in this series experienced in one way or another not only my summer, but what my life is like down here in Grenada.

Yes, they got to experience the beautiful, sunny beaches and the pristine waterfalls under the tropical sun. But more importantly, they experienced the warm, hospitable nature of the Grenadian people. They experienced the noise, hustle, and bustle that comes with living in the center Grenada’s, “City That Never Sleeps.” They experienced the adventurous bus rides that never fail to leave you without a story. They experienced the abundance of fresh fruit, herbs, spices, and chocolate. They experienced the flowing breeze as you hitch-hike in the bed of a pick-up truck. They experienced the intensity and cultural explosion that is Carnival. They experienced the excited children shouting, “Mr. King!” as we passed through the streets in the type of community where everybody knows your name. They experienced firsthand as the locals smile and ask, “How are you liking Grenada?” as though they already know your answer. They experienced Grenada for what it is, and for them and the Grenadian people, I am forever grateful.

As each person came in and out of my life this summer, I tried to approach each opportunity with them with the same amount of energy and love as I had with the ones before. Although exhausting, each part of my summer from Camp GLOW, to St. Lucia, to Carnival, and the various tours of Grenada and surrounding islands with my family and friends is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. This past summer was easily one of the best of my life, which might lead you to think that its conclusion was a difficult one to embrace.  

On the contrary, for this summer I learned an important lesson through my whirlwind of experience. In my first post of this series, I recalled a quote I had recently heard when I was at a local funeral. It was a quote Jamie Anderson had once wrote: 

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” 

With all the people that came in and out of my life this summer, I’m not ashamed to say I cried with each goodbye. It was hard, because as with all goodbyes, it means that your time with the people you love has come to an end. But although grief may be love with no place to go, I learned that new people will always be entering your life. During this stretch of time, I had to say goodbye to two people who had become a focal point in my life here. However, I also had the opportunity to welcome in the next group of Volunteers to the island. So between the change in Volunteers on-island and my carousel of visitors this summer, I also learned that as long as you pour the same amount of energy and love into the new people as you did with the ones before, you will continue making memories with people that you love. Therefore, love will always have a place to go.

Yes, my summer is over, but I’m not upset. This summer will forever be locked away in my memory, each experience available to be recalled with as much as fondness as though experiencing it for the first time. But while this incredible journey is over, it’s time to return to the reason I’m here in the first place. I’m back in school and have big goals and ambitions ahead. Time is flying by, as we’re already six weeks into the new school year. I’m excited for what my second year holds in store. For there will be more stories to be told, more experiences to be had, and more love to share. 

Until next summer, that is.   

Cheers!

Something About Summer: A Series (3)

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?”

* * *

You sit down on the concrete, national-colored stoop that runs across the front of the open-air market next door. The sun is burning hot, not a cloud in the sky as you take cover in the only spot of shade under the overhang. There was very little traffic that day, being a Sunday in the heart of Carnival. Yet every car and truck that did go by, you made sure to notice who was inside. The anticipation had been bubbling up inside of you ever since you received that unfortunate text that your brother’s flight had been cancelled two days earlier.

Just then a navy, four-door vehicle appears around the bend of the green, Grenadian hillsides and barrels into the first stretch of buildings of your town. Inside the vehicle and sitting on the left-hand side, in what would be the driver’s seat back home, was the familiar face you had long-awaited to see. This was it, Tom finally made it to Grenada.

The past two days had gone by like a blur. After your parents had left that Friday afternoon, you hosted a couple of the new Response Volunteers, Stephanie Peña and Amanda Cady, for a stop at Fish Friday and Mansa’s with Don and G before the big Soca Monarch concert that was taking place in town that night. One of the biggest events of Carnival, it’s the competition where artists vie to be crowned the next “Soca Monarch,” thus earning the recognition of producing the best soca song of the year. It’s the type of show that you don’t want to show up before midnight, because the actual party doesn’t begin until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.

At Mansa’s, it was Don’s surprise reunion with Terry, one of the regulars over at “D Banana Bar.” They had an instant friendship from Don’s first time in Grenada back in December, so needless to say Terry’s eyes lit up with baffling surprise and gleamed with joy as they left the bar arm-in-arm and laughing.

A few games of pool and a drink or two later, we had caught a bus down to the National Stadium in town. Getting through the gates a short while later, you arrived just in time as the second performer of the night took to the stage. Weaving your way through the crowd on the field, you settled on a small, open spot in the grass. Lights flashed brightly from the stage, illuminating the faces in the crowd bright colors of white, red, yellow, and green. You knew all the hit soca songs from over the summer, particularly with all the bus rides you’ve taken in the past month; consequently, you knew which songs were going to be the hits. The artists danced across the stage as they performed their songs, the crowd jumping and dancing to the beat. Swept up in the euphoric environment of the show, you never noticed the passage of time as the sky began to lighten. The judges announce the winner of the Soca Monarch competition, Lil’ Natty and Thunda with their hit song, Get In Your Section. For the second time in as many years, they were crowned the soca monarch for Spicemas Carnival 2018.

The following day you went to the Panorama show with much of the same group: Don, G, Stephanie, and Amanda, while joined this time by fellow PCV John Lyness. The steel pan show, known as Panorama, was cancelled last year since the stage was not constructed properly. Therefore, the steel pan bands, having been disappointed and neglected last year, came back with a vengeance as the various bands across the island performed their songs. It was a fantastic show, an easy-going highlight in the action of Carnival.

That being said, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t take a small nap in the stands during the show. It’s a Carnival thing, you explain to the others, who had looked at you a bit confused when you did. After all, when you’re celebrating for five consecutive days and nights, you have to catch a cat-nap anytime you can. You see it all the time at each of the shows. Their confusion turned to understanding as at one point or another, you saw each one of them sleeping in the stands, as well.

After the Pan show was The Biggest White Fete, so after changing into a white T-shirt you moved to the next stage over as the Carnival continued. What ensued was much like the previous night at the Soca Monarch, soca hits being performed on the stage and everyone on the field and in the stands dancing to the rhythm. The only difference this time, however, was everyone was wearing white. In the midst of the show, Ayisha, the director of Camp GLOW, appeared as she walked past you, and after a brief celebratory drink you parted ways. The GLOW family vibes were alive and well, as that was just the first of many encounters with the former fellow counselors of the Carnival season.

And now you’ve come full circle as it is now Sunday and Tom has finally arrived; after greeting him with a hug, you take his luggage and settle him into your apartment. It’s a waiting game now, for the biggest days of Carnival, Monday and Tuesday, were fast approaching. You pour a few drinks for Tom, Don, and G, the trio set to take part in what will be the party of the year.

“Mr. King!” a voice calls in as South, a good friend of yours, appears at your open front door.

“South!” you respond, hopping to your feet. “Come meet my brother, Tom, he just got in for the Carnival.”

“Your brother?” he asks. “Respect, man.”

He explains to us he’s cooked up an oil down, Grenada’s national dish, over at your neighbor’s apartment. So after handing him a couple of plates, he takes off to return a short while later, sharing the national dish with you and your friends. The perfect Grenadian meal before the ultimate Grenadian celebration.

* * *

You’re standing at the end of the road in Gouyave, unusually silent this early in the morning. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, you got a later start than you anticipated. You’re waiting at the bus stop out on the road, while the others sit in the bus shelter. The crickets of the night still echo reverently, as it’s only 3:00 in the morning. The waves slap subtly against the rocks on the shore across from you. You were told there would be buses running, but you haven’t seen any for the past forty-five minutes or so. A few other people are standing by the shelter with you, giving you a glimmer of hope that a bus would still be coming. Your hope is dwindling, however, as the J’ouvert (pronounced: “joo-vay“) was already beginning in town.

You hear a car door slam shut off to the right, catching your attention. It’s Nose, a local guy you compete with at the basketball court and a teammate from the tournament you played in back in March. You run over to him as he walks back from his car to his house beside the bus shelter.

“Hey Nose, morning. You happen to be heading to town?” you ask hopefully.

“Yeah, just now.”

“Any chance me and my buddies could catch a ride with you?”

“How many of you are there?”

“Myself, my brother and two others.”

“I’m not sure if you can all fit, but we’ll check you before we go.”

You return to bus stop, relieved you have a potential back-up plan to get to town if a bus doesn’t come.

Another fifteen minutes pass with no bus in sight; Nose’s car backs out of the driveway and pulls toward the bus stop. Two other guys standing at the bus stop jump toward the car: “Going to town? Can we get a ride?”

Your heart bottoms out, thinking these guys were going to steal your only ride to town.

“Well, you see,” Nose’s brother, Alvonn, in the driver’s seat, says casually, “My brethren right here kind of already asked for a ride.”

“Really?” you ask, almost surprised.

“I mean, if you guys can fit.”

“They can’t fit there’s too many of them! They can take bus let us go!” the others shout.

“Nah, we can fit,” you say confidently, opening the door and diving into the backseat of the small, four-door vehicle. Tom, Don, and G pile in behind and on top of you.

“Integration at its finest,” you laugh to yourself, relieved.

When they drop you in town, you begin the long walk to reach the J’ouvert. The faint blue of early morning light was beginning to threaten the black curtain of night. Vendors lined the streetlamp-lit Carenage, where you stop to grab a salt-fish and bake to eat. Walking on, you follow the stream of people heading toward the fast-paced thumping of music in the distance. As the daylight begins to break, you find yourself being surrounded by more and more people.

A few of them were still relatively clean, but the farther you walk the more people you find covered head-to-toe in thick, black engine oil. A young man stands, laughing in the middle of the road, slapping oil from a bucket on himself and his friends.

“Kelson!” you call out.

A former Camp GLOW counselor, his eyes light up with surprise when he sees you for the first time since the camp.

“I got my brother and some buddies here, mind if we get some of that oil?” you ask excitedly.

“Yeah, man!” He laughs as he begins pouring the bucket oil on you and your friends.

You continue weaving through what’s now become an over-crowded road. More oil rubs on you with each casual bump on the shoulder, the air hot with congestion of body heat and motor oil as you work upstream against the flow of the crowd. The road beneath your feet seems to shake as you pass the massive trucks, loaded with speakers booming to the fast-paced rhythm of soca. People surround the truck, dancing on and behind it as they follow it down the road. You pass one truck and its crowd, then another, and another, keeping an eye out for a few familiar faces in the sea of oil and paint.

Reaching a roundabout junction, the crowd divides momentarily before merging again to continue the march. On the side of the road were the faces you were looking for, Peace Corps Volunteers Hannah, Stephanie, Amanda, and Melinda, who were standing on the side grinning and laughing through their oil-smeared faces. Finally having the whole squad together, we dove back into the downstream flow of the crowd and followed the trucks.

“Scott!” a tackling hug hits you from the right.

“Roya!” you reply, laughing as you hug your oil-covered, former camp GLOW counselor and fellow Single Ladies dancer, friend.

A quick exchange of hugs and hellos between her and the other PCVs, she marched on with her entourage and we continued on with ours. From early morning up through noon we marched, following the oil-covered masses and dancing behind the trucks all the way to town. The sun lingered behind the clouds, mercifully saving us an extra few hours from the unbearable heat that comes from being caked in engine oil and caught in the sun. Coming up the final hill, the penultimate turn before reaching the Carenage and the end of the march, you step aside momentarily.

“Dude, this is exactly what I saw in my dream,” your brother tells you. “Literally, this exact scene.”

You’re surprised by the comment, but then again you’re not. You look ahead to the sea of oil and paint, devil horns and dragging chains, drums and horns, bandanas and flags all moving past you. It stretches straight down the road tucked tightly between a warehouse’s chain-link fence and a football field, the field astoundingly clean in comparison to the raucous in the street.

This was your second Carnival, your second J’ouvert: a celebration derived from its roots in Mardi Gras, colonialism, and slavery. Unable to celebrate Carnival alongside their colonizers and slave masters for being unjustly perceived as, “descendants of the devil,” the Caribbean people took it upon themselves to embrace the discriminate label and celebrate the “Jab Jab,” during Carnival by wearing devil horns and dragging chains, doused in oil. If you ask around, other islands might have a better Carnival, but Grenada is notorious across the West Indies for having the best J’ouvert.

Although chilling and even prophetic as it might seem, it’s no surprise to you he saw this hill’s viewpoint amidst the J’ouvert in his dream, because that’s exactly what it seems like. When you’re partying with over a thousand of your closest Jab Jab friends doused in engine oil, celebrating a unique cultural explosion that J’ouvert is, it’s every bit of a dream as much as it is reality.

* * *

You’re roused awake by the ringing of your alarm. Rubbing the sleep from your eyes, you roll out of the bed. Stumbling through the apartment, you nudge everyone awake: Tom, Don, and G, all napping on various couches, beds, and chairs throughout the place. Spots of oil streak the walls and seat cushions of your apartment, remnants of the J’ouvert just a few hours before. Gouyave’s J’ouvert, however, never stopped as the music still reverberates through your windows from the road outside. You shake your head, baffled that they’re still celebrating out on the road and haven’t slowed down the least bit yet. But your J’ouvert being over, you dress in brightly-colored t-shirts and light-up hats and catch a bus to town.

Once again you’re walking along the Carenage of St. George’s, remarkably clean considering the oil-ridden J’ouvert that occurred earlier that day. Sand was strewn across the road, as if blown over from a strong gust of desert wind. Strategically, however, it seemed to have been laid out to absorb the engine oil from the morning’s J’ouvert.

Reuniting with the other Peace Corps Volunteers from that morning, you all stop and grab some roadside barbecue chicken, licking your fingers clean from its deliciously tangy sauce. The afternoon light has faded, taken over by a curtain of darkness. The U-shaped road of the Carenage is illuminated, however, as the orange glow of the streetlamps clashes with the bright white holiday lights strung between them. The moonlight glimmers peacefully on the surface of the water, evidently having sustained the cleansing oil bathes of the Jab Jabs that jumped in that day.  You walk along the Carenage, following the stream of people heading up the road and following the music just as you did early that very same morning.

A short while later, you reach masses of people waiting behind idly running trucks. The fast, pounding rhythm of soca, per usual, blares from the speakers. You walk past the first truck, then the second until you find the one you were looking for. Arriving at the band you were slated to jump with, Ignite, you found yourself suddenly surrounded by people dressed in the same t-shirts, fedoras, light-up swords, and mugs that you had. Gathering together, it was time for the Monday Night Mas to start.

What followed was another night of massive celebration, the streets filled with thousands of Grenadians and foreigners alike, jumping behind the trucks dressed in bright, blinking lights. The night was dark, but in the roads you wouldn’t know the difference, everyone’s faces illuminated bright as day by the overwhelming presence of lights. The rhythm of the soca once again melts into your bones as you begin dancing to the beat down the road. A man stands from atop the truck in front of you, his voice booming from the mic:

“The judges’ table is coming up! Wave our sticks to the right! Now left! Right! Left!”

You raise your blinking, light-up sword in the air and wave it in unison with the rest of the band. One light in an army of many, a sea of lights spanned as far as you could see both behind and in front of you. The judges’ table was coming up, though, which means our band was about to be judged for our coordination, performance, unison, and costumes.

The music slows suddenly as the crowd halts behind the truck, dancing in place and holding each other back. The rhythm begins beating louder, and louder, and louder as you can feel the pressure mounting behind you; suddenly, just as the gates explode open in the Kentucky Derby, everybody runs forward as the beat drops, waving our swords emphatically.

The Monday Night Mas once again, was the “highlight” of the Carnival in every sense of the word. It was a night spent in celebration with friends both new and old, foreign and domestic. It went by like a flash, dancing in the blinding sea of bright lights. With a snap of the fingers you found yourself back on the Carenage, the trucks turning back and forth along the U-shaped road as the celebration came together and ran on deep into the night.

* * *

Once again, you’re roused awake by the sound of the alarm on your phone. Soca music has continued all through the night outside your apartment, amazing you that anyone can still be out celebrating for so long.

“They really don’t stop do they,” you laugh to yourself, shaking your head.

It was Carnival Tuesday, otherwise known for its Fancy Mas. It’s the pinnacle celebration of Carnival, where men and women alike dress up in elaborate and decadent costumes. This parade, thankfully for your tired and aching body, you weren’t jumping in. But naturally, since the celebration wasn’t over, you still intended to go down to town and watch the bands go past. This morning, however, your numbers were finally going to dwindle.

“You all ready to go?” you ask Don and G, as they zip close their tightly-packed suitcases in the guest room.

Physically, they were ready. Mentally and emotionally, however, they wished they could stay for just one more day of Carnival. Unfortunately, a prior commitment forced them to take an early exit. They justified it, though, by arriving the week before while your parents were still on-island, which suddenly seems like weeks, not days ago. Their taxi arrives and you and Tom pile in after them, taking the opportunity for a ride to town for the Fancy Mas.

Don and G’s trip had a little bit of everything, from the beaches and waterfalls, the local bars and fish fry’s, to the jump-ups and chaos of Carnival. They took it on with every bit of enthusiasm and joy, a true testament to their exploratory and outgoing personalities. In fact, you found yourself laughing at how well they caught on to the culture, as if they were Grenadian themselves.

When you stepped out of the car after reaching town, they climb out as well for a farewell hug. Let’s be honest here: sometimes a fading wave from a vehicle doesn’t do certain friendships justice anymore. A certain bond forms when you go through a foreign experience like that, something as unique and stimulating as a week-long bender that is Carnival. You were happy to have friends as free-spirited and open-minded to enjoy the cultural celebration with you, for it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Don and G got to meet not only your parents and the locals of Gouyave, but your brother and the other Peace Corps Volunteers as well.

So with one last round of goodbyes, you send them on their way. As the car turns the corner and disappears down the road, you and your brother once again walk the length of the Carenage and up the road, following the music to the bands jumping in the Fancy Mas. You are sad to see them go, but you’re happy to have had them here for that experience. A quiet relief soothes you, admittedly, knowing now it was just you and your brother from here on out. With each entourage of visitors, you can’t help but feel a slight bit relieved when their trip finishes safely and successfully on your end.

“You made it this far,” you comfort yourself. “Now for the homestretch.”

You think back to the past couple weeks that have made up your summer already. You survived a week at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). You powered through your business and reunion trip to St. Lucia. You completed the vacation stretch of showing your parents your host community and country. You endured a Carnival with your brother and a few close friends.

Finding a nice spot of shade on the side of the road, you and Tom sit back and wait for the bands of costumes, feathers, glitter, and music to come dancing past for the afternoon.

It’s hard to believe all that has happened since the summer holiday started just six, short weeks ago.

What you didn’t realize at the time, however, was that the best part hadn’t even started yet.

“Oh, look! Here they come now…”

* * *

To be concluded…

Cheers!

Something About Summer: A Series (2)

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?”

* * *

Your feet dangle off the edge of a small boat, weighed down by a pair of long flippers and a snorkel mask that stifles your breathing. Pushing off with your hands you drop below into the cool, clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. Swimming away from the boat, you turn and watch as your parents drop into the water after you. Atop the boat, a young Grenadian man wearing an early-years LeBron James jersey, the wine color faded and worn from years in the Caribbean sun, gestures off to the right.

“Friendship Circle, right dey” he calls.

Following his pointed finger, you turn and swim in that direction. This isn’t your first time snorkeling the Underwater Sculpture Park, but each time it seems as surreal as the first. You kick your feet, propelling yourself through the surface of the water as you survey the untouched, underwater world below. The pale, sandy surface of the sea floor snakes through stretches of rugged, green reef. Flashes of vibrant blue and yellow catch your eye as small fish dart in and out of the coral-covered reefs below.

Suddenly, the reef stops abruptly and an expanse of white, sandy surface spans like a desert across the sea floor. However, it wasn’t long until a shadow loomed in the distance; it was connected to another shadow, and then another. As you approached them the shadows began to take shape; they’re children standing in a ring, facing outward hand-in-hand. They stood still and serene, blissfully at peace, undisturbed on the quiet sea floor.

Drifting over the top of the statues twenty feet below, you prepare to dive down. Inhaling deeply, you kick your feet up and dive. The pressure in your ear immediately builds up, popping as you exhale through the mouthpiece. Reaching as far down as you could go, you take a moment to silently float just above the heads of the children. Their facial features were faint but noticeable, overtaken by the coral, seaweed, and sea urchins in an eerie, post-apocalyptic way. The moment is fleeting, however, the pressure building up in your chest as you can only hold your breath for so long. Looking to the bright light of the surface above you propel yourself up, bursting through the surface and spitting the mouthpiece out to gasp in the sweet breath of life.

After catching your breath, you notice a dragon-shaped mass of land that juts out into the sea. The namesake of Dragon Bay, where the sculpture park is located, the green trees span the entirety of the “dragon,” riding the ridge of its tail all the way out to its head resting out on the water. Looking left, the Sea runs endlessly into the distance. Re-setting your mouthpiece and inhaling deeply, you prepare to dive for a next pass at the statues.

* * *

“Good night.”

Everyone in the bar pauses, looking up to see who had just walked in. A few faces light up with recognition, others with surprise or befuddlement. You nod an acknowledgement to the various persons at the bar and around the pool table. You walk over to the big man leaning on the speakers that were blasting soca music throughout the bar, a pool cue in his hand.

“Hey Mansa,” greeting him with a fist-bump. “I want you to meet my parents.”

“Eh, welcome to Grenada,” he says as he extends a hand out to each of your parents with a smile on his face.

“Cosa,” you place a hand on the shoulder of a man sitting at the bar wearing a black beanie, “These are my parents Tom and Janie.”

His eyes light up with delight, greeting your parents with the ever-so-common question of: “So how you enjoying Grenada?”

You order a round of drinks and throw some coins on the pool table. A short while later, the guys around the table, whom you’ve gotten to know well in the past year, hand a pool cue to you and your father. Typical to Grenadian hospitality, they opened up the table and took a seat to watch the foreign father-son duo duke it out for old times’ sake. With a smile on your face, you punch the coins in and rack the balls with the triangle. Chalking up your cue stick, your father breaks the set.

What ensues is a friendly but competitive game of pool; shot after shot and miss after miss, the game soon finishes…but with your father winning. You can’t help but laugh as you celebrate anyway, despite your father getting the best of you in front of the rest of “D Banana Bar’s” regulars.

The rest of the night moves forward, your parents getting a first-hand glimpse into what your life has been like since you left home over a year ago. This is your hang-out, the bar you frequent most, with the people you’ve become friends with, the place where you bring your friends when they visit. Naturally, you just had to bring your family there as well.

“I can’t believe it,” Cosa shakes his head. “You brought your parents here,” he says with a soft smile of disbelief and a glimmer of joy in his eye.

“Of course!” you laugh back. “How could I not?”

 

* * *

“Why don’t you lead us in a little prayer?” the deep, soft voice of your host-father murmurs.

A slight panic runs through your veins, caught off guard with such a request.

“Uh, sure. I can do that,” you respond.

Folding your hands in your lap and closing your eyes, you begin with something like this: “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for bringing us all here safely to enjoy this meal together. It is truly a special occasion, bringing together both of my families: one by birth and the other that has been my family away from home in every sense of the word. Thank you for this opportunity to bring the world a little closer together. Amen.”

You open your eyes, glancing over at your host father, who nods approvingly.

“Very nice, couldn’t have done it better myself,” he bellows.

Exhaling a quiet sigh of relief, you return your attention to the occasion at hand. In front of you is a beautiful display of fine china: elegant plates, bowls, and glasses seldom-used, except for the most special of occasions. To your right, at the head of the table, is your host father Dakka. Seated immediately to your left is your host mother Donna. Across from you is your own father and mother, the special guests of the afternoon.

That morning you had introduced them to each other during Mass at the local Catholic church. It was a beautiful service. A family reunion was being celebrated and the whole congregation was donned in their traditional African garb and dashikis, as Emancipation Day was to be the following day.

But now it was time for the Sunday lunch, the most popular family meal of the week in the West Indies. Donna uncovers the dishes of baked chicken, macaroni pie, cole slaw, sweet potatoes, plantains, brown rice and beans, and pours us all a few glasses of juice. Not a whole lot is said initially, as the dishes are passed around typical of the way a big-family Thanksgiving dinner begins at home. But when all the dishes are filled, the meal begins.

Dakka takes the reigns of the conversation, telling stories from his days growing up in Gouyave, his travels while studying in Canada and England, as well as his inevitable return to his true home in Grenada. Many men in his position move to town, the capital of St. George’s that is, for the stature and social standing that seemingly comes from living there. They all come back, however, he explains. They often miss the sense of community that you find living up in the country. They miss the sense of hometown pride in your community and the way things were when they were growing up. So they all eventually do come back; but not Dakka, because Dakka never really left.

A terrific orator, he continues the discussion about Grenada and its history, as well as touching on what he had learned about the States from his travels there. You and your parents didn’t have a whole lot to say to be honest, other than what they had seen around the island and the different fruits and local dishes they’ve tried up to that point. But that’s okay, for once again, your parents had the opportunity to see what your life had been like ever since you left that Memorial Day weekend in 2017. They saw the first place you called home in Grenada and experienced the same sense of hospitality from the very people who looked after and cared for you as if you were their own. They indulged in the stomach-stuffing Grenadian Sunday lunch, a meal that all but guarantees you won’t have to eat for the rest of the day.

 

* * *

 “Who’s this kid that keeps showing up here?” you laugh out loud as an old friend arrives at your apartment.

“Scottie!” he laughs back, embracing you in a big hug.

It’s Don, a friend you made when you took a volunteer trip to Cape Town, South Africa a year and a half ago. This was his second time in Grenada, having visited you back in December. For some reason he couldn’t get enough of Grenada, or maybe Grenada couldn’t get enough of him; it’s hard to tell.

He introduces you to his friend Ghallib, or ‘G’ for short. You don’t know anything about him but you can tell right away he’ll fit right in. After all, a friend of Don’s is a friend of yours.

You introduce them to your parents, excited that they get to meet somebody you’ve met along your international travels. The introductions are brief, however, as you quickly lock up, hop on a bus, and head north with the crew you now have gathered.

Whipping around the bends of the road up and down the hills, you begin catching up with Don and getting to know this guy called ‘G.’ A short while later, the five of you are dropped in Sauters, the northernmost town in Grenada. After a quick stop in a local market, you strap on your backpack and begin the long trek to Levera.

Arguably the most challenging endeavor of the itinerary you set out for your parents, Levera Beach is roughly a five-mile hike along the backroads of the country. The hike itself, although long, isn’t so difficult. The challenging part of it is that the backroads taken to get there offer very little cover from the blistering Caribbean sun. Nevertheless, equipped with water, hats, and plenty of sunscreen, you set out on your way.

Roughly ten minutes later, you’re walking along a bend in the road. A concrete wall stands to your right, the closest resemblance to one of those sound barrier walls you find bordering a freeway back home. To your left are a few simple homes overlooking the northern coast from atop a hill. Pausing the entourage for a moment, you point through a gap between two of the houses toward the town of Sauters, its church clock tower looming over the rooftops of its schools, shops, and homes that rise up and down with the hills.

But Sauters, as beautiful a town as it is, was not what you’re pointing too. Beyond the town there was a hill, farther off in the distance. You explain its somber, historical significance to the history of Grenada. In 1651, the Carib Indians realized it was a mistake to have allowed the French to settle on the island, so they became violent and killed a number of Frenchmen. In retaliation, the French became determined to wipe out the Carib Indian population from the island and because of their superior weaponry, had quickly defeated the Carib Indians. The remaining Carib survivors, however, made a last stand in Sauters. Upon realizing they were surrounded and defeated, they opted to jump off the cliff to their deaths rather than to submit themselves to French rule. The French consequently dubbed the location, “Le Morne de Sauters,” otherwise locally known as “Leaper’s Hill.”

Continuing on for the next hour and at the mercy of the hot sun, you arrive to the desired destination. Large rocks congregate at the base of a clear, grassy hill. Rough waves crash onto them, as the rocks fall over into the long and vast beachhead of Levera. Sugar Loaf Island sits in the distance, looking more like a humpbacked turtle more so than a sugar loaf. Sandy Island and Green Island, small strips of green land and palm trees peek just around the bend of the coast in the distance. Deep in the horizon to your left are various small, uninhabited islands that marks the last stretch of the Grenadine chain that runs from St. Vincent to Grenada.

Taking off your shoes and jumping down into the hot, soft sand, you walk along the beach that seems not to have been touched in years. You point out the spot where you found a nesting sea turtle back in May, and explain how the beachhead shifts with the changing tides of the seasons. But enough of the talking and geography lessons, you tell yourself, for it was time to cool off in the churning waters where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.

Floating in the Sea, your body rises and falls with the choppy waves. The water soothes your hot and aching body, already sore and exhausted from the hike in, which all of a sudden didn’t seem as long as it really was. You’re surrounded by both friends and family, seemingly dropped in the middle of the tropics without a care in the world. After all, bathing in the cool waters of the Sea, soothing your hot and aching body under a blistering hot sun, surrounded by family and laughing with a few good friends, what more could you ask for?

 

* * *

Pushing through the bush-covered path, you pop out from its grasp and into a clearing. Large rocks spot a small river directly in front of you. Looking ahead, a scene unfolds that almost begs for the cliché, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” line. Lush, vibrant shades of green trees and shrubs lean drunkenly in over a two-step layer of waterfalls. The first one has a rocky little channel of water that cascades down roughly fifteen feet into an emerald pool. Following up its path, its source is even more impressive. An even larger spring sits tranquil and seemingly untouched by the influence of man. The second waterfall rises nearly thirty feet in the air above it, water rushing down into the spring below with a force that beckons you to jump in.

Excited, you hustle along the narrow path to the second, higher waterfall. You’re the first ones there but not for long, as the Seven Sisters Waterfalls are one of the most oft-visited sites on the island. In next to no time you’re balancing delicately, barefoot on the rocks before diving into the crisp, clean waters of the spring. Its icy, cold temperature numbs your limbs while your heart thumps violently against your chest, confused as to whether it should feel soothed or concerned by the iciness of the water. You turn, backstroking out farther into the spring, looking up toward the sun-streaked canopy of trees above. The rays of the sun cast their light through the branches, striking the water and illuminating it that emerald color you’ve never seen before. Your parents follow in, smiling broadly as they ease into the cool and refreshing waters of the spring. Don laughs uncontrollably in joyous disbelief, loving every glorious minute. G floats where its shallow, soaking in the cleansing feel of the spring. PCVs Hannah Melin and Melanie Figueroa sit on the rocks at the edge of the spring, enjoying the cool breeze of the rainforest.

You and your dad swim together behind your unsuspecting mother. After securing your feet in the rocks below, you two simultaneously lift her up on your shoulders. She raises her hands with surprise, joy, disbelief, and okay, maybe a dash of uncertainty. You pose for a picture. But between the collaboration of weight between the three of you, alongside the strength of the current, you guys are cast out into the water where you now have to tread to stay afloat. The laughter pauses a moment when, upon finally losing balance, you all come crashing down into the water. Re-surfacing, the laughter returns, solidifying the bliss of the moment of being submerged in a spring, deep in the rainforest of a tropical island.

 

* * *

You’re laying out on the sands of Grand Anse Beach. Exhaustion is setting in, it was your second consecutive day of hiking waterfalls by morning and bathing in the waters of Grand Anse by the afternoon. The fading sun burns yellow on the horizon, casting an orange halo around it. The orange rises to a shade of blue, increasingly getting darker the higher up you look. Across the top of the sky a few soft, cotton-strand clouds take the orange-pink hue of the fading sun. You couldn’t ask for a better finish for the day, or even for the 10-day week of touring your parents around the crazy, hectic life you live down here in Grenada. It provides for a quiet moment of reflection, truly at peace alongside your friends and family. You think back to the week you’ve had:

A scenic view from atop the historical landmark of Ft. George.

Touring the Diamond Chocolate Factory and tasting samples of cocoa beans in Victoria.

Snorkeling the Underwater Sculpture Park, followed by a stop at Grand Anse, Fish Friday in your local community, and a stop at your favorite community bar.

Hiking through Grand Etang National Rainforest on a rainy day before hiding out with fellow PCVs at the West Indies Brewing Co.

Mass at the local Catholic Church and a Sunday lunch with your Grenadian host family.

A day trip to BBC Beach and dinner at Grand Anse.

A day-hike and bathe in the beautiful waters of Levera Beach.

A double-filled day of hiking and swimming the Seven Sisters Waterfalls by morning and bathing in the Caribbean Sea at Grand Anse by evening.

Another double-filled day hiking to and bathing in two of the Concord Waterfalls and reaching Grand Anse by the afternoon, where you now find yourself watching the sun go down with your parents and two close friends.

As exhausted as you are, you would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Funny you say that, however, because you will. For the next day your identical twin brother, Tom, flies in to celebrate the Carnival and take in the sights and sounds of Grenada.

The sun being gone now, you return home. Not wanting your parents’ trip to end, you and your mother attempt making passion fruit juice right from scratch. Sweetening it with just a touch of sugar, you clink your glasses together in cheers. The vacation may be over, but it was done right.

 

* * *

You hustle back early the next day, having run to town to complete some things at the Peace Corps Office. The next batch of Peace Corps Volunteers were scheduled to come in a week later, but with Carnival and your brother coming in you wouldn’t have any other time to complete their welcome packets that are traditionally done by the island-VAC.

When you do arrive back to your parents, you sit on the banister of the veranda. The old, too-familiar pit in your stomach begins to weigh heavily, knowing your parents’ taxi to the airport will arrive within the hour. You quietly fight back the tears, choking up as you sign your regrets to your cousin’s wedding invitation for later that month. It was to be the fourth wedding you’ve missed in your time down here, and honestly one of the most heart-breaking things for you to constantly miss.

Your mother comes out and sits next to you. Not knowing what else to do, you lean onto her shoulder and the floodgates open. A scene of gravity, it’s the goodbyes that are always the hardest. The time, as it always does, goes by too fast.  Time passing inescapably like sand through your fingertips, you say your goodbyes as the taxi arrives and takes them off to the airport and back to the States.

Turning away as the taxi rides off, you cross the road and jump into a bus. You wedge yourself between two passengers, your hugging your backpack in your lap. You continue fighting back the tears, sniffling quietly. But not only do the tears fight back, they win. Tucking the brim of your cap down over the dark shades covering your eyes, you do what you can to prevent anyone else on the bus from realizing you were crying.

The tears wouldn’t have been as strong, the goodbye wouldn’t have been as hard, you tell yourself; if only your brother were still coming in later that day.

* * *

To be continued…

Cheers!

 

Something About Summer: A Series (1)

Summer.

There’s something about that word, isn’t there?

It brings to mind sunshine, fresh-cut grass, baseball, and burgers on the grill during a 4th of July cook-out.

It’s reveled by children as a time away from school; a time to run wild and free from the responsibilities school places on them.

It’s hot, sunny days jumping in the lake and warm, firefly-filled nights roasting marshmallows by a bonfire.

Each and every one of us have fond summer memories to look back on. Each one of our summer memories may vary, but the question remains the same:

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?”

As I stated before, at the conclusion of the past school year at St. Peter’s RC and the onset of the summer holiday, I could summarize my feelings in one word: relief.

Relief that I had made it. Relief that I had made it through my first full year not only as a teacher, but as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Relief that I had eight weeks of freedom and escape. Relief that I could now start counting down the months, instead of counting up.

That relief, however, was short-lived.

From the moment the final bell rang and school was officially closed for the summer holiday, I had to hit the ground running. I had various commitments booked throughout the summer, taking me from my first day off in July to my first day back in September…

 * * *

You stand on a concrete slab with overgrown weeds threatening to wrap your feet and pull you down. The hot sun bears down through the sporadic, cloud-covered sky. You remain standing silently, hands clasped behind your back and a solemn expression on your face. Beside you were PCVs Deb Campelia and John Lyness, as well as a small Grenadian family delicately dressed in black. Looking up through the dark tint of your shades, a small band equipped with simple instruments played songs of mourning from atop an above-ground tomb. Before them was an open tomb where a casket had been placed and looked after by a pastor in the midst of a gathering of family and friends, all donned in black. Although you did not directly know the deceased, a pit bottoms out in your stomach as you helplessly watch a beloved member of the Peace Corps Grenada family mourn the loss of a loved one.

You gaze into the distance, looking down to the high-standing pink walls of the National Stadium at the bottom of the steep cemetery’s hill. Trucks, vans, and cars navigate methodically through a roundabout, off to their destinations like ants on a hill. On the far side of the road was the Caribbean Sea, its vast and empty expanse taking on the colors of the dark clouds but glimmering in the spots where the sun shone through.

Voices cry out as the casket is slowly lowered into the tomb. Small slabs, much like the one you are standing on, are placed over the tomb and permanently sealed with wet concrete. As the service closes, you scan the faces of the gathering. Women holding each other arm-in-arm, men with hands placed on the shoulders on their confused and somber-faced children. Many of the gathered wear thick black shades, not unlike the pair you are currently wearing, as if to try and hide the pain.

You turn and step down into the weeds, high-stepping through the overgrown cemetery and onto the adjacent road as you leave the congregation. Walking down the hill toward the Stadium, you place your hands in your pockets as something you heard recently echoes in your mind.

It was a quote, by Jamie Anderson, that reads like this:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

* * *

The waves crash on the rocks, a soft mist sprays on you as you cling to the rough and misshapen volcanic cliff-side. Delicately balancing barefoot on the uneven rock, you inch along one step at a time to the edge where the cliff meets the beach. When the tide pulls the water back to the Sea, you turn and after a faithful leap, your feet stick into the soft-soaked sand. Stumbling forward, you laugh as you join the others in reaching a previously-unknown destination.

Throwing down a towel, you fall back on your backpack and take a look around. Tucked in between two cliffs, you find yourself on a secluded little beach-head seemingly straight from the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. Trees and brush look down on you from the U-shaped cliff above, protectively shading you from the bullying heat of the sun. In front of you large, jagged rocks protrude from the Sea as bright blue waves crash up the shore. To the right is the cliff-side you climbed down, around which the red-roofed city of St. George’s can be seen tucked into the blue-green Grenadian mountains in the distance.

Laying all around you, various friends you’ve come to call family lay out on towels and bathe in the water. Some of them you’ve known for over a year, others just a week. Of all different ages, backgrounds, sizes, and nationalities, you’ve all come together for one purpose only: to celebrate.

To celebrate the conclusion of a successful Camp GLOW: Girls Leading Our World, (see A Cause Worth Dancing For).

To celebrate the new friendships made during that incredible, sleep-deprived week.

To celebrate the collaboration between Peace Corps Volunteers and local counterparts, counselors, and friends.

To celebrate the recent birthdays of three PCVs: Sarah Bowman, Riley Doerrler, and Hannah Melin.

To celebrate the Close-of-Service of two of our own, PCVs Sarah and Riley.

Drinks are passed around and turns are taken bathing in the Sea. Stories are shared, laughs are abundant, and pictures are taken. A crab curiously pokes its head out from the sand, only to scurry back to its burrow, paying no mind to the chaos outside…

 

 

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* * *

You’re sitting on a worn-down couch, the kind where you have to sit on the edge so as not to get swallowed in. Cards are being passed around the coffee table. A plate with a greasy slice of Papa John’s pizza and breadsticks rest on the nightstand to the right of the couch.

The crickets, as they always do, sing their chorus through the screen door and windows outside. Reggae tunes subtly play from a small blue-tooth speaker on the corner of the table. Various Volunteers are scattered about the room. Two laying down on the other couch to the left. Three others sit in the high-backed chairs of the dining table, surrounded by the boxes of take-out pizza and a few bottles of rum and juice. The rest crowd around the card-laden coffee table as a competitive game of Egyptian Rat-screw ensues.

You’re back in St. Lucia, where your Peace Corps journey all began, with many of the people who began the journey with you. After being separated about a year ago (almost to the day) and sent to different islands across the Eastern Caribbean, you were all brought back to St. Lucia in for different reasons, yet ironically, for the same reason: to aid in the training of the incoming group of new Peace Corps Trainees.

Some of you belong on the Volunteer Advisory Council, to which you belong as the Volunteer representative of the island post of Grenada. Others were brought in as part of their role with the ICD&I Committee, newly formed by your EC89 peers to facilitate conversations and address the questions and concerns related to diversity and inclusion among Volunteers. Earlier in the day you sat on a few panels to answer questions the new group of Trainees have about Peace Corps service in the EC. It was odd, honestly, that all of a sudden you realize you have all the answers to the very same questions you had just one year ago.

No longer the newbies in Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean, you are among the seasoned veterans with a whole year of experience living, working, and teaching in the EC. Since that day just a year ago when our individual site assignments were revealed and we were swept off on our own, it’s been hard to stay in touch. But being back in the same room with these people, it was like we had never left our small, St. Lucian host-community of Desruisseaux.

With all the training sessions being done for the day, it was finally time to relax and enjoy our brief time together again. Being full-fledged Volunteers living across various islands and no longer within our greater cohort, the times we are together come far and few between. Consequently, these occasions call for indulging in take-out pizza from the capital and a bottle of rum or two while playing a competitive hand of cards to pass the time.

 

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* * *

“Bus stop!” You call from the back of a half-empty bus veering fast around the bend.

It jolts to a stop and you stumble out, reaching into your pocket and paying the fare to the driver, who speeds off down the road. Turning around, you walk in between two weather-beaten bars to the beach on the other side. Rain is falling soft and cold, so you hustle across the dirt path to one of your early St. Lucian stomping grounds. A little restaurant sits just off the beach, tarps pulled down around the seating area and flapping in the wind. Two figures are sitting with their backs turned, but you recognized them all the same.

“Julie! Lady Zeph! Good afternoon!” you call as you step up to the restaurant.

“Ooooh, Scott!” Julie, your St. Lucian host mother hops up, embracing you in that warm, familiar hug.

Formalities and greetings aside, you all jump in a car and take off for a new place to grab lunch. It’s a special occasion after all, reuniting with your first host mother and her best friend, who in her own right was like a second mother to you. Arriving in a quiet, little air-conditioned restaurant, you sit down with the two women who although you were a stranger on their doorstep, welcomed you into their homes and cared for you as if you were their own. You order and share a meal; retired teachers themselves, they laugh as you share tales of your first year teaching in a Caribbean classroom. You explain how you’ve utilized the lessons they taught you those first few weeks from classroom advice to home-cooking. You brag a little bit about the local dishes you’ve now made, citing all the baking you did together during those seven weeks in Desruisseaux. You laugh about how word had gotten around back then, too, as it didn’t take long until you were arriving home from training to find fellow Trainees cooking with everyone’s favorite host mom Julie.

 

* * *

Bzzzz

Your phone vibrates in your pocket. Pulling it out, a text message alert pops across the screen.

With all the rain we are having it is HIGHLY possible for our water systems to be blocked.

PLEASE HAVE A 3 DAYS SUPPLY OF STORED WATER.

START STORING NOW!

“Great,” you sigh sarcastically, slipping your phone back into your pocket.

You turn and push through the doors and step back out into the heavy rains that have been falling since you woke up that morning. You hadn’t ever seen rains like this before, thinking back to seeing the parking lot of the National Stadium under at least a foot of water while you were on your way to town.

Nonetheless, you pop open your large umbrella and hustle around the Carenage, the horseshoe-shaped harbor of St. George’s, over to the nearest shopping center. Going straight to the jugs of water on the corner bottom shelf, you grab four of them and waddle over to the check-out counter. Once the transaction is processed it sinks in how ridiculous this is about to look..

Here you’re going to have four large jugs of water.

But only two hands.

And one large umbrella.

Of course this is the one time you didn’t bring your backpack with you to town.

So you tuck your large umbrella under your arm, pick up the four jugs of water and walk out into the pouring rain. Ignoring the funny looks that come from being a foreigner walking in the torrential rain, carrying four large jugs of water with an unused umbrella tucked under his arm, you turn the corner and flag down the first bus you see.

The funny looks don’t bother you much. After all, it wouldn’t be worth explaining that you live here, not to mention in the area currently being hit with the most flooding, where you hadn’t re-stocked on water since the last time the water was shut off.

So you climb onto the bus, taking up the whole first row with the jugs of water, dripping wet.

“Can you take me to the airport?” you ask.

The conductor looks at you, a puzzled look on his face. You can’t blame him, as he had to be wondering what the foreign kid with nothing but four jugs of water and an unused umbrella needed to go to the airport for.

What he didn’t know, however, was that was the day your parents were to arrive in Grenada.

And to think you told them that during rainy season the showers don’t last any longer than a few minutes.

The next few minutes turned into hours as the rain kept falling. You waited outside as the airport periodically lost power with the storm. You scan the flight monitor frequently when the power came back on, knowing their flight was supposed to land early in the afternoon, but it was continually being shown as delayed.

You’re told from someone that the plane came in for landing but pulled back up due to poor visibility and flew on to Barbados. With an uneasy feeling, you take a seat by the bar in the waiting area. An hour passes by, then another. You’ve never been concerned about flights before, always having a take-things-as-they-go approach to flying. But this time it was a little different: you’ve never seen a tropical wave and flooding like this before and can’t imagine how someone could possibly land a plane in such conditions. This goes without mentioning that your parents, whom you hadn’t seen since Christmas, were on one of those flights scheduled to land. But you keep a positive mind and patiently wait alongside the others passing the time in the waiting area.

A few hours later, the rain lightens up as night begins to fall. The sky fades from gray to black and the orange lighting of the street lamps illuminate the puddles of standing water all around you. A number of re-directed flights finally land, alongside the one holding your parents, four and a half hours after its initial arrival time. You stand in the mass of people outside as a soft rain drizzles down, passengers re-uniting with friends and family in the waiting area all around you. Another hour passes as you continue watching the doors, awaiting your reunion with those two familiar faces set to come out of those airport doors.

The taxi you hired, making the most of the downtime, goes off on another service for the second time, knowing he can still return in time to take me and my guests home. As you glance over to a man wrapping up his sister and nephew in a joyous hug, you look up when the doors open yet again. This time, however, it’s the two most formative people in your life, the one’s who’ve raised you into who you are, the one’s you hadn’t seen since Christmas eight long months ago, that are the one’s walking through the door. They pause momentarily as they step outside, scanning the faces of the crowd. You raise your hat and wave it, catching your mother’s eye. The suitcase and backpacks were dropped and after a quick dash through the crowd, you’re wrapped up in that old, familiar hug that only a true mother can give.

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After a long day of traveling, my parents finally arrived in Grenada.

* * *

To be continued…

Cheers!

A Cause Worth Dancing For

Ever wonder what happens when a male volunteer spends a whole week at a girls’ empowerment camp?

Well, now that I’ve completed a week serving as a counselor at Peace Corps Grenada’s Camp G.L.O.W. (Girls Leading Our World), let me tell you:

I sit on the cool tile, back against the railing of the balcony. Two closed, white wooden doors stand looming in front of me. The glass windows on either side of the doors are dark, only a dim light illuminating the far end of the room inside. Joyous laughter and muffled cheers ring out periodically from behind the doors. But outside it was quiet and peaceful, only the mechanical chorus of the crickets accompany me under the star-lit sky and silhouetted mountains.

Although the night was quiet and peaceful, my emotions were anything but. My heart thumped rapidly against my chest as butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Tilting my head back and closing my eyes, I inhale deeply. Holding my breath for a moment, I exhale slowly, trying to ease the racing of my heart.

“I can’t believe I’m actually going to do this,” I laugh to myself, shaking my head.

Just then the door cracks open and out slips Chanda, one of the camp counselors, who quickly closes the door behind her.

“Are we up yet?” I ask anxiously.

“One more; then us,” she responds.

Placing my hands on the ground, I push myself to my feet.

Chanda steps up to the window and peers back inside.

Needing a way to expel my pent-up nerves, I hop back and forth on my toes, the way a boxer would before his big fight. My heart continued pounding on my chest, almost looking for a way out the whole ordeal itself.

“I haven’t been this nervous in a long time,” I thought to myself. Only the last time I was this nervous, I was about to bungee jump off of a bridge over seven-hundred feet in the air.

Thankfully, this time the stakes weren’t as high (literally and figuratively). But I knew once I stepped through those doors, I would be facing something that to me was just as intimidating as a seven-hundred foot bungee. On the other side of those doors was over thirty teenage girls, and I was about to do the unthinkable and perform a dance routine in front of them.

But not only was I going to dance, I was going to dance to Beyonce.

“Lord, help me,” I laugh under my breath.

The door cracks open again and another counselor, Roya, steps out onto the dark veranda.

“You ready?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say confidently, a smile cracking across my face as I raise my hand for a high-five.

A sort of defense mechanism, I often try to approach my most uncomfortable, nerve-racking situations with a false sense of confidence. Oftentimes, it’s an attempt to convince everyone around me that I know what I’m doing, but sometimes the only one I’m really trying to convince is myself.

I stand before the doors as Chanda and Roya take their places behind me. It’s showtime.

Closing my eyes, I run the routine through my head one last time and take one final, deep breath.

The door swings open. I look up and confidently strut into the room the way a model walks down the catwalk. A raucous applause of teenage girls erupts in the room. Single Ladies by Beyonce begins playing on the loud speakers as we entered, but was nearly drowned out by the screams of the audience. I take my position in the center of the floor, just under the overhead stage lights with Chanda and Roya each a step behind me.

The nerves getting the best of me and unable to hear the music, I jumped right into the routine, dropping one foot back and snapping my fingers, rotating and repeating the motion on the other side. As I did this, however, I glanced back to notice Chanda and Roya were still in the starting position and hadn’t moved…

Yep…I jumped the gun.

Just as I came to this realization, the beat dropped and our routine began when it was supposed to. I quickly recovered, doing my best to catch up and make sure the routine was back in-sync. Inside I was vexed that I muffed the start, but I quickly pushed that to the back of my mind and focused instead on the routine at hand. Complete with side-steps, hip shakes, catwalks, and hand-turns, I followed the routine we rehearsed as best I could and didn’t think of anything else.

The song quickly reached its close and with a wide turn of the shoulder, I closed with an outstretched hand, the ring I borrowed from Chanda glimmering on my finger in the stage lights.

The place went nuts.

I laughed and celebrated with Chanda and Roya, my extraordinary back-up dancers. I walked over to a corner and stood in front of a fan by the window, catching my breath and wiping the sweat from my face. Sighing deeply, I finally began to relax as I posted up in the corner and delightedly watched the rest of the show.

Now what might all this have to do with Camp GLOW?

So little, yet so much.

For those that don’t know, Camp GLOW is a Peace Corps program put on by Volunteers across posts worldwide. In professional terms: Camp GLOW is a selective all-girl leadership camp designed to give promising, passionate secondary school girls the skills and knowledge to make a positive difference in their personal lives, their schools, and their communities. Girls aged 13-17 participate in group activities focusing on teamwork, self-esteem, goal-setting, and career development. Camp GLOW offers an opportunity for these young women to openly discuss their opinions regarding themselves, the world, and the future of both together. In addition to these activities, the girls also participate in a variety of team games, sports, crafts, art, and fun.

In layman’s terms: it’s a week-long camp that serves as an opportunity for at-risk teenage girls to discover themselves and empower them to become the leaders of the future.

The week started with some ice-breakers, as the girls came from secondary schools all across the island, and a majority of them were meeting each other for the first time. The air was filled with nervousness and uncertainty. For many of the girls, this was their first time away from home. To add to their discomfort and as per Camp GLOW procedure, their phones were confiscated for the week (the girls were allotted time to call home using the Camp Directors’ phones each night, otherwise no phones). They were sectioned off into pre-selected groups identifiable by color. Each group then had the task of coming up with a team name and a song or chant.

As one of the counselors of the yellow group, after some prodding and encouraging, eventually the girls in my group came up with the name “Golden Squad.” Then moving outside into the night, one of the girls thankfully took the reigns and orchestrated our song and chant to introduce our group to the rest of the girls. The Camp broke for the night as the girls were settled into their rooms and the counselors prepared for the long week ahead.

What followed suit was probably one of the craziest, most exhausting weeks of my life. Fact of the matter is, it all went by so fast. There was so much going on, with so little time. There were ups and downs, tears and laughter, frustration and anxiety, and an extreme lack of sleep.

Each day consisted of various workshops and learning sessions led by the Camp Directors, PCVs, counselors, and local women volunteering their time, effort, and resources in order to encourage these young girls to become the leaders they are capable of being.

Although the list below doesn’t cover all the workshops and sessions showcased in Camp GLOW, it will give you a basic understanding of the types of activities that the Camp entailed and how they fit into Camp GLOW’s greater mission:

Cake Decorating- For this workshop, a local bakery owner (and former GLOW camper), came in to discuss how she started her own business at the ripe age of 20. She explained the concepts and strategies in cake-decorating, showing the girls how to use the different instruments needed for the perfect touch. The girls then had an opportunity to try it themselves, decorating their own individual cupcakes and working together to create team cakes.

Yoga- Led by PCV Hannah, this session was an introduction to yoga as a means of meditation, exercise, and relaxation. The girls embraced the opportunity of trying various poses, maneuvers, and breathing strategies.

Natural Hair- A session lead by a local hair stylist, this workshop encouraged the girls to embrace and take pride in their natural hair. The campers learned how to properly care for their hair and establish healthy habits in maintaining their natural hair.

Improv- Two women came in to orchestrate a series of activities and games enabling the girls to think and express themselves freely. These included the games Ships and Sailors, Team Princess-Knight-Dragon (a form of rock, paper, scissors), Splat, and others. The session concluded with an opportunity for girls to come up with an impromptu political speech on a random topic which went surprisingly well with plenty of laughs.

Woodshop- Facilitated by one of the only female woodshop teachers on the island, the girls had an opportunity to measure and cut wood to create key rings. This was a hands-on experience for girls to work with power tools, paint, and create their own key rings to take home with them.

Public Speaking and Zumba- A local radio host and zumba instructor presented to the girls the keys to developing strong public speaking skills. The session included public speaking activities that enabled the girls to develop and showcase their skills by stepping out of their comfort zone. The public speaking session was then followed by a zumba class where the girls got to open up and burn some energy exercising to local soca music.

Spa Night- Because what would be a girls’ empowerment camp without a spa night? Led by the PCVs and camp counselors, the girls all received face-masks and spent a night properly taking care of their skin and embracing their natural beauty.

Financial Responsibility- A local woman came in to discuss with the girls financial responsibility and saving strategies. During this session, the girls were asked to create a fictional, financially-responsible person. Unfortunately, four out of the five groups had a male as their financially-responsible person. This goes to show the purpose of this camp is for the girls to realize that they can be that person.

Vision Boards- A secondary activity to the financial responsibility session, the girls were given a piece of cardboard and several magazines. From the magazines, they cut out pictures and pasted them to the cardboard, which became their “vision board” of who they want to be in the future. The vision boards were theirs to take home and use to motivate them to achieve the dreams they have set out for themselves.

TED Talks- After watching two TED Talks video segments, PCVs and Camp GLOW Directors Lili and Riley facilitated group discussions on bullying, social acceptance, and the power of spoken-word poetry.

Health and Personal Well-being- A local female doctor presented to the girls good habits to ensure a healthy body and lifestyle. These included tips on diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene, and mental as well as physical health.

Career Fair- One of the pinnacle opportunities for the girls, various local women came in to hold small-group discussions with the girls on the potential career opportunities for them. These individuals had backgrounds in social work, international commerce, consultation, education, professional dance, and business. The girls had the opportunity to ask these women questions about their field of work and how they came to attain those positions as well seek career advice.

Sex Education- Arguably the most important session of the week, a whole day was devoted to the discussion of sexual health and safe sex practices. Under the guidance of the female counselors and directors (I excused myself from these sessions for obvious reasons), the girls had a chance to debunk myths and misinterpretations of sex depicted by the media. A taboo topic, many of these girls never received the “sex talk,” and consequently now had the opportunity to ask trusted female counselors questions in order to understand fact from fiction when it comes to sex. During these sessions, the girls also learned how to properly use condoms to ensure that if they exercise their right to be active, they can do so in a safe manner.

Question Box- The question box, a staple of Camp GLOW, is a means for girls to ask the Camp directors and counselors questions anonymously. This quickly became a popular activity, as it facilitated deep and meaningful conversations on what are often-times taboo topics.

These were just some of the many activities and sessions in place at Camp GLOW that enabled the girls to discover themselves and empowered them to become the leaders of the future. On the final night of the camp, a talent show was held, during which my little dance routine made an appearance. A proper finale to the week, the talent show was a means for the girls to display their talents in front of their peers and build their self-confidence by putting themselves out in front of a large audience.

I suppose this is where all my rambling is supposed to come full circle. At the start of the week, I had no idea what to expect or what I was getting myself into. After all, I was going to be a male volunteer at a girls’ empowerment camp. What I didn’t realize, was that I was going to take part in one of the most rewarding and empowering experiences of MY life.

As I said before, on the very first night the girls arrived nervous, anxious, shy, and reserved. For many of them, it was their first night away from home. They were thrown into unchartered territory, not sure what to expect.

Then during the first days’ activities, a few of them began opening up and embracing the Camp. Others took a little more time, still wrought with homesickness and an overall disinterest in being there. But with each passing day, more and more girls began fully participating in the Camp’s activities and fostering friendships with each other. As time went on, their personalities not only began to develop, but shine brightly as well. They engaged each other, the counselors, the directors, and the guest speakers; they weren’t afraid to ask the difficult questions.

When they were called upon by the counselors to speak up or present, they did. They put themselves front and center, subjecting themselves to the opinions of their peers. Naturally as with teenage girls, there were times of stress and tears resulting from ‘girl drama.’ Whenever this happened a counselor would step in to console the girl, but as the week went on it was the girls that were picking each other up when one was put down.

The camp counselors were incredible. Talk about a group of women that I absolutely admire. They expressed empathy, patience, understanding, and love for the girls that at the start of the camp, they didn’t even know. They all had a task to fulfill, to be positive role models for the girls and provide a foundation for these girls to prepare for their own future. They were confidants and provided words of wisdom and experience. They were individuals the girls could aspire to be and established a standard of living for the girls to follow.

Camps such as GLOW that push for the cause of empowering girls to become the leaders of the future are needed not just in developing countries, but across the globe. For too many people, in too many countries, conversations centering on taboo topics such as sexual education, homosexuality, feminism, and the breaking of gender roles are not being held. These conversations are necessary for young girls and boys so that this world can continue moving forward to a more accepting and loving world. Children are our future, for it’s the girls and boys of this world that can instill progress to for a better, more tolerating, accepting, and peaceful world.

Although dancing to Beyonce’s Single Ladies was a relatively insignificant event in the grand schemes of the Camp, it was still probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. As a male counselor, in addition to providing the occasional comic relief, it was my role to convey the message to them that there are men out there that support the female empowerment movement. After witnessing the transformation of these campers from quiet, shy, and timid girls to outgoing, inspiring, and ambitious young women in the span of a short week, I felt I had to do something. If they could step out of their comfort zones and speak proudly, ask difficult questions, express their opinions, and embrace their love for their fellow girl, then why couldn’t I step out of my comfort zone and show my solidarity in them with their cause.

And what better way than to show support for feminism then by dancing to the queen of female empowerment herself, Beyonce.

Beyonce once said, “We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead.”

I couldn’t find a quote that more accurately depicts not only the purpose of Camp GLOW, but how this change is already happening in this world. This change is already being implemented in thanks to women like Beyonce, women like the Camp GLOW directors, counselors, guest speakers, and Peace Corps Volunteers across the globe.

And that, my friends, is a cause worth dancing for.

 

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Off the Beaten Path

Underneath my feet was a simple concrete bridge, a trickling stream running beneath it. Fallen leaves decorated its well-worn surface. To go straight from the bridge on the path before me would mean reaching the well-known and breath-taking second waterfall in Concord. But the path to the right of the bridge, hardly noticeable to the naked eye and running up steeply into the bush, allegedly would lead to the lesser-known and mysterious third Concord Waterfall.

I’ve made the trip to the second waterfall a handful of times now, which each time I’ve chronicled being as enjoyable as the first. Despite the many times I took the path ahead, however, I had yet to take the unknown path to the right. The third waterfall simply wasn’t as popular as the other two, as the path to get there is a little more challenging than the others. Contemplating the decision, a voice in my head beckoned me to go straight and take the familiar path that guarantees a familiar and enjoyable experience. But that morning, fellow PCV John Lyness and I had set out on a different mission. That morning we were to take the path to the right and delve deep into the bush in search for that mysterious third waterfall in Concord.

“All right, let’s go.”

Turning right and beginning our ascent up the hill, a fallen tree laid across the narrow path. With no way to climb over or around it, I grabbed hold of it and swung underneath to the other side. The hike had just started and it was already clear that this trip would be a challenging one. The path was overgrown and the foliage was thick, a direct result of the little foot traffic that comes through here. We wagered on, the long grass whipping my shins with each step. The rugged, green mountains looked down on us from a distance, but were quickly vanishing in the canopy of the trees as we were swallowed in by the bush. The terrain was quickly changing as flat, wide palm leaves of the banana trees began to spring up on either side of us. Masses of bamboo exploded from the ground and leaned over the path, creaking eerily as we walked by as if they were warning us with calls of caution. Outside of the occasional song of a nearby bird, the creaking of the bamboo was accompanied only by the silence of the forest.

After a short while, a new sound joined the tranquility of the bush. It was the sound of rushing water, resonating somewhere below us. Looking down the hillside to the right, various rocks protruded stubbornly through the surface of a river. The river itself, however, was only visible by brushing aside all the branches and palm leaves blocking our view. As the river appeared, the landscape around us began changing again. All the trees that surrounded us now were all bearing various fruits of guava, papaya, mangoes, and breadfruit, as well as nutmegs, cocoa, and green figs (bananas). It seemed to us now that we were walking through land being cultivated for agricultural purposes. Our suspicions later proved true, as after the path diverged down to run along the river, we soon found ourselves enveloped in a maze of banana trees. They were planted strategically, each one about five to ten feet apart from the next and stretching ten to fifteen feet high. For the farmer who planted them, the surrounding banana trees must have been organized in a grid through which he can navigate through like a native New Yorker does the streets of the Big Apple. But for us foreigners in an unfamiliar territory, it was almost as overwhelming as it was impressive. Each turn looked the same as the last, leaving us feeling like rats in a maze. But we continued on and coming around a turn, a large blue barrel suddenly appeared, as if it were dropped randomly in this maze of banana trees. Off to the right of the barrel, a stump of a banana tree stood proudly at the bank of the river. Nailed to the top of the stump was a sawed-off aluminum panel with small, white-painted lettering written on it: “Notice. Private Property. You are To visit Fall Free.”

That was all the assurance we needed. So far, so good.

From then on the path began to come to life. A small blur catches the corner of my eye. It’s a hummingbird, fluttering in the air as it fills its belly with nectar from the bell of a bright, orange flower. A leaf rustles in the knee-high brush. Pausing and peering through the leaves, a small lizard jumps from a leaf and onto the trunk of a tree, blending in effortlessly with its surroundings. A twig snaps behind me and glancing back, two manicous (possums) dash across the path behind us before disappearing in the forest. The beautiful shrubs of the path began taking other colors: broad, spade-shaped leaves colored purple in the center and bordered by green; stalks of bright yellow leaves with green patterns protruded from tree trunks; vibrant, red heliconias jut out above the river, beckoning the hummingbirds to visit their claw-shaped bells. All these colorful flowers danced in the breeze, swaying in the sea of green forest that we were trekking through.

Climbing down to the river, I leaped onto one rock and then to another. Dancing across to the center of the river, the water was rushing past on either side of me. Looking ahead, the rocks and boulders were cluttered in the river, disrupting its otherwise steady flow. Banana trees ran along either side of the river, waving me down the luscious green tunnel it formed over the river. The water of the river was as dark as it was transparent, a wondrous oxymoron of the soft, muddy floor beneath the surface of the clear, fresh-water of the river.

Jumping back onto the path, we were once again engulfed in the foliage. The slim, downtrodden path we had been following was once again disappearing. Thoughts of indecision began creeping in and were soon followed by doubt:

“Does the path go this way? Or that way?”

“Could we have we reached the waterfall yet and not realized it?”

“How much farther do we have to go?”

“Are we still even on the right path?”

The questions raced through my mind.

We returned to the river, standing on its edge while evaluating our surroundings and questioning our next move.

Then with a subtle movement of a leaf and a dark speck flying past my eye, a sharp pain shoots into my neck. Swatting at my neck and wincing in pain, it felt as if someone had plunged a hot needle into the back of my neck.

To put it lightly, my language was probably as colorful as the scenery around me as I was stung by my first Grenadian bee.

Now the doubt was being overtaken by frustration, “How have we not reached it yet?”

The sharp pain soon subsided, but the stiffness in my neck remained as we made our decision and continued on. The path was completely overgrown now, identifiable only by pushing the broad, waist-high leaves away and walking along the down-trodden ground beneath them. The banana trees still stood high all around us, shooting out from a mass of green and purple dasheen leaves.

Suddenly, there came a new sound. That oh, so glorious sound.

The subtle rushing of the river was being drowned out by the overpowering strength of a twenty-foot high waterfall, its water cascading down a rock-side in the distance. Brushing the leaves aside and peering through the gaps in the trees, the waterfall was just barely visible through the foliage up ahead.

A new-found energy shot through my veins as we hustled the rest of the way to the waterfall. Upon reaching it, this waterfall was entirely unique to its own. Unlike the other two Concord waterfalls, this one was tucked into a concave of a hillside. The waterfall itself stampeded down the rockside, jumping off the rocks and into the spring only at the last moment. The forest all around it seemed as though it were trying to suppress the falls, surrounding it on all sides. But the impeding threat was to no avail, as the waterfall was just too strong to be suppressed. The water in the spring itself was murky and stagnant, not nearly as inviting as the other two falls. There wasn’t enough room to swim or bathe in it, either, as logs were covering and protruding from the center of the spring. Mosquitoes swarmed the air above the water’s surface, prompting us to spray ourselves in repellent in order to avoid the Dengue Fever outbreak recently declared by Grenada’s Ministry of Health.

Sighing deeply, we finally had found what we were looking for.

Then like a flip of a switch, rain down-poured from the heavens above us. It came so suddenly, so heavily, there was simply nothing we could do about it. None of the trees in our immediate area had a canopy broad enough to take shelter under. So there we were, standing in the downpour of the tropical forest, laughing as we welcomed the cold rain with outstretched arms. The rain was falling visibly through the fog that accompanied it, peppering the surface of the water and splattering on the broad leaves of the trees.

The moment the rain came was as liberating as it was surreal. An uplifting reward at the end of a long,  uncertain, and arduous journey. But just as suddenly as the rain-shower came, it was gone.

The forest again fell quiet, outside of the waterfall’s raging waters. Droplets trickled off the leaves and fell to the ground. After taking in all that we could of our natural surroundings for a few moments, it was time to begin the long trek back. Delicately trekking through the muddy ground of the rain-soaked path, we brushed through the sea of broad, open leaves, knocking loose the rain that pooled in its crevices.

Delving back into the bush, I took one last look over my shoulder. The waterfall continued raging on, barely visible in the gaps of the trees. Taking it in for the final time, I etched the image into my memory. We accomplished our goal of finding the third waterfall and now that our journey had come to end, it was time to go home.

I turned around and didn’t look back.

 * * *

This hike to the third waterfall happened about a month ago. When it came time to tell the story of this journey, admittedly I was left a little puzzled. I started my first draft, but soon became side-tracked, not convinced as to what needed to be done before I was ready to share my experience. After all, there was something unique about this hike that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It had its challenges that at times enabled thoughts of doubt to creep into the back of my mind. However, the accomplishment of reaching our destination had made it an incredibly rewarding experience.

My trip to the third Concord waterfall was a humble reminder that sometimes the most beautiful destinations come at the end of an arduous journey. Due to the challenges and length of time it took to find it, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to return to it again. But the memory of the moment that waterfall came into view, compounded by the glorious, sudden rain shower is something I will cherish forever. A moment of pure bliss at the end of an strenuous campaign, it was an extraordinary reward for the challenges of doubt, indecision, disorientation, and pain endured by going off the beaten path in search of something new.

To put it plainly: this hike was strangely reminiscent of the past year of my life.

Last week, I completed my first school year at St. Peter’s RC and much like this hike, it wasn’t at all easy. I started the school year, as I did with this hike, with a destination in mind but not fully knowing how I was going to get there. I had never taught in a classroom before, as I had never hiked the trail to the third waterfall before. In both circumstances I was venturing into new and unchartered territory.

There were numerous ups and downs, highs and lows along the way. There were times of uncertainty, doubt, and frustration. However, in both circumstances, I made it to my destination(s): the third Concord Waterfall and the completion of my first year of Peace Corps service.

But not only did I reach my destinations, I came across an extraordinary reward at the end of each of them. The first one, the sudden downpour at a remote waterfall in the depths of a tropical rainforest, was a joy to experience and made the challenges and doubts along the way seem trivial.

At my other, more recent destination, the completion of my first year of Peace Corps service, I came across an even more extraordinary reward.

Over the course of this past year, I was co-teaching in the third grade classroom at St. Peter’s RC in the town of Gouyave in St. John’s, Grenada. At the beginning of the year, I identified fourteen students of my students who were reading below grade level. I worked with these identified students in “pull-out tutoring” sessions throughout the year in an attempt to increase their reading skills. Upon reviewing the results, I found that out of the fourteen students, eleven of them improved by at least one reading level. Some of them even jumped as many as two and even three reading levels over the course of the year. Four of the students, in fact, are now reading at grade level.

Along the way there were times of uncertainty, frustration, and doubt. But now that I’ve completed my first year of Peace Corps service, all those challenges seem trivial. Due to the results my students attained, I can hold my head high. Am I disappointed that three of the fourteen students scored at the same level at the start to the end of the year? Yes. However, keeping in mind that there are eleven other students who made significant strides in their reading skills is rewarding in and of itself. I would have been ecstatic to just have one student’s score improve. For just one improved score would show me that my presence had made a difference, that I had a positive influence on a student’s life. One improved score would have proven to me that sacrificing everything I had ever known at home to start a new life in a foreign country, was worth it. One improved score would absolve the moments uncertainty, frustration, doubt, and homesickness that proved to be significant challenges for me along the way. Thankfully, I not only saw one improved score, I saw eleven. Furthermore, those were just the improvements seen on paper, as I had the privilege witnessing each and every one of them improve in one capacity or another. For that, I am grateful.

When I began this journey a year ago, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. That being said, part of the reason I chose to serve with the Peace Corps was because of a desire to do something different. There was an appeal of delving into the unknown, going “off the beaten path,” so to speak. This past year lived up to my expectations, exceeded them, and fell short of them as well. There were times when the challenges were overwhelming, when thoughts of doubt made it hard to keep moving forward. Nevertheless, I had a destination in mind, one I had no choice but to reach.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t trade the experience of this past year, with all its incredible highs and even its daunting lows, for the world.

Yet at the end of the day, I feel I am still having a hard time expressing what this past year’s experience has meant to me. So to help convey what this past experience has been like and how I feel having officially reached the one-year mark, I would like to share with you a poem. This poem, written by Bernadette Langer, preciselyreflects my experience, both with the hike and with my first year of Peace Corps service and what each has meant to me:

The Beaten Path 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

as I ever so quietly stood.

Excitedly pondering which choice to make,

but tempered by the fear of making a mistake.

For what if the choice made was wrong,

would I regret for my whole life long?

Would I ever truly be happy not knowing,

or would doubt always be silently growing?

Like a vine creeping through my mind,

laced with questions that would intertwine.

For the road not taken may be the best

and the one chosen, leading to further quest.

Looking down upon the very black ground,

on one road so many tracks did abound.

The other was covered in emerald green,

as if no traffic had it ever seen.

My mind raced and my heart did leap,

breaking its slow and steady beat.

For now the choice seemed oh so clear,

as slowly drained away all my fear.

I needed to walk the road less traveled by,

to enjoy the sights never before seen with eye.

To break away from the beaten path where most live,

exploring all the possibilities that life has to give.

And if a mistake I find I do make,

at least I made it for my own sake.

For I will have followed my waiting dreams,

and that’s what it’s all about it seems.

For choice is what makes freedom so immense,

it’s in those choices where life is most intense.

Cheers!

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More Than Just a Meal

Truth be told, I know very little about the life of Anthony Bourdain. I’ve seen a few episodes of his television series Parts Unknown, but that’s about it. As many of you have seen or heard, his name made headlines earlier this month after his tragic passing. In the days following his death, I read every article I could find that might shed some light on a man who lived an incredibly inspiring life. I learned about a world-renown chef and an award-winning author. I learned about a man who lead the life many only dream of having: traveling the world and sharing meals with people across the globe.

During my readings, I came across many of his famous quotes on travel, cooking, and life. His zest for life and international traveling was founded in his love for food. During his travels, he had a no-holds-barred approach, eating anything and everything that was culturally-relevant to whatever country he was in.

But in what I found, I think he was on to something bigger than just the meals he was sharing. It’s something that I think I’m just now beginning to understand myself…

* * *

“Hey King!” A voice calls from outside.

“Oh, there you are. Come on in,” I say, stepping outside and unlocking the gate to my apartment.

South, a friend of mine who works at the school, steps out of his shoes and follows me into the apartment. We head straight past the dining table to the back of the kitchen, where several pieces of salt fish and corn fish are sitting in a pot of boiling water. In the sink a few green figs were peeled and soaking in a bowl of water.

“I had the fish soaking overnight like you’re supposed to. It’s been boiling in the water there for about ten minutes now. I just got started on peeling the green figs.”

“Okay. Have a seat there and find the football game. I’ll take it from here,” he says, intuitively picking up a knife and expertly peeling the green figs.

I sat down and pulled up on my laptop the World Cup match of the afternoon: Germany vs. Sweden. By the time I turned back around, South had all the green figs were peeled.

“How many people are going to come through?” South asks.

“I’m not sure. I told some other Volunteers about it and I was going to send out messages to some others once we had it going.”

“We should get more green figs. Maybe some more dasheen and yam, too. We want enough food if people come through, but if not then you have plenty left over for tomorrow and the next day.”

“Okay that’s a good idea. I’ll run next door and get some.”

While he got started on peeling the plantains, I ran over to the market next door where I purchased a few more green figs, dasheen, and yams from the pleasant ladies conversing behind their respective vending stalls.

When I returned I handed them all to South, who inspects one of the dasheen.

“Oh, this one isn’t dasheen. It’s tania.”

“Really? How can you tell the difference?”

He begins explaining the difference between the two similar ground provisions, identifiable by the texture of the skin, color, and size. Although dasheen is preferential, the tania can still serve the purpose so he begins washing and peeling both of them anyway.

Meanwhile I turn to the freezer, pulling out a bottle of rum and some juice.

“How about some drinks?”

“Yeah, man.”

After fixing up some drinks and preparing the provisions, it was time to return to the salt fish. Turning off the burner, South picks up the pot of boiling water and pours the fish into a strainer.

“You don’t want oven pads or anything?” I ask, dumbfounded that he grabbed the pot of boiling water with his bare hands.

“Nah, man,” he smiles. “My hands are used to the heat.”

“You kidding? I’d be crying if I did that,” I reply as we break into a laugh.

He then proceeds to tell me about his time working on a ship, traveling throughout the Caribbean islands for work. It was then, during his travels to the likes of Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbuda, and Antigua, that he handled hot items so frequently it doesn’t affect him anymore.

Having lived on St. Lucia for seven weeks myself, we began sharing our opinions on the island and how it differs from Grenada. We talked about the similarities between the two as well.

Pulling the fish from the strainer, he presses the meat through and drops the flaky pieces into a dish, careful to remove all the minuscule, hard-to-see bones.

“You want to make sure you get all the bones out,” he says. “You don’t know what your friends may like, so best to make sure you get them all out. There’s a lot of them in there.”

“I see. You know, I like the salt fish but I don’t think I’ve had the corn fish before.”

“No? It’s nice. Here try a piece,” he says, handing me a piece of the corn fish.

“Hmm, that’s actually pretty good,” I say, getting my first taste of the corn fish.

Next step was the dumplings, used to complement the provisions. Pouring the flour in a large mixing bowl with increments of water, I began kneading it into dough. When the dough was ready, it was time to roll the dumplings.

South reaches in, pulling off a wad of dough. Then rolling it back and forth in his hands, the wad took on a smooth, soft, elongated shape. I pulled off a wad of my own, rolling it in my palms as it quickly thinned out and broke into two.

“No, no, here,” he says, taking the dough from my hands. “Hold it in your fingers like this,” he carefully rolls another dumpling in his fingers before mashing it back together and handing it back to me to try.

Placing it in my fingers just as he showed, I rubbed the dough in my fingers as if I were starting a primitive fire with sticks and stones. I was careful to make sure the dough stayed between my fingertips. As I did this, the dough quickly formed into the elongated shape of a dumpling. The hypothetical light bulb had gone off in my head.

“Oh! I got it now,” I say.

He nods approvingly and I place it into a pot alongside the other provisions. Looking back at my computer, I saw the score of the football match was now tied.

“Hey! Germany just scored,” I pointed to the screen.

“What?! Eh, boy,” South says, looking over as we watch a replay of the scoring point.

World Cup fever is alive and well right now in Grenada.

A short while later the salt fish and provision was ready. Grabbing my phone, I sent a few text messages to some local friends.

Honestly, I wasn’t really sure if anyone would come. I had never hosted a cook-up before. Salt fish and provision is a popular Caribbean dish and hosting a cook-up is a prominent tradition in the West Indies. The idea for me to host one originated with just me and South, cooking-up to celebrate my birthday that weekend. But when you have all this food, it’d be ridiculous not to share.

So I sent out the word about the cook-up with no real expectations. I was hoping people would come through. But like South told me earlier, if no one did it wouldn’t really matter, for then we’d have a full meal to ourselves and then some for the next couple days. That’s just how a cook-up is done here.

We set everything out in various pots, bowls, and serving dishes on the counter. South then skillfully dishes up a plate and walks it over to my upstairs neighbor, as is custom between the two old friends.

Then after a short while came Rohan, a local friend with whom I often play pool with at Mansa’s bar up the road. He was also watching the football match back in his home before he came over to join us. We pulled up the highlights and talked about the exciting finish to the match, which ended with Germany’s late goal in stoppage time to steal a 2-1 victory.

Excited about having someone to serve, I quickly dished up a plate and handed it to Rohan. The reggae sounds of Tarrus Riley, a local artist who I’ve really come to enjoy, plays on the speakers from my computer. The topic of reggae comes to the surface and we begin discussing the different artists we listen to. Rohan and I talk about how we went to the Beres Hammond concert together back on Mother’s Day. South mentions his personal favorite being Eric Donaldson, who just performed in Grenada recently. One thing we all agreed on, however, was that the Jamaican reggae artists are simply born with a gift.

“Hey King! Outside man!” Two voices call.

I hustle outside to open the gate for Akim and St. Paul, two teachers at my rival school St. John’s Anglican, who I also play basketball with on Sunday evenings. They just returned to Gouyave from the hospital, where Akim just had surgery. His right arm was now in a cast and sling, having broken it while we were playing basketball the night before at the island-wide Teachers’ Sports event up in the parish of St. Patrick. I hadn’t seen him since we carried him off the court and into a car to be rushed off to the hospital. He was still in some pain but was in otherwise good spirits.

They took a seat on my beat-in couch and I served them a dish. We updated them on the football matches of the day, which they hadn’t been able to follow. They couldn’t stay long, however, as it was time for them to return back home.

Then comes Junior, a short, athletic man with a broad smile. He’s a popular face in town, everyone recognizing him as the “Moko Jumbie” (a traditional stilts dancer popular at cultural events). A friend of South’s, I introduce myself and serve him a dish, which he sits down to enjoy. I ask him about how he does it, dancing on those stilts all day long. He laughs and explains he’s done it all his life and offered to teach me how sometime. I agreed to take him up on the offer, so I guess we’ll see how that goes.

“Hello!” A bubbly, cheery voice calls as Sarah, the PCV from my neighboring community of Grand Roy, enters my apartment.

“Happy Birthday!” She says, handing me a small bag.

Inside were two gifts: a stone from Palmiste Beach, the halfway point between our communities, and a calabash bowl. Each was hand-painted, the stone with the Peace Corps logo and the inside of the calabash bowl with various designs in Grenadian national colors. A heartfelt gift, it’s a testament of her artistic ability and the bond between Peace Corps Volunteers. There is something to be said about having “government-assigned friends” in a foreign country. She, as well as Riley, the other EC 88 Peace Corps Volunteer on Grenada, are on the last leg of their Peace Corps journeys as they COS (Close of Service) and return to the States in late July. Consequently, we’re trying to make the most of their remaining time here.

I dish up a plate for her and she joins in the conversation. South is taken by the calabash bowl, impressed by the work she did and wondering if he can get one made for himself.

Then comes Byron, one of the first guys I really got to know here. We cross paths often, shooting pool by Mansa’s and playing basketball down in the park. He takes a seat at the table and I hand him a dish.

“Hey, J!” I call out through my kitchen window, seeing one of my students sitting on the veranda of his apartment, the one behind my house.

He walks up to the window and peers through, looking between the curtains.

“Go tell your mother I cooked up some salt fish and provision and come get some.”

He nods and runs back inside his home.

A short while later Roseanne and J show up at my door, taking a break from their preparations to return to St. Vincent later this week. Having first moved to Grenada back in January, they have lived in my apartment complex for the past six months. I have gotten to know them pretty well, having J in my class and eating out with them at Fish Friday. We’ve even done some cook-ups together as well, as Roseanne was the first to show me the ropes to making salt fish and provision, in addition to the callaloo soup. We were supposed to make a Sunday lunch together, but unfortunately, we’ve run out of time.

Then came Marsha, the preschool teacher at my school. It’s with her I’ve attended all the past island-wide events celebrating Teachers’ Month this June, such as the Teachers’ Quiz, the Teachers’ Cook-up at Bathway Beach, a Secondary School Night Cruise, and Teachers’ Sports. If there’s a social event going on for the teachers, she’s the one to talk to. A prominent figure at the school, her classroom is the place to be after school lets out for the day. With the chairs and couches inside my apartment filled up, she takes a seat outside on the rail of my veranda.

“Hey Scott!” John, the PCV from Concord, calls as he enters the room. Having seen him that morning, we catch up on the rest of the day, while he mixes himself a drink and joins Marsha out on my veranda.

The day had turned to night and the salt fish and provision was running low. Drinks, much like the conversation, kept flowing. I took a step back, taking a breath and surveying my apartment before me. Inside and outside were numerous people I am proud to call friends. It was a steady mix of Volunteers, local friends, co-workers, and neighbors. I’ve met them all through different means, but they all made the effort to come through for the cook-up. The chatter was constant, multiple conversations occurring simultaneously, a pleasant chorus to the ear.

Flashbacks from home came crossing through my mind. As the youngest of six children, the front door at my house was essentially a revolving door. Growing up we often did not even lock the door, for someone was always home or passing through. Friends never had to knock, either, just walking in as if it were their own home. My dorm rooms throughout college and the house I had my senior year were much the same way, people always coming and going. That to me, gives me the feeling of home.

I always took pride in that. I always took pride in that people can feel comfortable in my home, that they know they can invite themselves over and simply be themselves. Someone else feeling at home, in your own home, to me is one of the highest compliments one can receive.

I’ve held gatherings for the other PCVs at my place before, but this was the first opportunity where I got to invite both locals and Volunteers over. Each individual that came to the cook-up had been woven into my life at various points. I’ve formed friendships with each and every one of them. Some of them have just entered into my life, others have been and will be around for awhile yet, while others only a short time more. Each one had a different story to share, but somehow we all ended up in the same place that particular evening.

But I digress, for it’s time to return to the moral of the story.

* * *

I think [Bourdain] was on to something bigger than just the meals he was sharing. It’s something that I think I’m just now beginning to understand myself…

Having lived in the Caribbean for over a year now, it is evident that hosting a “cook-up” is a common way for people to get together here. If you think about it, no matter where you go or what you do, everyone has to eat. Cooking and eating are essential to life. So hosting communal meals not only nourishes our stomachs, they nourish our souls. They are a breeding ground for companionship. Cook-ups are a reason to gather and interact with your neighbors and friends. It’s a way of meeting people and getting to know who they are and what they’re all about. Although it’s the food that brings everyone to the table, it’s the conversation that brings the cook-up to life. It’s in the conversation where you learn about someone’s past, an individual’s talents, opinions in shared interests, and find common ground through intercultural exchange.

But it’s all because of what brings everyone together: the meal.

Just look at it from the perspective of my afternoon cook-up with my friend, South. Throughout the day and night people from my community came and went. I was reunited with old friends and introduced to new ones. Some of those friends will soon be leaving Grenada, and time will tell if or when I’ll see them again. Others I’ll see again, likely at another cook-up. But that’s the way life is, people come and go. But it’s the memories that we’ll share, the memories like the time we all gathered for a cook-up, that will last forever.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Bourdain’s:

“Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”  

Like I said, I think I’m just now understanding what Bourdain seemed to have figured out long ago:

That when it comes to a cook-up, it’s about way more than just a meal.

Cheers!

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Note: As many of you have learned, Anthony Bourdain’s cause of death was determined to be a suicide. To those who knew him, it was an unexpected event.

To anyone reading this that is struggling with depression or other mental health issues, know that you are loved and that you are not alone. Mental health is a very real and very serious issue. It’s time we break the stigma. The (American) Suicide Prevention Hotline is listed below:

1-800-273-8255

A Child At Heart

“Mr. King!” A light-hearted, cheery voice calls in from outside my window.

“Ya!” I call back, leaving my open laptop on the table and slipping on a pair of flip-flops.

Stumbling out my front door, I walk toward the gate and turn the lock open. No one is out there, just the side of the market in front of me, a car parked off to the right and a dumpster down the road to the left on an otherwise empty street. But I’ve seen this trick before.

“All right, J. Where are you now?”

“Ahh!” a boy jumps out from behind a pillar, hands forward with a menacing grin.

“Almost got me that time,” I laugh, offering a fist bump as he steps inside the gate.

“Sir, lewwego fishing,” he says, hopping up on the banister of my veranda, legs dangling.

“You want to go fishing now? It’s going to be dark soon.”

“Yeah, down by the jetty.”

“I’m not sure I can,” I reply, thinking about the numerous online tabs of graduate schools and job-search websites left open on my laptop.

“Why not?” J questions, almost baffled at the thought I could possibly have something more important to do.

I lean back on the banister next to him, mulling over the thought in my head. On one hand, I didn’t have any real obligations this evening, as due to the upcoming Corpus Christi holiday we didn’t have school the following day. I was also looking forward to a night in, not doing a whole lot and begin exploring some post-Peace Corps opportunities.

On the other hand, awhile back I had promised J I would go fishing with him and had yet to fulfill that promise. So the more I thought about it, the more I suppose this was as good of a time as any.

“You have everything we need?” I ask.

“Yeah! I just have to run home to get my bait-catcher,” he says, his eyes lighting up.

“Okay, then run home and get it and we’ll go,” I agree.

“Yes!” He hops down. “Oh, but sir. Can you call my mother?”

“What?”

“My mother. Can you ask her if it’s okay I go to the jetty?”

“Uhm..sure.”

I go back inside and come back out with my phone and hand it to J, who dials his mother’s number and then hands it back to me.

Ring…Ring…

“Hi, good afternoon,” a pleasant, female voice answers.

“Good afternoon. This is Scott King, the Peace Corps at the RC. I have J here by me and was wondering if I can take him down to the jetty to go fishing.”

J watches intently.

“Oh, okay. You’ll be with him?” she asks.

“Yes. And I can have him home at a certain time if you like. Is there a certain time you would like me to bring him back home?”

“Well his bed time is 8:00, so have him home by then.”

“All right, I’ll see to that. Thank you and have a nice night.”

“Same to you.”

Click. 

“What’d she say?” J asks anxiously.

“She said it’s okay. I just have to have you home by 8.”

“What time is it now?”

“6:30. So if we go one time then we’ll have an hour down by the jetty. Quickly run home and get your things and we can go.”

J runs out of the gate and takes off down the road. I slip back inside and switch into a fresh set of clothes. Sitting back down on the couch, I then wait for the impending cheery voice to call: “Mr. King!”

A few minutes pass by…

I check the clock, J doesn’t live too far down the road, so it shouldn’t take him all that long…

“Mr. King!”

“Ahh, there it is,” I laugh.

I step outside and lock up my apartment, joining J on the street. I turn around to lock the gate to the complex. The sun had already set as we begin walking down the street. We turn the corner onto the main road, a typical Gouyave scene unfolding before us. Various people are hanging out on the sidewalks on either side of the road. Some are standing, leaning up on the buildings, others are sitting on crates or on the sidewalk. Cars and buses fly past, honking their horns in a friendly manner and dodging the vehicles parked on the side of the road. A few ladies sit out in front of the market, looking to sell their fruits and vegetables to anyone passing by. Up ahead at the junction, half a dozen men stand idly leaning against their cars waiting for someone in need of a taxi service.

“J! Come!” A lady calls from across the street.

J takes off across the road, taking in his hands a bag of mangoes that the lady gave him.

“You got some mangoes there?” I ask.

“Yeah, they’re from me auntie. You want one?”

“Sure, but in a little while.”

“Sir, can you hold this for me until we get there?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

We cross the street and continue our walk to The Lance, the part of Gouyave across the newly-built bridge. J, with a blue jersey and bathing suit, walks proudly as he swings the bucket in his hand with each stride. Inside the bucket were a couple of plastic water bottles, each with a fishing line wrapped tightly around it. Half a dozen small hooks are tied to the line, the only creases in the otherwise tightly-wrapped lines around the bottles.

“You know why I had you talk to my mother?” J asks, hopping back and forth from the sidewalk to the street.

“Why is that?”

“Because she would have said no if I asked her. But I knew she’d say yes if you asked,” he grins.

“Oh, really?”

I let out a little laugh and shake my head, remembering what it was like to use any leverage you can to try and stay out later than your parents would otherwise let you.

“You have any plans for the holiday tomorrow?” I ask him.

“My father is going to take me through the bush,” he responds enthusiastically.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, we are going to hike up through Clozier and hunt for manicou.”

“That’ll be fun.”

A white and green-painted gas station comes up on our right; it’s the only one in town. Buses and cars whip in and out, being serviced by a staffer who pumps the gas for them like they did in the olden days. We cross the street and come across a shop that sells arts, crafts, and spices. The owner locks up the red, green, and yellow-painted gate in front of the shop as he closes up for the night. Walking past the shop, we reach the apron of the bridge as the road rises up steeply before running the flat of the bridge across to the other side. Stepping up to the sidewalk at the flat of the bridge and looking directly to my left, a single palm tree stretches to the sky over a rock-strewn stream that eases seamlessly into the bleak Caribbean Sea. Looking ahead now, the rugged, green mountains off to our right overlook the homes, bars, and shops of The Lance as it finally spills into view. Fast-paced soca music pounds earth-shakingly from speakers somewhere in the distance, the rhythmic heartbeat of this part of town.

By the time we passed all the homes, shops, and bars lining the road in The Lance, the Fish Market finally came into view. Turning left onto the drive of the Fish Market, we walk toward the jetty, a concrete pier stretching out into the water. Looking to my right into the Fish Market as we pass, most of the stalls inside are now vacant, vendors having cleared out for the night. The aroma of salt water and fish fills my nostrils, as if its scent was plastered into the walls of the market itself. A single man in the back hoses down a stall as he cleans it, the water trickling along the floor before running down a drain.

Walking past the Fish Market and onto the concrete jetty, we continue to the end as we’re welcomed in by various docked fishing boats tethered to the light fixtures and concrete stoops on either side of the jetty. A group of men are standing on the end, looking out into the water and casting their lines. Some of them sit on the side, legs dangling off the edge with a Carib in one hand and a cigarette in another. Others stand with their poles in their hand, looking for a late-evening catch. J drops his bucket and gets right to work, eagerly unwinding the tangled fishing line from the bottles. Stepping up to the edge, he twirls the six-hook bait-catcher like a lasso and casts it out into the water. The water has taken on a blue gray color, reflective of the somber color of the sky from the quickly fading daylight. He almost immediately begins reeling the line back in, enticing a fish to bite at his moving bait-catcher.

The sound of waves quietly lapping against the side of the jetty and the incessant calls of the hungry seagulls complement the scene around me. Looking back over my left shoulder, a small beachhead runs along the coast of The Lance with several boats rocking quietly, anchored out off-shore in the waves. Lights began to speckle the mountainside behind us as the homes and buildings began turning on their lights, the night falling fast.

J winds the line all the way back around the bottle and casts the line out again. On about the third try, he felt a tug of resistance. He bubbles with excitement as he rapidly pulls in a small fish roughly the length of my pinky. Unhooking it and tossing it onto the concrete, he casts out another line before taking the fish and placing it in his bucket. After another couple of tries he was having no more luck, so he decided to move to another spot off the left-hand side of the jetty, where several small boats were docked.

Another boy, a year or two older than J, was also fishing at the same spot. This boy had two plastic bottles, which he took turns casting out a line before leaving the bottle propped against the concrete curb of the jetty while he pulled the other line in. J steps up next to him and throws out a line of his own. I peer over the edge, looking into the water below to see what could be down there. Looking past the ropes that held the boats to the jetty, the water was somewhat clear under the streetlights of the jetty, enabling me to see the shadows of fish scurrying across the sandy sea-floor. Just then a quick movement and a sudden splash suddenly caught my attention off to the right. I wasn’t the only one who saw or heard something either, as in a moment all the men on the jetty came rushing to the scene. A fish had caught the other boy’s line and pulled the resting bottle over the curb and into the water!

Some of the men drop on their stomachs, reaching down to try and catch hold of the bottle or the line. But the fish had already taken off with it. One of the men cast out a line of his own to catch the boy’s, which was now pulling away around the end of the jetty and out into the sea. After a few tense, anticipatory minutes, the other men were somehow able to pull in the boy’s escaped prize. They returned it to him, but not before laughing at the whole ordeal and ribbing him for nearly letting one get away. Personally, I was just baffled the fish was strong enough to be able to pull the bottle over the curb and into the water.

After the excitement settled down, J continued building his catch count. Climbing down the stairs on the side of the jetty to be directly next to the boats, he would cast his line out into the water and reel it in. Once getting a catch, he would eagerly pull it in and toss the line over his shoulder to the top of the jetty before running back up the stairs to unhook the fish and start the process all over again. He got his second fish, then his third, then his fourth. A few older men, some having come from a day out on the water or just having reached home from work in town, began taking their places on the side of the jetty. They began casting out lines of their own or simply watched J and the other boy work their lines.

At one point, J’s line got tangled with the other boy’s and they needed help untangling it. Some teenage boys on the other side came over and began helping them, mumbling under their breath and shaking their heads that such a mess was made of the lines. J ran back to the bag of mangoes he received from his auntie on the way over and handed a mango to each of them, in gratitude for their help.

At this point I checked the time on the clock, 7:45 p.m. It was almost time for J to be home. He was too busy to notice, thrilled by his handful of catches. I began to feel a pit of indecision in my stomach, not wanting to be the buzzkill that sends J home but fully-knowing that I made a promise to his mother to have him home at 8:00. I walk along the top of the jetty and crouch down so I was just over his shoulder.

“Hey, J. It’s about time we go home, it’s almost 8:00,” I tell him, out of earshot of the others.

He nods but doesn’t say anything, not wanting to go home just yet. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t ready to go home just yet either. But then again, Momma’s rules are Momma’s rules. I step back and allow him to push it another couple of minutes.

“Eh, eh! There goes a ray,” a man in a worn-down, beige-colored t-shirt with a black backpack and gray stubble on his chin says, pointing down toward the water.

“There’s a sting ray?” I ask, looking out over the edge. “I didn’t know they were out in these waters.”

“Yeah man,” he responds. “But it pass now, keep an eye out it might come back. It went by just under that boat there.”

I kept a cautious eye on the water, secretly hoping to catch my first sight at a sting ray down here. But it was to no avail.

Then with about five minutes to bed time, knowing we were already going to be late, I leaned over to J again.

“Okay J, it’s 8:00. I already let you stay past the time. It’s time to go,” I say, using a little white lie to trigger him to finish up.

“Okay, sir. Just one more,” he responds tossing out another line.

He pulls it in empty and reluctantly climbs back up to the jetty to gather his things. Wrapping up his bottle and line and putting them in the bucket with the four fish he caught, he was finally ready to go home. Bidding the guys gathered at the jetty a good night, we turn and head back home. We walk back through The Lance, now come to life in the night as locals share drinks on the side of the road, inside and in front of the rum shops. The music is still pounding and the vehicles with their bright headlights blind us as they bustle past. We cross back over the bridge and through the main part of Gouyave, walking past the market as well as my apartment and all the way to the rock shoreline just beyond town. Climbing on top of the large rocks, I turn on a flashlight as J pulls out a knife and begins scraping off the scales of his fish. He then cuts open the belly, pulling out the organs as if he were in a sophomore level biology class, explaining to me the proper way to clean a fish.

“Sir, you want one to take with you?” J asks, holding out one of the fish.

“I’m good for now, thanks J. Maybe next time.”

I wouldn’t be opposed to taking the fish, if only I knew what to do with it. One of these days I’ll learn how to prepare a fish freshly caught from the water, it’s on my list of things to learn before my time here is up. But this just wasn’t the time.

Upon returning back to my apartment, I began preparing my own dinner. While the seasoned chicken was roasting in the oven, I pulled out my laptop to continue exploring the opportunities for me post-Peace Corps. I know it’s early to start looking, but curiosity has begun to get the best of me. My motivation quickly subsided, however, as I settled in and my mind drifted elsewhere.

When I first came down to the Caribbean with the Peace Corps, I was eager for this experience to be the launching point of my adult life. On one hand, part of my reasoning in coming down here was that I did not know what I wanted to do for a living and this was a means of buying time to figure that out. Having reached this point a little over a year into my service, I do have a better idea of what I want to do. But I am still not certain, and have a-ways to go in figuring it out.

But then fishing with J reminded me of something that is important, but often neglected. His excitement at the prospect of going fishing reminded me of why so many of us are envious of children. After all, each one of us at some point feels the nostalgia to return to the days of little to no responsibilities, ample free time, and an ambition to explore and rebelliously push the limits of staying up past bed time. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, distracted with the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood and forget to take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like going fishing with a bottle and a line.

Our time on Earth, like my time here in the Caribbean, is fleeting. After all, just this past month I finally reached my one-year anniversary of being in the Caribbean. At this time next year, I’ll be preparing to return home for good. The prospect of finally returning home excites me, which is why I’ve already begun exploring post-Peace Corps options. That being said, I am also not nearly ready to close this chapter of my life, having truly come to feel at home and hit my stride here in the town of Gouyave. I’m simply having too much fun.

But fact of the matter is, as important as it is to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, it’s just as important that we never lose the passion for fun that all children have. Between my after-school tutoring, weekly Peace Corps Skype meetings with other Volunteers and staff, creating and editing news segments, and household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, my adult responsibilities have lead me to sometimes pass on the opportunities for simple childhood activities. Due to how overwhelming these obligations can seem, it’s easy for me to use them as an excuse to pass on the times J and other local kids ask me to play cricket, football, or to go fishing.

But when I do find myself back in the United States, sitting at home, at work, or at school (or wherever I may end up), I can already envision myself reflecting on my days in Grenada. The memories that already stand out in my mind are often the times I’ve spent involving myself in activities with the local kids.

A Monday evening I swam into the river to retrieve my frisbee a child accidentally threw a bit too far.

A Tuesday afternoon playing cricket with J in the green space in front of my veranda with a cut-out piece of plywood, tennis ball, and chair, before being told by my landlord not to play there in concern of a window being broken. (An unlikely possibility given the circumstances, but we’ve since kept it to the park).

A Wednesday evening taking turns as the goal-keeper and shooting for goals in a rotation with the other kids at the park.

A Thursday lunch playing cricket with my third-grade students, who get excited at the prospect of “outing,” or “hitting a six,” off their teacher.

A Friday morning racing first-graders across the courtyard of the school between classes.

A Saturday morning spent showing some local children how to run receiving routes with the American football at the park.

It’s these times, the times that I get to be a kid again, that I’m sure I’ll most likely miss.

Coming here right after graduating college, I was excited at the prospect of launching the start of my adult life. But as I have become engulfed in the responsibilities that adulthood brings, I have realized how much I am going to miss what it was like to be a kid. So in this sense, although I am still launching the start of my adult life down here, that doesn’t mean I have to give up the passion for excitement in simple activities that is inherent in children.

Going fishing with J that night reminded me of that.

Whether we’re 12 or 24, 46 or 64, 78 or 93, we are always at the launching point of our own adult lives.

At any given point, we still have the rest of our life to live.

But sometimes we need that reminder that at the end of the day, we are all really just a child at heart.

Cheers!

 

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