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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Little Victories

It all started last week when one of my students, who I’ll refer to as “D,” performed the live reading at my school. Each day after lunch, my school does what we call “live reading,” where a student from an assigned grade goes before a microphone and reads a story for the whole school to hear. For the students who read particularly well, it’s an exciting opportunity for them to broadcast their reading skills to their fellow classmates. For the students who struggle with reading, it’s an opportunity to strengthen their reading skills while encouraging their progress. Needless to say, over the course of the year, some students get to do the live reading more often than others.

D was not one of these students.

When I first assessed him back in September, he could only identify twelve letters in the alphabet. He was a third grader, already held back one year and therefore a year older than his other classmates. More often than not, he was the student that was acting out during class. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his disruption of class was rooted in the fact that he struggled doing the work assigned to him. He was struggling with the assigned work because of the secret he kept, the secret that he couldn’t read. Consequently, he would distract his classmates and disrupt the class so that no one else would find out about his secret.

From the beginning of the year, my pull-out tutoring sessions with him were always one-on-one, unlike the others whom I have in balanced pairs. Throughout the first and second terms of the school year, my sessions with D got to be frustrating at times. He often lacked the motivation to try the activity at hand as he would rather watch what was happening outside the windows. Consequently, I often had to close the windows to force him to focus. I was never happy about doing this either, because of the stifling Caribbean heat and all. But if closing the windows got him to focus, then that’s how it was going to be. Over the course of the year, some sessions went better than others. Any session that I felt he came away with some sort of progress, I felt was some sort of victory, no matter how little it was.

Not realizing it at the time, the concept of what I’ve come to call, “Little Victories,” had begun to develop.

During our first meeting of the third term, I put before him a sentence progression sheet I had found on Pinterest. For those unfamiliar with the idea of a sentence progression, it goes a little like this:

The 

The boy 

The boy runs 

The boy runs fast 

The boy runs fast and 

The boy runs fast and jumps 

The boy runs fast and jumps high. 

In these sentence progressions, the student cannot move on to the next line until successfully reading the one before it. The constant repetition, therefore, drills into the mind of the student sight words while building de-coding and fluency skills. This goes without mentioning the feeling of accomplishment a student feels when completing a full sentence independently. I have used it with all my most struggling students and each one has responded well to the exercise. Sentence progressions have easily become my favorite activity.

The day I did the first sentence progression with D was a day I’ll never forget. He struggled through most of the words, but began de-coding his CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words), relatively well. Consequently, as he read I often covered a few letters of the larger words with my thumb so he could de-code three letters at a time until the word clicked in his mind. Upon de-coding a word correctly, his eyes lit up with surprise and a wide grin spread across his face. He proudly read and re-read each of the phrases until his first sentence was complete.

“Yes, D!” I exclaimed, reaching for a high-five he excitedly returned.

Now if you recall a previous post, The One That Says “Play,” I described a tutoring session with a seventh-grade boy, “K.” You might recall from that post that I ended a positive pull-out session with K by telling him I was proud of him. He had responded particularly well to each of our sessions ever since then.

So remembering this, I told D, “Hey, you did well today. I’m proud of you.”

Whereas K had sheepishly looked at the floor when I told him, D responded to this by beaming with pride. With that response, you would have thought it was the first time he was ever told that.

But ever since that day, something about him was different. His motivation finally began to surface. During our pull-out sessions, the smiles and high-fives continued while the windows remained open (the latter of which I’ve been particularly grateful). In class, his disruptions began to subside. Instead of pestering the other students to mask his inability to read, he began calling on me for guidance. Instead of getting in fights during break time and lunch, he was found in the classroom completing the work he hadn’t finished yet.

“D, you want to go for break now? We can finish this later,” I suggested to him one day, seeing if he’d take the opportunity to leave his work and go out to play.

“No sir, let’s finish it now,” he replied.

“That’s what I like to hear D,”  I said, clapping him on the back.

I couldn’t help but smile.

As the third term came along, our class had begun taking advantage of our new Grenada Schools Incorporated (GSI) library. During our designated library time, students have the opportunity to check out a book to read for the week. Discreetly, so his other classmates wouldn’t see, I would hand-select a book at a lower level for D to try and read. Now our pull-out sessions included him reading his library books to me.

Due to this near 180-degree change in him over the course of this term, I make sure to end each session with an, “I’m proud of you.”

The positivity is contagious.

A week ago Monday, our pull-out session ended on a strong note. So I pitched an idea to him:

“What do you think about doing a live reading this week?” I asked.

“Yeah!” his eyes lit up with excitement.

“All right, I’ll talk to Ms. about it,” I smiled.

I could see the mix of emotions flash in his eyes: the surprise, the excitement, the nervousness. He hadn’t done one before.

My counterpart, having also witnessed the improvements D has made this term, immediately supported the idea of having him do the live reading. So last Wednesday during lunch, I sat down with D in our classroom to prepare him for the live reading with his book from the GSI library. Repetition for him was key. The book was six or so pages long with a single sentence on each page, each one starting similarly to the last. The first page was the most challenging for him. But once he got past that one, it was smooth sailing from there. I tried not to put too much pressure on him, but my will for him to succeed was almost too hard to contain. I tried my best to seal my lips shut and allow him time to build his confidence in reading the story on his own. It was getting hard to focus, however, as lunch time is an environment of chaos, students constantly running about and screaming.

Students began running in and out of the classroom, playing, laughing, complaining.

It was all stressing me out, and I wasn’t even the one doing the live reading.

But I tried my best to keep them quiet and out of the classroom, knowing D needed to focus.

They were just kids being kids, I understand that, but they also didn’t understand the immensity of what it would mean for D to successfully do the live reading on his own.

Despite the chaos, D made a few successful runs through the book and the bell rang.

It was time for the live reading.

“You ready?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“All right, let’s go.”

We got up from our seats and turned left down the corridor, down the stairs, and across the courtyard to the staff room. Upon reaching the staff room, where the mic and sound system was set up, D took a seat. A surprised look pops across the physical education teacher’s face, who was in the room.

“D, you’re doing the live reading today?” He asked with a surprised smile.

D nods proudly.

“Go get it man,” he says to D, reaching out for a fist-bump.

I took a step back and out of the way, not wanting to disrupt the process as my counterpart got D ready for the live reading. I needed to remove myself, as it’s important for him to gain the confidence to read without me over his shoulder. My counterpart picked up the mic and introduced him to the school over the loud speakers.

It was showtime.

I stood in the back, nervous as all hell, but breathing deeply to keep my nerves cool. I held my hands together behind my back in a wide-legged stance, head down, praying he would read well.

My counterpart asked him to recite the title of the story, which he flawlessly read.

Now for that challenging first page.

He paused, hesitating. He stalled in silence, drawing a blank and not knowing what to say. The mic was out in front of him, silently beckoning him to begin.

Lifting my head, I bit my lip and anxiously waited.

And waited…

And waited…

When I couldn’t wait any longer, I stepped forward to whisper in his ear to help him get the ball rolling. But just as I leaned over his back shoulder, about to whisper in his ear, my counterpart murmured the first word to him.

The light bulb had clicked. He said the word to himself, repeated it into the mic, and the ball got rolling. He read the first page. Then the second. I stepped back, gratefully retreating to the back of the room and internally relieved the guidance came from my counterpart and not me. He fumbled at times through the rest of the story, but read it smoothly for the most part. But unless you had the book in front of you, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Upon finishing the story, the book was closed and my counterpart asked him a few questions about the story.

He answered them all.

“Thank you, D, for your lovely live reading,” my counterpart announced into the mic. “Now the rest of you can continue with your silent reading time.”

Click.

The mic was switched off and the few teachers and staff in the room erupted in applause. It wasn’t much of a secret to them of D’s academic ability. Just then my principal suddenly burst into the room.

“D! Well done, well done boy!” He commended, holding a notebook and some fresh pencils in his hands. “I am here to give to you the Principal’s Award for Most Improved Student! Congratulations!”

He handed the notebook and pencils to D and eagerly shook his hand. D took the items and sheepishly smiled, unsure of how to respond. Let’s just say that when the principal ever had to speak with him, it was usually not for his achievements. I stepped up, giving him a fist-bump and a pat on the shoulder as my counterpart and I began walking him back up to our second-floor classroom. He excitedly strides ahead of us, as we in our own excited, hushed voices discussed our thoughts on his big performance.

Then D turned to enter our classroom…

As he did so, his classmates erupted into a raucous applause.

Beaming with pride, he reveled in his moment; it was a moment made possible by his little victories each day over the past term.

After all, he’s the one that made the changes. He’s the one that began sacrificing his break and lunch time to finish his school work. He’s the one that asked to read his library book for me. He’s the one that instead of disrupting his classmates, began focusing on completing the assignment on his own.

All his little victories had finally translated into a major win, a win that that was his and his alone.

* * *

As a teacher, it’s not uncommon for your roles to reverse as there’s many things you learn from your students. But what happened with D was not only something that I learned from, it was something that inspired me.

After witnessing D’s little victories each day come to fruition in a major win, I have come to look for the little victories in my own life. For if D can attain all those little victories each day and translate them into a major win, then why can’t I?

So over the course of the past week, I made it my mission to take note of the little victories in my life. They came in a variety of ways, as they were a variety of victories. Therefore, I would like to now share a few of my little victories this past week with you. In the same way D inspired me, I hope his story can inspire you to do the same. So here they are:

On Saturday, it was watching an Indians-Astros baseball game on my laptop alongside a local friend in my apartment. An avid cricket fan, he had always wanted to understand the very-similar game of baseball but never had anyone to explain it to him. I was ecstatic to fill that role, having already learned cricket and wanting to return the favor. This victory was one for cross-cultural exchange.

On Sunday, it was spending an afternoon at my host family’s house. During a hearty lunch, we discussed our plans for a future Sunday lunch together when my actual parents will be visiting Grenada in August. Afterwards, we all coincidentally fell asleep on the couches and napped while The Longest Yard played on the television. The victory here is again for cross-cultural exchange, as well as for the blessing that it is for me to have a family environment here, one in which I can be comfortable enough to pass out during a movie, in my home away from home.

On Monday, it was the opportunity to experience the annual church harvest in Gouyave. Tents were set up all along the street for vendors to sell everything from toys, raffles, games, drinks, eats, and desserts. It seemed as though everyone and their mother came out to show support, a truly exciting community event. I saw my students, my teachers, my teammates from the basketball court, my host family, and other members I see frequently in the community. This fund-raising event was a victory for Gouyave and the church community that has welcomed me in.

On Tuesday, after a long day at school, it was watching a mild sunset while standing in the receding tide on the small beachhead in Gouyave. A small boat of fisherman pulled in their nets, their silhouettes set against the backdrop of a setting orange sun. One of the men on the boat waved to me and I waved back. From the distance I couldn’t tell who it was, but it didn’t matter. That gesture alone was a victory, one for social integration and the warm receptiveness of the Grenadian people.

On Wednesday, it was catching up with the other-island VACs (Volunteer Advisory Council, to which I was nominated and elected in February to represent the Grenada PCVs). During our Google Hangout meeting, we set forth a draft for a Hand-Over Notes package to be passed on from the outgoing EC88s to the incoming EC90s this summer. This was a victory for the mission of Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean, as now with the Hand-Over Notes, the progress implemented by the 88s can continue as the 90s come in to take their place.

On Thursday, it was my students eagerly waiting in line to take turns reading their library books for me during their break time. It drew a crowd, as each student was not only reading for me, but for all the other students following along over their shoulder. One even began reading (and did an impressive job I might add), the book I’ve been recently reading myself, The Broker by John Grisham. This one was a victory for my students and the joy of reading.

On Friday, it was my Creative Writing Club meeting during the chaos of extra-curricular activities. Nine of my students showed up, including one that has been skipping often as of late. Many of them excitedly responded to the prompt of the day: “What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?” They had some wild ideas, the one that had been skipping actually had one of the better responses. This victory was one for student imagination and creativity.

Then last night, I went out to The Lance (the part of Gouyave across the river), to watch the Cavs game. Upon running into some friends at a small bar there, everyone passionately discussed the game as it went on. Many argued their predictions for the rest of the NBA Playoffs, a hot topic here. During all this hoopla going on around me, I noticed a quiet man slip inside. Making eye contact, he pointed to my shirt and then to the TV, taking note that I was from Cleveland given the t-shirt I was wearing. He then pointed to his askew, purple LA Lakers hat on his head, signifying his team of choice. Just then, he pointed to his ears and shook his head. He was deaf. So I placed my hand on my chest, tapped my index and middle fingers together and spelled “S-c-o-t-t.” The man’s eyes lit up with surprise as he excitedly signed back an introduction of his own (Marko, I believe?). We laughed as I asked him to slow down and explained I only knew a little bit of sign language. He asked what I was doing here. I told him I was teaching at the RC School up the road. He apparently works in construction, spelling “B-u-i-l-d-e-r” for me. Who knew taking an ASL class my freshman year of college would pay off. This was yet another victory for cross-cultural exchange and personally, my favorite little victory of the week.

Having searched and found the little victories of each day over the course of this past week, I can look back and feel good about all that was accomplished.

Now that I’m taking note of them, my days have become that much brighter, that much more meaningful. It’s also a fun way to pass the time, honestly.

And thanks to D, I will continue to look for these little victories each and every day.

What “Major Win” all these little victories will amount to for me, personally, is still to be determined. But as long as they make the world a better place, I take comfort in the fact that they’re not only a victory for me…

They’re a victory for us all.

And to think coming here, I was supposed to be the teacher.

Thanks, D.

Cheers!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in: we had a CAR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it did.

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

It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

And I loved every minute of it.

Cheers!

 

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

http://www.oceanspirits.org/

http://spectogrenada.com/

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Ultimate Game

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

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

“Morning,” we respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ahh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Snap

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

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

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

*Crack

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

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

“Hey, look over here!” Someone called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

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

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

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The One That Says, “Play”

Picture this:

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

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

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

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

The sideways triangle is the Play button.

Two sideways triangles pointing to the right is Skip.

Two sideways triangles pointing the left, Rewind.

Two vertical lines mean Pause.

The block square means Stop.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skip

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

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

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

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

“Nice block, King!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skip

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

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

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

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

Skip

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

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

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

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

Pause 

* * *

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

Play

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I figured you did,” she laughs.

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

Skip

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

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

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

Skip

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

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

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

Skip

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

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

Nope, none of the above.

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

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

Skip

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

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

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

“Uhmm,” you hesitate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together we work out how to draw a proper Gg.

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

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

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

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

“A sentence?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“Sir, my head is hurting,” he says.

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

He nods.

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

He smiles.

The bell rings, signaling the end of the day.

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

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

“Nice work today, K.”

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

“Hey.”

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

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

Stop

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the Words of Jimmy Buffett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me tell you, his autobiography blew me away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0763-1
If there’s one thing the Caribbean people know, it’s music.

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

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

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

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

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

img_2920
Time is already flying by as I am already ten months into in my Peace Corps service.

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

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

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

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

img_2933

img_2934
It was once my goal to run a marathon. Looking back now, the months of training leading up to the race made the accomplishment of it all the more rewarding.

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

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

img_2918
The backpack I have been basically living my life out of for the past ten months.

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

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

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

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

img_2927-1
The cruise ships are so large, that especially when they are lit up at night, appear to be like floating cities.

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

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

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

img_0948
The volunteers from my time in Quito, Ecuador.
img_0180
The volunteers from my time in Cape Town, South Africa.
20246459_10156477220466632_7260150306197639736_n
The Volunteers with me in Grenada.

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

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

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

img_2941

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_2493
Life in the Caribbean has not been without its perks.

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

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

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

img_2926
I try to take time every couple weeks or so to write things from my day-to-day life into a journal. (Photo courtesy John Lyness).

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

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

img_2923
My TV now gathers dust in the corner of my sitting room.

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

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

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

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

He isn’t escaping life.

He’s living it.

Cheers!

img_2939

The Butterfly Effect: The Challenge of Integration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah mon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.