A rush of rain on the tin roof roused me from my sleep. Reaching over I touched my phone to see it list 5:43-two minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. I quickly sat up and shut off the alarm so I wouldn’t hear that dreadful sound so early in the morning. The plan for the day was to hike Gros Piton, the second highest peak on the island and a landmark of St. Lucia. The rain continued on and off again like a sprinkler system set on a timer while I boiled water and got dressed. I prepared ‘sausages’, otherwise known as hot dogs, for breakfast because we were out of eggs and I needed something quick and easy to make.
After eating, I laced up my boots and grabbed the hiking pack I prepared the night before with water, crackers, a towel, and some clothes for the beach. Some of the other Trainees were planning on going to Sugar Beach, located between the Pitons, and our group was hoping to meet them there after our hike. It was extra weight to carry, but it would be worth it if we made it.
The rain subsided in time for me to walk toward the bus stop that was our meeting point. I arrived just in time as the other Trainees were gathered on the sidewalk and waiting for the next bus to pass. A bus came pulling up, but it looked like there were only two spots available. Although you can never underestimate how many people can fit in these buses, which are more like large vans than anything. Two of us climbed in the back, three took the drop down seats in the aisle, and two more sat up front with the driver, giving him a bus at full capacity headed to Vieux Fort. The little town on the coast was slowly coming to life on this early Saturday morning as vendors began setting up their stands in the market for the rush of people that will be coming to get their weekly groceries. After a quick stop in the Massy Superstore for additional snacks, we jumped on the next bus to Soufriѐre (“Soo-freh”). Our excitement in the bus began to rise as the summit of Gros Piton began to peek in and out of the hillsides. The driver pulled over and we piled out as he directed us to take the adjacent road to a stand at the bottom where we would find a trail guide.
Walking the road we passed a number of goats tethered to trees on our right as Gros Piton towered over us on our left. We crossed a bridge and turned a corner to find a stand where a number of vehicles were parked and men in bright green polo shirts were waiting. There we met our guide Winston, a man in his 40s with a graying goatee and a soft smile that was missing two front teeth. He walked us to the staging area where a model of Gros Piton sat on the table, looking something like that of a 5th grade science project of a volcano that was supposed to explode. On it he explained to us where we were and the path we were to take to reach the summit, with four stops along the way at half-hour intervals.
The sun had finally broken through the clouds as an archway greeting ‘Welcome to Aú Poyé Park’ gave way to a garden at the base of the mountain. The first quarter was relatively flat but maintained a steady incline on a path overcrowded with trees on each side, limiting visibility. Light began to peek through the trees on the left-hand side until we reached a clearing that marked our first stop. The view was picturesque; a majestic, green coastline speckled with colored rooftops gave way to an incredibly tranquil Caribbean Sea.
After taking some time to appreciate the view, we carried on with our journey to the second stop. Trees, roots, and rocks began to decorate the path that started to have a more pronounced incline. Soon thereafter, once again light began to peek through. This time, however, it was straight ahead on the trail as we came upon a bend around the mountain. A light rain began to fall as the Petit Piton came into view at the next clearing. There was an almost eerie and surreal feel to the scenery, as fog had set in around the smaller of the two Pitons as it sat quietly on the coast.
The third leg of the trail was significantly steeper than the previous two as we ascended the side of the mountain. The path was lined with wooden hand rails as wooden planks, roots, and rocks served as steps for hikers to climb. The farther up we climbed, the more it began to feel as if we were trekking through a rainforest. The various calls of chirping birds echoed through the humid air, drowning out the sounds of our panting breaths. Our climb had led us to the third stop, a 2,000 year-old mango tree marked with carvings of past climbers and hikers. The mango tree itself was so old that it no longer produced mangoes.
After a final rest, we began the steepest leg of the hike to the top. Much of the path required the use of all fours, climbing rocks and grabbing onto trees for support. The rain began to pick up again as the dirt on the trail became soft and muddy, giving reason for caution with every step. We reached another clearing of flat ground, surrounded by trees with not much of a view of anything. Winston explained that we had finally reached the top, but an additional two minutes up would open to the viewpoint that was our ultimate destination. The rain came down steadily, truly capturing the feel of a rainforest and providing a soothing relief for our hot and aching bodies. Standing in the rain at this point was truly a moment of bliss.
It was time to begin the last two minute hike it would take to reach the final viewpoint. A final time light protruded through a clearing at the head of the trail that was a vantage point of the island. We were as high as the clouds being pushed around by a strong wind that surrounded the summit. The clearing provided a breathtaking view of the island. Rugged hills to the far left dropped into a valley that spilled into the sea. Vibrant greens spanned across the landscape and the sea seemed to go on forever with no horizon. Even on a cloudy day such as this, the vantage point was stunning. Myself and the other Trainees kicked back on the rocks enjoyed some Pitons, St. Lucia’s beer that takes the namesake of the mountain we just conquered. It is moments like these that provide the opportunity to sit back and reflect on how it is you reached a point in time like this. Sometimes a breath-taking view after a strenuous climb is what is needed to appreciate the value of a difficult journey.
The hike back down to the bottom required particular caution as the trail was muddy and the rocks were slick from the rain. But we made our way down, stopping again at each viewpoint to appreciate the sights one last time and bringing our hike full circle. At the bottom a local woman was selling homemade ice cream, of which we all indulged in. The two scoops, one mango and one passion fruit, was the perfect reward to top off conquering Gros Piton.
But our day didn’t end there…
It was only 1:00 in the afternoon and Sugar Beach was a short ways away. We hired a taxi that drove us to the honeymoon resort that was tucked in between the two Pitons. The beach was aptly named, as the sand seemed as pure as sugar glistening in the sunlight. We arrived and met up with the remainder of the Trainees who were enjoying the water and snorkeling in the reef. One of the other Trainees graciously allowed me to use his snorkel equipment, and after a quick tutorial I was off investigating the reef.
Growing up most boys wanted to be a baseball player or fireman. For some reason, I wanted to be an underwater photographer that filmed what you see on those nature shows such as the ones on during Shark Week. With my GoPro in hand, I ventured out into the water amongst schools of vibrantly colored fish. None of the fish seemed to be troubled by my presence, going about their own business until I went after them with my camera. I was surrounded by aqua blue parrot fish, French grunt, Sergeant Major, trumpetfish, and yellow tangs among others in crystal clear water. Tucked in the crevices of the rocks were sea urchins, keeping their peace among the coral.
I was surrounded by beauty, both on land and in sea. My adventurous Saturday spent with the other Trainees exploring what St. Lucia has to offer enabled me to enjoy the perks of living on such a beautiful island. Last week, I wrote a response to the ‘Lucky you,’ comments I would receive when I would tell people I would be serving in the Eastern Caribbean (EC). I stand by my statements that we are here to serve and improve the struggling literacy rates of children across the EC as that is our primary purpose. I do not consider myself lucky to be here; in fact, I wish Peace Corps did not have a need to be in the EC. However, that being said, I do consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to experience what I can when opportunities such as these present themselves.
Blessings are a common way of perceiving things down here. Each morning as I leave for training, my host mother Julie always tells me, “Have a blessed day,” reminding me of this aspect of Caribbean life. Consequently, it made sense that when we left the grounds of Gros Piton that afternoon, the backside of the entrance archway was a farewell wishing that visitors “Have a Blessed Evening.” I was blessed to have had the opportunity to take advantage of my time here in St. Lucia by fulfilling my goal of reaching the summit of Gros Piton; snorkeling at Sugar Beach was a just a bonus. Although my focus remains on my task of improving the literacy rates of my host community, I hope more opportunities like these present themselves so that I can appreciate whatever beautiful island I get to call home for the next two years.