Seven weeks ago, I arrived in Miami not really knowing what to expect. You all were just profiles on Facebook until I began meeting each one of you face to face. I, like many of you, had just come from a farewell party where I said goodbye to all my friends, family, and loved ones. We left all those we know and love behind in order to chase a dream; the dream to live and work in a foreign country serving a purpose greater than ourselves.
So there we were, gathered in an air-conditioned lobby of a Miami hotel with mixed emotions of anticipation, excitement, and anxiety. We came from all walks of life: some just received their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, others making a career change, and some fresh into retirement. We hailed from all across the US map from the Pacific Northwest, across the Midwest to New England, and down throughout the South. We all took different paths in our lives to get here, but somehow we managed to reach this same destination.
During our two days of Staging in Miami, the cohesion of the 89th Peace Corps group in the Eastern Caribbean began to come together. We all recognized that we were on the verge of something big, but we knew that we were in this together. On a rooftop pool at the hotel we sat around lounge chairs, making the most of our last night in the States by sharing drinks and laughs, getting to know each other personally.
The next morning, before the crack of dawn, we were caught up in a whirlwind of luggage, security lines, and airport terminals. Our first curveball was thrown our way when the power couple of Paul and Christine nearly had to stay back when a ticket wasn’t recognized properly. Everyone collectively held their breath until the message came through that the issue was resolved and you guys cleared the gate. We only knew each other for two days, but we knew we had to stay together and couldn’t afford to leave any one behind.
We stepped off the plane on a hot, overcast day and were shuffled quickly through customs and onto busses. The next two hours were spent weaving up and down the roads of St. Lucia. We looked on in awe at the beautiful, palm tree-ridden coastline that gave way to rugged mountains until we reached a quiet Seminary tucked into a hillside.
Our week at the Seminary was our “shock absorber,” where we could ease the transition into life in a foreign country before we would be split up into our assigned host families. To me, the first week at the Seminary was where the personality of EC89 began to show. We had the first of our many “incidents,” when Shirley was stung by a sea urchin at the local beach. We stayed together, ignoring our growling stomachs and the awaiting dinner until Shirley received the medical attention she needed. Shirley set the bar high with her resiliency, quickly and gracefully recovering so that she didn’t miss a single day of training. Every night, after spending hours in training, we would gather on the front steps sharing stories and playing music underneath the star-speckled Caribbean sky. These were the beginning of some amazing nights during PST.
At the end of the week we were once again shuffled onto busses and after another cross-island trek, we found ourselves in the quiet community of Desruisseaux. This was our first major step into the Caribbean life, where we would not be able to rely on each other’s presence 24/7. We were sent to our various homestays, some a few miles up the hill while others were a stone’s throw from the community center. It was a long holiday weekend and we spent it entirely with our host families. We couldn’t wait for that Tuesday when we could reunite and compare stories from our weekend. However, we soon realized the nature of Caribbean life and embraced it. Our families were intermingled throughout the community and we often found each other at the same family gatherings. We began trying the local foods such as black pudding, dolphinfish, souse, and our much-beloved bakes from Pam up the street from the center. Desruisseaux welcomed us with open arms, and we embraced them right back.
At this point, Phase I of our Pre-Service Training was fully-fledged. The days were long, but the weeks were short. We sat through sessions covering literacy, culture, language, health, and security. We laughed and danced as we learned the “Crawfish” dance together. We had to compete to get the seats in front of the fans that were scattered throughout the room so the stifling heat would be somewhat tolerable. There always seemed to be a collective sigh of relief when a rush of rain would come down, providing a much-needed breeze and break from the heat. We also learned to always have your umbrella packed, because the rain can come and go like a flick of the switch.
We had to learn how to get around the island using the busses. Of course we cheated the system at first, hiring the private busses so we can go straight to our destination as a group without dealing with the unpredictability that is the St. Lucian bus system. But we quickly managed to learn the system, despite a time or two when we stuck around Island Breeze a bit too long into the night, stranded on the side of the road until we managed to find a bus home.
It didn’t take long for us to garner an adventurous reputation and being labeled by Peace Corps staff as an “active group.” We coordinated group outings to the Soleil Music Festival, LaTille Waterfalls, the Sulfur Springs, Gros Piton, and Sugar Beach. As a result of us being out so much, we unfortunatley had a number of injuries along the way. Jamie injured her leg at the waterfall, but was soon accompanied at the hospital by Paul with his broken collarbone after diving for a Frisbee in a game we had with some of the local boys. We missed you guys, and Ghana John, tremendously while you were away from training; EC 89 just wasn’t the same when there were some pieces missing. We continued to be resilient, relying on each other for support. We were already friends but quickly becoming a family.
When the Fourth of July came around we gathered at Laborie Beach for a cookout, just like any American family would back home. Holidays are going to be difficult for us, because we are over 2,000 miles away from our loved ones whom we would usually be spending them with. So to have a cookout together as a Peace Corps family meant so much to each and every one of us. However, that night at aerobics class Ford broke his ankle and was quickly medevac’d home. I know I speak for all of us when I say that EC89 wasn’t the same after that. Ford, not a day would pass where we wouldn’t be thinking about you and wish you were still here. We are relieved to know surgery went well and are beyond excited to have you re-join us in the Eastern Caribbean in the coming weeks!
Then there was Model School, the culmination point of our Phase I training. This was the time when all our training sessions, observations at area schools, and micro-teaching lessons came to fruition. It was an absolute circus of lesson-planning, creating materials from scratch, teaching, debriefing, adjusting the lesson plans and starting it all over the next day. Each class had its own challenges, so we had to find ways to manage the room effectively and maintain some sense of order. But we all had what Jules’s in Pulp Fiction calls ‘moments of clarity,’ where we discovered for ourselves why we are here and truly committed ourselves to improving the struggling literacy rates across the Eastern Caribbean. Then just as it seemed we were breaking through to our students, the week was up. One week was simply not long enough for us to make significant progress with our students. But that also goes to show why we are giving up 27 months of our lives to be here, so we can make substantial progress during our time of service.
This week, after distracting ourselves with the Carnival celebrations, we learned our site placements. It began to feel real; we were assigned our islands of service and arrangements were made to leave. It all happened so quickly.
Yesterday, we had our final day of training. The atmosphere was unusally quiet as the day wore on, because we knew our time was limited. We lingered around the center after training, not wanting to go home. To go home meant saying goodbye, something none of us were prepared to do.
Why do goodbyes have to be so hard? I tend to think that it’s because you’re losing the presence of a friend, a sense of security, and a feeling of home. We all had difficult times saying goodbye to our friends and families back stateside. But these goodbyes now were supposed to be the easy ones. That being said, I’m happy they were not because that means we did this right.
Saying goodbye to each and every one of you was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I had a pit in my stomach the entire day, from when we lingered around the center to procrastinating by going to Cheers so we could share one last round of drinks. One drink turned into two, and over the course of the afternoon one by one, each of us said goodbye and trickled out after going through a gauntlet of hugs. Some left and came back because one goodbye simply just wasn’t enough. The day turned to dusk and the night began to fall. Locals began filling in while we remained steadfast on the porch, refusing to let the night separate us. Drinks were brought out to us on the house, a simple gesture but an immense one. It is a prime example of the generosity and appreciation that is typical of St. Lucian’s. We not only wanted to stay, but the community of Desruisseaux wasn’t ready for us to go either. Libby will do great things representing us and continuing her service in this wonderful community.
This morning I went down to the center to meet with a Peace Corps staff member. I was surprised to find that bus for those headed to St. Vincent was still there, loading up with luggage. The bus started with a kick and headed up the hill to take them to the airport. I stood by the road and waved, softly smiling as the familiar faces in the windows went past. I wished I could freeze that moment in time, knowing that this is the last time until who-knows-when I will see them all again.
I already said goodbye to friends and family back home and shed tears in the process. When I arrived in that Miami hotel seven weeks ago, I never would have thought I would have to go through it all over again. There’s something about sharing an experience abroad with people you just met that makes your interactions with them so meaningful. We were thrown into a foreign world, not knowing a soul. We learned to rely on each other through a series of ups and downs. From day trips to Sandy Beach to karaoke nights at Taddy’s, there was never a dull moment. In Miami, we were strangers. At the Seminary, we became friends. But in Desruisseaux, we became family. We have supported each other throughout training, and will continue to do so for the duration of our service and beyond. Cross-country road trip plans are already in the making for the day we return to the US. But in the meantime, we accomplished our training and are prepared for our assignments. There is no doubt in my mind that each one of us will not only succeed, but thrive in our communities and accomplish our mission. I will miss you all. I can’t wait to see you guys in your respective communities, kicking it with the locals. I very much look forward to the day that we are all back together again.
So until that day comes, “Feel your butt.”