I sit back on the beat-in couch, the fan quietly hums as it passes back and forth. A single candle on my table quietly illuminates the kitchen. Other than the candle, the small television across the room serves as the sole source of light. It was Friday night, and I was mindlessly watching episodes of South Park in my apartment.
“Well, are you going to hide in your apartment all night? Or you going to try and go out and be social?” I teased myself after looking at the time.
I flip on the light and throw on a plain blue shirt and strapped on some sandals. Closing down and locking up the apartment, I step through the gate leaving my little apartment complex. Out on the street, a young white guy was standing just off the gutter next to the window of my apartment. He was directing the car backing up to him and serving as the marker of where the street drops sharply into the gutter. I walk past the front of the car, being driven by what I can only assume was the guy’s girlfriend. Part of me wanted to stop them and ask what brought them to Gouyave. But it was Friday night, which in Gouyave means Fish Friday. Fish Friday is the fish fry that takes place weekly and is a popular destination for venturing tourists and occasionally SGU students. So whether they are tourists or SGU students, I’ll probably see them at the fish fry.
I continued my walk on the uneven and pothole-ridden back alleyway behind the market to the next street over. Peeking around the building corner to ensure no traffic was coming, I quickly trotted to the sidewalk on the other side of the road. A large, white van sat at the next intersection; walking up to it and turning left, I slipped behind it and came up on the fish fry.
A string of yellow, green, and red lights, representing the Rastafarian colors, hang from the second floor windows of the building on my left. Up ahead are a series of white tents, the type of tents you would see at a graduation party or music festival. White lights are strung up under the canopy of each of the tents, illuminating the grills and dishes for the various cooks working underneath. Under the first tent to the left is a short, quiet lady with a soft smile.
“I’ll have a Carib, please.”
She nods, turning around and pulling a beer out of the ice-filled cooler behind her. She pops one side of the beer cap, leaving the rest of it for me to pull off. Paying her and taking the cold bottle, I continue on my way toward the music and fish. In between each of the tents, a few folding tables and chairs are strewn out on the street. Families, couples, and friends fill various seats across the different tables. Some of the tables share the light from the tents, others from an overhead lamppost, and some additional ones are pretty much in the dark.
I stop at the tent in the middle, a bustling little station with various reasonably-priced options. Patrons surround the perimeter of the tent, all trying to get their order in before the person next to them. Donning white aprons and hats, the four ladies of Margo’s Kitchen work systematically around each other from the big grill and frying pans in the back to the food trays across the front. After waiting a few minutes, I wiggle my way to the front and put in an order for the boned fried flying fish-which up to this point has been my go-to move.
“We don’t have any more; we ran out,” she responds.
“Oh, I guess I’ll take the grilled fish with veggie,” I said and she directed me to talk to the lady at the grill in the back of the tent.
Just as I move over and order the grilled fish, one of the cooks comes by and dumps a fresh batch of fried flying fish into a serving dish. I was caught up for a minute, not sure what to do. I was confused because she just said they didn’t have any more, only for a fresh batch to come in a moment later. Now I have to commit to the grilled fish with veggie, which was a gamble to begin with as all I could see was the large wraps of foil on the grill’s surface. There was no telling what kind of fish, or what parts would still be on it, when I would unravel that foil.
Nevertheless, I shrugged it off and stuck with my commitment to the grilled fish and got a side order of fried plantains and coconut bakes. They were all placed in two Styrofoam boxes and a plastic bag. Taking the bag, I turn around and survey the tables up and down the street for a place to sit. Underneath the tent behind me was a man in his late 20s or early 30s, with short hair and an orange polo shirt; he was sitting by himself, tapping rhythmically with the reggae music the DJ directly in front of him was playing.
“Oh look, he could be your friend,” I teased myself again.
I walked up and asked if I could join him, to which he motioned his hand in approval. I pull out the chair next to him and sit down. As I did so, he balked a bit. I suppose he was surprised, not quite expecting me to take the seat right next to him.
Not wanting to seem too eager for conversation, I open up the boxes and unravel the foil that held the contents of my dinner. Cautiously peeling apart the foil, a red and white fish lay within, its head still on. Inside I was a little unsure of myself, as I never particularly enjoyed it when my dinner can look me back in the face. But I tried to take it in stride, not wanting to seem like an uneasy foreigner next to this guy. So I casually pinched the foil together at the top so the head was covered and I could eat without Nemo’s eyes making me feel bad.
I introduced myself to Sean, a local man born and raised in Gouyave. Initially, he gave me relatively brief answers as I casually tried to make conversation; but when I told him I live in Gouyave and have been for the past two months, he immediately lightened up and the conversation began to flow. He began telling me about the Peace Corps Volunteer he knew growing up, a man by the name of “Mr. Webster.”
That’s one thing I’ve come to learn: Volunteers may come and go, but the locals certainly remember them as time goes on.
Sean suddenly stands up and begins walking away. I must have had a confused look on my face, as he stopped to note that he was coming back, motioning to his tablet he had left resting next to me on the table. A few moments later, he returned with two Caribs in-hand, giving me one.
“Thanks, man. Cheers,” I said as the beers clinked.
A couple minutes later, Sean told me he’s going to be heading home, but wished me a good night before departing. Waiting a few moments after he left, I gathered up my meal back into the boxes and plastic bag and contemplated returning home to finish the rest.
“Well, you might as well learn to love your own company,” I thought to myself, deciding to finish my meal there.
“And if I’m going to stay here, I might as well own it,” I told myself as I not only unpacked my meal, but comfortably kicked back in my chair and draped my arm on the adjacent seatback to continue eating.
I look ahead at the DJ in front of me. He had short, red dreadlocks that spilled from the top of his head in a way that reminded me of Lil Yachty (for those that don’t know who he is, you’ll know what I mean with a quick Google search). He rhythmically shifted back and forth to beat, taking a sip of his Stag beer that was next to his Apple computer. The music was loud to say the least; although it didn’t help that I was literally sitting in front of the speakers. Nonetheless, I took my time finishing my meal, picking through the bones of the fish to get the white meat contained within. At times it took an effort not to flinch, as every now and then I would get pricked by a concealed fish bone. The DJ switched the songs often, never letting one finish before moving onto the next one. He seamlessly transitioned from reggae to pop, and then occasionally to a reggae-rendition of a pop song. Everyone seemed to know him, as a number of guys passing by would reach over and get a fist bump from him.
A lady approaches me from the right and I immediately perk up as she catches my attention. But to no avail, all she wanted was to borrow one of the various empty chairs around my table.
A few moments later, walking across in between me and the DJ was the couple I saw from earlier. The girl walked right past, but as the guy did, he waved to the DJ shaking that ‘hang-10’ hand signal-the one where your hand is closed with the exception of your outstretched pinky and thumb. The DJ just nodded and continued on, but it took everything in me not to laugh. That honestly had to be one of the most painfully awkward things I’ve ever seen. As being a white guy wasn’t enough to make you stand out as a tourist here, flashing surfer hand signals like you’re in Southern California sure will. Besides, in very few locations are the waves big enough that you can actually surf in the Caribbean anyway. But they proceeded on with their night, shamelessly taking photos of the big lobster tail dinners they got from the next tent over.
Now it’s not like there’s anything wrong with being a tourist. After all, the Caribbean islands thrive off of the tourist industry, as in many cases it is the biggest driving force of their economy. In fact, most everyone here assumes I’m a tourist unless I tell them otherwise. The conductors of the busses passing through Gouyave still look at me confusedly when I decline their offer to go to St. George’s (Grenada’s capital and main tourist destination). I’ll be honest when I say that the blank, baffled look they make never fails to amuse me. But having spent what little time I have here living amongst the locals, tourists are just fun to pick out as they, like me, tend to stick out like sore thumbs.
I wrapped up my meal and pitched it in a trash bin and walked back to the lady at the beer tent. Returning the two bottles I had, I got a Stag and worked my way back to the DJ. Walking up to him with an outstretched hand, I introduced myself. Giving him the Stag, I complimented the job he was doing as I’d been enjoying the music all night.
“You can call me Neo,” he said, thanking me for the beer with a fist bump.
“You usually play here on Fridays?” I practically shouted, trying to be heard over the booming speakers.
“Yeah, every Friday,” he nodded.
“Well, I just moved here so maybe I’ll see you around then.”
I turned and walked away, priding myself in what I thought was a solid move by buying him a beer, and consequently maybe his friendship later on. I took the long way home to survey the bars on the main road. I took note of the one that seemed the most active and after a quick pit stop at my apartment, walked back over to it.
When I entered the bar, it was like that big entrance you see in the old Western movies when an unwelcomed patron arrives. Everyone seemed to pause and went quiet for a moment, before carrying on with their conversations. A group of four or five older guys were huddled at the bar, talking with the bartender. I casually walked up to the bartender and asked for a “three for ten.” As I did so, the room fell silent as, once again, all their eyes turned to me.
“How you know about that, mon?” the bartender, wearing a Tennessee Titans polo shirt and a gray cap, asks.
“I live here,” I replied with a smirk.
“Where abouts? And how come I never seen you around then?” the bartender inquired, not believing me.
“I’m over by Willie’s just down the road,” I answered. “I got here about two months ago. I’m the new Peace Corps.”
“All right, then. I’ll get you that three for ten,” the bartender acknowledged with an approving nod and handing me an ice cold Carib.
Inside tip: most (if not all), bars across the Caribbean have a three beers for ten dollars deal. However, my impression so far is that only the locals know about it; which is why he was surprised I knew about that deal. Sometimes you have to be assertive about asking for it, as they can sometimes be reluctant to give it.
Anyway, we all shared a laugh about my successful play on the bartender and I introduced myself to all the men in the room. They were variously dressed in polos, button-down shirts, and suits. There was a funeral that afternoon in Gouyave, so I figure that’s where these men must have come from. Their attire was one give-away; the other being that they all seemed pretty lit up, too. One man sat on a stool in the corner, slouching with his head tilted down. Evidently he had a bit too much to drink as the guy next to him hands him a bottle of water. I look around the perimeter of the ceiling, where flags from across the world hung down the wall from the ceiling. It was a nice touch, I thought, gives the bar some character.
“Well, you gon’ set-up mon?” the guy next to me teases, gesturing to the stool off to the side.
“Yeah, I think I will,” I replied, grabbing the stool and sitting down with them.
I spent the rest of the night making small talk and sitting in on the profanity-and-laughter-laced conversation dominating the room. As you would see in most groups of male friends, there was ceaseless ribbing and teasing amongst them. The primary target of the night was the big guy with dark skin and a black suit over a plain white shirt. They were all riding him for the suit being too big, to which they even vouched for my opinion.
“Nah, I think it fits just fine,” I laughed, deciding to play it safe with my answer.
“What you drinking, mon?” the suited man asks me, proceeding to stumble over to the bar and buy me a Carib.
“Ehh, Mr. Prigge!” I heard as a hand slapped my shoulder.
I’ve learned to respond to the name Mr. Prigge, as he was the Peace Corps Volunteer I just replaced. Those that haven’t learned my name yet just call me by his name, assuming I’m related to him because I’m white (the amount of times I’ve had to deny familial relation is comical: after all, if I’m not Mr. Prigge’s brother, I must be his cousin).
It was a local guy who had known Kevin. He mentions that he’s seen me at the basketball court when he goes to the park to play football. I’m not surprised by this, as this is a prime example of the “fish-bowl effect,” that is commonplace for Peace Corps Volunteers. Basically, I am in a hypothetical fish bowl because I am a foreigner. Anything I say or do will be noticed, simply because I stand out as a foreigner amongst the locals. It can be both a blessing and a curse.
After talking to him for some time, I finish my beer and set the bottle back on the bar. Putting the stool back where it was, I wished a good night to the patrons in the bar and went on my way home. I had an early morning ahead of me, as the next day I was going to meet up with some of the other Volunteers at BBC Beach.
Integrating into a new, foreign community takes time. Right now, time is something I have, particularly after school. I’ve already met numerous people from my school, the basketball court, the church, my walks to watch the sunset, and trips to the market. I just have to keep up with simply “showing face” out and about in the community and eventually things will fall into place.
It helps to take a situation like this where you are in a foreign country and don’t know anyone with a sense of humor. I ventured out of my apartment to “try and make friends” and wound up eating a meal by myself and drinking at a post-funeral gathering. Not exactly how I envisioned the night going, but hey, I’ll take it. After all, I did get two free beers out of it.