I stumbled out of the bus and onto the coastline road outside of Kirani James Athletics Stadium. The sun had already set, and so leaving the darkness of the road I made my way to the lights and sounds that resonated from the stadium. It was a Tuesday night, the night before Grenada’s Thanksgiving Holiday that is celebrated on October 25th. Grenada’s national football team, The Spice Boys, was slated for a FIFA-sanctioned International Friendly against Panama. Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, school was not going to be in session the next day; so myself and Sarah Bowman, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, decided to venture out and see our first International Friendly. We didn’t have tickets, but word was you could get them at the door.
A steel pan group was playing off to the side of the stadium. So following the music, we made our way there only to realize that they were playing at the entrance, not where you purchase tickets. A steady stream of locals and tourists strolled past us as we tried to figure out where we needed to go. Turning to some local bystanders, we were pointed in the direction of a small trailer, the type of trailer you would see selling hot dogs and burgers at a middle school football game. After purchasing our tickets, we went back to the gate with the steel pan, attracted to the music as a bug is to the light.
There were about five members of the steel pan group, moving rhythmically and systematically around their drums with the beat of the music. We stood there for a moment, soaking it in. They stopped simultaneously, signaling the end of one song before synchronizing themselves into the rhythm of the next one. I was a bit confused, uncertain of the next song. Then with what seemed like a snap of the fingers the band burst into the rhythm of the wildly popular tune Despacito by Luis Fonsi. If you’ve heard a rhythmic song on the radio with smooth Spanish lyrics recently, that’s the one I’m talking about. I was delighted by how well that song sounded on the steel pan. I’m finding that it’s nearly impossible for a song not to sound better on the steel pan.
Turning to the gate, we went through the turnstile and handed the attendant our tickets. Then climbing the right-hand staircase and turning left at the top, we followed the bright lights that opened up to the field in the center of a nearly empty stadium. The teams, dressed in their warm-ups, were making their way into the locker rooms before coming out for the opening ceremony. We were early, so looking around for the best seats we decided to go to the upper deck that overlooked the center of the field. As we were sitting down, the teams came out following their respective flags.
“Please rise and stand at attention for the playing of Panama and Grenada’s national anthems,” a deep voice echoed over the loud-speakers.
The players ceremoniously lined up across from us in single-file lines; Grenada dressed in green, Panama in white. Some had their hands over their hearts, others had their hands behind their backs and heads bowed, other players shifted back and forth shaking their legs to keep loose as the anthems played.
After the anthems finished and the starting line-ups were announced, the players took to their respective positions scattered across the field. The official, with a long blow on his whistle, signaled the start of the match and the friendly was underway.
The stadium was nearly quiet, to the point you could almost hear the players call out to each other on the field. My interest in football is still relatively new, so I don’t know much when it comes to the strategies the teams employ to set up their shots with crosses across the pitch. So I kicked back in my seat, placing my foot on the seat in front of me and followed the path of the ball as the players weaved seamlessly across the field.
It was almost a bit bizarre for me, at first. I haven’t been to a professional sporting event since a Cleveland Indians game early this past spring. A lot of it was still the same: the stadium, the lights, the tickets, the vendors, and food stands. But this match seemed a little more personal. Off to our left, just beyond the track that circumnavigated the field was a quiet hillside decorated with lights from the humble homes that overlooked the stadium. The residents of those homes probably have a fine view of the field and could watch the matches from their verandas. Back in the States, there might be hotels or skyscrapers overlooking a professional sporting venue such as a stadium, but hardly ever a hillside of residential homes. The vendors weren’t selling cotton candy or ice cold beer, but rather they were selling peanuts and other candies in clear plastic bags they carried in a basket. They walked up the aisles and down the rows, offering their hand-prepared products to each patron because realistically, this is simply how they made their living. Inside the stadium they had concession stands, but instead of big ovens, grills, refrigerators, and television-screen menus, there was just one large grill frying chicken, metal warming trays covered in foil for the sides, and coolers filled with bottles of rum, beer, and ice. At one point during the match, the announcer came on to describe a vehicle in the parking lot that was involved in an accident in the parking lot, and thus the owner of that vehicle was needed outside. Calling a license plate number might happen at a high school football game, but it’s not exactly something that would happen at a professional game back home.
The crowd filling in the seats as the game went on was a mix of students, tourists, and locals, all proudly donning assorted combinations of Grenada’s red, yellow, and green colors. You could feel the national pride beaming from each fan in the stadium. They all knew the odds were stacked against them, as Panama had already qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But this game was the talk of the island for some time now, as advertisements for the game were displayed on billboards and busses, and heard on the radio weeks in advance. Although the stands were relatively empty when we first arrived, it was no surprise as over the course of the match the stadium steadily filled and then was overflowing in both the lower bowl and upper deck. It was no surprise because the fans stayed true to arriving on what some call “island time,” which can be noticeably longer than fashionably late. By the end of the match, the announcer declared an attendance of over 2,500 fans that came out to support The Spice Boys.
A striker from Panama booted a bullet toward the goal; diving to his left, the Grenada goal-keeper blocked the hard strike with his outstretched arms. The stadium collectively held its breath as the ball ricocheted back out into a clearing. Another white jersey came striding in from the top of the field and kicked the ball with ease into the back of the empty net. Goal.
Unfortunately, this was how the night went for The Spice Boys, as Panama was able to find the back of the net five times during the match. With each goal given up, an outcry would erupt from the stadium as each fan shared their displeasure. Despite this, the drums kept beating and chants of support would periodically break out over the steady murmur of the stadium. Curiously, a group of fans seated below us, with roughly two minutes left in the game, even began singing Amazing Grace (not exactly something you think you’d hear at a football match, but amusing given how the game went).
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my first FIFA-sanctioned International Friendly. Growing up attending Indians and Browns games, watching professional sports has always been a part of my life. Seeing this football match, it was a step above the professional level as these players were playing for their country on an international level. Although the atmosphere didn’t entirely match up with that of a professional game back home, I appreciated how personal it felt. It felt like they putting their hearts on the line just for you, right in front of you. They weren’t playing for a paycheck or a big sponsorship. They were playing for their country and their countrymen. They were playing for Grenada.
That’s how sports should be.
After the final whistle blew, a ceremony took place on the field commemorating the retirement of Grenada’s long-time captain, who just completed his final match playing for The Spice Boys. A stage was set up outside the stadium as a benefit concert started for the hurricane-ravaged island of Dominica. All the attendants of the game had automatic admission to the concert featuring many of Grenada’s most popular soca artists. But that concert would run late into the night and we needed to return to our respective communities farther north on the island, so we slipped out of the gate and made our way through the parking lot as rain began to drizzle. Traffic was backed up on the road next to the stadium, as people were leaving the match, arriving for the concert, or making a late commute home. A bus was pulled over on the road up ahead, so slipping through stopped cars and walking up the coastline sidewalk, we caught up to it and hopped on, as it was a 5 bus headed in the direction we needed to go.
What ensued was probably the most lively bus ride I’ve had since coming here. Two or three guys were passed out; sleeping with their heads leaned back on the window and seat backs, mouths gaping. But those who were awake, smelling of booze and excited by the match, were in a lively football discussion. They debated back and forth on the important aspects of football, such as controlling the ball and spreading the field. They griped about where Grenada stood in international competition and argued about how best the team can improve. They laughed and ribbed each other as old friends do.
“Bus driver stop one time, I gotta mess,” a guy in the back calls out.
The bus immediately broke out in laughter, not believing this guy made such an odd request. The bus drivers here will do a lot for you. They (and consequently everyone else on the bus) will wait for you to run an errand, buy food from a stand, or pull money from an ATM. I’ve witnessed all of this, but to stop so someone could relieve himself was a first. Sure enough, however, the bus driver pulled over and the guy ran into the bush. Another guy took advantage of the opportunity and jumped off, too. They returned a few moments later and the conductor laughed as he gave each of them squirts from his hand-held Purell bottle before allowing them back on the bus.
Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Upon returning home, I turned on the television and lay back on the couch. Finally re-connecting to wifi, a text came up on my phone from a local friend who was shooting pool in a nearby bar. So after slipping on some flip-flops, I closed up my apartment and made my way up the back alley to the main road. It was a relatively quiet night, aside from the crickets and occasional passing vehicle on the road. I walked up the hill to ‘D Banana Bar.’ It’s a small little bar owned and run by a friend of my host father’s. My host brother, in fact, took me there during my first weeks in Gouyave to shoot some pool.
I stepped through what feels like an open garage door. A well-kept pool table is to the right with stools of various heights around it. A few locals are sitting back on the stools, leaning back but attentive to the game being played as their drinks sit on the ledge that runs along the wall. Banana trees, leaves, and monkeys are painted on what space there is on the walls, reminiscent of the type of scene you would see on a child’s jungle-themed puzzle. The serenading and rhythmic voice of Reggae artist Lucky Dube plays over the speakers. Mansah, a tall man with broad shoulders, is the owner. He sits in the corner behind the bar, trying to fix the connection to his internet TV as a World Series game between the Dodgers and Astros was buffering. At this time last year, I was watching the Indians play in the World Series from various bars across Columbus and Cleveland. The bars then were jam-packed and raucous, riding the emotions of each game.
I guess you could my scene is a bit different now.
“Good night,” I announce, giving a wave and leaning up on the bar.
I order a drink and take a seat on the stool next to Byron, a local from the basketball court that had texted me to come by. I sat back on my stool and watched as game after game of pool was played in front of me. I wasn’t ready to jump in just yet; so I just observed, paying special attention to how they played. Back in the States, every bar seems to have its own set of rules when it comes to pool. I wanted to make sure I understood how they play before I joined.
Feeling comfortable enough to throw my hat in the ring, I casually walked up to the table and slipped two quarters on the collection of coins under the rail on the felt table. (First difference I noticed, you reserve your spot in the next game by placing the coins under the rail, not on the rail as you would in the States). Returning to my seat, I waited for my turn to come.
A man in his late 20s-early 30s was running the table. Wearing a gray and blue horizontal-striped shirt and a black glove on his left hand, he was wiping the table clean every game. He knocked in the black 8-ball and returned to his seat to await the next man up. Everyone in the bar seemed to pause, collectively looking around to see who the next man up was. I stayed in my seat, unsure if that next man up was supposed to be me. Looking over my left shoulder, I caught eyes with Mansah, who gave an approving nod to step up.
Grabbing two quarters from the table and punching them in, the balls spilled out and I racked them up. I racked them the way I would at home, but kept an eye out on how the others might react. But no one seemed to notice as the stripe-shirted man broke the rack and I grabbed a pool cue to chalk up.
I caught an early lead knocking in a couple stripes. But he came storming back effortlessly clearing solids off the table. As the game winded down, he was on the 8 ball and I had two stripes on the table. I was done for, the way he was shooting, as he had a clear shot to win. He lines up the shot as I prepare to rack my cue stick and return to my seat.
“Oohh!” a chorus breaks out as the 8-ball narrowly banks off the rail and drifts away from the corner pocket.
Seeing an opportunity to take the game, I confidently knocked the remaining stripes and measured up the angle to knock in the 8-ball. With two calculated practice strokes I followed through on the third, striking the 8-ball just off the mark as it careens to the other side of the table. The stripe-shirted man finished the game on his next shot and my chance at overtaking the table squandered.
Bumping fists to acknowledge the intense match, I take a seat at a stool next to the table. A bald man with thick-rimmed glasses and a red polo shirt was sitting to my right. He had been seated there the whole night, not having played but simply watching. I introduce myself and find out he’s a school teacher at Concord Government School, where another Volunteer I know is placed.
“You remind me of Max,” he says. “You blend right in.”
“Really?” I respond curiously.
Blending in is the last thing I felt I was doing. First off, I’m a minority; so from a physical standpoint, I stick out. Second, I had hardly said a word during my time at the bar, simply watching while the other guys played until my own game finished.
Mansah, walking over and pulling out his phone, shows me a photo of Max, the former PCV in Concord, sitting in the very same bar with two locals on either side of him.
Hearing and seeing that really kind of put things in perspective for me. I’ve been on these islands for about five months now, long enough I suppose to be and appear comfortable. I do feel at home here now, but I don’t necessarily feel like I ‘blend in,’ per se.
The next day, I went to a church service at St. Peter’s Church in Gouyave. The US Ambassador to the Eastern Caribbean, Linda Taglialatela, was in attendance. I almost had to double-take when I came across her Secret Service vehicle, donning the American flag, that was parked out front. There were notable figures in attendance outside of the Ambassador, as the Prime Minister of Grenada, The Honorable Keith Mitchell, and the Bishop, Clyde Harvey, came to speak to the congregation as well. They all spoke about the history of the Thanksgiving Holiday on Grenada, as it commemorates in gratitude the lives lost in 1983 when America intervened to rid Grenada of a communist uprising and lifted a shoot-on-sight curfew that was put in place by the ruling Revolutionary Military Council after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Nineteen Americans were killed, over one hundred wounded, and nine helicopters were shot down in the conflict. Each year on October 25, the anniversary of the invasion, Grenada commemorates the ultimate sacrifice many men made that day in order to successfully re-instate democracy to the island.
One thing the US Ambassador said really resonated with me: “I wish my fellow countrymen and women could see the gratitude and warmth of the Grenadian people that I am seeing in front of me today, and everyday.”
Little did she know a fellow countryman was in attendance, and I agree with her whole-heartedly.
I wish everyone back home could experience the culture here. I wish everyone can see how warm and welcoming the people are. I wish everyone could witness the natural beauty from the beaches and sulfur springs, to the bush and waterfalls. I wish everyone could experience the bumpy, overcrowded bus rides with the blaring rhythm of soca music and drivers that will make a stop at any point to meet your needs. I wish everyone could witness the simple way of living where you hang-dry your clothes on a line. I wish everyone could see the endless energy of the children and the caring nature of the teachers. I wish everyone could feel the overbearing heat and the soothing breeze. I wish everyone could witness an International Friendly that feels like they’re playing just for you. I wish everyone could experience a low-key night shooting pool in a bar with the locals.
That’s the thing I’ve come to realize about being told I was, ‘blending-in.’ They may see me as a “white boy,” as I’m sometimes called here. (The locals are very upfront and blunt in their descriptions, so no negative connotation is meant whatsoever by this. Last week I met a boy that goes by the name “Fat Boy,” and he isn’t bothered by the name in the least bit). The important thing to note here is, however, that their opinion of me does not change because of the color of my skin. I may be standing out as the only white guy in the bar, but I was ‘blending-in’ because I was playing a game they all knew.
That’s the beauty of sports. Whether it’s a jam-packed stadium for a FIFA match or a game of pool at a local bar, sports is a language that everyone can speak. It’s a way to pass time and connect with others. Sports gives us a common ground with which to form relationships. In fact, playing basketball has played a big role as I’ve integrated into the community of Gouyave. But that’s a topic for another day.
The night of Thanksgiving I was walking home on the coastline sidewalk after playing basketball at the court in Gouyave. Stars speckled across the night sky as light, casted from a half-crescent moon, shimmered off the quiet Caribbean Sea. As I was walking, something bright in the distance caught my eye. A cruise ship, lit up brighter than the moon, began drifting across the horizon. It was the first cruise ship I’ve seen in my five months here.
Tourist season is right around the corner. Word is they’re predicting the largest tourist season for Grenada to date this spring. Wall Street Journal just ranked Grenada in the top 10 hottest destinations to travel to in 2018. I hope my fellow countrymen and women as well as other international travelers come to experience this beautiful country I now call home.
The Grenadian people are an appreciative people. Their Thanksgiving Holiday alone, not to mention their character and culture, proves that.
Additionally, whether it be through sports, tourism, or even history, there is quite a bit Americans share in common with Grenadians. Who knows, one day you may get the opportunity to experience Grenada for yourself; and if that day comes, you may even find yourself ‘blending-in,’ too.