The Sweet Escape Part I: A Rec House Reunion

December was the month I had long-awaited for. I had so much anticipation built up for this month for a couple of reasons: 1) the school term ended on December 7th 2) I had a three-week Christmas break with a three-country itinerary planned 3) The final week of that itinerary meant it was finally time to return home to the States for Christmas. Therefore, I decided to take a literal ‘break’ and go off the grid for those three weeks so that I could truly enjoy my time off. After all, it wasn’t easy leaving everything I have ever known to start a new life from scratch in a country I’ve never been before. I had gone through so much over the course of the past six months that I simply needed to escape and take some time to enjoy myself and forget about life for a while.

So here comes into play one of the best perks of volunteering abroad, aside from the life-changing experience that is international volunteering; and that is the opportunity to explore all that your host country has to offer. This is where all those cool and awesome photos come into play, where people will then question me whether I’m actually doing any work at all or just simply ‘on vacation.’ Trust me, the majority of my time here is, in fact, work. After all, I just spent the past fourteen weeks engrossed with obligations at school. But now that Christmas break was here, it was time to truly take advantage of life in the Caribbean.

That being said, these past three weeks have been nothing short of incredible. Since so much happened over my three-week, three-country vacation, I decided to break down my next blog posts into a series. I titled this series: The Sweet Escape Part 1: A Rec House Reunion, because this break reminded me the wonders of international travel and the amazing people you meet in the most unlikely of places. This first post will cover the week I had the pleasure of hosting and showing around the island two friends I had met while volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa one year ago.

It started as I walked home after my last day at school. Don Nguyen and Kevin Wang, the two friends I volunteered with in Cape Town, had just been dropped off at my apartment by a taxi I had arranged to pick them up at the airport. It had been nearly a year to the day since I last saw them. The previous time I had seen them was as we said goodbye at the infamous “Rec House” volunteer homestay in Muizenberg, just outside of Cape Town, (*insert shameless “Rec House, Best House” plug here). For those that don’t know about my homestay in Cape Town, Rec House was a literal melting pot of volunteers from all over the world. The house included volunteers from countries such as: USA, Netherlands, France, New Zealand, Germany, Morocco, England, and Canada among others. The memories I have with those at Rec House are ones I will cherish forever. Before leaving Rec House, I had told Don and Kevin of my plans to serve with the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean and they had promised they would come visit me. I’ll be brutally honest when I say I didn’t believe them. That’s the thing about forming friendships with people in foreign places, the reality is that you don’t know when or even if you’ll ever see them again. Little did I know, however, that almost exactly one year to the day they would be my first visitors to Grenada. So as I walked out of the alley that leads to my apartment, I looked up the road to my left to see none other than Kevin and Don, awaiting me with big smiles, open arms, and un-canned excitement. Suddenly, their arrival quite literally became real. I was overcome with joy as they were literally the first familiar faces I had seen in six long months.

It was particularly exciting for me, as they were the first ones that got to see first-hand the life I have established for myself down here. This was the first time I got to be the experienced ‘local’ and show off my new home. It also meant that this was the first time I wouldn’t be experiencing everyday life down here alone.

To celebrate, the first night I took them to a beachside restaurant at Grand Anse for dinner and drinks. The Caribbean sky showed off its vibrant colors that evening, as we laughed and recalled stories from our time together in Africa as the sun set slowly on the horizon. We got caught up on what we’ve been doing since Africa under what became a vast, star-speckled night sky while the water lapped calmly on the shore. We had picked up right where we left off, as it seemed nothing had changed from when we were together just one year ago.

The next morning they woke up with my unusual Friday morning ‘alarm,’ a wake-up call not for the faint of heart. Some of you may know that my apartment in Gouyave is located next to a market. Well, within this market is a slaughterhouse. Consequently, every Friday morning at about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., I am wakened by, ‘calls of distress,’ to put it lightly. Let’s just say that the goats are better than the pigs.

Nevertheless, that day we took to Grand Anse beach, unusually overcrowded with tourists from the cruise ship that docked in St. George’s that morning. There they got to meet two of the other Peace Corps Volunteers on the island, Sarah Bowman and Riley Doerlerr. The day that ensued was a sign of the week to come, as when you get some international volunteers together, there is already a connection established just by being Americans together in a foreign country. After a day of sunshine and bathing in the waters of Grand Anse, we returned to Gouyave. I had a school commitment that night, but Don and Kevin got to experience Gouyave’s Fish Friday festival that occurs just up the road from my apartment.

The next day, Saturday, was probably one of the best days of the trip. We woke up and grabbed an early breakfast before making our way down to Dragon Bay, the location of Grenada’s famous Underwater Sculpture Park. We dropped from a bus and made our way down the hill to a quiet seaside shoreline. A man sitting quietly under a gazebo waved us in. His name was Arendell, a local tour guide and experienced diver. For the next couple hours we dove in and around the statues that rested eerily on the ocean floor. There are a variety of statues in the park, including: a mermaid, a man breaking bread at the table, another man stretching his arms to the sky, and the well-known ring of people holding hands, among others. There is an ominous presence about each and every one of them, silently resting while covered in coral and sea urchins. It was especially fun getting to experience the Sculpture Park with them as the last time I was in ocean waters with these guys, we were shark-cage diving with great white sharks in the African waters of Gansbaii Bay.

Afterwards, we made our way to BBC Beach to meet up with another PCV, John Lyness, and grab what is in my opinion, (and later theirs), the best fish tacos in the world. We didn’t spend much time in the water that day, having been exhausted from the hours-long dive at the Sculpture Park. (Which believe me, totally worth it, but incredibly tiring). Anyhow, the rain from that morning came to pass and the sun broke through the clouds as we all took naps on the beach before bathing in the water and heading back to Gouyave that night.

When we got back I took them to Mansah’s, the local bar I frequent to shoot pool. This was honestly one of the highlights of my week with them. I sat on a stool next to the pool table, awaiting my turn in the game I was playing against one of the locals. Then, looking off to my left was Don, embracing appreciatively one of the locals like old friends having been reunited after a long time apart. It was kind of unexpected and a bit ironic, as after all they never would have met before now. But nevertheless, it was a special moment for me. I’ve told many people that the locals here are so incredibly warm and welcoming, but sometimes you just have to experience it yourself to truly understand. It was comforting, too, after hearing about the conversation Don had with that local man, to know that I am not the only one that has had this type of experience here.

The next morning we were woken up by one of my other unusual alarm clocks, this one a little more pleasant. One of my students, in a high-pitched voice repeatedly called, “Mr. King!” through my apartment window. Sure enough, just as they did with the local kids in South Africa, Don and Kevin quickly befriended the student to the point that by the end of that day and subsequent days there were not only calls of “Mr. King!” through my window, but “Don!” and “Kevin!” as well. They were truly getting my full Peace Corps experience.

Since buses don’t run on Sundays, we walked to Palmiste Beach. Palmiste is a quiet, isolated beach primarily used for fishing that is about a half hour’s walk from Gouyave. It’s the type of beach that has that “untouched” feel to it, where a few pieces of litter are tucked in among the trees and overgrowth behind the sandy shore. We took it easy that day, resting up because we had another big night ahead of us. That night, while Don took some of the local kids skateboarding, Kevin joined me at the community basketball court to square off against the locals that gather there to play every Sunday night. There were enough guys for a three-team, pick-up game rotation. We started playing while the sun began to fade and played for hours on end into the night. Hot, sweaty, and exhausted, we made our way back to my apartment to find Don inside, with roasted chicken coming fresh out of the oven. Let me tell you, that night we feasted like kings. It was a pleasant surprise, which in reality wasn’t actually all that surprising. It wasn’t surprising because just the morning before, Kevin had gone to the supermarket and prepared breakfast for all of us. Kevin said it best that morning when he said, “It’s just like back in Rec House, everyone takes turns cooking for everybody.” He couldn’t have been more right. Once again it was like we were back in Rec House, where the kitchen was the gathering place of food and conversation before hanging out for late night discussions on the veranda out front.

We hit the midway point of their week in Grenada, as the next day we left for La Sagesse Beach in the parish of St. David’s. There we spent the day bathing in the tides of the Atlantic with Peace Corps Volunteers Katie Riley, Katelyn Earnest, and John Lyness. Later that night we stopped in Grenville, the second-largest town on Grenada, for drinks and met additional Volunteers living on that side of the island. It was a truly memorable night of stories, laughs, and dancing to music under the awe-inspiring meteor shower taking place in the heavens above us. I was pleased that they got the chance to meet the other PCVs on Grenada, as I can assure you I’m here with nothing less than the best.

We had finally reached their final day, but that didn’t slow us down as we took to Grand Etang National Park with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Hannah Melin to see the Mona monkeys. The three of us had to get our ‘wild animal fix,’ as when we were in South Africa, we went on a two-day safari to see Africa’s ‘Big 5:’ elephants, lions, rhinos, water buffaloes, and cheetahs. So after a morning of ‘monkeying around’ and hiking to a jaw-dropping island viewpoint, one in which you can see both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, we went back to Grand Anse for one final beach day and glorious sunset.

After the sun went down it was time to head back to Gouyave, as they were to leave for the airport the next morning. However, one thing was for certain: the fun wasn’t going to stop there. While we were on our way back to Gouyave, we saw a roadside karaoke competition going on in the community of Grand Roy. Now, in Cape Town, there was a tradition in Rec House for the volunteers to go out on Wednesday night and sing karaoke at Brass Bell, a local bar. So, it seemed like a no-brainer to make a little pit stop on our way home. We jumped out of the bus and got drinks at a roadside tent. Across the street from us was a stage at about head-height underneath a large, white tent. On the stage was a DJ crouched behind his laptop and large speakers, playing music while the videos were projected onto the screen. A crowd of people was gathered at and around the junction and in the street, conversing with each other and seemingly waiting for the night to begin. It was clear a karaoke night was going to happen, but as per usual, no one ever wants to be the first to go. So, handing off my backpack to the guys, I walked across the street and up to the stage. The DJ leaned over and I called out my request: Africa by Toto. I chose this song for a couple reasons: 1) the obvious fact that I met Don and Kevin in Africa 2) most locals here are familiar with this song and therefore it will vibe well with the crowd 3) it’s a classic.

The DJ handed me the microphone and I stepped onto the side of the road so I could see the lyrics projected on the screen above me. I began singing until, just as I finished the first verse, the DJ cut the music…

“Ooooh, that was nice; and when something is nice we got to go twice!” He called out as he ran the track back.

That having excited the crowd and built up my confidence even more, I sang the song all the way through the way I believe karaoke ought to be done. After finishing the song, the community of Grand Roy applauded as I handed back the mic and walked back across the street.

Sure enough, now that someone had gone first a que formed to participate in the competition, which we later found out was being broadcast live on a Grenada radio station. Kevin threw down the house with his hip-shaking rendition of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas and Don dropped the always popular track of the Ignition Remix by R. Kelly. Everyone seemed to respond well to each of the songs the ‘foreigners’ were singing, as even the DJ himself proclaimed, “Looks like the foreign nations crowd is representing tonight!”

That’s the way it is with these guys. You can throw them into almost any uncomfortable situation, which can happen often when you’re doing things like singing karaoke in front of a whole community in a foreign country, and they can make it fun. No one likes being in an uncomfortable situation, but when you have each other, that’s all the comfort you need. It’s times like these that led me to fall in love with international travel and creating memories and friendships in foreign places that I will cherish forever .

The next morning the taxi came to pick them up from my apartment. As per another Rec House tradition, I played See You Again by Charlie Puth and Whiz Khalifa, as that was the song we would play when a volunteer was leaving. Last time I heard this song with them and the rest of Rec House, I was fighting back the tears that would eventually overwhelm me until I arrived at the Cape Town airport. Saying goodbye then was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do. It was certainly hard saying goodbye this time, too.

However, it was a bit easier than last time because I know that someday, I will see them again. My initial doubts of ever seeing them were proven wrong when they became my first visitors to Grenada. I take comfort in that, even though I don’t know for sure when I will see them again.

The first time we met was the day I arrived in South Africa. The second time we were all together again was on the Eastern Caribbean island of Grenada. So given that we are three Americans that have never been Stateside together, the more pressing question I think is, “Where will we be when we see each other again?”

There was talk of maybe Vietnam. But who knows? Only time will tell.


Note: This post would be incomplete without a few photos from our time together in South Africa. Enjoy!

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