Returning to Grenada was a particularly conflicting experience. It was conflicting because although every fiber in my being wanted more time at home, I still remembered the fact that I did not even want to leave Grenada in the first place just a week before.
“Wasn’t it just two weeks ago, leaving for St. Vincent that you said you didn’t want to leave Grenada?” I tried consoling myself, but to no avail.
I didn’t have any time to process my time at home in the grand scheme of things. Consequently, I was forced to overwhelmingly try and process it all during my flight from Cleveland to Miami. The three prior weeks were an incredible stretch of time in which I did so much and saw so many people in such a short span of time. Having burnt out from this non-stop, three-countries-in-three-weeks itinerary, I was straight exhausted. I was drained emotionally, and had just become numb to my surroundings. I was constantly trapped in thought, and had flat-lined from an energy standpoint.
Fitting to my less-than-exuberant state when arriving in Miami, I found out I missed my connecting flight to Trinidad. Consequently, I was stranded in Miami, a place I didn’t know a soul.
So I called my mother.
“Hold on, let me call your Aunt Colleen,” she told me. “I think she actually might be in Miami.”
I hung up the phone, looking at it puzzlingly. I have family in Northern Florida, but not in Miami.
“No way,” I shook my head. “What would they be doing in Miami?”
A moment later my phone lit up with a call from one of my cousins.
“Wait, so you guys are in Miami?” I asked.
“Yeah! We’re on our way to get you right now,” she answered.
Grabbing my suitcase and stepping out into a bright, sunny Miami day, I waited outside as cars circled past like a never-ending carousel. While waiting, I dialed the airline number and was put on hold, forever trying to get through so I could re-schedule my flight (the airliner’s desk had already closed).
Eventually a car rolled up, with two familiar, smiling faces inside.
“Boy, am I glad to see you guys,” I laughed, hugging my cousins as they helped me load my luggage into the rental car.
Riding in the backseat along a Miami highway, I was re-familiarized with the sight of palm trees and a blue summer sky. I wasn’t able to appreciate the passing views much, however, as I still had a phone pressed to my ear waiting for the incessant ‘elevator music’ to end. As we reached the hotel, just to my luck, the call dropped. So, putting it off for the time being, I was reunited with the Willis family: my aunt, uncle, and cousins on my mother’s side. They helped me get situated into their hotel room and waited at the lobby bar while I paced aimlessly back and forth, once again on the phone with the airline. Then about forty-five minutes to an hour later, my flight the next morning was booked. Crisis averted. I was still going to make it to Grenada.
I was down, but with my flight resolved I could now enjoy my time with the extended family. Being with them was exactly the pick-me-up I needed. I hadn’t seen any of them since my cousin Billy’s wedding back in April. I tagged along as they had a family gathering to attend. In a quiet, retirement community, we spent time together around a dinner table while the young children ran around in games of hide and seek. My uncle showed me his father’s office space. Old, faded photos hung on the walls and shelves. In many of the photos, vintage race cars were on a track, a helmet peeking out of the seat behind the wheel. The helmeted man was his father, a former racer and avid car-enthusiast, whose home I was graciously welcomed into despite being teased for my Notre Dame shirt.
I needed a night like this for many reasons. Mostly, it served as a buffer. For me, it was one final home-cooked meal. It was one more night in the States. It was one more hot-water, strong-pressure shower. It was one more night’s rest in complete silence. It was one more night of being with family, catching up on each other’s lives and re-telling of old family tales.
Although appreciative of one extra night in the States, it was still time for me to return. The next morning it was yet another round of goodbyes, this time in a hotel parking lot, as they then took me back to the airport.
I made it through check-in and TSA seamlessly, boarded my flight and was off to Trinidad.
In all the airports I’ve flown in to, I am always somewhat lost in terms of where I should go, particularly after disembarking from the airplane. When I arrived in Trinidad, it was no different. I stepped off the plane and proceeded to follow the people in front of me, presuming I was headed in the right direction. After making a couple turns and going down a set of stairs, I found myself in the immigration line.
“Okay, something’s not right,” I thought to myself.
I walked around to the front of the line and asked for assistance, given I was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Grenada. The lady asked me to wait for a moment, disappearing behind the desk. Re-emerging she asked me to come with her, along with the two other Americans also going to Grenada that had followed me to the desk.
“Your flight has been canceled,” she tells us. “You will be put on the next flight that leaves at 5:30 tomorrow morning.”
“Okay,” I shrugged passively.
I didn’t mind. I saw this simply as an opportunity, as it brought back a memory of the last time a flight of mine was canceled. On my way back from Cape Town last year, I had a connecting flight to Cleveland from JFK Airport in New York City. At the time I had never been to New York City, so when they requested for someone to offer up their seat I quickly jumped at the opportunity. As it turned out, the flight was canceled anyway due to weather. But regardless, the airline put me up in the Holiday Inn at Times Square. So late that night and early the next morning, I took advantage of staying in the heart of the City, running around and finding sights such as Times Square and the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center (not to mention getting lost a time or two). It was an awe-inspiring experience seeing the towering skyscrapers, endless traffic, and bright lights. Although I only got to spend a few hours in the Big Apple, I hope to return someday to experience it more fully.
Anyway, after waiting for quite some time, a taxi finally arrived at the airport to take us to the nearby hotel. We stepped out in the hot, humid, Caribbean air as standing puddles from a recent rainfall were spotted the street. We piled in the van and after arriving, checked in to the hotel.
I was giddy. After another day of dwelling on what I left behind in the States, the overnight stay in Trinidad reminded me why I love international travel so much. I got the same excitement I have whenever I arrive in a new country. It was that bubbly, new, not-sure-what’s-going-to-happen-next type of feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve become addicted to, a feeling otherwise known as the travel bug.
The hotel and the accommodation I was provided was nothing short of fantastic. The tile floors of the halls were polished and clean. A glass chandelier hung elegantly in the lobby. Adventures of a Lifetime, a song from Coldplay’s ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ album played over the lobby speakers. (This was particularly ironic, as it was that very same Coldplay album that I listened on repeat during my twelve-hour flights to and from South Africa). The hotel room itself was pristine, yet subtle, as a hotel room should be in order for one to relax and truly be at ease. The bed was large and the pillows were firm, but comfortable nonetheless. A single lounge chair sat in the corner and a flat screen TV was mounted on the wall.
With my new-found energy, I went over to the bar next to the lobby. The only individual there was the bartender, a light-skinned woman with her hair pulled back into a pony-tail as wiped down the countertop. I took a seat at one of the stools and ordered a beer. But the beer really wasn’t what I was looking for.
While a tennis match played idly on the television in the background, we struck up conversation. She was a local Trinidadian. With a pleasant smile, she began to explain to me how Trinidad differs from the other islands. A large producer of oil, the economy is a lot stronger and the population is a lot bigger than many of the other, smaller Eastern Caribbean islands. But with the higher population, she noted, inevitably comes higher crime rates. She described a country that benefited from the stable rule as a British colony before gaining its own Independence. She delved into the make-up of ‘Trini’s’, as one half of the population comes from African descent, while the other comes from Indian descent; meanwhile, with the addition of the original Carib people, a melting pot of cultures and people have come to fruition here.
She spent some time bartending on Turks and Caicos, an island-nation made up of countless, smaller islands on both the Turks-side and the Caicos-side. Her favorite part, she said, was a part of Caicos with a highway on a stretch of land so narrow, the Caribbean Sea straddled you on either side.
She hasn’t visited much of the Eastern Caribbean islands, with the exception of St. Lucia. However, she mentioned there was one thing that remained the same no matter where you went in the Caribbean: the generosity of the people. The best island, in her opinion, was the Bahamas. With an economy almost solely reliant on tourism, she described the people as willing to go above and beyond to accommodate their visitors. They are the type of people that would open your door and lay their jacket down so you wouldn’t have to step in the mud. Of course, that’s not to mention the pristine, white-sand beaches and turquoise waters unmatched by the rest of the Caribbean. To her, the Bahamas is the penultimate Caribbean experience.
Rejuvenated from the conversation, I thanked her and bid her good night, returning to my room. Leaping into the finely-made bed, I shut the lights and flipped on the television, where I found Ohio State playing in their bowl game. Now it was time for me to relax, and enjoy one more night to myself, doing what I would be if I were at home: watching football.
But ultimately, the overnight in Trinidad was just another blessing for me to count. It meant another opportunity to learn about and experience (to a small extent), a new country. It meant one more night’s rest in complete silence. It meant one more night of having access to a television. It meant one more night with a hot water, strong-pressure shower. This goes without mentioning my favorite part, that it also meant one more stamp on my passport.
By sunrise the next morning, I had arrived in Grenada after a twenty minute flight. Jumping into the first available taxi, I cruised up the coast to Gouyave. I passed the same beaches, the same resorts, the same towns, the same mountains, and the Caribbean Sea was as beautiful as ever. Flashbacks from my first ride up to Gouyave, in the shotgun seat with my host dad on a late July afternoon, ran through my mind. The views were just as stunning, but this time I wasn’t so thrilled. Having come down from the ‘high’ that Trinidad was for me, I was back to ‘old, familiar Grenada.’ Truthfully, it took a couple days for me to re-gather my bearings. After all, my break from school was a non-stop emotional roller coaster that included traveling for three weeks straight. All of a sudden, I was brought back to reality.
Thankfully, school has started up and since then I’ve had time to process all that has happened and reflect on the experience. I have come to terms with my return and I can assure you, I am happy to be back.
Which brings me to this: While I was at home I was frequently asked the question, “What is it like to be back home?”
My answer: “It was like a flip of the switch.”
It was such a seamless transition back into my life at home that it almost seemed as if the past six months never happened.
From the beginning they always said, “The culture shock when returning home is tougher than the culture shock upon arriving in your host country.”
So when coming home for this past Christmas I had mentally prepared for the impending culture shock. I had a taste of it when I toured St. George’s University’s campus a couple months prior: when the sight of water fountains, clean public restrooms, spacious roads, and air-conditioning units was almost overwhelming. That experience largely led to my uneasiness about what it would be like for me to return home.
But as my previous post showed, it was like I had never left in the first place.
While I was home, everything was go-go-go. I had places to go, people to see. I had a full agenda to see as many of my family and friends as I possibly could in the short week I was allotted at home. Although I did not see everyone, I am satisfied with how many of my family and friends I was able to see.
But that would not have been possible if not for you guys. You guys stepped up; and I mean stepped UP.
It was an incredibly touching and heart-warming experience for me to witness those that went entirely out of their way to see me. For those that tried and weren’t able to, the conversation and effort you gave was truly appreciated.
It humbled me and reminded me about what I gave up in coming here. Let me tell you, I gave up a lot.
From meeting out to get breakfast, to buying a drink, to covering the uber, to stopping by my home, and everything in between I am truly grateful for everyone that made my time at home so enjoyable.
So when it came time for me to leave, it’s not surprising that I wasn’t ready. I had returned to the place I’m from, with the people I love. I was home.
But home is not where I need to be right now. I need to be here.
I need to be here because I have a purpose. During the first week of school, I re-evaluated my pull-out students. There were a total of fourteen students from the third grade that I worked with over the course of the last term. Using the same assessment I used to gauge their reading levels when I first arrived, I went to measure their progress. From the results, I discovered that seven out of my fourteen students’ reading improved by one grade level. By this, I mean a student could have improved from a Pre-K reading level to Kindergarten, Kindergarten to grade one, or grade one to grade two, etc. Out of the seven students that showed one grade level of progress, three of them improved from a grade two to grade three. Given that those three are now reading at their actual grade level, I will no longer be pulling them out for additional work. Aside from the seven that improved, four maintained their initial reading level and three actually declined.
I’m very encouraged by the results of my second assessment. I only met with the students once per week. I’m also not a true teacher by any means. But having witnessed a student read something they couldn’t before is incredibly rewarding, to say the least.
I can’t take full credit, however. Some of the students could have had a difficult time or been lackadaisical the day of the first assessment, and been at full focus on the second assessment, or vice versa. But, these results are what I’ve measured. I’m proud of my students and the work they put in, but I’m not satisfied.
I now have additional time available after releasing the three students from the pull-out program. Having two third-graders reading at a Pre-K level, I aim to meet with them twice a week to provide them that much more one-on-one attention. I will also be adding a second grader and a seventh grader to my schedule. Assessing the seventh grader, I discovered he was able to identify only fourteen letters and make just six letter sounds. He’s fifteen years old and now I am now his last chance at being able to read. Just another humble reminder of why Peace Corps is needed here.
Having spent the past term in a Caribbean classroom, I can see how a student like my seventh-grader can slip through the cracks. It might seem unbelievable or implausible at home, but believe me, differentiated classrooms are a very real thing and a difficult problem to address.
During our parent-teacher conferences, it was clear which students had a family foundation at home. It was not surprising which ones didn’t. Consequently, I have witnessed how a solid family foundation can positively influence a student’s academic abilities.
Being here has led me to realize that I am a product of the efforts of my parents and the family foundation they provided for me. Without them, or any of my teachers throughout my years of education, I don’t know where I would be. I certainly wouldn’t be here.
That foundation was exactly why leaving the States was so difficult for me. I wasn’t ready to come back. I was thriving in the blessings I was born with and was provided all my life. I admit, I didn’t feel much regret for having grown up with more than what my students have grown up with here. I’ve just come to recognize the blessings I have and truly appreciate them. What I can do, however, is do everything in my power to take the same blessings and opportunities I received, and relay them to my students here. So, in this sense, it was a humbling reminder and a re-kindling of motivation for me to return home.
In the meantime, I have once again flipped the switch. I flipped back into my alternative life that is uniquely my own, and distinctly Caribbean. The same students still passes by my window, calling my name in requests to go to the park and throw the frisbee or the “American football.” The same group of guys still play basketball every Sunday night. I returned to the Fish Fridays and shoot pool at Mansah’s. I have returned to my community walks to see the sun set. I even shook the hand of Grenada’s only Olympic gold medalist Kirani James, who hails from Gouyave, at the local church.
Last weekend, I met up with the other Volunteers at Grand Anse Beach. Every time we have gone, some local men with their speedboats and inflatable couches and tubes persistently offer to take us for a ride, wanting our business. I always turn them down. But last Saturday, after initially declining the offer out of reflex, I joined some other Volunteers for a water-tubing joyride. White-knuckling the handles to my sides, I hung on for dear life as the boat accelerated at tremendous speeds. We sped back and forth along the coast, the beach and resorts passing in a blur. Mist from the wakes of the boat sprayed on my face as I laughed uncontrollably, doing everything in my power not to get tossed from my seat. What a thrill.
So yes, I did have a difficult time re-adjusting to Grenada. But now that I’ve had time to process all that has happened in the past two months, I am happy to be back. I’m back into the swing of things.
My time at home reminded me of what I’m missing. But it also left me comforted with the thought of knowing what I’ll be blessed to return to when my service is up.
In the meantime, the switch is flipped. When I originally left the States, I was only here for six months. Those six months, although they felt long, really went by like a snap of the fingers. But I still have a year and a half left. I certainly aim to make the most of it.
Here’s to looking ahead at the adventures and the progress to come.