From the Stars and Stripes to the Isle of Spice; Independence Day in Grenada

I stepped in front of the school yard, facing the compound of St. Peter’s RC School. A sea of children dressed in bright red, green, and yellow colors were congregated in a somewhat orderly fashion. A colorful banner hung over the school entrance with Independence Day scripted across it. Alternating-colored pennants zig-zagged back and forth over the lot. Two large trucks hauling massive speakers boomed with patriotic Grenadian folk music. The vibrations from the booming speakers shook not only the ground below my feet, but my ear drums as well.

The first truck kicked to a start and left the compound as the children of the pre-school followed behind it, shuffled along by the teachers like sheep in a flock. Following them was the kindergartners, first graders, second graders, and so on. Once the whole student body of St. Peter’s RC had begun the parade, the students of the remaining schools in Gouyave followed suit. All in all, there were about four or five different schools gathered that morning for the traditional community parade to celebrate Grenada’s National Day of Colours.

Each year on February 6, the day before Independence Day, Grenada celebrates National Colours Day with parades, songs, dancing, and other cultural performances. Much like the 4th of July in the States, everyone wears at least one, if not all, of the national colors that day. The color red represents courage and vitality, yellow for wisdom and warmth, and green for vegetation and agriculture.  Also a tribute to the Rastafarian influence in the heritage of the country, the red, yellow, and green colors serve for a brilliant display of national pride. There’s a certain vibrancy to the colors that conveys a passion for life that I believe properly suits the culture and people of Grenada. It is much different from the red, white, and blue of the USA that I was used to wearing when celebrating every 4th of July. But that was okay with me; these are their colors, their country, their pride.

I walked alongside the parade, keeping an eye on the whereabouts of my third graders and doing my part to ensure we returned with as many students as we had when we left. That didn’t stop me, however, from taking in the tremendous scene around me. I stopped frequently for pictures, blown away by the almost overwhelming mass of red, yellow, and green that snaked endlessly along the road in front of me and behind me. Humble homes of other various colors stood above and below us on either side of the hilly road. Trees reached to the sky above them, some of them tall enough to cast a merciful shade from the overbearing sun. The sun was burning hot that day, as it was the first cloudless, clear day we’ve had in weeks. (Attributed to the influence of global warming, this year the rainy season has long-passed its traditional January 1st deadline and has now stretched into February).

A small hand grasps my palm and I look down to find one of the second-grade girls by my side. An array of colorful beads decorated her hair and as she held a small, Grenadian flag and nervously sucked her thumb. With a personality true to the nature of the word ‘sweetheart,’ she has been the highlight of my day more times than not. Whether I’m walking down the corridor, through the school grounds, or to and from school, she oftentimes will grab my hand to walk with me. I could just be standing on the school grounds and she’ll run up just for the sake of holding my hand. Its incredible how much of a difference little, innocent gestures like that can make. What I did to deserve her faithful accompaniment, I don’t know, but she has certainly been a highlight of my service. So we continued walking together, hand-in-hand, stopping and starting with the parade as we came around bends and turns along the community streets.

After a short while we came around another forested bend and came upon the main stretch of road leading back into the heart of Gouyave. Leaving the shaded roads of the forest, we entered the fully-exposed streets in the glaring sun as the previously merciful trees were replaced by homes and buildings of various sizes. But the parade marched on, the sweet, rhythmic melody of Zedel Jefrey’s Happy Birthday (Grenada’s very-catchy Independence Song) blasted on repeat from the truck speakers. As we reached back into the town, members of the community were lined along both sides of the street. It felt like any other parade back in the States, as the parade-watchers on the sidewalks called out to the friends and family in the parade. They held their phones out, recording their loved ones as they waved back.

“Sir! Ah thirsty,” one of your third grade girls says as she tugs on your shirt sleeve.

“You want your water bottle?” I ask as she nods.

Flipping my backpack to the front, I reach in and pull out the water bottle she gave me before we left. I couldn’t help but feel like that father you would see at the zoo, playing the role of pack mule for the family, carrying all the water bottles and snacks for the children.

As we reached closer back to school, I looked back to see the parade had somewhat diminished behind us, as the other schools diverted from the parade as we passed their school grounds. As we crossed a bridge over a streaming river, the students, faculty, and staff of St. Peter’s RC were all that was left of the parade. By the time I reached my classroom, I plopped into my desk chair tired and sweaty, my ears ringing from the blaring music of the parade trucks.

After the classes held their respective lunch parties, the students gathered together for an assembly. Each class performed some sort of cultural song, dance, or presentation in front of the whole school. I kept one eye on the clock, however, as I had to leave school early. A US diplomat was in Grenada for the Independence Day festivities, and it was arranged for the Volunteers to meet her for a dinner. I lingered at the school as long as possible, wanting to see my third graders perform. After they performed their rendition of the song Coconut Woman, I snuck out around the back and hustled home. Quickly ironing a blue dress shirt and a fresh pair of khakis, I switched from my national colors attire into something a little more professional. Throwing a tie in my backpack, I locked the door and ran out to catch a bus.

Two bus rides later, I reached the Peace Corps office in St. George’s just in time. Myself and the other Volunteers able to make the dinner piled into two vehicles driven by on-island Peace Corps staff, off to the home of the Chargé d’Affaires, Mr. Stephen Frahm,  (the highest-ranking US diplomat on Grenada). Driving through a part of Grenada that was unchartered territory for me, elegant homes with grand gate entrances lined the roads. On the right-hand side we passed by the US Embassy, one of the smallest embassies in the world. Finally, we arrived to a large house with a security guard standing out front. The gate lifted and he waved us through. Stepping out of the vehicles, we were greeted on the veranda by Mr. Frahm and Ms. Laura Griesmer, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Barbados, among other local staff.

We took our seats in the high-backed chairs and the firm, red couches in the sitting area. Through the glass doors was a pool, shimmering in the setting sun, on a patio overlooking a seaside bay. The high-vaulted ceiling, tile floors, intricate paintings, and glass tables left the impression that this place belonged to someone of great significance. Glass bowls of roasted peanuts were even scattered throughout the home, almost as if they were simply for show.

As we were seated around the sitting room, myself and the other Volunteers introduced ourselves and explained a little bit about what we do at each of our sites. After my turn, I realized I neglected to mention where from the States I was originally from, but I shrugged it off as not a big deal and the meeting carried on. We discussed foreign matters as it relates to Grenada and the US, and were given the opportunity to ask the two diplomats questions pertaining to their job and field of foreign affairs in general. After all was said and done, we all shook hands and agreed to meet again.

I asked Mr. Frahm for his business card or contact information, as opportunities to meet prominent individuals such as himself and Ms. Griesmer really don’t come all that often. After receiving his card, I asked Ms. Griesmer for hers, of which she did not have. So she wrote down her information on the back of the business card Mr. Frahm gave me. While she did this, she asked me about my background, how I came to join the Peace Corps, and what I plan on doing after my service. When I told her I just graduated with a degree in Professional Writing from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, she nodded in acknowledgement.

“Wait,” I paused, “You know about Capital?”

“Sure I do,” she laughed. “I’m from Ohio; Cleveland, actually.”

“No way!” I smiled. “Me too! Where from in Cleveland?”

“Cleveland Heights, by Forrest Hills Park.”

“That’s crazy! I’m from Richmond Heights!”

The world just got small, but it was about to get smaller. Not only did she grow up about five minutes from where I did (I played baseball and worked at the very same Forrest Hills Park growing up), but also attended Beaumont High School. I knew many students who attended Beaumont, an all-girls Catholic high school on the East side of Cleveland. But her brother attended St. Ignatius High School, an all-boys Catholic high school in Cleveland and my alma mater. What a small, small world we live in. I mean really, what are the odds? To think, I had neglected to mention where I was from and if I hadn’t asked Ms. Griesmer for her business card, this conversation never would have happened.

The next morning was Independence Day, which meant no school. It was an opportunity to sleep in, and I took advantage by not getting out of bed until 9:00 a.m. After a quick breakfast, I threw on my newly-purchased Grenada flag t-shirt and walked up the road to my host family’s house. Out of breath hiking up the steep drive to their house, I waved to my host mother, Donna, who was waiting on the veranda balcony for me. We had arranged a few days prior for her to show me how to make oil down, Grenada’s national dish.

It was my first time in that home, my first in Grenada, in a couple months. After a pleasant greeting and hug, I placed my bag on a chair and joined Donna in the kitchen. She already had pig tail boiling in a pot of water, the first step to making a proper oil down. While catching up on the happenings in our lives since the last we’ve seen each other, she walked me through the steps to make oil down. An avid cook, her experience was on display as she effortlessly cut the coconut out of its shell. She let me try, handing me the knife and the open-faced coconut. Careful not to cut myself and moving painstakingly slow, she laughed as I chipped away at it, popping pieces of the coconut from the shell. She explained to me that her daughter has gone back to school in Oklahoma, a place she appreciates for its quietness. She throws the contents of the coconut into a blender, but not until after showing me the proper way to grate it, as they would in the old days. She peeled the breadfruit and cut out its core. I asked her if it’s possible to find all the necessary ingredients to make oil down in the States. She said it’s possible, but you can only find breadfruit in New York as far she knew. Pulling out the callaloo, she rinsed it and threw it into the pot along with the blended coconut, breadfruit, saffron powder, chicken wings, back, and neck. She explains her homemade seasoning that she makes from scratch, which she used with the chicken for this oil down. A small, black bird flutters into the kitchen and lands on the table. She waves it away as I laugh. Due to the broad width of the open windows, birds frequently fly into the house, much to her chagrin. Reaching into the cupboard, she pulls out flour and salt, kneading it and rolling it together into the long shape of dumplings.

“We’ll use a lot of dumplings,” she says. “Everyone loves dumplings.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Adding the dumplings to the pot, she threw in another layer of callaloo, onions, sweet peppers, carrots, and green figs (bananas). She turned up the heat under the pot.

“Why don’t you turn on the television and rest a little bit,” she tells me. “It’ll be some time now until it’s ready.”

Walking into their sitting area, I flipped on the television to find a movie just beginning to start. I didn’t recognize it, but it caught my attention as one of the lead roles was Jeff Bridges (cue my love for his role as ‘The Dude” in The Big Lebowski). I sat down and was immediately dialed into the movie, a story about a handful of young, teenage boys joining a school on a small sailing ship through the Caribbean.

My host father, Dakka, and host brother, Dexter, entered the room. Hot and sweaty from a morning working the land on their property up in Maran, they cleaned up before joining me on the couch to watch the movie. Dakka, an avid movie enthusiast (particularly the American Westerns), explained to me the true backstory of the movie White Squall. Much of the movie, in fact, was shot in St. George’s as the Albatross and its crew of schoolboys spend a significant amount of time in Grenada throughout the story. He beamed with pride as he pointed out the different buildings and features of Grenada he was able to identify in the background. Even the Piton Mountains of St. Lucia, one of which I hiked during my time there, was featured in passing.

I caught up with my host brother, the member of the family that played the most pivotal role in my early days of integrating into Gouyave. A welder, his work has slowed down as boating season is now in full gear (as opposed to the heavy workload he carries from October-December to prepare and repair boats for the upcoming season). He’s happy to have more time at home to spend time with his daughter, Denae, who is just about two years old now. Walking around freely in her Pampers and a tiny tank-top, she manages to utter, “Cot,” an attempt at saying my name. As it turns out, she hasn’t forgotten me after all this time. I suppose all the times my host father repeated my name to her in an attempt to get her to say it had finally paid off. As per usual, she would grab random items in the room and hand them to me. Whether it was the television remote, a juice box, or one of her toys, she was always generous to me in this regard. I was sorry that I didn’t bring my flip-flops, as she would always steal those and try to walk in them with her tiny feet.

After a short while, the oil down was ready. My host mother fixed me a dish, along with one for Dexter and one for herself. We sat on the balcony, with a view that overlooks Gouyave, while we ate. A filling and sustainable meal for any point in the day, the oil down was as good as ever. I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle making it on my own, but at least now I’ll have something to work from with the notes I took. Despite the meal in front of us, however, we all kept a watchful eye on the television. The movie was just getting good, and we took turns guessing what would happen next.

When the meal was finished, I cleaned the dish and returned to my spot on the couch. I was just hooked on this movie. I suppose it was because I could see myself in the boys on the ship. They were young, inexperienced, and learning not only about sailing, but about life as a whole while they journeyed throughout the Caribbean. I’ll spare the ending for those who have seen it already. If you haven’t, I certainly recommend it. It was the first movie I had seen start-to-finish in quite some time, and it didn’t disappoint. I was left thinking about it the rest of the day, a mark of a quality film if you ask me.

When the movie ended, I thanked Donna, Dakka, and Dexter for such a pleasant morning and made my way down the road to school. It was time to head to the National Stadium for the ceremonial military parade. I arrived at the school where a handful of students and teachers were waiting for the buses to take us down. While waiting, I checked with my principal if I could use the washroom in his office, as the staff room was locked. He nodded and I took the opportunity to use the commode. As I was washing my hands, however, I heard the thud of two heavy locks turning. My eyes got big in my reflection in the mirror. Yep, I was locked inside my principal’s office. Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up.

I wasn’t concerned, however, as 1) I had packed a sandwich and orange in my bag so was inadvertently prepared for an overnight and 2) I doubt they would leave without noticing they were missing the only white guy. I opened the shutter window and stuck my arm out, waving and calling out to the bus driver who had just arrived. He had a puzzled look on his face, one which I wish you could see. Put yourself in his shoes for a moment, for he just arrived to simply take students and teachers to the National Stadium, and here’s an arm of a white guy waving to him outside an otherwise closed office window.

He got my message though, laughing when I told him I was locked in. My principal then came to unlock the door and let me out, as we laughed heartily about the whole ordeal that resulted from a minor miscommunication.

We climbed into the buses and made our way to the National Stadium. The ceremony started as the various branches of military and police came marching out in their sharp, pristine uniforms. A unit that was evidently their own military band marched along with them. The ceremony that ensued was very formally and professionally done. The Prime Minister and Governor General of Grenada were welcomed with a thundering applause as the crowd of red, yellow, and green waved their mini-flags vigorously. After the ceremonial marches around the stadium field by each unit, the Prime Minister of Grenada, The Right Honorable Dr. Kieth Mitchell, gave a short speech acknowledging the importance of recognizing and celebrating Grenada’s Independence. Rain had come and gone, as the mountains in the backdrop beyond the stadium disappeared and reappeared with the passing clouds. When the parade was finished and the politicians were escorted out, a crew began preparing the stage for a concert that was going to take place soon thereafter. I considered staying, but after a lengthy ceremony, I admit I was ready to head back home.

It was a good decision, ultimately, as the rain came back in torrential downpours as we waited outside the stadium for the buses to pick us up. The other students and teachers huddled under their umbrellas. I just raised my backpack over my head, doing the little I could to stay dry and accepting my rain-soaked fate. When the buses arrived, I piled in with the rest of the students and teachers and was on my home. My weight shifting with every bend and turn, I rested my head on the seat back behind me and closed my eyes.

Instead of seeing the black darkness of the back of my eyelids, all I could envision was the flowing rush of red, yellow, and green from the past two days. It was a busy two days, after all. They were filled with celebrations, parades, cultural performances, meeting diplomats, cooking oil down, and ceremonial marches.

Not quite your 4th of July cookout or firework display, but I enjoyed it all the same. Independence is a tremendous thing to celebrate, no matter where you are or how you do it. I was happy to be a part of it.

Happy Independence Day, Grenada.

Cheers!

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4 thoughts on “From the Stars and Stripes to the Isle of Spice; Independence Day in Grenada

  1. What a kaleidoscopeof colors your students were in that Independence Parade! Sounds as if this was a vibrant, life-affirming experience for all of them. . .yourself included! I loved the little aside about the young girl tugging on your arm to hold your hand! I guess that was your little Valentine’s Day gift for this year! Take care!

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  2. Scott another enjoyable blog! Thank you so much for including me/us on your experiences. Truly enjoy reading these! From your 2nd grader who has found a friend to getting locked in the restroom! Haha! I really look forward to your life in Grenada! The pictures are great, it really completes the story! And yes it is amazing how small this world can be! Such a coincidence! Take care! Love ya! Aunt Maureen

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