You’re sitting in your living room and all the lights are out. A storm is raging in the night outside. Rain is pounding heavily on the roof while on the window pane, droplets nonchalantly race down the glass. The trees are swaying, surrendering to the storm’s strong gusts of wind. A crack of lightning brightens the room momentarily, followed by a distant rumbling of thunder. The storm has knocked the power out in the area. Candles you’ve lit flicker ominously around the room. All is silent, besides the angry storm that is. When a storm of this nature rages through, knocking out all the power on every block in its path, sometimes there isn’t a whole lot you can do.
Getting up from the sofa you’ve been sitting in, you walk over to a dusty, old cabinet in the corner of the room. You grab the handle, opening the door gently. A series of photo albums lay askew inside, stowed away safely in various-colored binders. In the corner of the cabinet, next to all the binders, is a gray stereo. It’s tall, but slim. You reach in and grab it by the handle that runs across the top. Pulling out the stereo, you sink back into your spot on the sofa.
The stereo now sits on the coffee table in front of you. Its speakers, two round black discs, look back at you like beady, expectant eyes. A small, square compartment sits between the speakers; it’s a cassette player. You punch a button and it pops open. Finding a cassette and slipping it inside, the door snaps shut. Back in these days, when the power was out and a storm was raging, sometimes a battery-powered stereo was all you needed to pass the time.
In front of you, along the top of the stereo, are a series of buttons each with its own symbol.
The sideways triangle is the Play button.
Two sideways triangles pointing to the right is Skip.
Two sideways triangles pointing the left, Rewind.
Two vertical lines mean Pause.
The block square means Stop.
You sit back, contemplating if what you’re doing to pass the time is in your best interest, mentally. But what other way could you?
So as another rumble of thunder echoes from the heavens. You punch the button that says Play…
* * *
It’s a quiet Caribbean night. The thunder is gone, having been replaced by the resonating murmur of the crickets as they begin to wake from their diurnal slumber to sing their nighttime choruses. The lightning has been replaced by the humming industrial park lights above you. Instead of sitting on your sofa, you’re on a white, wooden bench. You’re on a basketball court; one with wooden backboards, black iron rims, freshly painted lines, and cracks in the surface of the concrete.
You’ve joined a basketball team for the island-wide knockout tournament in your community. You pull out a pair of basketball shoes, already worn-down in just three months’ time. They were brand new when you brought them back with you from the States just a few months prior. But the nightly practices for the past month have put a number on them, as holes have opened up underneath each big toe, nearly exposing them entirely. You laugh with your teammates about it, poking your finger through the holes. Your shoes are just another victim of the concrete court, notorious for “eating shoes.”
But your shoes weren’t the only ones banged up. You glance down at the abrasion on your right knee that hasn’t quite healed yet, having skinned it in a fall during practice a few weeks ago. Getting up from the bench, you run through a simple routine of calisthenics, just something to begin to get the body loose before the team stretches together. You place your hands on a concrete wall, rotating your right ankle in various patterns. In another practice two weeks’ prior, you re-aggravated an old injury when you sprained it contesting for a rebound, coming down on another player’s foot. You ignored it when it happened and played on, your pride getting the best of you. Due to that, you had to return to an old-school remedy of icing and small exercises. You even threw in a taste of the new-school: drinking a glass of water with a teaspoon of turmeric powder to ease the inflammation (a local remedy). A soft, worn-down Ace brace now supports it underneath your black, mid-calf sock. Realistically, the brace probably doesn’t help much, but you figure it’s better than nothing.
You jog out to join your other teammates shooting at the far end of the court. Various members of the community have begun to trickle in. Some set up chairs outside the fencing, others take their seats on a fallen telephone pole. A couple stray dogs run to and from the field behind the court.
Looking to your right, you notice the silhouette of a palm tree peering over the concrete wall. Behind its leaves, however, it looked as if God had spilled buckets of pink, purple, and orange paint across the sky. It was nothing short of majestic.
As time went on the night took over, laying a thick black blanket across the sky. We began a series of team warm-ups, complete with lay-ups and shooting drills. You size up the competition on the other side of the court, butterflies fluttering in your stomach. This was to be your first competitive basketball game in years. Your heart begins racing with adrenaline, pumping alongside the soca music now blasting from the DJ’s tent. A whistle blows, signaling us to return to our benches. It was time to start.
You’re on the right wing of the court. Byron, the point guard, dribbles the ball past the half-court line and into the teeth of a pressing defense. He flips the ball over the top to Kitty, our tall and lanky center, who gathered himself at the high post of the key. The defense collapses fast on him. Seeing an opening on the block, you dart toward the basket and connect eyes with him, as he’s immediately swarmed. He dishes the ball right into your hands. Everything seemed to freeze, as you were wide open on the block with the ball in hand. You put the ball off the backboard and it falls in for an easy two points.
We’re back on defense now. Due to an injury to one of your teammates, you’ve moved from the top of the 2-3 zone defense to the bottom right block. The man in your zone is twice your size. It was no secret that you were at a mismatch here. But you’re up to the challenge. Their point guard lofts the ball up across the zone toward the basket in a half-shot, half-pass manner. You hold your breath, realizing your man is reaching for glory at the end of an alley-oop pass and you were to be the poster child of that dunk. You jump in to contest it and he fumbles with the high pass, coming down with the ball. When he gathers himself, he’s beside the basket. He knows you’re behind him, but jumps to put in a lay-up, boldly thinking you didn’t really have a chance at blocking him anyway.
What he didn’t know, however, was your entire youth was spent playing basketball in the paint. In that time, you’ve learned a thing or two about blocking shots. Back then you were bigger than everyone else so it was easy, but now you’ve learned different strategies to make up for the height you now lack. The ball comes up over his head and you time your jump with him, slapping your left hand hard on the ball. It pins on the backboard and you remain airborne, as if lifted with the shot (given your size and having what’s called “white boy hops,” you’re still figuring out how that happened). The ball bounces off the board and falls back into the hands of the shooter, as you both land on the ground. A thrill rushes through you as the crowd reacts to the unexpected white-boy’s block. He gathers himself and jumps again, determined to put the ball in the hoop this time. You jump again to contest, excited with the last block and determined to embarrass him again. This time, however, instead of blocking the ball, you got his elbow and a whistle blows.
You slap your hands together in frustration at the missed opportunity for a second block, as instead you were called for a foul. But then one of your teammates comes up, bumping into your chest.
“Nice block, King!”
“Good trouble!” Another says, reaching out for a high-five.
You find consolation in that, being reminded of the first block before the foul. After all, it’s not every day a white boy gets a block against the backboard on this court.
By the final buzzer, you and your teammates were run to exhaustion, coated in glistening sweat. Despite the loss, you guys walked out with your heads held high. It was a hard-fought game, but unfortunately the other team came away with it in the end.
You had picked up a couple more scrapes and bruises in the game. You’re reminded that diving for a loose ball isn’t exactly a good idea on a concrete court, particularly when a 6″4′ beast of a man is going for it too and you’re bounced off of him like a pinball. But the ‘battle scars’ don’t matter much to you. You were just happy to have experienced playing in a competitive basketball game again.
At this point in your service, joining this team was one of the best decisions you made. The practices got you out of the house and exercising regularly. You returned to the suicide runs, shooting and ball-handling drills, and full-court scrimmages. You were re-acquainted with the frustration of seemingly having no free time, having to give up your time and energy every night to practice. Your commitment to the team changed how you spent your spare time, at that. Therefore, you were making better decisions about taking care of yourself and your body. You began making a more conscious effort to cook and eat better.
But like the end of every season, all good things must come to an end.
You’re standing in a clearing on the top of a hill. The ground is covered in dead grass and fallen leaves. Two large wooden poles protrude from each corner of the clearing. The poles are the only remnants left of the fort that used to stand on the top of this hill, overlooking the town of Gouyave. The cannon that used to be posted here you’re told now sits inside the secondary school down the hill. Past the green foliage surrounding the summit, music echoes from the town. It’s Easter Sunday and celebrations are taking place across Gouyave.
Your two host brothers take turns throwing small kites into the air, trying to catch a passing breeze. Their children, two girls and a boy between them, run around aimlessly as their wives sit and watch. It’s a picture-perfect family scene.
There’s a serenity to it all. An overcast sky of bluish-gray clouds float above the sea in the distance. The setting sun casts an orange glow beneath them. The Sea was calm yet pale, matching the placid sky. The air was still, outside of the distant music that is. The children giggled as they ran in circles until my host brothers, finally having raised a kite up, gathered them in to fly it.
It’s moments like these you’re grateful to have a host family with whom to spend a holiday. Being in a strong family environment helps ease the feeling that comes from the constant reminder that you’re over 2,000 miles away from yours. Seeing your host brothers interact with their wives and kids makes you envision a similar life of your own in the future. A life in which the holidays are once again spent with the people you love most.
It’s Easter Monday. Due to the holiday, buses aren’t running. This means the last sliver of hope you had in catching the ferry to Carriacou with some other Volunteers just went out the window.
So you go up the road a-ways to the house of some guys you’ve gotten to know. They have a PlayStation, one in which you can play NBA 2k17. Let’s be honest here, playing 2k was not something you think you’d be able to do when you signed up for the Peace Corps. But you spend a hot afternoon sitting on a couch, sweating in the stifling heat and taking turns playing the game. They make up a pot of mannish waters, a local soup containing various parts of goat cooked with herbs, spices, and vegetables. They hand you a serving. It’s not exactly appealing, but you dig in anyway. At this point, you’ve become accustomed to eating things in which you’re better off not knowing what it is until after you ate it. When you finish, they tease you for hardly touching the best parts (the goat, that is). You laugh, shrugging to acknowledge the fact that at least you tried.
You go with them down into The Lance, the part of Gouyave across the river. You step over a construction rope and cross the new bridge that is currently being built over the river. The structure and foundation have already been built, as all that needs to be done now is the surface of the pavement.
The road in The Lance spills out before you as you come off the bridge. Small, colored homes are intermingled among the shops and bars on either side of the road. Various people sit on the street corners, verandas, and shop stoops. A white tent is set up on the corner of a junction. Music booms from the stacked speakers, shaking not only the ground below your feet, but your ear drums as well. A group of girls stand in a circle on the corner of the junction, taking turns dancing in front of and with each other. A drunk man stumbles back and forth, dancing in the middle of the street. He’s swaying and twirling with the music while somehow managing to avoid the occasional passing vehicle (or was it the other way around?). Other patrons are set up around the tent, standing on the side of the road, or sitting on empty crates with beers in hand. It’s holiday time in the Caribbean.
* * *
Snapping back into the present, you sit back, sinking into your sofa. Your chest rises and falls with a heaving sigh. The rain is still falling and the power is still out. The thought of where this storm came from or how it came to be puzzles you. It was as if it came out of nowhere just to knock out the lights and leave you in the dark. You’re not sure what to do, or even can do. You go back to trying to pass the time, turning back to the stereo…
* * *
You’re riding in the back right corner of a bus, weaving up and down the hills outside of Grenville. The seats next to you have emptied out. You’re relieved because of this, as this means no one will have to move so you can climb out at your stop. You keep one eye out the window, looking for any familiar marker but still not sure if you’ll know it to see it. The conductor, a young man with a flat-brimmed Miami Heat hat cocked to the side, turns around and gives you a look as if to say, “Where you going?”
“The school junction,” you say to him confidently.
He looks to the woman beside him, puzzled. She shrugs, not knowing what I mean by that, either.
“By the school,” you explain. “St. Mary’s RC.”
“Oh, we pass already,” he nods, finally understanding. “We drop you back.”
“That’s fine,” you shrug passively, conceding to the fact that you missed your stop.
After dropping, you walk down the road to PCV Katelyn’s house. A cool breeze blows past, providing the natural air conditioning that comes with living in the mountains. Houses line either side of the road, giving it a suburban community-type of feeling. The air is quiet and tranquil. The green mountains loom in the distance. When you arrive at her home, Katelyn gets up from her veranda to greet you.
“So…I went all the way to Paraclete,” you smile slyly, explaining why it took you so long to get there.
“I figured you did,” she laughs.
The rest of the day and night was spent in the company of friends, both PCV and local, that passed through to give Katelyn’s mother, who had been visiting for the holiday, a proper Grenadian send-off.
You’re wading into the refreshingly cool and transparent waters of Grand Anse Beach. Soft waves roll past, crashing behind you onto the shore. Off to your right, the lush green coast is speckled with vibrantly colored houses leading the way to the town of St. George’s. Mountains rise up behind the town, looking over the capital city like a big brother in the schoolyard. A blue haze seems to hover over the mountains, a humble reminder of the jaw-dropping beauty that this tropical island has.
You dive under the surface. The cool water soothes your body, hot from the sweltering sun. You turn your shoulders as you come up to the surface and begin floating on your back. Then letting your feet fall to the ground, you look back at the shore in front of you. Resorts line the coast as vacationers are passed out on beach chairs with books in their laps. Palm trees run along the coast behind the beachhead. You turn around, taking in the vast, empty expanse of the turquoise waters before you.
It’s a picturesque panoramic view, like a calendar photo you would find in the month of July. People dream all their lives of visiting places like this and here you are, living that dream. You should be relishing in this moment, in this environment. But something is off. You don’t quite feel like yourself, haven’t really for the past couple of days come to think of it. It doesn’t feel right, like something is missing…
You’re back at the basketball court in Gouyave. Only this time instead of being on the inside playing, you’re on the outside watching. You stand on the hillside along many of the friends you’ve made in the past year.
Wait, did you just say past year? Yeah, it’s almost been that long. You’re still trying to wrap your head around reaching your 11th month of service.
To your right is the guys you went out with the other night in The Lance, then there’s Mansa, after him is your neighbor Roseanne and one of your students. To your left is some of the guys from your own basketball team, guys you can now call friends. It seems everyone in the community has come out to watch The Sparklers (Gouyave’s primary basketball team and traditionally the best team on the island, who we scrimmaged many times to prepare for the tournament) as they play in their semi-final match.
You’re lying in bed with a pit in your stomach, staring at a framed photograph. It was given to you as a gift by a close friend from home. In it, a dozen graduates dressed in black cap and gowns smile broadly arm-in-arm. They had just reached the pinnacle of their undergraduate studies at Capital University. Four years ago they were complete strangers. But now, they were practically family. Your very own, “Capfam.” It’s hard to believe that at this time last year, you all lived across the street from each other.
Just the week prior, someone had asked you what item you were the most grateful to have brought down with you. They probably anticipated an answer of something practical like a tablet, adapter, or computer.
Nope, none of the above.
It was this photo, along with another one of your family that you brought down, that gives you comfort when you’re down. They are the gentle reminder of the people you left behind and the support and love they provide you on a daily basis. It may not come regularly in verbal or written form, but that’s no matter, you can still feel it. There’s solace in knowing one day you’ll return to them.
Sometimes, however, that’s what makes being here all the more difficult. Periodically, the homesickness becomes almost unbearable, to the point you find yourself sitting alone in your room, crying as you stare at a photograph. It’s times like these you realize how long two years really is. You wipe away a tear. Sometimes, you just want your service to be over.
It’s the first day back at school. You’re not as prepared as you should be, so you’re standing behind your desk desperately digging through your box of school supplies. You feel a presence that someone has just entered the stage area where you conduct your pull-out sessions. You look up to find a student of yours cautiously peering in.
The student, who we’ll call “K,” is a 14-year-old seventh grader at the school. At the start of the previous term, you were asked by your principal to include him in your tutoring schedule. Upon initial assessment, he could identify only six letters in the alphabet. Over the course of the last term you’ve worked your way down the alphabet with him, building vocabulary and reading CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words along the way.
“Afternoon, sir. We going to work today?” He asks you, eyes fixed on the floor.
“Uhmm,” you hesitate.
Your priority at school is your third graders. You usually work with K on Thursday afternoons, as that’s when your third-graders have Physical Education. But you have his lessons already planned out through the rest of the alphabet. His attendance isn’t regular, either, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get with him. You already admitted you weren’t prepared to pull-out any of your third-graders today, so you decide to run with it.
“Actually, yeah. Go ahead and take a seat right there” you respond.
You sit down and get to work. He was doing well the past couple times you worked with him. You decide to push the pace and tackle four letters today: M, N, O, and P. After a quick review of the letter shapes and sounds. You move to the chalkboard, where all the real learning happens.
“You remember your alphabet, right?” I say, as he nods (As it turns out, K was always able to recite the alphabet verbally, but lacks letter recognition).
“Good. Then put it on the board like you’ve done before, up to the letter P this time,” you toss him a piece of chalk, which he catches.
He gets to work writing his capital and common letters on the board. He makes it to Ff when he pauses and says, “Sir, I forget.”
“Nope,” you respond cheerfully but curtly, “You’re not allowed. Saying ‘I forget’ means you’re giving up. How about you think of a question to ask me so I can help you.”
Together we work out how to draw a proper Gg.
We sit in our respective chairs, staring at the CVC words you scrawled on the chalkboard as he forcibly sounds them out. You encourage him to take his time, reminding him that there is no rush or outside pressure. Occasionally, he scans the alphabet across the top of the board, reciting his alphabet to decipher the name of an unfamiliar letter and try to determine its correlating sound. His decoding and fluency has gotten stronger, but he still forcibly strings the sounds of each letter together until the word finally clicks. But now he’s getting to the point where he’s reading words successfully on his second or third try.
“That’s it!” You exclaim as he reads the word map aloud. “You’re crushing this, K! And not only that, allow me to let you in on a little secret: Have you noticed some of these words have letters in them that we haven’t even covered yet?”
A look of surprise pops on his face, as he eagerly scans the alphabet and the words on the board to see if what you told him was true.
“I noticed you already knew some of these other letters, so I’ve been slipping them in there and you haven’t missed a beat. I think you’re ready for a sentence.”
“Yes, a sentence. It’s a series of words put together that says something. You want to try one?”
On the board you write: The dog bit the cat.
The was a challenge for him but you help him through it. He read dog easily, before he struggled but successfully decoded bit. He then finished repeating the before finally sounding out the word cat.
“Give me a bounce!” You laugh, reaching out for a fist bump. He returns it proudly, yet with a look of disbelief.
You write another sentence on the board. As you do this, he buries his head in his hands.
“Sir, my head is hurting,” he says.
“Your head is hurting?” You laugh. “Good! That means you’re learning. But you know how when you’re training for a sport you have to keep going even though you’re tired? Well this has to work the same way, as you’re working out your brain right now. You’ve been doing amazing so far. Let’s try two more and we’ll call it a day. Think you can handle two more?”
You write two more simple sentences on the board. They challenged him, but he overcame each word to read the sentences without any of my assistance. After the last one, he turns his head to the side, away from you.
“I want to read,” he says turning back to you and wiping a tear from his eye.
Your heart breaks. It’s the first time he’s said something like this. Tears of your own start welling up inside. You hold them back, but damn you’re proud of him.
“You know, I’m happy to hear that,” you say. “And you are reading. You read all of this without any of my help!”
The bell rings, signaling the end of the day.
“You’re doing well, K. Keep it up. But if you want to read, it’s important that you be at school every day. Last term there were days where I could have met with you, but you weren’t here. If you want to continue making progress, you need to make sure you’re here. Especially on Thursdays, as that’s when I have the whole afternoon reserved just for you.”
He agrees. You hope he follows through on his word, as attendance was still a problem last term.
“Nice work today, K.”
“Thanks,” he replies as he gets up from his chair, turning to leave the room.
He stops and looks back at you. “I’m proud of you, K.”
A smirk creeps across his face. Putting his head back down, he turns and walks out of the door.
* * *
You sit up, not sure exactly what just happened. You wipe a tear from your eye. Standing up to look outside, you find that the storm has passed. Just then various beeps ring through the house as it comes back to life, the power returning.
* * *
For the past two weeks, I have been on break for the Easter holiday. It was an eventful two weeks, in which I once again removed myself from this blog in order to just try and experience what I could. The last break from school I had was a four-week break at Christmastime, in which I spent traveling across three countries and reuniting with family and friends, new and old. This one was a little bit different.
Due to obligations, I had to remain in my community for most of it, which I’m happy to have done. However, I did jump at the first opportunity to escape and do anything that remotely felt like a vacation. I took my own personal tour of Grenada, visiting the other Volunteers and seeing their communities. I re-visited some of my favorite spots around the island. However, over the course of those two weeks, something just felt off.
It felt like something was missing. It’s something you can mindlessly pass over when caught up in the day-to-day obligations of the work week. I felt like I should be enjoying all of my free time, but the something that was missing just kept pressing itself in the back of my mind. I tried distracting myself from it with the same people, places, and activities that lead me to fall in love with this country in the first place. So I continued passing the time, but the figurative storm still raged outside. I think it all came to a head on that final night, when after wiping the tears from my eyes, I was still staring at the framed photograph I brought from home.
Yep, you guessed it. That something that was missing was home. It was my friends. It was my family. It was the fact that I was not able to spend the Easter holiday with them that was weighing on my mind all this time. It just took me awhile to realize it.
So while this storm of homesickness swirled around my head I just kept pressing Skip, trying to pass the time with the stories on the figurative stereo. Honestly, deep down I think I was just trying to distract myself from acknowledging what was truly affecting me.
On the surface, everything operated as normal and I acted as such. I didn’t want anyone to know I was feeling this way. Even now, I have mixed feelings writing about my homesickness. After all, I am living on an island in the Caribbean and I know there’s many people out there that would dream of an opportunity like this. They tell me how lucky I am to experience life down here; and truly, I am. But whenever I’m told that, I can’t help but think how lucky they are to be able to spend their free time during the holidays with their friends and family at home.
I guess the old saying rings true that, “We all want what we ain’t got.”
But then it wasn’t until I was back in school last week that everything fell back into place. In working with K and seeing the advancements he’s made, I was reminded of why I’m here. I was reminded of why I’ve given up that free time and holidays with family in order to do this. Witnessing the breakthrough that K made in our first session of the new term, it made all the mixed feelings wash away. It re-motivated me and inspired me to continue doing what I can to get my students, who I have come to know and love, reading and writing. Sure, I’m over 2,000 miles away from home. Yes, I miss my friends and family immensely. But never was I as proud as the moment K was reading his first sentences.
My mother recently told me that by coming here I had put my life on hold, pressing the Pause button, so to speak. So while a passing storm of homesickness swirled around me, I kept pressing Skip in hopes of fast-forwarding to the day where I actually could go home. But now that I’m back at school, I have re-discovered why I pressed the Pause button to begin with.
Time is moving right along and I’ll be home before I know it. When I do come home, I know I will miss these days spent as a school teacher in the Caribbean. I love what I’m doing here and who I’m becoming because of it. But that’s not to say there aren’t days that I wish it were already over. I dream of the day I’ll be able hop in a car and drive home for a holiday dinner. Now, if only there were a way of having both: a love of a foreign experience with an ability to come home whenever you want.
In the meantime, I’m learning to leave the Skip button alone. After all, what’s playing is life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s a life with a lot of exhilarating highs and some pretty challenging lows.
But I guess that’s why they call Peace Corps, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”
Sometimes you need a reminder that the only button that needs pressing, is the one that says: Play.