Off the Beaten Path

Underneath my feet was a simple concrete bridge, a trickling stream running beneath it. Fallen leaves decorated its well-worn surface. To go straight from the bridge on the path before me would mean reaching the well-known and breath-taking second waterfall in Concord. But the path to the right of the bridge, hardly noticeable to the naked eye and running up steeply into the bush, allegedly would lead to the lesser-known and mysterious third Concord Waterfall.

I’ve made the trip to the second waterfall a handful of times now, which each time I’ve chronicled being as enjoyable as the first. Despite the many times I took the path ahead, however, I had yet to take the unknown path to the right. The third waterfall simply wasn’t as popular as the other two, as the path to get there is a little more challenging than the others. Contemplating the decision, a voice in my head beckoned me to go straight and take the familiar path that guarantees a familiar and enjoyable experience. But that morning, fellow PCV John Lyness and I had set out on a different mission. That morning we were to take the path to the right and delve deep into the bush in search for that mysterious third waterfall in Concord.

“All right, let’s go.”

Turning right and beginning our ascent up the hill, a fallen tree laid across the narrow path. With no way to climb over or around it, I grabbed hold of it and swung underneath to the other side. The hike had just started and it was already clear that this trip would be a challenging one. The path was overgrown and the foliage was thick, a direct result of the little foot traffic that comes through here. We wagered on, the long grass whipping my shins with each step. The rugged, green mountains looked down on us from a distance, but were quickly vanishing in the canopy of the trees as we were swallowed in by the bush. The terrain was quickly changing as flat, wide palm leaves of the banana trees began to spring up on either side of us. Masses of bamboo exploded from the ground and leaned over the path, creaking eerily as we walked by as if they were warning us with calls of caution. Outside of the occasional song of a nearby bird, the creaking of the bamboo was accompanied only by the silence of the forest.

After a short while, a new sound joined the tranquility of the bush. It was the sound of rushing water, resonating somewhere below us. Looking down the hillside to the right, various rocks protruded stubbornly through the surface of a river. The river itself, however, was only visible by brushing aside all the branches and palm leaves blocking our view. As the river appeared, the landscape around us began changing again. All the trees that surrounded us now were all bearing various fruits of guava, papaya, mangoes, and breadfruit, as well as nutmegs, cocoa, and green figs (bananas). It seemed to us now that we were walking through land being cultivated for agricultural purposes. Our suspicions later proved true, as after the path diverged down to run along the river, we soon found ourselves enveloped in a maze of banana trees. They were planted strategically, each one about five to ten feet apart from the next and stretching ten to fifteen feet high. For the farmer who planted them, the surrounding banana trees must have been organized in a grid through which he can navigate through like a native New Yorker does the streets of the Big Apple. But for us foreigners in an unfamiliar territory, it was almost as overwhelming as it was impressive. Each turn looked the same as the last, leaving us feeling like rats in a maze. But we continued on and coming around a turn, a large blue barrel suddenly appeared, as if it were dropped randomly in this maze of banana trees. Off to the right of the barrel, a stump of a banana tree stood proudly at the bank of the river. Nailed to the top of the stump was a sawed-off aluminum panel with small, white-painted lettering written on it: “Notice. Private Property. You are To visit Fall Free.”

That was all the assurance we needed. So far, so good.

From then on the path began to come to life. A small blur catches the corner of my eye. It’s a hummingbird, fluttering in the air as it fills its belly with nectar from the bell of a bright, orange flower. A leaf rustles in the knee-high brush. Pausing and peering through the leaves, a small lizard jumps from a leaf and onto the trunk of a tree, blending in effortlessly with its surroundings. A twig snaps behind me and glancing back, two manicous (possums) dash across the path behind us before disappearing in the forest. The beautiful shrubs of the path began taking other colors: broad, spade-shaped leaves colored purple in the center and bordered by green; stalks of bright yellow leaves with green patterns protruded from tree trunks; vibrant, red heliconias jut out above the river, beckoning the hummingbirds to visit their claw-shaped bells. All these colorful flowers danced in the breeze, swaying in the sea of green forest that we were trekking through.

Climbing down to the river, I leaped onto one rock and then to another. Dancing across to the center of the river, the water was rushing past on either side of me. Looking ahead, the rocks and boulders were cluttered in the river, disrupting its otherwise steady flow. Banana trees ran along either side of the river, waving me down the luscious green tunnel it formed over the river. The water of the river was as dark as it was transparent, a wondrous oxymoron of the soft, muddy floor beneath the surface of the clear, fresh-water of the river.

Jumping back onto the path, we were once again engulfed in the foliage. The slim, downtrodden path we had been following was once again disappearing. Thoughts of indecision began creeping in and were soon followed by doubt:

“Does the path go this way? Or that way?”

“Could we have we reached the waterfall yet and not realized it?”

“How much farther do we have to go?”

“Are we still even on the right path?”

The questions raced through my mind.

We returned to the river, standing on its edge while evaluating our surroundings and questioning our next move.

Then with a subtle movement of a leaf and a dark speck flying past my eye, a sharp pain shoots into my neck. Swatting at my neck and wincing in pain, it felt as if someone had plunged a hot needle into the back of my neck.

To put it lightly, my language was probably as colorful as the scenery around me as I was stung by my first Grenadian bee.

Now the doubt was being overtaken by frustration, “How have we not reached it yet?”

The sharp pain soon subsided, but the stiffness in my neck remained as we made our decision and continued on. The path was completely overgrown now, identifiable only by pushing the broad, waist-high leaves away and walking along the down-trodden ground beneath them. The banana trees still stood high all around us, shooting out from a mass of green and purple dasheen leaves.

Suddenly, there came a new sound. That oh, so glorious sound.

The subtle rushing of the river was being drowned out by the overpowering strength of a twenty-foot high waterfall, its water cascading down a rock-side in the distance. Brushing the leaves aside and peering through the gaps in the trees, the waterfall was just barely visible through the foliage up ahead.

A new-found energy shot through my veins as we hustled the rest of the way to the waterfall. Upon reaching it, this waterfall was entirely unique to its own. Unlike the other two Concord waterfalls, this one was tucked into a concave of a hillside. The waterfall itself stampeded down the rockside, jumping off the rocks and into the spring only at the last moment. The forest all around it seemed as though it were trying to suppress the falls, surrounding it on all sides. But the impeding threat was to no avail, as the waterfall was just too strong to be suppressed. The water in the spring itself was murky and stagnant, not nearly as inviting as the other two falls. There wasn’t enough room to swim or bathe in it, either, as logs were covering and protruding from the center of the spring. Mosquitoes swarmed the air above the water’s surface, prompting us to spray ourselves in repellent in order to avoid the Dengue Fever outbreak recently declared by Grenada’s Ministry of Health.

Sighing deeply, we finally had found what we were looking for.

Then like a flip of a switch, rain down-poured from the heavens above us. It came so suddenly, so heavily, there was simply nothing we could do about it. None of the trees in our immediate area had a canopy broad enough to take shelter under. So there we were, standing in the downpour of the tropical forest, laughing as we welcomed the cold rain with outstretched arms. The rain was falling visibly through the fog that accompanied it, peppering the surface of the water and splattering on the broad leaves of the trees.

The moment the rain came was as liberating as it was surreal. An uplifting reward at the end of a long,  uncertain, and arduous journey. But just as suddenly as the rain-shower came, it was gone.

The forest again fell quiet, outside of the waterfall’s raging waters. Droplets trickled off the leaves and fell to the ground. After taking in all that we could of our natural surroundings for a few moments, it was time to begin the long trek back. Delicately trekking through the muddy ground of the rain-soaked path, we brushed through the sea of broad, open leaves, knocking loose the rain that pooled in its crevices.

Delving back into the bush, I took one last look over my shoulder. The waterfall continued raging on, barely visible in the gaps of the trees. Taking it in for the final time, I etched the image into my memory. We accomplished our goal of finding the third waterfall and now that our journey had come to end, it was time to go home.

I turned around and didn’t look back.

 * * *

This hike to the third waterfall happened about a month ago. When it came time to tell the story of this journey, admittedly I was left a little puzzled. I started my first draft, but soon became side-tracked, not convinced as to what needed to be done before I was ready to share my experience. After all, there was something unique about this hike that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It had its challenges that at times enabled thoughts of doubt to creep into the back of my mind. However, the accomplishment of reaching our destination had made it an incredibly rewarding experience.

My trip to the third Concord waterfall was a humble reminder that sometimes the most beautiful destinations come at the end of an arduous journey. Due to the challenges and length of time it took to find it, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to return to it again. But the memory of the moment that waterfall came into view, compounded by the glorious, sudden rain shower is something I will cherish forever. A moment of pure bliss at the end of an strenuous campaign, it was an extraordinary reward for the challenges of doubt, indecision, disorientation, and pain endured by going off the beaten path in search of something new.

To put it plainly: this hike was strangely reminiscent of the past year of my life.

Last week, I completed my first school year at St. Peter’s RC and much like this hike, it wasn’t at all easy. I started the school year, as I did with this hike, with a destination in mind but not fully knowing how I was going to get there. I had never taught in a classroom before, as I had never hiked the trail to the third waterfall before. In both circumstances I was venturing into new and unchartered territory.

There were numerous ups and downs, highs and lows along the way. There were times of uncertainty, doubt, and frustration. However, in both circumstances, I made it to my destination(s): the third Concord Waterfall and the completion of my first year of Peace Corps service.

But not only did I reach my destinations, I came across an extraordinary reward at the end of each of them. The first one, the sudden downpour at a remote waterfall in the depths of a tropical rainforest, was a joy to experience and made the challenges and doubts along the way seem trivial.

At my other, more recent destination, the completion of my first year of Peace Corps service, I came across an even more extraordinary reward.

Over the course of this past year, I was co-teaching in the third grade classroom at St. Peter’s RC in the town of Gouyave in St. John’s, Grenada. At the beginning of the year, I identified fourteen students of my students who were reading below grade level. I worked with these identified students in “pull-out tutoring” sessions throughout the year in an attempt to increase their reading skills. Upon reviewing the results, I found that out of the fourteen students, eleven of them improved by at least one reading level. Some of them even jumped as many as two and even three reading levels over the course of the year. Four of the students, in fact, are now reading at grade level.

Along the way there were times of uncertainty, frustration, and doubt. But now that I’ve completed my first year of Peace Corps service, all those challenges seem trivial. Due to the results my students attained, I can hold my head high. Am I disappointed that three of the fourteen students scored at the same level at the start to the end of the year? Yes. However, keeping in mind that there are eleven other students who made significant strides in their reading skills is rewarding in and of itself. I would have been ecstatic to just have one student’s score improve. For just one improved score would show me that my presence had made a difference, that I had a positive influence on a student’s life. One improved score would have proven to me that sacrificing everything I had ever known at home to start a new life in a foreign country, was worth it. One improved score would absolve the moments uncertainty, frustration, doubt, and homesickness that proved to be significant challenges for me along the way. Thankfully, I not only saw one improved score, I saw eleven. Furthermore, those were just the improvements seen on paper, as I had the privilege witnessing each and every one of them improve in one capacity or another. For that, I am grateful.

When I began this journey a year ago, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. That being said, part of the reason I chose to serve with the Peace Corps was because of a desire to do something different. There was an appeal of delving into the unknown, going “off the beaten path,” so to speak. This past year lived up to my expectations, exceeded them, and fell short of them as well. There were times when the challenges were overwhelming, when thoughts of doubt made it hard to keep moving forward. Nevertheless, I had a destination in mind, one I had no choice but to reach.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t trade the experience of this past year, with all its incredible highs and even its daunting lows, for the world.

Yet at the end of the day, I feel I am still having a hard time expressing what this past year’s experience has meant to me. So to help convey what this past experience has been like and how I feel having officially reached the one-year mark, I would like to share with you a poem. This poem, written by Bernadette Langer, preciselyreflects my experience, both with the hike and with my first year of Peace Corps service and what each has meant to me:

The Beaten Path 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

as I ever so quietly stood.

Excitedly pondering which choice to make,

but tempered by the fear of making a mistake.

For what if the choice made was wrong,

would I regret for my whole life long?

Would I ever truly be happy not knowing,

or would doubt always be silently growing?

Like a vine creeping through my mind,

laced with questions that would intertwine.

For the road not taken may be the best

and the one chosen, leading to further quest.

Looking down upon the very black ground,

on one road so many tracks did abound.

The other was covered in emerald green,

as if no traffic had it ever seen.

My mind raced and my heart did leap,

breaking its slow and steady beat.

For now the choice seemed oh so clear,

as slowly drained away all my fear.

I needed to walk the road less traveled by,

to enjoy the sights never before seen with eye.

To break away from the beaten path where most live,

exploring all the possibilities that life has to give.

And if a mistake I find I do make,

at least I made it for my own sake.

For I will have followed my waiting dreams,

and that’s what it’s all about it seems.

For choice is what makes freedom so immense,

it’s in those choices where life is most intense.

Cheers!

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One thought on “Off the Beaten Path

  1. The road less traveled has led you on an amazing journey.
    People,places,experiences,lows,highs all that you have done will
    only enhance the future before you.
    ❤️ Aunt Betsy

    Like

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