Lost in the Bush and the Lessons Learned

While the strike continued on and off over the past few weeks, I did what I could to be productive with the time away from school. However, as what often happens when you focus on a task for too long, it’s easy to become a little restless and go a bit ‘stir-crazy,’ if you will. Last week was one of those weeks. I was accomplishing a lot of personal tasks at hand, but it came to a point where I simply had to get out of the house. I was getting restless, my routine had gotten so out of sync that I simply just didn’t feel like myself. So upon hearing of a fellow Volunteer, Stephen Verran’s, plans to hike to a waterfall I hadn’t been to before, I quickly jumped at the opportunity.  

What followed was an absolute adventure in every sense of the word. We had a general idea as to where we were going, but we were mostly delving into the Grenadian bush on a whim to see if we could find Tufton Hall Waterfall. Along the way, we got a bit turned around and, dare I say, a little ‘lost.’ That being said, I learned a few lessons along the way from my day getting lost in the bush… 

When venturing into unchartered territory, all you need is an open-mind. 

As with most hikes here, we followed a paved road up into the hills until breaking off into a footpath trail. The trail followed along the ridges of the mountains overlooking the St. Mark’s River on our right-hand side. The mountains peered down from above us and as I looked back toward the coast, the Caribbean Sea could be seen rising between the crevice of the mountains. The trail we were following, however, soon reached a point where it was no longer distinguishable. No footprints, no downtrodden paths, nothing but thick, untouched, knee-high grass. We paused often, debating between ourselves which way we ought to go. We’d try one direction, then upon reaching what seemed to be a dead-end to nowhere, turn back and try another route. This happened for the better part of the first half-hour. 

There was one particular time early on where we legitimately thought we had made a wrong turn. Trees climbed up the ridge to our left, while the high-grass we were standing in sloped sharply into a hidden ravine below. With no way up and no way down, we were beginning to think we had missed something. But just as we were ready to turn back, Stephen stepped into the heavy wall of forest ahead of us. As he did this, a footpath was discovered and we had found our way forward. 

In a situation like this, it’s easy to get frustrated or impatient. However, when venturing into unchartered territory you have to embrace the fact that things aren’t going to come easy. You have to approach it with a general goal in mind and a flexible plan on how you’re going to get there. We knew we had to follow the river up into the hills to find the waterfall. Therefore, every decision we made was to ensure that the river stayed on our right-hand side and if not in visibility, at least within earshot.

The lesson learned here is simply to take things as they are with whatever the situation is at hand. It’s important to take our time and understand we are not going to find all the answers right away. Sometimes we need to check every direction, leave no stone unturned, no branch not brushed aside, in order to find the path that we’re looking for.

 

Not everything is as it seems. 

About an hour into our hike, we were into the highlands of the bush. We continued on the course we set, keeping within earshot the rushing sound of the river. However, along the way we found ourselves at numerous ‘forks’ in the path. Whenever this happened, we always took the path to the right to stay alongside the river. But at one particular junction, the sound of running water resounded convincingly from our left. Curious, we turned our backs to the ravine and went further up into the ridge until the path vanished in the bush. We paused, crouching under the low-hanging branches and listened; the sound of the river was gone. Befuddled, we back-tracked and took the other path that we deemed would more likely follow along the river.   

Soon thereafter we found ourselves climbing up and down the hillsides of the ravine. While navigating steep, muddy slopes such as these, I made sure to grab hold of any branch, vine, or tree trunk I could find to support me. On more than one occasion, a vine or branch I grabbed gave way, nearly sending me tumbling down the muddy slope.  

In both instances, what I learned is that not everything is as it seems. When we thought we heard the sound of rushing water to our left, we were simply hearing the wind blowing through the trees. It was pretty convincing, I must say, to the point we thought we inadvertently took a wrong path and somehow ended up on the wrong side of the river. On the numerous occasions that vines or branches broke in my grasp, I was often caught off guard, but ultimately not surprised. It’s for that very reason one ought to test their support system before bearing any weight on it. 

Consequently, over the course of the hike I became a little more cautious, as I realized not everything is truly as it seems.  

 

It’s okay to not only receive help, but to ask for it, too. 

After climbing halfway up a cliffside adjacent to a small waterfall, Stephen and I found ourselves sharing a small ledge with barely enough room for the two of us. Truth be told, the whole scene was laughable if anyone were to have seen it. The rocky cliffside we were clinging to was more clay-like in substance than hard rock. This was evident when with any grip or foothold we tried to put on the cliffside, the rock would crumble under pressure. There were various branches and foliage above us, but none of them were promising enough to ensure a safe ascent (cue once again that not everything is as it seems). It was at this point, we eyed a particular tree trunk just out of reach that would be sturdy enough to pull ourselves up. So gathering what foothold I could, I leaped up against the cliff. Crashing against the ground and clinging desperately to the crumbling clay and soil, I eventually was able to claw my way to the trunk and pull myself the rest of the way up; but that was not without the help of Stephen pushing me up from below. Once on sturdy ground, I was able to turn around and help Stephen climb up, too. 

In another instance we were crossing over the river. The water was rushing steadily over the rocks, making them slick and somewhat unreliable. Stephen had already crossed over to the other side and was standing firmly on the surface of a large, dry rock. The stepping stone to get there, however, was an awkward distance from the rock on which I was standing, with water gently passing over its surface. Therefore, I asked for Stephen to stretch out his hand. As I stepped across, I used his support to get safely to the other side. 

Both of these occasions, are evident to the fact that not only is it okay to receive help, but to ask for it, too. Pride can get in the way of a lot of things and lead us to take a lot of unnecessary risks. So why risk that misstep, slip-up, or fall? Why not go with whatever support system you have around you? After all, like they say, that’s what friends are for.  

 

There is such a thing as a ‘happy accident. 

After a couple hours of following the river deep into the bush, we discovered that the water had just simply stopped. For no rhyme or reason, what we found was not the source of the river, nor the waterfall we hoped to find. A bit puzzled by this, I climbed up the steep hillside to the top of the ridge to see what else I could find. Scrambling to my feet, I found myself in somewhat of a clearing in the trees. Weaving my way through the large rocks, the sporadic pencil-thin trees, and leaf-covered forest floor, I made my way to the far side of the clearing.  

For an unexplained reason, an excitement began bubbling up inside of me. Could it be that the Tufton Hall Waterfall is right around the corner, and we never realized it? I continued on, trying not to get my hopes up but secretly allowing the excitement bubble inside. At the end of the clearing, the soft ridge sloped gently up before dropping sharply over the other side. Hopping over another large rock and hustling to the edge, I held my breath as I peered over. The sharp slope dropped to the bottom of another ravine, where another river could be seen. Then peering through the gaps of the trees, I followed the river up the ravine to a point where it disappeared underneath the overhang of a few massive rocks. On the rocks, I quickly noticed, a stream of water cascaded down into the river. Leaning to my right to get a better look through the trees, I followed the stream of water as it traced its way up a narrow channel of rock that was tucked into the forested hillside and rising roughly seventy feet in the air. 

I looked on in awe at Mother Nature’s spectacle. The waterfall was quiet, peaceful, and every bit the definition of tranquil. The green leaves of the branches bowed in a strong, passing breeze. With the onset of the breeze, a cold rain began falling heavily through the canopy. It was all so surreal, a moment that you could only envision when imagining what finding a waterfall in the heart of a tropical rainforest would be like. The cold rain sent chills down my spine, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

It’s wild to think that we were that close, and in truth very easily could have missed it. Discouraged on losing the river on the hike, we could have turned around and gone back home. But as we later realized, at some point we evidently had followed the wrong river up. Thankfully, an unintended peek over into the next ravine lead us to exactly what we were looking for.

I guess there is such a thing as a ‘happy accident.’ 

 

Sometimes all you can do is let go and hope for the best.  

After finding the waterfall, we were left with two choices. Try and re-trace our complicated, aimless path back to where we came from, or go the surefire way of following the river out. We decided to take the river, for everyone knows that all the rivers eventually flow into the Sea. What we also learned, however, was that following the river down to the Sea also meant re-discovering the laws of gravity. 

As we followed the river out, we came across an incessant number of flowing waterfalls. Some were easy to climb down or around, but others were so steep that we opted to climb up the hill before returning to the river at an easier point of descent. Then we found one that was so intimidating, we contemplated a plan of action for quite some time. We had just used a worn and weathered rope to repel down one waterfall into a small pool. At the end of this pool, another waterfall on our right-hand side was flowing roughly twenty feet down into a small, log-riddled basin. The ravine to our immediate left was a steep, rocky, muddy, barren cliffside. There was simply nowhere to go; nowhere but straight down.  

At our feet was another vertical, muddy, and rocky slope down to a flat ledge adjacent to the basin of the waterfall. From that ledge, we could easily continue down the river. The problem was just getting down to that ledge. With no other options, we resorted to the only one we had. Stephen went first, sitting cautiously down in the mud and digging his heels and hands into the ground beside him. Tenderly, he let his momentum slide, picking up suddenly as he crashed down the rocks onto the ledge below. It was a little rough going down, but he had made it safely. 

Now it was my turn. As I sat down in the soft mud, a large rock was jarred loosed and bounced violently down the slope before landing at Stephen’s feet (a super encouraging omen, by the way). Nonetheless I dug my heels and fingernails into what ground holding I could. Gently shifting my weight forward, I dropped abruptly, sliding violently down the side of the waterfall. Tightly holding my breath, my backside bounced repeatedly off the rocky cliffside as I tried burying my heels harder into the ground, a vain effort in slowing my descent. Then, suddenly, I crashed to a stop a few feet above the ledge. My heels had somehow caught a holding. Exhaling softly, I lifted my now burning and bleeding hands from the rocks and tactfully navigated the quarter inch of holding beneath my feet, before sliding the rest of the way down. 

What I learned from this, was that sometimes you’ll find yourself literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes in those situations, all you can do is let go and hope for the best. Now, I’m not suggesting this strategy for all difficult circumstances (for obvious safety reasons). But given certain risks at hand, the moral of this lesson is to ultimately let go and trust that everything will all work out. 

 

As the old childhood adage says, “Head home when the streetlights come on.” 

At this time of year, relatively speaking (given Grenada’s location near the equator) the sun sets pretty early. Usually setting during the 6:00-7:00 p.m. hour, it’s now setting quickly between 5:30-5:45 p.m. Stephen and I had been deep in the bush for the better part of the day, having first stepped foot into the forest at around 10:00 in the morning. By 4:30 in the afternoon, we were still making our way out along the river. Now, when the sun sets here, it gets dark quickly; given that we were still deep in the bush with a thick, forested canopy over us, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned with the suddenly dimming daylight. The last thing I wanted, or needed, was to be stuck in the Grenadian bush at nightfall.  

Nevertheless, we pressed on, kicking up our pace in a race against the sun. We eventually made it out of the river and climbed out of the ravine, only to find ourselves in the high-grass hillside of the early mountain bush. We hiked on, climbing over the top of a ridge and looking over its edge, finding ourselves looking down on a small, country farm. Encouraged, we hiked past the crops to a paved road on the other side, finally reaching a reliable path back to civilization.  

As dusk began to fall, we hiked back into the town of Victoria. Kids rode past us on their bicycles, as men and women sitting on verandas and concrete guardrails gazed in passive amusement at the two muddy foreigners walking down the road.  

“Is that my Scott?” a voice calls from the side. 

I had to double-take, unexpectedly hearing my name but smiling upon seeing Hillary, the local cook we had at Camp GLOW over the summer. During the camp she was the only one working in the kitchen, so the counselors took turns helping her prepare the meals for the girls. I had the duty of helping her prepare breakfast the first morning of the camp and we had hit it off from the start. I’ve run into her a few times since Camp GLOW, each time being as pleasant of an encounter as the last.

Reaching the main coastal road, Stephen and I parted ways to return to our respective communities. Beginning my walk South, I crossed a bridge over the very same river we had just delved deep into the bush to follow. I stopped in front of a large home sitting on the coast as I waited on the side of the road in hopes for a ride home. A man sat on the second-floor balcony of this home, peacefully reading something under a faint, overhead light. To the right of the house, the out-flowing current of the river met the incoming waves of the Caribbean Sea in a harmonious matrimony. In the distance off to the left, a massive, brightly-lit cruise ship drifted across the Sea’s horizon. Yep, cruise-ships are back in season.

At that moment, the bright headlights of an oncoming pick-up truck caught my eye.  

“Gouyave! Gouyave!” I call, gesturing down the road. The truck barreled past but slowed to a halt. Running up to the passenger window, I peeked inside to find a woman smiling in the front passenger seat, as the man in the driver’s seat leaned over in curiosity. 

“Can I get a ride to Gouyave?”  

With a soft smile underneath a graying mustache, he nods and thumbs to the bed of the truck. 

“Thanks!” I smile back.

Throwing my backpack into the bed of the truck, I step onto the wheel and hop in. Once settled, I knocked the side of the truck and we jerked forward to begin the drive home.  

The fading lights of the town of Victoria quickly disappeared around the bend of the mountains. The palm trees along the coast flew past in a blur as I looked out onto the deep blue horizon. The cool breeze from the moving truck was a soothing relief to my muddy, sore, and now-aching body. Leaning back with my arms stretched out, a wide smile spread across my face. Although exhausted physically, internally I felt rejuvenated. For the first time in the awhile, I finally felt more like myself.

It was in this moment, cruising down the Caribbean coast in the bed of pick-up truck, that I learned what was perhaps the most important lesson of the day… 

Sometimes you need to get lost, in order to be found. 

Cheers!

 

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Something About Summer: A Series (4)

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?” 

* * * 

You put your head down on the table, simply wishing for the time to go quickly. The boat rises and falls with each wave of the deep sea. In your previous experiences, rides across the deep sea hasn’t exactly been forgiving. Rising to your feet, you stumble with the swaying of the boat to the outside deck and steadily climb the stairs to the top of the ferry.  

“How are you feeling?” you ask Tom, your brother who’s standing with a camcorder and a smile on his face. 

“Dude, these birds are wild! I’ve been up here watching them this whole time,” he replies. 

“All right,” you sigh. “I’ll be downstairs.” 

You consider staying up to watch the birds to see what he was talking about, but you just didn’t want to risk the uneasy stomach. After all, you feel the rocking of the boat much more on the upper deck than down below. 

So you return to the bottom deck and slide into the booth, aside Peace Corps Volunteers Hannah Melin and Lili Gradilla, with Lili’s extended family of Caroline, Alex, and their baby girl. You put your head back on the table and close your eyes until the ferry reaches the small island of Carriacou. 

Roused awake, you gather your backpack and shuffle along the line and out onto the dock. After a short walk past the incessant offers for a taxi service, you settle into the small hotel room you’ve all rented for the day.

Going back outside, your entourage catches a bus that has pulled over at the small terminal next door. Spray-painted a glittering bright orange, you climb inside and take a seat in the back. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, the metal frames pressing through the worn-in cushions and into your backside. What it lacked in comfort, however, it made up in character. Laminated placards were pinned to the seatbacks of the driver and front passenger seats.  

Ask me for a joke!

Free rides for the grandmothers of anyone 80 years or above.

Free ride tomorrow.

You laugh to yourself, appreciative of the slapstick humor. The bus kicks into gear and you weave through the open roads of Carriacou. The last small island in the Grenadine chain that runs from St. Vincent to Grenada, its roads and landscape is much more open than that of Grenada’s. Small mountains protrude into the sky, but the valleys between them are more spacious than the rugged, cramped nature of the Grenadian mountains. You weave in and around these small mountains, passing cows and goats idly grazing on the side of the road. Simple homes sporadically spot the hillsides, clothes flowing in the breeze as they hang-dry on the line.  

After about fifteen minutes or so, the bus pulls into a dirt lot beside what appears to be a restaurant. 

“Well, here we are!” the driver exclaims. “Paradise Beach!” 

We pile out of the bus and pay the driver the fee, walking past the restaurant and the few small fishing boats mounted on the shore. You kick off your sandals and step out onto the warm, white sands of Paradise Beach. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, the short, sandy beachhead declines sharply into the most transparent, crystal-clear waters you have ever seen. Outside of a local couple off to the right and a few sailboats out on the water, the beach was void of all human life. To the left, two small mountains reach out from the coast like an arm wrapping around to hold you in. Straight ahead, a small green island rose from the sea while beside it lay a sandbar, palm trees fanning out across it. 

Dropping your things in the sand, you dive into the crisp, clear water; it was a truly refreshing reward for the long, early morning ferry ride you had just endured. The day is spent floating aimlessly in the water, getting out only when it was time to grab another drink at the restaurant’s bar. 

“Hey man, you want a drink?” Alex offers as you step up to the bar. “I’m chilling with these guys over here, you should join us.” 

You only met Alex a couple hours ago, but you already realize he’s the type of guy who’ll make friends with anybody he meets, so naturally you follow him to the nearby table.  

Walking up to the table, Alex introduces you to the three local men seated around it. A half-empty bottle of Carriacou Jack rum sits in the center beside a few small bottles of ginger ale. Introductions aside, you’re engulfed into the conversation at hand, ranging from European affairs, Shakespeare, Netflix, and wineries. It wasn’t long, however, until each one of us sat under the umbrella table with them, laughing together with our new-found friends. As it turned out, one of them owns a winery nearby and you’re all invited to dinner.

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* * * 

You hang onto a pole and the side of the small boat, bouncing rhythmically with the high waves of the sea. Off to the right in the distance is another small fishing boat, a lone man driving it at break-neck speed as it goes airborne over each wave. He nods in acknowledgment when you make eye-contact, the unspoken language among boat-riders. He cuts in front of you a safe distance ahead, crossing over toward Union Island, a large strip of mountainous land rising from the water to your left.  

A few smaller islands sit in the distance, rapidly growing larger as we approach them. Although uninhabited, the green strips of land stand proudly, their lush, green trees evident of their untouched beauty. The boat slows to a crawl as you now find yourself in the center of the five small islands that make up the Tobago Cays. The dark blue of the deep sea abruptly turns into a bright, turquoise blue, enabling you to see several feet down to the now-shallow sea floor. As you drift up to a small island, the local tour guide drops an anchor. Jumping off the boat, he tethers it to the base of a palm tree.  

Hopping out into the water, a sandy, open beachhead spans out in front of you. Palm trees decorate the shoreline, giving way to the tropical green hillside behind them. Looking out across the horizon, a small island lies straight ahead while several, larger other ones loom in the hazy distance to the left. There’s a shallow sandbar in front of you, its crystal water sparkling and shimmering in the bright sunlight. Overhead, birds soar through the air with a watchful gaze before plunging sharply into the water. It disappears for a moment before coming up and flying away, its fresh catch of fish hanging from its beak. Distracted in awe at nature’s spectacle, a dark mass slides past your feet in the water.  

“Look!” you exclaim, taking a sudden step back. “A stingray!” 

Amazed, you hadn’t been that close to a stingray since your childhood days visiting the zoo. But right there in front of you, a large stingray was sliding gracefully and blissfully by.

Turning around and heading onto the shore, you and the others decide to hike to the top of the larger of the two hills on the island. Traversing across the beaten path between the two hills, you make your way to the backside of the island. The path gives way to a more rugged and rock-riddled beachhead; unlike the first side that was peacefully tranquil, waves crashed onto this shore. Yet, the water on this side of the island was just as clear, just as beautiful. Various sailboats sit anchored just off the coast, small flags of their home countries fluttering in the wind: Trinidad, France, England, St. Vincent, Grenada, and America. Walking along the beachfront, you find the path that leads to the top of the hill and dives into wood. Taking it and climbing to the top, you find yourself standing on large rocks, weathered and frail trees and shrubs all around you. Atop one of their branches, a large iguana is perched cautiously still.  

Scanning the 180-degree view of the horizon, the open sea spans out as far as the eye can see. The dark blue of the deep sea is speckled with pockets of sandbars where the water takes on that striking turquoise color. The very same boats still remain anchored offshore, bobbing in the waves but appearing much smaller than they did before. To the left a sole island sits in the near distance, while off to the right a few larger, yet also uninhabited islands also loom. The group of us gathered at the top silently take in the captivating panoramic view around us. 

“Whoa!” Alex exclaims, as a large thud and the sound of sliding rocks catches everyone’s attention. “That iguana nearly landed on my head!” 

You break out in laughter with the others as the iguana scrambles into the safety of the foliage.  

 * * *

Hiking cautiously down the front side of the hill, you return to the first shoreline where the tour boat was anchored. Climbing back inside, the rope is loosened and the anchor is pulled in as the boat takes off into the water. Coasting past one island and then another, it careens over to a stretch of open sea. The deep blue of the Sea now gone, suddenly you found yourself seemingly floating over the sea floor as the water was so clear and transparent, that you can see the sandy surface of the floor no more than twenty feet below. Dropping anchor again, your tour guide pulls out snorkel masks and flippers. Wiggling into the flippers and slapping on the mask, you flip your legs over the edge of the boat and drop into the water. 

Splash!

Submerged in the water, you’re momentarily baffled when your vision remains as clear as before. Just when you think the water can’t get any clearer, any more beautiful, you are once again proven wrong. Lifting your head above the water, you playfully bob up and down just to make sure that what you were seeing was real. Convinced, you turn and swim out to the sea, scanning the sea floor below.  

Then, off to the right, a small green leatherback sea turtle coasts through the water. You quickly but cautiously swim toward it, careful not to startle it. The sea turtle gracefully dives to the bottom and you dive down right beside it, unbothered by your presence. Coming back up to the surface, you drift quietly above it, watching it rest peacefully on the floor. Another, larger sea turtle swims by, catching your eye to the left. Your interest taken, you follow after it, swimming within arm’s reach of one of the most beautiful creatures you have ever seen.

* * *

You’re back on the boat, cruising even farther out to sea where a flat, strip of land comes into view. At the end of the narrow-ended strip of the small island of Petit Tabac, stone and coral-built structures stand guard, greeting newcomers to the island. Followed by a stretch of covered land, the island rounds off with a cluster of palm trees standing over an area of tall grass. 

“Hey, that looks vaguely familiar,” you think to yourself as the boat slows to a stop and coasts to the shore. 

“Here we are,” your tour guide says, “Petit Tabac was a site location of a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.” 

Then it clicks. Jumping out and walking on shore, you visual the stranded characters of Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Turner, passing out drunk on the beachhead before a glowing nighttime bonfire. Then come morning, Captain Jack awakens to the smell of smoke as he realizes Elizabeth has burned the remaining rum from the in-ground cellar for a smoke-signal.  

Cue the line: “But why is the RUM GONE?!?” 

* * *

Back in the boat, you’re cruising through the open sea, bouncing up and down on your seat in the boat. The sun has begun its descent, the sky beginning to leak an orange hue as the sun approaches the horizon. A small building comes into view, idly standing in its lonesome on the sea between two large islands. The boat slows down as we circle around the tiny building on the water and dock beside it.  

“Welcome to Happy Island,” the man at the open-sea bar greets with a toothy grin. “Rum punch is our special today and every day; would you like one?” 

You take a seat under the lone tree on this random, special bit of land. An almost mythical place, the bar known as “Happy Island” is built on conch shells, with barely enough space for a few benches and picnic tables for seating. A flag pole stands on the end, the flags of St. Vincent and Grenada flapping in the sea breeze. You sit back and take a sip of your rum punch, a DJ creatively singing freestyle soca on the small speaker system attached to the bar. You look over to Union Island, the sun casting its vibrant glow between its peaks.       

* * * 

A player in a pale green jersey dribbles the ball from the back corner of the pitch at the far end of the field, launching it with a sharp pass toward midfield. A yellow jersey, however, jumps between and intercepts the ball. He kicks the ball back toward the end of the field, where another yellow jersey navigates it between two defenders and hurdles it past the sliding goalie and into the back of the net. 

The crowd erupts in displeasure, the goal occurring just eleven minutes into the game. Jamaica, otherwise known as the “Reggae Boys,” just took a 1-0 lead over Grenada’s “Spice Boys,” in a FIFA-sanctioned international friendly match at Kirani James National Stadium.   

This is your second FIFA match, joined this time with Tom, PCVs Stephanie Peña and Amanda Cady, and fellow Camp GLOW counselor Khadija Browne. You found prime seating for the match, in the front row on the far right side of the field. To your immediate left is Grenada’s 15U girls football team, donning their jerseys and medals from a regional Caribbean competition they had recently won. Farther down the row, a man dressed head-to-toe in the bright red, green, and yellow national colors waves a large Grenadian flag as we walks up and down the aisle. From the lower bowl to the upper deck behind you, fans blow horns and shake clappers as they cheer and react to the match unfolding on the field.  

“One of you want to compete for a prize?” a man in a black polo with field credentials hanging around his neck asks us. 

Everyone in your row exchanges glances, unsure of who would be brave enough to take part in the half-time competition. 

“Yeah, sure,” Tom says, jumping up from his seat. 

The man directs him down to the field and a short while later, he’s the only foreigner at the end of a long queue of local fans on the field. Each fan took a turn spinning a wheel to determine what prize, if any, they would receive. It was unclear what the various prizes were, but what was clear was not everyone spinning the wheel was receiving one. As each fan took a turn, Tom slowly worked his way to the front. A few fans, having already taken their turn, congregated in front of the wheel and blocked your view. Tom disappears behind them, only to appear a moment later coming around the end, victoriously raising a new soccer ball in his hand. 

Laughter breaks out among you, celebrating what would likely be the only victory of the night (Grenada went on to lose 5-1). Tom returns to our seats, tossing the ball to a young fan a few rows back. 

* * * 

You push the chain-link door open and step onto the court. Walking up to those taking shots at the hoop, you introduce Tom to the guys. You quickly lace up your new shoes and hop up from the bench. Picking up your basketball, you begin dribbling around and taking a few warm-up shots. The clouds over the field adjacent to the park have taken on an orange glow from the setting sun. As per usual though, on the nights you play basketball there isn’t much time to take in the gorgeous colors of the sunset.  

Enough guys have gathered to break into three teams. Naturally, you make sure Tom’s not on your team. Attribute it to old sibling rivalries or what have you, regardless you were not going to play together. It worked out, however, as Nose and Alvon, the two brothers that took you to town on J’ouvert morning the week before, were at the court as well. So matching up brother on brother, you guarded Nose while Alvon guarded Tom.  

Alvon dribbles back and forth across the top side of the key, Tom sliding back and forth with him. Driving the ball, he dishes it out Immie, a teammate at the top of the key. Immie drives down the left side of the key and heads hard for a lay-up. Coming around the corner, however, he didn’t see Tom, who because he was in the right place at the right time popped the ball loose and stole it away to the top.  

A few possessions later Alvon once again has the ball, dribbling to create separation from the defense. On the upper right side of the three point line, you see the baseline has opened up. Darting down toward the open space, Alvon sends a pass on the far side of the hoop. Catching it and realizing a defender was on your immediate right, with a quick dribble you cross under the hoop and flip the ball off the backboard and into the basket. 

The night was a prototypical “sweat” as they call it, a few hours of pick-up basketball on a humid Caribbean night. It’s how you often spend your Sunday nights, a reason to get out of the house and into the community, not to mention getting a couple hours of exercise. Having Tom there to play with you and experience your Sunday night “sweats” at the court was one of the things you were most looking forward to in his visit. It didn’t disappoint, either, as the guys welcomed him in with open arms and friendly competition. 

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* * *          

“Just jump out as far as you can toward the middle, and make sure you land straight-in like a pencil,” you call out to Tom. 

You sit cautiously on the rock overhang, water rushing heavily over the waterfall right beside you before it launches over thirty feet into the spring below. With no real easy way to stay balanced, you’ve found a notch in the rockface while clinging onto a nearby branch. Tom slides tactfully down to the edge, where a shelf in the overhang allows steady footing for a jump.  

Standing slowly, he crouches slightly before leaping out over the water, arms flailing momentarily as he disappears over the edge and a splash is heard from somewhere down below.  

“Well,” you mutter to yourself, “I guess you’re next.” 

You slide down to the shelf Tom had just jumped from. Trying to peer over the edge, you couldn’t see much beyond the shelf. You take a couple of breaths and envision where you’re jumping, out toward the middle and in front of the falls. You already searched the bottom of the fall earlier for rocks, so landing on rocks wasn’t in question. That doesn’t necessarily, however, make this jump any easier.  

“Okay. On the count of the three: One. Two. Three!” 

With everything you have, you jump out as far as you can. The air lifted from your lungs in a moment of thrill, followed by a moment of panic as you suddenly realize this jump was from a lot higher than you originally thought. Flailing your arms to regain balance, you splash violently in the water with arms stretched flat, the sensation of a flop instantly burning into your arms and hands as you’re submerged in the cold, icy water.  

You pop back up to the surface, laughing and excited despite the rough landing. A pained expression appears on the faces of Tom and PCV Hannah Melin, their reactions to the sound of your crash-land into the water. 

“So much for following your own advice,” Tom laughs.  

You climb out of the water, its refreshing chill sending goosebumps down your back. Underneath your arms and hands are already pink and swollen from the jump, yet you can’t help but shake your head and laugh. 

The three of you gather your things and hike off into the woods. After finally successfully jumping from the first of the Seven Sisters Waterfalls, it was time to hike into the bush to find the fifth waterfall known locally as “Honeymoon Falls.”  

Crossing rivers and climbing over rocks, you find yourself facing the fourth waterfall. The fourth one is a small one, water cascading down a small rockface and into a river below. Three logs stand up out of the water, bridging across the narrow creek to the top where the water comes down. You turn to Tom, gesturing the way up.  

Straddling the largest of the logs, he shimmies his way up to the top. You follow him up, crawling slowly but doing everything you can to maintain balance and not fall into the river below. Reaching the top, you hike along rockbed adjacent to the rushing water that flows to the fourth waterfall. Coming upon a large boulder on your left, you find a rock slope in front of you with water cascading down it. Stepping into the water, you carefully climb up the streaming rockface and make your way around the boulder to a small clearing on the other side. Gaining balance and standing carefully on the dry rock, another waterfall towers over twenty feet above you. Seemingly falling straight from the canopy of trees above, the water hurdles violently over the top and into a shallow spring before flowing down the slope you just climbed and taking a sharp turn toward the fourth waterfall. A golden orange substance oozes from the rocks surrounding the waterfall, the scent of sulfur filling the air.  

All around you is the overwhelming presence of nature, something that has always fascinated you and Tom since your days growing up and exploring the wooded lot behind your house. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when you two spent afternoons watching Bear Grylls scale waterfalls and climb over raging rivers in episodes of Man vs. Wild. Back then, you’d pretend you were doing the same thing back in the wooded lot. Now, years later, you find yourselves jumping thirty feet from tropical waterfalls and climbing over raging rivers as you explore the inner depths of what nature has to offer. 

* * * 

You’re hiking up the steep, paved road leading up to the first of the Concord Waterfalls. But for the second time this week, rain down-poured from the heavens. You and Tom had tried a few days earlier, but the heavy rains flooded not only the first Concord Waterfall, but the river that’s necessary to cross multiple times in order to reach the second waterfall.  

Knowing this was Tom’s last chance at seeing the second Concord Waterfall, a pit sank heavily in your stomach as you trudged uphill through the pouring rain. However, you were determined to reach the second fall, for Tom had always having been more of a cabin-in-the-woods than a cottage-on-the-beach type of person.

Honk! 

A white pick-up truck pulls up from behind as you step to the side of the road. You gesture up the hill for a ride as the driver rolls down the window. 

“Hey, you’re the Peace Corps in Gouyave, right?” the driver asks. 

“Yeah, I am. Any chance we can get a ride to the falls?” 

“I thought I recognized you. I teach at the Anglican school and have seen you around. Hop in the back!” 

Relieved, you jump into the bed of the pick-up truck. Tom and Peace Corps Response Volunteers Stephanie Peña, Amanda Cady, and Heather Smith hop in behind you. Once everyone is settled, you tap the bed of the truck and it jerks forward as he drives the rest of the way to the top. The rain is still falling heavily, soaking you through your clothes in the open bed of the pick-up. But you don’t mind, at least you caught a ride the rest of the way up.  

The truck pulls to a stop at the first waterfall. The waterfall, typically with beautifully powerful white water cascading down, was now once again overpowered with stampeding, soil-ridden brown water. The spring below, where one would typically bathe in chilly, fresh water was now flooded with the very same brown water that relentlessly filled its basin. Hopping out and thanking the driver, who teaches at the other school in your community, you take shelter in the lone shop overlooking the fall.  

“Good morning,” you greet the tour director, who turned you away the other day due to the dangers of the hike to the second fall. “It’s my brother’s last day on the island, I know it’s still raining but is there any chance we can still make it to the second waterfall?” 

“If you go back there, I don’t want to have to come retrieve you. I’ve had to go back and save people from the flooding river before,” he explains. “But if you must go today then I’d ask that you take one of our guides. I’d feel a lot better if you did.” 

“No problem,” you respond assuredly. “Whatever you want that will get us back there. We’ll take a guide.” 

And boy, were you glad you had Sylvester.  

Sylvester, your guide, was talkative and excited individual who was knowledgeable in the history of Grenada from its geography and history, to its agriculture. He often stopped to point out the various trees and plants along the trail. Equipped with high-set rain boots and a machete, he fearlessly jumps into the river. In the past you could easily dance and skip across the rocks to the other side, something you had to do numerous times on your way to the second fall. But submitting to the fact that you were already soaked from the rain and that all the rocks you’d normally dance across were entirely submerged in waist-high water, you step in after him. Always planted and secure in the water, you often used Sylvester’s support as you hiked through the river’s running waters. With each step, the current would push your feet downstream, making it a challenge to move in a straight line. Not to mention your feet disappeared in the darkness of the water, so you had to tactfully feel out each step before you took it.  

The rain continued falling as you navigated the trail, sliding through the mud, climbing over rocks, and treading through the river. The bush had a different feel that day than from what you’re used to, being the first time you’ve delved into it during heavy rains. The forest seemed void of wildlife, all having taken shelter from the rain. The leaves of the trees took on a shimmering green as the raindrops glistened in the light that managed to poke through the canopy of the trees. Climbing over one rock and jumping to another, you look up to see the top of the waterfall finally appear into view. Crossing over the river and swinging underneath a fallen log, you look up to find the waterfall looming powerfully before you.  

Only this time, it was different. Before the water always seemed to rush violently down, but this time it stampeded angrily down the forty feet from the top and into the overflowing spring below. The foliage and trees that typically clung to the cliffside to the left of the fall was cleared away, evidently having fallen in a landslide from the recent rains. It was here, in this moment, the reality of the power that nature holds began to sink in. What once was a tree-and-foliage covered hillside was now only a bare, rocky cliffside, all the trees and foliage strewn carelessly about at the bottom.  

 

* * * 

The hike to get to the second waterfall that day was one of the most challenging, treacherous hikes I’ve ever done. But having reached it, having completed the goal of showing Tom the second Concord waterfall on his final day in Grenada, I felt nothing but relief.  

In fact, that final hike to the Concord waterfall was largely analogous to my summer as a whole. From start to finish, from when school let out the first week of July to when it began again the first week of September, my calendar was booked straight through. From Camp GLOW, to St. Lucia, to my parents’ visit, to Carnival with friends and a week of exploring Grenada, Carriacou, and the Tobago Cays with Tom, I hardly had a day to catch my breath. In the same way that the rain worked against us that day, it seemed time was always working against me during each week of the summer. There was always someplace to be, something to do, somewhere to go, and someone to look out for with very little time to do it all.

So out of necessity, I once again took time away from my blog. I set everything aside, focusing instead on enjoying every moment with the people that I love, in the place that I have come to love.    

Which brings me to the theme of the series of blogs that I’ve come to title: “Something About Summer: A Series.” When trying to capture the essence of what this summer experience has been like for me, it was hard to break it down into separate, unique stories. After all, they were all interconnected in the same foundation. That same foundation, not only epitomizes my summer, but I believe every summer. Therefore, the only way to share this experience was by sharing the story of my summer as a whole.  

In the very first post of this series, I set out to ask a re-occuring question: “There’s something about summer, isn’t there?” 

Well, have you figured it out?

The answer, actually, is quite simple.  

Think about it: summer was never just about the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass, baseball, and burgers on the grill during a 4th of July cook-out. It was never just about the time away from school, running free from the responsibility of homework and studying. It was never just about the hot, sunny days jumping in the lake and the warm, firefly-filled nights roasting marshmallows by a bonfire. 

It has always been about much more than that.  

It’s about love. 

That’s what makes summer so special. It’s a time spent meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones. It’s a time spent with family and the people you hold dear. It’s a time to explore, seeking out tales of adventure to be shared time and time again. It’s a time for trying something new, something so far out of your comfort zone that it scares you. It’s a time for celebration, whether the holiday calls for barbecue ribs and fireworks or dancing in the streets doused in engine oil.  

This summer, I was blessed to have my parents, my friends, and my brother all visit me in my host country. At times, the conglomeration of family, old friends, and new friends together here was borderline dizzying. But each individual mentioned in this series experienced in one way or another not only my summer, but what my life is like down here in Grenada.

Yes, they got to experience the beautiful, sunny beaches and the pristine waterfalls under the tropical sun. But more importantly, they experienced the warm, hospitable nature of the Grenadian people. They experienced the noise, hustle, and bustle that comes with living in the center Grenada’s, “City That Never Sleeps.” They experienced the adventurous bus rides that never fail to leave you without a story. They experienced the abundance of fresh fruit, herbs, spices, and chocolate. They experienced the flowing breeze as you hitch-hike in the bed of a pick-up truck. They experienced the intensity and cultural explosion that is Carnival. They experienced the excited children shouting, “Mr. King!” as we passed through the streets in the type of community where everybody knows your name. They experienced firsthand as the locals smile and ask, “How are you liking Grenada?” as though they already know your answer. They experienced Grenada for what it is, and for them and the Grenadian people, I am forever grateful.

As each person came in and out of my life this summer, I tried to approach each opportunity with them with the same amount of energy and love as I had with the ones before. Although exhausting, each part of my summer from Camp GLOW, to St. Lucia, to Carnival, and the various tours of Grenada and surrounding islands with my family and friends is something I wouldn’t trade for the world. This past summer was easily one of the best of my life, which might lead you to think that its conclusion was a difficult one to embrace.  

On the contrary, for this summer I learned an important lesson through my whirlwind of experience. In my first post of this series, I recalled a quote I had recently heard when I was at a local funeral. It was a quote Jamie Anderson had once wrote: 

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” 

With all the people that came in and out of my life this summer, I’m not ashamed to say I cried with each goodbye. It was hard, because as with all goodbyes, it means that your time with the people you love has come to an end. But although grief may be love with no place to go, I learned that new people will always be entering your life. During this stretch of time, I had to say goodbye to two people who had become a focal point in my life here. However, I also had the opportunity to welcome in the next group of Volunteers to the island. So between the change in Volunteers on-island and my carousel of visitors this summer, I also learned that as long as you pour the same amount of energy and love into the new people as you did with the ones before, you will continue making memories with people that you love. Therefore, love will always have a place to go.

Yes, my summer is over, but I’m not upset. This summer will forever be locked away in my memory, each experience available to be recalled with as much as fondness as though experiencing it for the first time. But while this incredible journey is over, it’s time to return to the reason I’m here in the first place. I’m back in school and have big goals and ambitions ahead. Time is flying by, as we’re already six weeks into the new school year. I’m excited for what my second year holds in store. For there will be more stories to be told, more experiences to be had, and more love to share. 

Until next summer, that is.   

Cheers!

Something About Summer: A Series (3)

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?”

* * *

You sit down on the concrete, national-colored stoop that runs across the front of the open-air market next door. The sun is burning hot, not a cloud in the sky as you take cover in the only spot of shade under the overhang. There was very little traffic that day, being a Sunday in the heart of Carnival. Yet every car and truck that did go by, you made sure to notice who was inside. The anticipation had been bubbling up inside of you ever since you received that unfortunate text that your brother’s flight had been cancelled two days earlier.

Just then a navy, four-door vehicle appears around the bend of the green, Grenadian hillsides and barrels into the first stretch of buildings of your town. Inside the vehicle and sitting on the left-hand side, in what would be the driver’s seat back home, was the familiar face you had long-awaited to see. This was it, Tom finally made it to Grenada.

The past two days had gone by like a blur. After your parents had left that Friday afternoon, you hosted a couple of the new Response Volunteers, Stephanie Peña and Amanda Cady, for a stop at Fish Friday and Mansa’s with Don and G before the big Soca Monarch concert that was taking place in town that night. One of the biggest events of Carnival, it’s the competition where artists vie to be crowned the next “Soca Monarch,” thus earning the recognition of producing the best soca song of the year. It’s the type of show that you don’t want to show up before midnight, because the actual party doesn’t begin until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.

At Mansa’s, it was Don’s surprise reunion with Terry, one of the regulars over at “D Banana Bar.” They had an instant friendship from Don’s first time in Grenada back in December, so needless to say Terry’s eyes lit up with baffling surprise and gleamed with joy as they left the bar arm-in-arm and laughing.

A few games of pool and a drink or two later, we had caught a bus down to the National Stadium in town. Getting through the gates a short while later, you arrived just in time as the second performer of the night took to the stage. Weaving your way through the crowd on the field, you settled on a small, open spot in the grass. Lights flashed brightly from the stage, illuminating the faces in the crowd bright colors of white, red, yellow, and green. You knew all the hit soca songs from over the summer, particularly with all the bus rides you’ve taken in the past month; consequently, you knew which songs were going to be the hits. The artists danced across the stage as they performed their songs, the crowd jumping and dancing to the beat. Swept up in the euphoric environment of the show, you never noticed the passage of time as the sky began to lighten. The judges announce the winner of the Soca Monarch competition, Lil’ Natty and Thunda with their hit song, Get In Your Section. For the second time in as many years, they were crowned the soca monarch for Spicemas Carnival 2018.

The following day you went to the Panorama show with much of the same group: Don, G, Stephanie, and Amanda, while joined this time by fellow PCV John Lyness. The steel pan show, known as Panorama, was cancelled last year since the stage was not constructed properly. Therefore, the steel pan bands, having been disappointed and neglected last year, came back with a vengeance as the various bands across the island performed their songs. It was a fantastic show, an easy-going highlight in the action of Carnival.

That being said, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t take a small nap in the stands during the show. It’s a Carnival thing, you explain to the others, who had looked at you a bit confused when you did. After all, when you’re celebrating for five consecutive days and nights, you have to catch a cat-nap anytime you can. You see it all the time at each of the shows. Their confusion turned to understanding as at one point or another, you saw each one of them sleeping in the stands, as well.

After the Pan show was The Biggest White Fete, so after changing into a white T-shirt you moved to the next stage over as the Carnival continued. What ensued was much like the previous night at the Soca Monarch, soca hits being performed on the stage and everyone on the field and in the stands dancing to the rhythm. The only difference this time, however, was everyone was wearing white. In the midst of the show, Ayisha, the director of Camp GLOW, appeared as she walked past you, and after a brief celebratory drink you parted ways. The GLOW family vibes were alive and well, as that was just the first of many encounters with the former fellow counselors of the Carnival season.

And now you’ve come full circle as it is now Sunday and Tom has finally arrived; after greeting him with a hug, you take his luggage and settle him into your apartment. It’s a waiting game now, for the biggest days of Carnival, Monday and Tuesday, were fast approaching. You pour a few drinks for Tom, Don, and G, the trio set to take part in what will be the party of the year.

“Mr. King!” a voice calls in as South, a good friend of yours, appears at your open front door.

“South!” you respond, hopping to your feet. “Come meet my brother, Tom, he just got in for the Carnival.”

“Your brother?” he asks. “Respect, man.”

He explains to us he’s cooked up an oil down, Grenada’s national dish, over at your neighbor’s apartment. So after handing him a couple of plates, he takes off to return a short while later, sharing the national dish with you and your friends. The perfect Grenadian meal before the ultimate Grenadian celebration.

* * *

You’re standing at the end of the road in Gouyave, unusually silent this early in the morning. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, you got a later start than you anticipated. You’re waiting at the bus stop out on the road, while the others sit in the bus shelter. The crickets of the night still echo reverently, as it’s only 3:00 in the morning. The waves slap subtly against the rocks on the shore across from you. You were told there would be buses running, but you haven’t seen any for the past forty-five minutes or so. A few other people are standing by the shelter with you, giving you a glimmer of hope that a bus would still be coming. Your hope is dwindling, however, as the J’ouvert (pronounced: “joo-vay“) was already beginning in town.

You hear a car door slam shut off to the right, catching your attention. It’s Nose, a local guy you compete with at the basketball court and a teammate from the tournament you played in back in March. You run over to him as he walks back from his car to his house beside the bus shelter.

“Hey Nose, morning. You happen to be heading to town?” you ask hopefully.

“Yeah, just now.”

“Any chance me and my buddies could catch a ride with you?”

“How many of you are there?”

“Myself, my brother and two others.”

“I’m not sure if you can all fit, but we’ll check you before we go.”

You return to bus stop, relieved you have a potential back-up plan to get to town if a bus doesn’t come.

Another fifteen minutes pass with no bus in sight; Nose’s car backs out of the driveway and pulls toward the bus stop. Two other guys standing at the bus stop jump toward the car: “Going to town? Can we get a ride?”

Your heart bottoms out, thinking these guys were going to steal your only ride to town.

“Well, you see,” Nose’s brother, Alvonn, in the driver’s seat, says casually, “My brethren right here kind of already asked for a ride.”

“Really?” you ask, almost surprised.

“I mean, if you guys can fit.”

“They can’t fit there’s too many of them! They can take bus let us go!” the others shout.

“Nah, we can fit,” you say confidently, opening the door and diving into the backseat of the small, four-door vehicle. Tom, Don, and G pile in behind and on top of you.

“Integration at its finest,” you laugh to yourself, relieved.

When they drop you in town, you begin the long walk to reach the J’ouvert. The faint blue of early morning light was beginning to threaten the black curtain of night. Vendors lined the streetlamp-lit Carenage, where you stop to grab a salt-fish and bake to eat. Walking on, you follow the stream of people heading toward the fast-paced thumping of music in the distance. As the daylight begins to break, you find yourself being surrounded by more and more people.

A few of them were still relatively clean, but the farther you walk the more people you find covered head-to-toe in thick, black engine oil. A young man stands, laughing in the middle of the road, slapping oil from a bucket on himself and his friends.

“Kelson!” you call out.

A former Camp GLOW counselor, his eyes light up with surprise when he sees you for the first time since the camp.

“I got my brother and some buddies here, mind if we get some of that oil?” you ask excitedly.

“Yeah, man!” He laughs as he begins pouring the bucket oil on you and your friends.

You continue weaving through what’s now become an over-crowded road. More oil rubs on you with each casual bump on the shoulder, the air hot with congestion of body heat and motor oil as you work upstream against the flow of the crowd. The road beneath your feet seems to shake as you pass the massive trucks, loaded with speakers booming to the fast-paced rhythm of soca. People surround the truck, dancing on and behind it as they follow it down the road. You pass one truck and its crowd, then another, and another, keeping an eye out for a few familiar faces in the sea of oil and paint.

Reaching a roundabout junction, the crowd divides momentarily before merging again to continue the march. On the side of the road were the faces you were looking for, Peace Corps Volunteers Hannah, Stephanie, Amanda, and Melinda, who were standing on the side grinning and laughing through their oil-smeared faces. Finally having the whole squad together, we dove back into the downstream flow of the crowd and followed the trucks.

“Scott!” a tackling hug hits you from the right.

“Roya!” you reply, laughing as you hug your oil-covered, former camp GLOW counselor and fellow Single Ladies dancer, friend.

A quick exchange of hugs and hellos between her and the other PCVs, she marched on with her entourage and we continued on with ours. From early morning up through noon we marched, following the oil-covered masses and dancing behind the trucks all the way to town. The sun lingered behind the clouds, mercifully saving us an extra few hours from the unbearable heat that comes from being caked in engine oil and caught in the sun. Coming up the final hill, the penultimate turn before reaching the Carenage and the end of the march, you step aside momentarily.

“Dude, this is exactly what I saw in my dream,” your brother tells you. “Literally, this exact scene.”

You’re surprised by the comment, but then again you’re not. You look ahead to the sea of oil and paint, devil horns and dragging chains, drums and horns, bandanas and flags all moving past you. It stretches straight down the road tucked tightly between a warehouse’s chain-link fence and a football field, the field astoundingly clean in comparison to the raucous in the street.

This was your second Carnival, your second J’ouvert: a celebration derived from its roots in Mardi Gras, colonialism, and slavery. Unable to celebrate Carnival alongside their colonizers and slave masters for being unjustly perceived as, “descendants of the devil,” the Caribbean people took it upon themselves to embrace the discriminate label and celebrate the “Jab Jab,” during Carnival by wearing devil horns and dragging chains, doused in oil. If you ask around, other islands might have a better Carnival, but Grenada is notorious across the West Indies for having the best J’ouvert.

Although chilling and even prophetic as it might seem, it’s no surprise to you he saw this hill’s viewpoint amidst the J’ouvert in his dream, because that’s exactly what it seems like. When you’re partying with over a thousand of your closest Jab Jab friends doused in engine oil, celebrating a unique cultural explosion that J’ouvert is, it’s every bit of a dream as much as it is reality.

* * *

You’re roused awake by the ringing of your alarm. Rubbing the sleep from your eyes, you roll out of the bed. Stumbling through the apartment, you nudge everyone awake: Tom, Don, and G, all napping on various couches, beds, and chairs throughout the place. Spots of oil streak the walls and seat cushions of your apartment, remnants of the J’ouvert just a few hours before. Gouyave’s J’ouvert, however, never stopped as the music still reverberates through your windows from the road outside. You shake your head, baffled that they’re still celebrating out on the road and haven’t slowed down the least bit yet. But your J’ouvert being over, you dress in brightly-colored t-shirts and light-up hats and catch a bus to town.

Once again you’re walking along the Carenage of St. George’s, remarkably clean considering the oil-ridden J’ouvert that occurred earlier that day. Sand was strewn across the road, as if blown over from a strong gust of desert wind. Strategically, however, it seemed to have been laid out to absorb the engine oil from the morning’s J’ouvert.

Reuniting with the other Peace Corps Volunteers from that morning, you all stop and grab some roadside barbecue chicken, licking your fingers clean from its deliciously tangy sauce. The afternoon light has faded, taken over by a curtain of darkness. The U-shaped road of the Carenage is illuminated, however, as the orange glow of the streetlamps clashes with the bright white holiday lights strung between them. The moonlight glimmers peacefully on the surface of the water, evidently having sustained the cleansing oil bathes of the Jab Jabs that jumped in that day.  You walk along the Carenage, following the stream of people heading up the road and following the music just as you did early that very same morning.

A short while later, you reach masses of people waiting behind idly running trucks. The fast, pounding rhythm of soca, per usual, blares from the speakers. You walk past the first truck, then the second until you find the one you were looking for. Arriving at the band you were slated to jump with, Ignite, you found yourself suddenly surrounded by people dressed in the same t-shirts, fedoras, light-up swords, and mugs that you had. Gathering together, it was time for the Monday Night Mas to start.

What followed was another night of massive celebration, the streets filled with thousands of Grenadians and foreigners alike, jumping behind the trucks dressed in bright, blinking lights. The night was dark, but in the roads you wouldn’t know the difference, everyone’s faces illuminated bright as day by the overwhelming presence of lights. The rhythm of the soca once again melts into your bones as you begin dancing to the beat down the road. A man stands from atop the truck in front of you, his voice booming from the mic:

“The judges’ table is coming up! Wave our sticks to the right! Now left! Right! Left!”

You raise your blinking, light-up sword in the air and wave it in unison with the rest of the band. One light in an army of many, a sea of lights spanned as far as you could see both behind and in front of you. The judges’ table was coming up, though, which means our band was about to be judged for our coordination, performance, unison, and costumes.

The music slows suddenly as the crowd halts behind the truck, dancing in place and holding each other back. The rhythm begins beating louder, and louder, and louder as you can feel the pressure mounting behind you; suddenly, just as the gates explode open in the Kentucky Derby, everybody runs forward as the beat drops, waving our swords emphatically.

The Monday Night Mas once again, was the “highlight” of the Carnival in every sense of the word. It was a night spent in celebration with friends both new and old, foreign and domestic. It went by like a flash, dancing in the blinding sea of bright lights. With a snap of the fingers you found yourself back on the Carenage, the trucks turning back and forth along the U-shaped road as the celebration came together and ran on deep into the night.

* * *

Once again, you’re roused awake by the sound of the alarm on your phone. Soca music has continued all through the night outside your apartment, amazing you that anyone can still be out celebrating for so long.

“They really don’t stop do they,” you laugh to yourself, shaking your head.

It was Carnival Tuesday, otherwise known for its Fancy Mas. It’s the pinnacle celebration of Carnival, where men and women alike dress up in elaborate and decadent costumes. This parade, thankfully for your tired and aching body, you weren’t jumping in. But naturally, since the celebration wasn’t over, you still intended to go down to town and watch the bands go past. This morning, however, your numbers were finally going to dwindle.

“You all ready to go?” you ask Don and G, as they zip close their tightly-packed suitcases in the guest room.

Physically, they were ready. Mentally and emotionally, however, they wished they could stay for just one more day of Carnival. Unfortunately, a prior commitment forced them to take an early exit. They justified it, though, by arriving the week before while your parents were still on-island, which suddenly seems like weeks, not days ago. Their taxi arrives and you and Tom pile in after them, taking the opportunity for a ride to town for the Fancy Mas.

Don and G’s trip had a little bit of everything, from the beaches and waterfalls, the local bars and fish fry’s, to the jump-ups and chaos of Carnival. They took it on with every bit of enthusiasm and joy, a true testament to their exploratory and outgoing personalities. In fact, you found yourself laughing at how well they caught on to the culture, as if they were Grenadian themselves.

When you stepped out of the car after reaching town, they climb out as well for a farewell hug. Let’s be honest here: sometimes a fading wave from a vehicle doesn’t do certain friendships justice anymore. A certain bond forms when you go through a foreign experience like that, something as unique and stimulating as a week-long bender that is Carnival. You were happy to have friends as free-spirited and open-minded to enjoy the cultural celebration with you, for it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Don and G got to meet not only your parents and the locals of Gouyave, but your brother and the other Peace Corps Volunteers as well.

So with one last round of goodbyes, you send them on their way. As the car turns the corner and disappears down the road, you and your brother once again walk the length of the Carenage and up the road, following the music to the bands jumping in the Fancy Mas. You are sad to see them go, but you’re happy to have had them here for that experience. A quiet relief soothes you, admittedly, knowing now it was just you and your brother from here on out. With each entourage of visitors, you can’t help but feel a slight bit relieved when their trip finishes safely and successfully on your end.

“You made it this far,” you comfort yourself. “Now for the homestretch.”

You think back to the past couple weeks that have made up your summer already. You survived a week at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). You powered through your business and reunion trip to St. Lucia. You completed the vacation stretch of showing your parents your host community and country. You endured a Carnival with your brother and a few close friends.

Finding a nice spot of shade on the side of the road, you and Tom sit back and wait for the bands of costumes, feathers, glitter, and music to come dancing past for the afternoon.

It’s hard to believe all that has happened since the summer holiday started just six, short weeks ago.

What you didn’t realize at the time, however, was that the best part hadn’t even started yet.

“Oh, look! Here they come now…”

* * *

To be concluded…

Cheers!

Something About Summer: A Series (2)

“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?”

* * *

Your feet dangle off the edge of a small boat, weighed down by a pair of long flippers and a snorkel mask that stifles your breathing. Pushing off with your hands you drop below into the cool, clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. Swimming away from the boat, you turn and watch as your parents drop into the water after you. Atop the boat, a young Grenadian man wearing an early-years LeBron James jersey, the wine color faded and worn from years in the Caribbean sun, gestures off to the right.

“Friendship Circle, right dey” he calls.

Following his pointed finger, you turn and swim in that direction. This isn’t your first time snorkeling the Underwater Sculpture Park, but each time it seems as surreal as the first. You kick your feet, propelling yourself through the surface of the water as you survey the untouched, underwater world below. The pale, sandy surface of the sea floor snakes through stretches of rugged, green reef. Flashes of vibrant blue and yellow catch your eye as small fish dart in and out of the coral-covered reefs below.

Suddenly, the reef stops abruptly and an expanse of white, sandy surface spans like a desert across the sea floor. However, it wasn’t long until a shadow loomed in the distance; it was connected to another shadow, and then another. As you approached them the shadows began to take shape; they’re children standing in a ring, facing outward hand-in-hand. They stood still and serene, blissfully at peace, undisturbed on the quiet sea floor.

Drifting over the top of the statues twenty feet below, you prepare to dive down. Inhaling deeply, you kick your feet up and dive. The pressure in your ear immediately builds up, popping as you exhale through the mouthpiece. Reaching as far down as you could go, you take a moment to silently float just above the heads of the children. Their facial features were faint but noticeable, overtaken by the coral, seaweed, and sea urchins in an eerie, post-apocalyptic way. The moment is fleeting, however, the pressure building up in your chest as you can only hold your breath for so long. Looking to the bright light of the surface above you propel yourself up, bursting through the surface and spitting the mouthpiece out to gasp in the sweet breath of life.

After catching your breath, you notice a dragon-shaped mass of land that juts out into the sea. The namesake of Dragon Bay, where the sculpture park is located, the green trees span the entirety of the “dragon,” riding the ridge of its tail all the way out to its head resting out on the water. Looking left, the Sea runs endlessly into the distance. Re-setting your mouthpiece and inhaling deeply, you prepare to dive for a next pass at the statues.

* * *

“Good night.”

Everyone in the bar pauses, looking up to see who had just walked in. A few faces light up with recognition, others with surprise or befuddlement. You nod an acknowledgement to the various persons at the bar and around the pool table. You walk over to the big man leaning on the speakers that were blasting soca music throughout the bar, a pool cue in his hand.

“Hey Mansa,” greeting him with a fist-bump. “I want you to meet my parents.”

“Eh, welcome to Grenada,” he says as he extends a hand out to each of your parents with a smile on his face.

“Cosa,” you place a hand on the shoulder of a man sitting at the bar wearing a black beanie, “These are my parents Tom and Janie.”

His eyes light up with delight, greeting your parents with the ever-so-common question of: “So how you enjoying Grenada?”

You order a round of drinks and throw some coins on the pool table. A short while later, the guys around the table, whom you’ve gotten to know well in the past year, hand a pool cue to you and your father. Typical to Grenadian hospitality, they opened up the table and took a seat to watch the foreign father-son duo duke it out for old times’ sake. With a smile on your face, you punch the coins in and rack the balls with the triangle. Chalking up your cue stick, your father breaks the set.

What ensues is a friendly but competitive game of pool; shot after shot and miss after miss, the game soon finishes…but with your father winning. You can’t help but laugh as you celebrate anyway, despite your father getting the best of you in front of the rest of “D Banana Bar’s” regulars.

The rest of the night moves forward, your parents getting a first-hand glimpse into what your life has been like since you left home over a year ago. This is your hang-out, the bar you frequent most, with the people you’ve become friends with, the place where you bring your friends when they visit. Naturally, you just had to bring your family there as well.

“I can’t believe it,” Cosa shakes his head. “You brought your parents here,” he says with a soft smile of disbelief and a glimmer of joy in his eye.

“Of course!” you laugh back. “How could I not?”

 

* * *

“Why don’t you lead us in a little prayer?” the deep, soft voice of your host-father murmurs.

A slight panic runs through your veins, caught off guard with such a request.

“Uh, sure. I can do that,” you respond.

Folding your hands in your lap and closing your eyes, you begin with something like this: “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for bringing us all here safely to enjoy this meal together. It is truly a special occasion, bringing together both of my families: one by birth and the other that has been my family away from home in every sense of the word. Thank you for this opportunity to bring the world a little closer together. Amen.”

You open your eyes, glancing over at your host father, who nods approvingly.

“Very nice, couldn’t have done it better myself,” he bellows.

Exhaling a quiet sigh of relief, you return your attention to the occasion at hand. In front of you is a beautiful display of fine china: elegant plates, bowls, and glasses seldom-used, except for the most special of occasions. To your right, at the head of the table, is your host father Dakka. Seated immediately to your left is your host mother Donna. Across from you is your own father and mother, the special guests of the afternoon.

That morning you had introduced them to each other during Mass at the local Catholic church. It was a beautiful service. A family reunion was being celebrated and the whole congregation was donned in their traditional African garb and dashikis, as Emancipation Day was to be the following day.

But now it was time for the Sunday lunch, the most popular family meal of the week in the West Indies. Donna uncovers the dishes of baked chicken, macaroni pie, cole slaw, sweet potatoes, plantains, brown rice and beans, and pours us all a few glasses of juice. Not a whole lot is said initially, as the dishes are passed around typical of the way a big-family Thanksgiving dinner begins at home. But when all the dishes are filled, the meal begins.

Dakka takes the reigns of the conversation, telling stories from his days growing up in Gouyave, his travels while studying in Canada and England, as well as his inevitable return to his true home in Grenada. Many men in his position move to town, the capital of St. George’s that is, for the stature and social standing that seemingly comes from living there. They all come back, however, he explains. They often miss the sense of community that you find living up in the country. They miss the sense of hometown pride in your community and the way things were when they were growing up. So they all eventually do come back; but not Dakka, because Dakka never really left.

A terrific orator, he continues the discussion about Grenada and its history, as well as touching on what he had learned about the States from his travels there. You and your parents didn’t have a whole lot to say to be honest, other than what they had seen around the island and the different fruits and local dishes they’ve tried up to that point. But that’s okay, for once again, your parents had the opportunity to see what your life had been like ever since you left that Memorial Day weekend in 2017. They saw the first place you called home in Grenada and experienced the same sense of hospitality from the very people who looked after and cared for you as if you were their own. They indulged in the stomach-stuffing Grenadian Sunday lunch, a meal that all but guarantees you won’t have to eat for the rest of the day.

 

* * *

 “Who’s this kid that keeps showing up here?” you laugh out loud as an old friend arrives at your apartment.

“Scottie!” he laughs back, embracing you in a big hug.

It’s Don, a friend you made when you took a volunteer trip to Cape Town, South Africa a year and a half ago. This was his second time in Grenada, having visited you back in December. For some reason he couldn’t get enough of Grenada, or maybe Grenada couldn’t get enough of him; it’s hard to tell.

He introduces you to his friend Ghallib, or ‘G’ for short. You don’t know anything about him but you can tell right away he’ll fit right in. After all, a friend of Don’s is a friend of yours.

You introduce them to your parents, excited that they get to meet somebody you’ve met along your international travels. The introductions are brief, however, as you quickly lock up, hop on a bus, and head north with the crew you now have gathered.

Whipping around the bends of the road up and down the hills, you begin catching up with Don and getting to know this guy called ‘G.’ A short while later, the five of you are dropped in Sauters, the northernmost town in Grenada. After a quick stop in a local market, you strap on your backpack and begin the long trek to Levera.

Arguably the most challenging endeavor of the itinerary you set out for your parents, Levera Beach is roughly a five-mile hike along the backroads of the country. The hike itself, although long, isn’t so difficult. The challenging part of it is that the backroads taken to get there offer very little cover from the blistering Caribbean sun. Nevertheless, equipped with water, hats, and plenty of sunscreen, you set out on your way.

Roughly ten minutes later, you’re walking along a bend in the road. A concrete wall stands to your right, the closest resemblance to one of those sound barrier walls you find bordering a freeway back home. To your left are a few simple homes overlooking the northern coast from atop a hill. Pausing the entourage for a moment, you point through a gap between two of the houses toward the town of Sauters, its church clock tower looming over the rooftops of its schools, shops, and homes that rise up and down with the hills.

But Sauters, as beautiful a town as it is, was not what you’re pointing too. Beyond the town there was a hill, farther off in the distance. You explain its somber, historical significance to the history of Grenada. In 1651, the Carib Indians realized it was a mistake to have allowed the French to settle on the island, so they became violent and killed a number of Frenchmen. In retaliation, the French became determined to wipe out the Carib Indian population from the island and because of their superior weaponry, had quickly defeated the Carib Indians. The remaining Carib survivors, however, made a last stand in Sauters. Upon realizing they were surrounded and defeated, they opted to jump off the cliff to their deaths rather than to submit themselves to French rule. The French consequently dubbed the location, “Le Morne de Sauters,” otherwise locally known as “Leaper’s Hill.”

Continuing on for the next hour and at the mercy of the hot sun, you arrive to the desired destination. Large rocks congregate at the base of a clear, grassy hill. Rough waves crash onto them, as the rocks fall over into the long and vast beachhead of Levera. Sugar Loaf Island sits in the distance, looking more like a humpbacked turtle more so than a sugar loaf. Sandy Island and Green Island, small strips of green land and palm trees peek just around the bend of the coast in the distance. Deep in the horizon to your left are various small, uninhabited islands that marks the last stretch of the Grenadine chain that runs from St. Vincent to Grenada.

Taking off your shoes and jumping down into the hot, soft sand, you walk along the beach that seems not to have been touched in years. You point out the spot where you found a nesting sea turtle back in May, and explain how the beachhead shifts with the changing tides of the seasons. But enough of the talking and geography lessons, you tell yourself, for it was time to cool off in the churning waters where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.

Floating in the Sea, your body rises and falls with the choppy waves. The water soothes your hot and aching body, already sore and exhausted from the hike in, which all of a sudden didn’t seem as long as it really was. You’re surrounded by both friends and family, seemingly dropped in the middle of the tropics without a care in the world. After all, bathing in the cool waters of the Sea, soothing your hot and aching body under a blistering hot sun, surrounded by family and laughing with a few good friends, what more could you ask for?

 

* * *

Pushing through the bush-covered path, you pop out from its grasp and into a clearing. Large rocks spot a small river directly in front of you. Looking ahead, a scene unfolds that almost begs for the cliché, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” line. Lush, vibrant shades of green trees and shrubs lean drunkenly in over a two-step layer of waterfalls. The first one has a rocky little channel of water that cascades down roughly fifteen feet into an emerald pool. Following up its path, its source is even more impressive. An even larger spring sits tranquil and seemingly untouched by the influence of man. The second waterfall rises nearly thirty feet in the air above it, water rushing down into the spring below with a force that beckons you to jump in.

Excited, you hustle along the narrow path to the second, higher waterfall. You’re the first ones there but not for long, as the Seven Sisters Waterfalls are one of the most oft-visited sites on the island. In next to no time you’re balancing delicately, barefoot on the rocks before diving into the crisp, clean waters of the spring. Its icy, cold temperature numbs your limbs while your heart thumps violently against your chest, confused as to whether it should feel soothed or concerned by the iciness of the water. You turn, backstroking out farther into the spring, looking up toward the sun-streaked canopy of trees above. The rays of the sun cast their light through the branches, striking the water and illuminating it that emerald color you’ve never seen before. Your parents follow in, smiling broadly as they ease into the cool and refreshing waters of the spring. Don laughs uncontrollably in joyous disbelief, loving every glorious minute. G floats where its shallow, soaking in the cleansing feel of the spring. PCVs Hannah Melin and Melanie Figueroa sit on the rocks at the edge of the spring, enjoying the cool breeze of the rainforest.

You and your dad swim together behind your unsuspecting mother. After securing your feet in the rocks below, you two simultaneously lift her up on your shoulders. She raises her hands with surprise, joy, disbelief, and okay, maybe a dash of uncertainty. You pose for a picture. But between the collaboration of weight between the three of you, alongside the strength of the current, you guys are cast out into the water where you now have to tread to stay afloat. The laughter pauses a moment when, upon finally losing balance, you all come crashing down into the water. Re-surfacing, the laughter returns, solidifying the bliss of the moment of being submerged in a spring, deep in the rainforest of a tropical island.

 

* * *

You’re laying out on the sands of Grand Anse Beach. Exhaustion is setting in, it was your second consecutive day of hiking waterfalls by morning and bathing in the waters of Grand Anse by the afternoon. The fading sun burns yellow on the horizon, casting an orange halo around it. The orange rises to a shade of blue, increasingly getting darker the higher up you look. Across the top of the sky a few soft, cotton-strand clouds take the orange-pink hue of the fading sun. You couldn’t ask for a better finish for the day, or even for the 10-day week of touring your parents around the crazy, hectic life you live down here in Grenada. It provides for a quiet moment of reflection, truly at peace alongside your friends and family. You think back to the week you’ve had:

A scenic view from atop the historical landmark of Ft. George.

Touring the Diamond Chocolate Factory and tasting samples of cocoa beans in Victoria.

Snorkeling the Underwater Sculpture Park, followed by a stop at Grand Anse, Fish Friday in your local community, and a stop at your favorite community bar.

Hiking through Grand Etang National Rainforest on a rainy day before hiding out with fellow PCVs at the West Indies Brewing Co.

Mass at the local Catholic Church and a Sunday lunch with your Grenadian host family.

A day trip to BBC Beach and dinner at Grand Anse.

A day-hike and bathe in the beautiful waters of Levera Beach.

A double-filled day of hiking and swimming the Seven Sisters Waterfalls by morning and bathing in the Caribbean Sea at Grand Anse by evening.

Another double-filled day hiking to and bathing in two of the Concord Waterfalls and reaching Grand Anse by the afternoon, where you now find yourself watching the sun go down with your parents and two close friends.

As exhausted as you are, you would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Funny you say that, however, because you will. For the next day your identical twin brother, Tom, flies in to celebrate the Carnival and take in the sights and sounds of Grenada.

The sun being gone now, you return home. Not wanting your parents’ trip to end, you and your mother attempt making passion fruit juice right from scratch. Sweetening it with just a touch of sugar, you clink your glasses together in cheers. The vacation may be over, but it was done right.

 

* * *

You hustle back early the next day, having run to town to complete some things at the Peace Corps Office. The next batch of Peace Corps Volunteers were scheduled to come in a week later, but with Carnival and your brother coming in you wouldn’t have any other time to complete their welcome packets that are traditionally done by the island-VAC.

When you do arrive back to your parents, you sit on the banister of the veranda. The old, too-familiar pit in your stomach begins to weigh heavily, knowing your parents’ taxi to the airport will arrive within the hour. You quietly fight back the tears, choking up as you sign your regrets to your cousin’s wedding invitation for later that month. It was to be the fourth wedding you’ve missed in your time down here, and honestly one of the most heart-breaking things for you to constantly miss.

Your mother comes out and sits next to you. Not knowing what else to do, you lean onto her shoulder and the floodgates open. A scene of gravity, it’s the goodbyes that are always the hardest. The time, as it always does, goes by too fast.  Time passing inescapably like sand through your fingertips, you say your goodbyes as the taxi arrives and takes them off to the airport and back to the States.

Turning away as the taxi rides off, you cross the road and jump into a bus. You wedge yourself between two passengers, your hugging your backpack in your lap. You continue fighting back the tears, sniffling quietly. But not only do the tears fight back, they win. Tucking the brim of your cap down over the dark shades covering your eyes, you do what you can to prevent anyone else on the bus from realizing you were crying.

The tears wouldn’t have been as strong, the goodbye wouldn’t have been as hard, you tell yourself; if only your brother were still coming in later that day.

* * *

To be continued…

Cheers!

 

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

A strong, warm breeze blows in from the Sea as sizable waves crash on the surf. Plopping down onto a blanket covering the soft sand, I leaned back on an elbow and cast an eye to the nighttime sky. Gray clouds stifled the stars in the heavens, leaving me dissatisfied as I wondered what awe-striking beauty lay behind those clouds. I had finally made it to Levera Beach, my favorite spot on Grenada, at night. It was May, which meant it was the time of year in which the leatherback sea turtles, native to Grenada’s waters, come ashore to nest. Through some fortunate circumstances, I was able to join fellow Peace Corps Volunteers Sarah Bowman, Riley Doerrler, and their visiting friend Lexi Pretter to try and witness the nesting of the leatherback sea turtles.

So here we were, laying out on Levera Beach and passing time until our tour guide, Harviel, would hopefully return with the good news that a sea turtle was nesting on the beach. We were told the waiting process could take anywhere from two to five hours. Harviel, our knowledgeable, articulate, and soft-spoken guide, was to walk the length of the beach at half-hour intervals in search of a nesting sea turtle and retrieve us when he found one. Although May is peak season for sea turtle nesting, it doesn’t necessarily mean one will nest tonight.

But I was really hoping one would. From the time I arrived to Grenada, I heard about the sea turtles nesting at Levera Beach. Upon learning about it, witnessing the sea turtle nesting immediately became Grenada Bucket List Item #1. There were a lot of factors in the way, however, that would make witnessing such a beautiful phenomenon difficult. The first being that Levera Beach, one of the top five leatherback sea turtle nesting sites in the region, was also one of the most isolated and remote beaches on the island. The closest town to the beach is Sauters, but the buses coming out of there don’t run a route near Levera. This essentially forces you to hike roughly over an hour just to get there from Sauters. This goes without mentioning that the sea turtles come in to nest at night, when buses aren’t running anyway.

Given those circumstances, the only way one could see the sea turtles nesting was if a private vehicle was involved. Then considering that it is against Peace Corps policy to drive a vehicle in your host country and violation of this policy would lead to immediate termination of service, the realistic possibility for me to see the nesting was slim to none.

Then came some unexpected good fortune. Lexi, a sailing instructor who has lived on various islands throughout the Caribbean, returned to Grenada to visit PCVs Sarah and Riley, whom she met and befriended in Bequia last year. Since she wasn’t Peace Corps, she could rent a vehicle; all of a sudden, we had a car.

Let that sink in: we had a CAR.

That may not seem like too big of a deal to you at home, but at this point in my Grenadian life, riding in an actual car is a luxurious experience. Having become accustomed to relying on the over-packed, restrictive-timed buses of the island, I almost forgot what the term “leg-room” even means. This goes without mentioning the complete and total freedom that comes with having a vehicle at your disposal that you can take wherever you wish, whenever you wish. Suddenly, the doors of possibility opened as we could literally “drive around” all the obstacles that previously stood in the way of us and the nesting sea turtles.

But I digress. So let’s go back to waiting for Harviel while laying out on blankets in the soft sand, the waves of the Atlantic crashing on the shore while the warm Sea breeze blows in under a cloudy, night sky.

“All right, time to go! There’s one out there now,” Harviel calls out, his silhouette becoming visible in the darkness as he approaches.

I hopped to my feet instantly, hardly believing that the moment was finally here. Honestly, it came sooner than I thought. I was finally going to see a leatherback sea turtle.

We were on the eastern end of the beachhead and as Harviel explained, the sea turtle was on the western end around the bend of the coastline. So following the red light shining from Harviel’s headlamp, we began trekking toward the water (red lights were used so as not to disturb the sea turtles while they were nesting). My toes dug into the sand with each step as we made our way from the back of the beach toward the shoreline. The closer I came to the water, the more the damp, tangled mess of seaweed that washed ashore seemed to try and hold me back from reaching the ocean. Broken, saturated driftwood jabbed at my ankles in the dark, as if they too, were trying to prevent me from reaching the water. But finally reaching the drop-off of sand to the ocean water, I let the sand cave beneath my feet and slid down to the firm, hard-soaked sand of the shore. Turning left and walking along the water, the incoming tide slapped playfully at my ankles before receding back to the ocean, only to return again a moment later.

Off to the right, Sugar Loaf Island’s hump-backed silhouette loomed peacefully just off-shore. A single light shone from the home at the base of the island, carrying a mysterious aura with it like that of the green light resonating from Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby. Looking up, the clouds were shifting with the sea breeze, finally beginning to unveil the glimmering array of stars they had been hiding. We rounded the bend that marks the northern turning point of the island, where the churning waters of the Atlantic meets the calming waters of the Caribbean Sea. Then without warning, a rogue wave crashes into our knees, as we all make a break for higher ground. But the rogue wave had done its deed and my shorts were now soaked just above the knees. I didn’t mind, however, as up ahead three figures could be seen huddled around a sole red light in the distance. We were almost there.

A fallen hush came over the tour group the moment that lone red light came into view. The previously bubbly atmosphere had become tense with anticipation. We weren’t to speak above a whisper, Harviel told us, so as not to disturb the sea turtle. Climbing up into the higher ground of the beachhead, we prepared to approach the sea turtle discreetly from behind, another precautionary measure we were to take so as not to disturb her. As we walked upon the huddled figures, two of them were crouched under red headlamps, scribbling away at chart paper on clipboards. A third figure, bigger than the other two, was laying down on his stomach and digging deep into the sand. We stepped up just behind him and following his hands, I then realized it wasn’t the sand he was digging into. He was reaching into the nest made by a large leatherback sea turtle!

Just above his hands, what at first appeared like a smooth, sandy surface was really the sea turtle’s shell. Beginning from her tail, a simple ridge ran along the center of her back to her neck. The breadth of her teardrop-shaped shell was masked in a thin coat of sand, essentially disguising the sea turtle from view. Her large rear flippers, in an alternating fashion, were pushing more and more sand out from the nest so she could make it as deep as possible. Underneath her shell next to her right, rear flipper, a metal tag glinted in the light, signifying she had been marked for research. This sea turtle was by no means small, either. Envisioning myself laying down next to it, the sea turtle would likely stretch from my feet to my shoulders, well over five feet long. Evidently, they can grow as long as seven feet and weigh upwards of two thousand pounds!

Forming a semi-circle around the back of the sea turtle, we watched intently as the conservationists went to work. The man lying on his stomach reached deep into the bowels of the nest, underneath the sea turtle. Then, a handful at a time, he began pulling out slimy, tennis-ball-sized eggs and placed them in a black, plastic bucket. As he did this, the other two conservationists kept scribbling away at their clipboards, marking down whatever information deemed relevant to their research.

“These people are from Ocean Spirits, a research-based organization evaluating the current status of leatherback sea turtles in the region,” Harviel, now standing next to the sea turtle, whispered softly to the group.

“They are gathering these eggs to move them to a more secure part of the beach, as this sea turtle has made her nest too close to the water,”  Harviel’s whisper was surprisingly audible in the strong, relentless breeze from the Sea.

Harviel, before the tour, had previously explained to us the mating and nesting process for the sea turtles. Every two to three years, the female sea turtle will mate with multiple males during the mating season. Now, the mating season for sea turtles is entirely separate from nesting season. The female sea turtle during the mating season stores all the sperm from her partners before internally fertilizing anywhere from 100-150 eggs. She then returns to land in order to nest at the very same beach that she, herself, had hatched. After digging her nest and laying her eggs, she will then cover up the nest and scatter the sand around it to mask the nest’s true location from potential predators. Returning back to sea, she will then internally fertilize another 100-150 more eggs with the stored sperm before coming back to nest again within the next nine days. This process will continue until the female sea turtle has laid up to seven to nine nests during the nesting season.

Within the nests, small, golf-ball sized eggs are laid with the larger, tennis-ball-sized ones. These golf-ball-sized eggs are non-viable. They will not produce any baby sea turtles, but rather serve the purpose to humidify the nest in order for the viable eggs to develop. Warm temperature nests tend to produce females, while cooler ones tend to produce more males. Therefore, as Harviel smiled slyly, “We like to say that sea turtles produce cool dudes and hot chicks.”

Despite the high-production rates of each nest, realistically, one out of every one thousand sea turtles will live to reach adulthood. Before hatching, a nest can be destroyed by another nesting sea turtle that may be unaware that she is building her nest on top of pre-existing one, incidentally destroying it and the eggs already laid inside. After hatching, young sea turtles face a list of predators that include birds, lizards, and mongooses, most of whom take advantage of the opportunity to prey on them as they crawl from their nest toward the ocean. Once in the ocean, however, the sea turtles are still threatened by sharks and other large fish. Sadly, leatherback sea turtles may also fall victim by human means, ranging from boats, fishing nets, plastic, and poaching.

Consequently, organizations like Ocean Spirits conduct their research and work in the best interest of the leatherback sea turtle population. Through the work of these organizations, the population status of leatherback sea turtles has been upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable, according to the World Wildlife Organization (https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/leatherback-turtle).

“If you guys would like, one at a time, you may come and take a photo with her,” Harviel whispers. “But remember, move slowly, quietly, and absolutely NO flash photography.”

My eyes lit up with excitement. Not only was I witnessing the leatherback sea turtle lay her eggs, I was going to be able to take a photo with her as well. Cautiously, I followed the others around the back and when my turn arrived, crouched beside the sea turtle. Placing a hand on her smooth, leathery shell (thus, the namesake), I was enthralled. She was absolutely majestic; she was focused, breathing, and birthing, all with me right beside her, yet somehow unbothered.

When she lays her eggs, the female sea turtle falls under a trance to ease the birthing process. Consequently, we were able to approach her from the side and touch her shell in a manner that was safe for the sea turtle. However, that’s not to stress enough the importance that we followed the rules set before us by Harviel. For, if we were to disturb her from the trance, we not only would harm her, but disrupt the whole nesting process altogether.

Having taken my turn, I climbed back up and around the back of the semi-circle and made my way to the far end on the left side. I looked on attentively as she lay there, the man on his stomach filling the black bucket with more and more eggs each time he reached down. Looking off to my right, the silhouettes of palm trees extended out in the dark night sky over the foliage of the shoreline behind us. The gray clouds were all but gone now, the sky now filled with a sparkling display of stars. I watched intently, scanning the heavens and almost willing a star to shoot across the sky. As much as I wanted one to, none ever did. So turning my attention up ahead, the hump-back silhouette of Sugar Loaf Island now seemed to look the other way, disinterested in what was happening on this side of the beach. To the left, the white water of the breakers washed onto shore in a soothing, rhythmic pattern. Beyond the breaking waters was a steep darkness, conveying the true immensity of the ocean. In the far distance, however, a faint, light haze hovered on the horizon. It was light pollution coming from the small island of Carriacou, just off-shore from the northern coast of Grenada. We couldn’t see Carriacou itself, but evidently there was enough light coming from its town to be seen from here. Looking back in front of me, the female sea turtle still lay there, basking under the surgical glow of red lights.

“Okay, she’s finished,” Harviel says, as the man collecting the eggs abruptly got up and gathered his materials from the sand. “Everyone, let’s step back now. Remember, it’s important that we stay remain behind her and not be seen.”

We all take a step back onto higher ground, a little over ten feet away from the sea turtle. She begins shifting back and forth, forcing sand back into her unknowingly empty nest. Once filled, she crawled slowly back and forth to mash up the sand all around the nest to mask its location. While she did this, the two researchers from Ocean Spirits quickly sprang to action, expertly and tactfully taking measurements of the sea turtle. She measured 149″ in length, 107″ in width. After scribbling the measurements onto their clipboards. The three conservationists gathered the rest of their materials, the bucket of eggs, and disappeared into the darkness behind us. Their job wasn’t over, as they still had work to do: the bucket of freshly-laid eggs was to be moved to a new nest they created in a safer location farther from the water.

A suction-cup sound suddenly drew my attention, as the sea turtle’s flippers slapped against the wet sand. She was getting frustrated, Harviel explained, as the wet sand was making it difficult for her to move and cover her nest. Despite her struggles, she eventually managed to mask her nest after a short while by turning in slow, 180-degree angles. Consequently, as we tried to maintain a safe distance behind her and remain out of sight, we often found ourselves shuffling as a group from left to right to left again. Taken out of context, it must have been quite comical to see us rotating angles as we shuffled back and forth behind the sea turtle for such a length of time.

The red lights were turned off and her figure momentarily vanished in the surrounding darkness, but she was still there. As my eyes began adjusting to the full darkness of the night, a faint silhouette could be seen slowly crawling toward the incoming tide. She would linger, Harviel said, until she feels that the nest is safe and confident that the nesting process had gone unnoticed. Hypnotized by her presence, we began walking out to the sea, quietly following her into the waters. The whites of the crashing waves wrapped around her darkened silhouette as they washed ashore. With each incoming wave, it was becoming even harder and harder to see her. Then a wave suddenly wiped over the top of her shell and she disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen by us again.

We stood there, watching, waiting, wondering. Wondering where she was headed next and wondering when she might return.

Looking back, the beach seemed as surreal and untouched as ever in the peaceful, Caribbean night. The waves crashed rhythmically onto the shore. The silhouettes of palm trees stretched into a sparkling, starry sky. Sugar Loaf Island loomed peacefully offshore. A strong, warm breeze was still blowing in hard from the Sea. But in the sand, not a trace of the leatherback sea turtle could be found.

It was as if she was never there, as if what I just witnessed didn’t happen.

But it did.

Witnessing the nesting of a leatherback sea turtle was not only the coolest night of my life…

It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

And I loved every minute of it.

Cheers!

 

Note: If you would like to learn more about Ocean Spirits or S.P.E.C.T.O. (the tour group we went out with), you can find their websites listed below.

http://www.oceanspirits.org/

http://spectogrenada.com/

 

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The Ultimate Game

Laying back on a broken-down concrete stoop, I tilted my wide-brim cap over my eyes to shade them from the blinding light of the early morning sun. Waiting on the side of the road with me were Katie Riley and Lili Gradilla, two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers joining me on the hike from Concord Waterfalls to Grand Etang Lake. The hired bus full of Institute Hikers was to pick us up on their way to the first of the Concord falls.

“Morning, morning,” a woman pleasantly greeted us as she walks down the hill.

“Morning,” we respond.

This was my third time going to the Concord Waterfalls. Each time I’ve gone, one thing has remained constant: the locals of Concord are always sure to greet you with a “Good morning,” or “Enjoy the falls,” already knowing that’s where we foreigners were headed.

A few moments later a bus pulls up; it’s the Institute Hikers. The door slides open and rising from my somewhat uncomfortable but satisfactory resting spot, I pile into the van behind the others. The bus takes off and hustles quickly up a narrow, paved road into the mountains. The nutmeg, papya, cocoa, and other roadside trees flew past in a blur. The farther up into the mountains we went, the fewer houses we saw. Out of the few homes we did see, some were missing walls, roofs, and doors; they were covered in ivy with foliage growing inside as if left over from a fateful apocalypse. Within minutes, we came upon the welcome center to the first waterfall. Bustling right past it, we came to a stop at a clearing of pavement overlooking the first fall. One by one we unloaded from the bus, looking on in awe at the towering green mountains that surrounded us. We then gathered around in a circle to introduce ourselves, set the agenda, and assign numbers. There were fewer of us this time around, only about a dozen or so, probably due to the long hike ahead of us.

We break the circle to begin the hike. Taking up my usual position toward the back of the line, I followed the brightly colored shirts of the hikers ahead of me. The trail began like most trails here start, a simple dirt path destined to penetrate deep into the depths of the forest. A few streams and fallen logs interrupt the path along the way, but we climb over and around them. A ravine runs along the right side of us while a mass of bamboo shoots explode from the hillside to our left. The deeper into the forest we go, the trail transitions from the simple dirt path to the boulder-riddled ravine. We hiked onward, tucked in between two forested hillsides. Looking on, the hikers ahead of me appeared the size of ants as they climbed over and around the massive boulders. Then jumping from one boulder to the next, I climbed to the top of a certain boulder where I knew the second waterfall initially comes into view. A scene of untouched beauty and raw power, the water stampedes over the crest and plummets down the rock chute into a subtle spring below. More boulders form a semi-circle around the spring, serving as a natural-made pier from which one could jump into its cool and refreshingly chilly waters. Mosquitoes, hovering in the glimmering haze of sunlight that poked through the trees, were determined to pester any hiker they could. On the far-left boulder, a pile of stones delicately balances on top of each other, evidently a cairn left behind by some clever hikers wishing to leave their mark.

We didn’t stay long at the second fall, knowing we still had a long way to go that morning. So after back-tracking the boulder-ridden ravine a couple hundred feet, one of the lead hikers suddenly slid down a hill and leaped across the stream. He disappeared into the wilderness on the other side, seeking the yellow-ribbons that mark the trail we were to follow. After finding it, one by one we slid down the mud and danced across the rocks, reaching the other side. Now for the hard part: it was all uphill from here.

I started the steep climb up with long, high strides. Grabbing anything I could from bamboo shoots and branches to shrubs and vines, I pulled myself up to ease the stress the incline put on my legs. This continued until the path hooked to the right, flattening into a narrow strip that ran along the side of an even steeper hill. The trees had somewhat cleared away, as now only waist-high foliage of various shades of green surrounded us. A rope lay strewn carelessly on the ground, barely visible in the vegetation but tethered to a tree at the top of the hill. Taking it up, the rope felt rough and worn in my hands as I started the vertical climb up the hillside. I began high-stepping systematically through the bush in much the same way you would trek through three feet of snow. With every step upward, gasps of excitement could be heard from the hikers above me, indicating the stunning view to come. Pausing for a moment, I looked over my shoulder to sneak a peek at the ridge-line of mountains protruding over the canopy of trees. Glancing down, the hillside was so steep that all I could see was the tops of the heads of the hikers below me. A single slip of the foot could send me tumbling down to the bottom, all but guaranteeing a few broken bones along the way. At this moment, however, I realized I wasn’t as nervous about heights as I used to be; I suppose jumping off a couple bridges and waterfalls will ease that concern for you. But knowing the view was only going to get better at the top, I turned back around to continue my ascent.

Upon reaching the top, the view was as humble as it was scenic. The sun cast its light on the mountains while shadows from the clouds lingered in varied spots. It was a view straight from a postcard. Unfortunately, I only had a brief moment to take it in as we still had a-ways to go. So turning around, I followed the others into the overgrown and narrow path of the bush ahead. Fallen leaves crunched beneath my feet with each step, indicating the ground for once was actually dry (outside of a few strategically-placed patches of soft mud, of course). The narrow path weaved through the woods before dropping sharply into another ravine. I began side-stepping down to the ravine when:

“Ahh!”

Turning abruptly, I saw two hikers tactfully hopping from tree to tree down into the ravine. Apparently, one of the hikers had slipped and fallen halfway down the hill. The previously easy-going atmosphere suddenly became tense, as the rest of us were apprehensively waiting to hear if she was all right. The tension was relieved when she soon reappeared from the ravine with the aid of the two other hikers. Despite the hard fall, she came up with a strained but relieved smile on her face.

Moving on, I stepped-down the path to the boulder-ridden stream below. Standing on a rock in the center of the stream, I surveyed my surroundings. The water of the stream flowed peacefully and undisturbed through the rocks, pooling at the bottom. The soft, trickling sound of the stream completed the natural soundtrack of rustling trees, creaking bamboo, and chirping birds of the forest. Dancing across the rocks to the other side, the path once again shot upward. Hiking the trail up, spindly trees now stretched skyward, each seemingly attempting to out-reach one another to the sun. Rocks and fallen logs were strewn carelessly across the trail, each being overtaken by a crawling coat of moss. The incline eased itself into a slightly forested clearing, where everyone had paused to gather around what was probably one of the largest trees I have ever seen. Now, I have never been to the Redwood Forest in California, but I hope I am lucky enough to hike through there someday. That being said, I’d like to think this tree would rival those Redwoods due to its daunting height, width, and overall size. At the base of the tree, its roots were so large and con-caved in such a way, one could practically build a small home inside of it. I could only imagine how much this tree has lived through in all its years.

After appreciating the dominating presence of the tree, we re-grouped to continue on. The path progressed at a slight incline while the foliage became more sparse around the trail, giving us elbow room as we hiked along. A short while later, the group stopped altogether again. This time, we found ourselves in front of two large boulders pressed firmly into the hillside. Underneath the two boulders was yet another boulder. But this one was buried by damp, brown fallen leaves and had a black hole pitched discreetly underneath it. It was said this hole was one of the many caves used by Julien Fedon during the rebellion.

Frankie, a well-built man with dreadlocks pulled back by a rubber-band into a Rasta-style pony-tail, hopped down the edge and crawled cautiously into the mouth of the cave. A passing breeze rustled the leaves of the trees above while a few isolated songbirds sang their chorus. Outside of that, however, all was silent as we waited eagerly to see if he would find anything inside.

“Shhh!” he turns, his index finger pressed to his lips. “I hear something.”

A smirk cracked across my face, convinced he was putting on a show. Then suddenly, as if sent out by Frankie himself, a bat hurdled wildly out of the cave and narrowly passed over our heads. Everyone ducked out of its way, caught in a moment of fright before laughter broke out among the group. No one had seen that coming.

“I told you I heard something!” Frankie laughed.

Having altogether recovered from the momentary heart attack, it was time to move forward. The path maintained its somewhat flat terrain, to which my already aching legs were very much grateful. But the foliage pressed back into the trail, as branches and vines were trying to grab hold of us like fan-girls at a country concert. Consequently, the hikers dispersed into a spacious single-file line. Lili, who was at this point directly in front of me, picked up a fallen branch to use as a walking stick. Trekking through the bush, I watched intently as she planted the branch in a ditch to hold her steady as she stepped over it when…

*Snap

What once was a head-height branch snapped like a baseball bat right in her hand, leaving nothing but its top in her grasp. Waving her arms frantically, she then quickly recovered her balance. After realizing that we were the only two that witnessed what had just happened, laughter broke out between the two of us. Clapping my hands together in amusement, I couldn’t help but giggle at the theatrical performance of her maintaining her balance. So goes life hiking through the woods, with so many close calls, sometimes you just have to laugh.

As the hike went on, the line of hikers thinned out even more and I soon found myself entirely alone. Noticing this, I took a moment to look around, seeing a path of boulders in front of me and a tangled mess of branches, vines, and trees on all sides around me. The sunlight was forcing its way through the canopy above, adorning the forest floor with swaying splotches of sunshine. It was quaint little scene, yet something felt unusual. Here I was, deep in the mountainous bush that makes up inland Grenada. Yet, out of all the wildlife in the forest, there was not a single sound to be heard. Let me repeat: Not. A. Single. Sound.

This was probably the first time in my eleven months here that I have found myself engulfed in complete and utter silence. It was like everything was frozen in time. Everything captured in that moment was so serene, so peaceful, that I was wishing I could linger there forever. The silence itself was so captivating, I did not dare to move or hardly even breathe. In that moment, I realized how much I’ve missed the quiet. After all, living in the heart of Grenada’s, “City That Never Sleeps,” my home isn’t exactly forgiving when it comes to finding peace and quiet. Although over time, I have become accustomed to the incessant noise outside my apartment windows at all ungodly hours of the night that I hardly even notice them anymore. Yet, in this moment of solitude in the depths of the Grand Etang National Forest, I had found bliss. It was baffling still, that even the rustling of the trees and the songs of the birds had fallen mum. All that was left in this moment was me, the trees, and a humbling reminder of the power of silence.

*Crack

A few branches snapped somewhere in the distance and a murmur of voices announced that hikers were breaking through the bush behind me. I, likewise, was snapped out of my frozen trance. Disappointed the moment of tranquility didn’t last longer, I decided it was time to move forward. Climbing on all fours over the boulders, I reached back to the path and proceeded upward. By now, the foliage seemed to back off, deciding once again to respect my personal space. With each step, sunlight filled the trail as it was becoming less and less shaded. The canopy cleared away the closer I came to the summit. I picked up my pace, dragging along the heavy weight my legs now seemed to carry. But I was eager to see the views that awaited me at the top. Upon finally reaching the clearing at the peak, all I could say was…

“Oh, my.”                                                                                                                                                                                                         In front of me sprawled a network of ridge-line mountains, coated in vibrant shades of green. Thick, gray, cotton-ball clouds hovered just above them, nearly grazing their peaks. Much like before, the sun cast its light on the mountains, highlighting the green as the clouds left their dark shadows in various, intermittent spots. I sighed deeply, awestruck by the sheer beauty before me. Suddenly, my legs didn’t quite feel so heavy anymore. The burning cuts and scrapes on my arms left by the whipping branches and vines began to fade. The growling of my empty stomach, too, seemed to have subsided with the dazzling view before me.

“Hey, look over here!” Someone called.

I followed the voice, turning the corner where in front of me, clearly visible in the distance was the capital city of St. George’s. Beyond it, the arm-like coastline of Grand Anse Beach stretched out into the Caribbean Sea. To my left, peeking through the branches, Grand Etang Lake could be seen resting subtly at the center of its crater. Just like that, multiple staples of Grenada’s jaw-dropping landscape was before me in one panoramic view. Beyond the island’s shores, a blue haze stretched far into the horizon; thus, solidifying the reality that I am on an island and surrounded entirely by water.

Turning back, I followed the others hiking the path in the other direction. The footfalls of past hikers marked an indelible, dirt-ridden spine that ran along the top of the ridge. Small trees bordered the path like a gauntlet of paparazzi on the red carpet. I could almost envision myself from a bird’s-eye view, a small speck running along the spine of a mountain ridge on this island. When I finally reached the end, I had arrived to the top of Mt. Qua-Qua. Some of the hikers were already there, sitting around three wooden poles that stood from the ground in a tee-pee like manner. At the cross-hairs of the poles, two high-heeled shoes were hooked on the top. How they got there I haven’t a clue, but we had a good laugh about it nonetheless.

Next to the wooden tee-pee-like structure was a boulder so large, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the very same boulder Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to roll up a hill for eternity. Only this boulder, atop Mt. Qua-Qua on the island of Grenada, evidently came to a rest at the summit. Sisyphus had paid his price.

Frankie was already standing on top of the boulder, having taken off his hiking shoes to allow himself to grip the boulder’s smooth surface while he climbed. Conflicted, I wanted to get on top of the boulder to see what view it would provide, but I still wanted to keep my boots on. The mud and rivers from all the previous rain-soaked hikes have taken a toll on my boots, as the laces have toughened and lost their elasticity; putting them on and taking them off is now barely possible without a shoe-horn (which I don’t have). Consequently, I made the decision to get up there, boots and all. A soft impression marked the boulder, roughly at the height of my chest; it was going to take all I could to hop up there on my own.

“Careful Scott, we don’t want you to have a Grenadian funeral,” one of the local hikers teased as I sized up the jump.

Gathering all my weight, I jumped for the impression. My shin bashed on the rock-face, as my feet barely reached the edge of the impression. Just then, all my weight began taking me backward. Quickly collecting what grip I could, I jumped straight into the air, buying myself time to ensure I landed safely flat on the ground.

Back on solid ground, my shin was now throbbing. But I re-gathered myself anyway to prepare for take number two.

Like a box-jump in a high school gym, I squatted down to once again gather all I could before jumping for the impression. However, it again proved too high, too smooth, and at too much of an incline and my weight took me backward off the boulder. This time, however, as I landed on the ground my momentum continued backward. Flailing my arms, I maintained my balance by grabbing hold of some branches to prevent me from falling into the bush. After finally collecting myself, I stepped back out into the sunlight to find a concerned look on everyone’s faces.

“You know I was kidding about the whole Grenadian funeral thing, right?” The same hiker said, as a nervous laughter broke out.

I laughed along with them, then turned around to find nothing but thick foliage and steep darkness where my weight would have carried me down. It would have been a long and violent tumble down the mountain through the bush.

Having learned my lesson, I dropped my backpack to ease the unnecessary weight on my back and had one of the hikers help push me up. I grabbed hold of Frankie’s outstretched forearm as he pulled me the rest of the way. Just goes to show that sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and accept help when you need it.

It was all worth it, too. As now, in front of me was the entire eastern half of Grenada, including the town of Grenville sitting on the coastline in the distance. Atop this boulder, I was practically at eye-level with the clouds, almost having to duck just to see Grenville. The wind pounded relentlessly, as I held my hat back so it wouldn’t blow away. Looking off to the right, red and orange rooftops snaked through the lush, green mountains. These humble homes traced the road of the #6 bus route from St. George’s to Grenville through the Grand Etang National Forest. Along that route was Grand Etang Lake, the very same lake that was originally on my left from the last viewpoint. I couldn’t see St. George’s from this boulder, but I could envision it just past the trees to my right. I knew Grenada was a small island. I just didn’t realize how small it really was. You could just about see half of the island right from where I was standing.

Having taken in what I could, I sat down on the boulder and slid my way down, dropping the last six feet or so to solid ground. Picking up my backpack, I pulled out a PB&J and a roll of crackers I had packed that morning and began the trek down to the lake with the others. Back-tracking down the path that pointed toward St. George’s, we hiked down the spine of the mountain ridge before again being swallowed by the foliage of Grand Etang National Forest.

An hour or so later, we eventually did reach Grand Etang Lake. At the end of it all, all my energy was entirely spent. It was honestly the longest hike I had been on with this group, well over eight miles and almost exclusively uphill. My legs felt like Jell-o. Small, red cuts and scrapes from the bush marked my arms from my wrists to my elbows. My shin was bruised and bleeding, having already swelled into a knot. After finding a pipe to rinse off my mud-ridden pants and boots, I slipped into sandals and a fresh set of clothes. Then hopping into a car with some other hikers, I was on my way toward St. George’s, where I could then catch a bus back home to Gouyave. Snaking through the #6 route road through Grand Etang National Forest, we started swapping stories and sharing thoughts on the hike, laughing about all that had happened.

But soon my mind drifted off. I started thinking about those views at the top. Then I thought about that moment of silence along the way. It was a simple moment, gone before you could almost notice it was there. It was so fleeting, in fact, that I had almost forgotten it had happened. But the silence was deafening. In that moment, there was nothing but the glimmering forest floor and a surrounding earthly scene of natural, untouched forest beauty; all this frozen in a moment of time that was apologetically and unequivocally peaceful.

I wish I could go back to that moment. To me, that moment was the highlight of the entire day’s hike. Yes, the stunning panoramic views atop Mt. Qua-Qua were breathtaking. But there’s something to be said about those moments of complete tranquility in the forest that calms the soul. It’s reflective in nature, soothing of stress, and brings peace to the mind. These moments of peace are so powerful, they compel you to stop dead in your tracks and embrace them. You can’t help but acknowledge the power they hold. Yet, they are fleeting, an oxymoron of complete stillness while perpetually moving. It’s as though these moments are meant to be chased. They are all out there somewhere, begging to be captured.

It’s the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.

Only in this game, when we win, we capture the ultimate prize:

Peace.

Peace for the mind. Peace for the soul. Peace in our lives.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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In the Words of Jimmy Buffett

A couple months ago I found myself in the Peace Corps office in St. George’s. Inside one of the rooms are two large bookcases, filled with various worn and used books that serve as the “Volunteer Library.” It’s not much, but it’s something.

While scanning the shelves, a certain book caught my attention. It had clearly seen better days, missing both front and back covers with faded, discolored-yellow pages. All that was remaining of the cover was the spine, worn-down and wrinkled. It read: Jimmy Buffett: A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I wasn’t surprised about the condition the book was in, it seemed fitting to his profile: worn with experience but still intact. Curious, I picked it up and threw it into my backpack to take home with me.  After all, how could I resist? It’s Jimmy Buffett.

We all know his name. We all know his music. We all know his image–one of sunshine, crystal blue waters, sandy beaches, margaritas, and 5:00 happy hours. He is a man of many talents: a musician, songwriter, author, actor, and businessman. There is a lot to admire about him and the lifestyle he has come to represent.

After all, who doesn’t want to waste away in Margaritaville?

My family has always been made up of Jimmy Buffett fans, or “Parrotheads” as they’re often called. His Greatest Hits Album was one of the few CDs we had in the house growing up. Consequently, I grew up very familiar with his music. On family vacations to the Sunset Beach, North Carolina, the days were spent in beach chairs chasing the tide while his music played from a portable speaker.

My 21st birthday was spent road-tripping down to Cincinnati, Ohio where I saw him in concert with some family and friends. It was my first time seeing him live. His performance lived up to the hype and consequently, I solidified my position in his following of Parrotheads.

During the first week of September my senior year in college, I had just officially accepted the invitation to serve in the Eastern Caribbean with the Peace Corps. Closing my laptop, I plugged my phone into my roommate’s speaker system and began playing, none other than, Jimmy Buffett. I’m not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

I didn’t know what to expect moving to the Caribbean or even what it would be like living here. It had all just seemed like a far-away, distant dream. I’ve been here for around ten months now, almost a full year, and it still sometimes feels that way.

Over the past ten months I have gotten to experience the hot sun, sandy beaches, crystal waters, and even a margarita or two during happy hour. To that extent, life in the Caribbean and the story of Jimmy Buffett met some of my expectations both in my personal experience here, as well as reading about his. There was one other thing that I have come to learn about since moving down here and as it turns out, Jimmy Buffett knows a thing or two about it, too. The funny thing is, it’s got nothing to do with the Caribbean. It has everything to do with life.

When I saw the worn-out book that was Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, I figured I could learn a thing or two from him. After all, he’s spent a significant part of his life in the Caribbean and I was curious to see what he had to say about it. I wanted to know if his experience paralleled mine in any way.

Let me tell you, his autobiography blew me away.

I feel as though I can relate to him on a personal level and it has nothing to do with our mutual connection to the Caribbean. I found that he has an incredible perspective on things. I admire the way he has lived and continues to live his life. From his first and only year at Auburn, to busking in New Orleans, to his failed attempt at country music in Nashville, he was just a man trying to find a niche to fit in. When he didn’t find one, he joined a friend on a trip to Key West. The rest, you could say, is history. He never found his niche, so he created one. To hear him tell his story is captivating. His writing is plain, straight-forward, and easy to read. His writing style is very much personal, giving you a feeling as if he were sitting right beside you while he tells his story. His literary voice is as casual as the lifestyle he represents.

Jimmy Buffett has come to embody what’s referred to as the “island-escapism” lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle engulfed in the concept of vacation, where you bask in the care-free moment and let go of the stresses of your life. It’s a life where your biggest concern is making sure you put on enough sunscreen. Parrotheads flock to his shows for this very reason, as Jimmy Buffett, through his music, brings the Caribbean beaches to stadiums and concert venues across the world. Parrotheads are a loyal fanbase, traveling far and wide to see him perform and to forget about life for awhile. What people fail to realize, however, is that although Buffett represents what it means to “escape” life, it’s really quite the opposite.

Allow me to elaborate. Rather, allow me to elaborate in the words of Buffet himself.

What follows is a series of quotes I’ve pulled from his autobiography, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. These are excerpts that caught my attention and made me think. They are quotes that moved me in such a way that I wrote them down so as not to forget them. They gave me an opportunity to reflect on what they mean and how they pertain to not only my life, but life as a whole. With each quote, I have provided an interpretation of what he means based on my personal experiences both at home and abroad. You may agree, disagree, or what have you. But either way, I hope you find as much meaning in them as I did.

“Songwriters write songs, but they really belong to the listener.”

Is there a song that whenever it comes on, you’re immediately taken back to a certain time in your life? Does it make you think of a specific place or person? That is because you have attached a meaning to the song, which now forever correlates with whatever memorable experience comes to mind. That’s the beauty of music. We can all be given the same song, but each of us may interpret it differently based on our personal experiences listening to it. Songs are given to us, the listeners, and we have the freedom to interpret and attach meaning to it in any way we like. That’s the power of music that makes it so unique; musicians can create a song, but that same song can take on countless meanings based on the various listeners. With all the various meanings attached to the same song, is it still the same song? Just more food for thought.

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If there’s one thing the Caribbean people know, it’s music.

“Time is something to be used, not saved.”

I once heard of an analogy that coincides nicely with this quote. Think of it this way:

Imagine that at the start of each day you are given $1,440. You have exactly 24 hours to spend the money. The catch is, however, that you lose the money that you don’t spend when the day is over. Therefore, you cannot save the money for tomorrow because it won’t be there, so you must spend what you can of it today. If this were the case, how would you spend your money? Think about it for a moment before moving on.

Fun fact: did you know that there are 1,440 minutes in each day? Now read that over again.

Does your plans for how to spend your “money” change?

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Time is already flying by as I am already ten months into in my Peace Corps service.

“Life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”

This one took some thought. What does he mean by this? The way I’ve come to see it, life as a scavenger hunt means that there’s something to be found. It can come in many forms: a road map, a step-by-step checklist, or even a bucket list. A scavenger hunt gives you a purpose, a mission. It gives you something to find and a means to find it. It forces you to take initiative yourself. At times, it even requires you to be creative in finding what you’re look for. It provides a series of clues and small achievements in increments to encourage you and help you measure your progress along the way. Somewhere along the lines you realize that what you’re really searching for is the experience. You’ll realize that the journey along the way to finding whatever it was you were looking for, sometimes outweighs the attained goal itself.

A surprise party, on the other hand, although enjoyable is ultimately fleeting. It requires a passive approach; one in which you wait for the things you’re supposed to search for to come to you. When the surprises do come, you receive a momentary thrill as they arrive. However, it seems that as soon as they arrive they disappear, leaving you in the exact same position as before. The surprise party is less rewarding than the scavenger hunt, as at least with the scavenger hunt you are not only rewarded by finding what you’re looking for, but you have the comfort of being able to reflect on the experience of your journey to obtaining it as well.

By taking life as a scavenger hunt, you’re able to take things one step at a time. Therefore, you’re in control. Attaining your goals not only becomes more realistic in this way, but the journey itself brings it all together in the end.

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It was once my goal to run a marathon. Looking back now, the months of training leading up to the race made the accomplishment of it all the more rewarding.

“It is my independence and my emergency parachute…I know deep down inside that if it came to it, I could cram what I really need into my backpack, hit the trail, and be perfectly happy.”

Only since my time here have I been able to relate to this. Every now and then I will pack a bag and catch a bus to explore a remote part of the island for the weekend. Sometimes even another country (as I only took my backpack with me to St. Vincent and Bequia, an island Buffett wrote very highly about with good reason). Usually with a packed lunch, a change of clothes, and a few other bare necessities, I can steal away for days at a time. I find solace in the fact that I am able to do that with such ease down here. It’s comforting knowing that the opportunity to condense my life into a backpack and steal away for a weekend is always in my back-pocket, ready to be used whenever I want it or need it. It has certainly helped that my life was already condensed into two suitcases upon coming down here, so now down-sizing even more into a single backpack seems like nothing. But in reality, I’ve learned I don’t really need a whole lot to get by and I’m perfectly content with that. All I really need, can fit into my backpack.

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The backpack I have been basically living my life out of for the past ten months.

“When you go off adventuring, part of the adventure is the unpredictable. That is what really separates travelers from tourists.”

While walking to or from school, and even while at school, I often see large tourist buses pass through Gouyave. Looking through its windows as it passes, there’s always sun-burnt tourists from the cruise ships donning shades and holding maps, binoculars, and cameras. I always wonder what they must think of me and if they wonder what I must be doing here while they pass by. Sometimes I feel as though I am a part of some zoo exhibit, where the tourists are viewing me and my community from the safety of a sheltered bus. The locals don’t seem to mind or take notice, as they’ve grown up having the presence of the large, passing tourist buses their entire life.

While I’m on the topic of cruise ships, I admit I have come to have a conflicting perspective on them. On one hand, I admire and appreciate the cruisers initiative in going out and exploring new places. On the other hand, they know exactly what they’re getting. They disembark from the massive floating cities that are the cruise ships. They’re shuffled into buses that hustle them around the island and allot them only so much time for “excursions” at various sites such as the beaches, waterfalls, and sulfur springs. There’s always a time restraint, as they have to return to the ship before the big horn blares and the ship takes off for the next island with or without them. Although efficient, this method of travel is defined and predictable. You know exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there. I’ve never been on a cruise so I do not speak from experience in this regard. This is simply my interpretation of what they’re like from what I’ve heard and seen down here, so do take what I said there with a grain of salt. That type of experience may exactly be what you’re looking for when traveling and that’s perfectly okay, you can experience a lot on a trip with a cruise. I’m just not sure it would suit me.

Travelers, on the contrary, stray from the rigid schedule and predictability of the cruise ship and bus excursions, seeking to experience the island for themselves. Travelers purchase flights and arrive in countries not necessarily knowing what they are going to experience. They have a general idea about what they’ll be doing and where they’ll be going, but they trust in the process and rely on local guidance to find all the best spots and places to go. They chase the experience of discovery and have become addicted to the life of unpredictability. It’s not necessarily a picture-perfect or glamorous way to explore new countries, as things can often go wrong. Buffett shared some of his mishaps from his time abroad, including getting shot at while flying over Jamaica and having his plane strip-searched for drugs in Columbia. My mishap experiences thankfully haven’t been to that extreme, but I have certainly had some of my own. But isn’t that the point? Sometimes the biggest mistakes you make end up making the best stories. The unpredictability is what makes an adventure just that…an adventure.

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The cruise ships are so large, that especially when they are lit up at night, appear to be like floating cities.

“[I]t is more fun sharing the adventure than doing it yourself.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Buffett on this one. It’s one thing for me to experience not only the beautiful beaches and jaw-dropping waterfalls, but also the challenges and frustrations that come with working in a differentiated classroom. All in all, this experience has been wholly mine; it’s a task I’m glad to have taken but I wish I could share. I am learning and experiencing so much and crave to share my life here with my family and friends back home or even to anyone who would listen. I wish they could see the beaches and waterfalls. I wish they could meet my students and the people in my community. Thankfully, technology comes into play here as opportunities such as this blog can help bridge that void so that others can share this experience with me.

However, having other Volunteers on the island to go through this experience with is both comforting and enjoyable, even if I only see them at best a week or two at a time. From my other volunteer experiences, it was meeting and sharing the experiences with other volunteers from across the world that made our time together abroad all the more exciting. That’s not to mention that the volunteers you meet abroad are some of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet. I am still in contact with many of the friends I’ve made while volunteering abroad. When it comes down to it, life abroad is more fun when you have people to share the experience with, plain and simple.

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The volunteers from my time in Quito, Ecuador.
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The volunteers from my time in Cape Town, South Africa.
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The Volunteers with me in Grenada.

“I think that if you live an interesting life, you have to come face-to-face with death on occasion, and it should scare you.”

I’m lucky and blessed that I haven’t had any necessarily life-threatening experiences (unless I count nearly getting hit by a car my first month in Grenada, which was my own fault, but terrifying nonetheless). That being said, I have done some potentially dangerous things in the name of thrill. The first came when I jumped from a bridge that was 300 feet above a river in Banos, Ecuador, swinging like a pendulum underneath it. It was the first time I had done anything like it. Truth be told, I am deathly afraid of heights as they make me very uncomfortable. But I also consider myself a man of opportunity. Therefore, when this opportunity presented itself, I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. After all, no one remembers the things you “almost did.” All the other volunteers were jumping and I couldn’t be the only one not to do it. So I jumped.

A year later I found myself in South Africa at the world’s fourth largest bungee jump, also the world’s largest bridge bungee at 719 feet. My stomach dropped when I saw how high it was. The other volunteers I was with on the weekend safari tour at the time were all excited to try it. I survived the one in Ecuador and was content with that. But deep down, I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t go back home and tell someone, “Yeah, I went to the world’s fourth largest bungee there, but I didn’t try it.” So my legs were tied together and I placed my arms around the shoulders of the two men who helped me to the edge. Every fiber in my being was telling me not to jump. I honestly didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to look over the edge. But my desire to prove to myself that I could do it outweighed my fear. Knowing there was a camera on me, I painted a nervous smile on my face and tried masking the fear with adrenaline. I took a deep breath, and on the count of three leaped from the ledge.

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The pit in my stomach was lifted airlessly as I fell through the sky toward the ravine below. The cord smoothly caught with tension and I began bouncing upside down through the air as the momentum settled and I simply dangled underneath the bridge. It was a thrill of a lifetime. I could feel my heart pound against my chest. Everything around me was suddenly silent and the blood began rushing to my head as I swayed back and forth, upside down beneath the bridge. I remember laughing to myself, “Here I am, halfway across the world, dangling upside down underneath a bridge. Everyone at home is sound asleep and has no idea.” Looking back now, I can honestly say jumping off that bridge was one of the greatest decisions of my life.

Having conquered my fear of heights for the second time, I went on to go skydiving with some friends a few months later when I finished my undergrad studies. My mother asked me if I had a death wish. After giving it some thought, my answer was: “It’s not a death wish. In fact, it’s really quite the opposite.” (I still had to promise her before I left that I wouldn’t do any bungees or sky-dives in the Caribbean).

Some people have called me an adrenaline-junkie or a thrill-seeker, but I don’t consider myself as such. I’d be perfectly content with keeping my two feet on solid ground. But when these opportunities came along, I wanted to prove to myself I could overcome my fear and do it. Almost daily, my students here ask me if they can watch the videos of me jumping from bridges and planes. They find it interesting and exciting. Therefore, I suppose Buffett’s got a point here.

“That’s the way life is. We all try to make something out of our lives, and some of us are just luckier than others.”

A fellow Volunteer recently asked me if I felt guilty for serving in the Caribbean, as opposed to the more challenging and isolated Peace Corps posts across the world. It is a valid question and one that I have admittedly grappled with since arriving here. At first I did feel guilty, as comparatively speaking, I have it good. I have electricity, access to wi-fi (when I’m at home), running water, and beautiful weather. That’s not to say there aren’t any challenges, it’s just the challenges we have here aren’t the same as the ones a Volunteer in a remote African village might have.

But here’s the thing: I saw this opportunity and took it. Anyone could have applied to come here. But I’m the one that prepared my resume with the necessary experiences, applied, interviewed, and accepted the invitation to serve. I am absolutely blessed to be able to live in a place people dream of visiting. Something that I’ve come to terms with since moving here, one I didn’t think I’d have to learn at that, is that there is nothing wrong with relishing in your blessings. It’s okay to get lucky sometimes, it’s okay to be blessed. Just recognize that you are blessed and do your part to pass on those blessings to those less fortunate than you are. It’s as simple as that.

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Life in the Caribbean has not been without its perks.

“That to me is the way any good romantic would look at his life: Live it first, then write it down before you go.”

When I began this blog back in June, I wasn’t sure what the nature of it was going to be or how I would go about writing it. I’ve since fallen into the routine of letting things happen on their own and waiting for something that makes me go, “Wow, now that was pretty cool.” Luckily for me, that happens just about every day down here. My blog has become a tool for me to reflect on various parts of my Peace Corps experience and share what they have come to mean to me. It also is a form of expression and stress-release, a productive hobby that I’ve come to enjoy. I don’t go out and write things down as they happen, for if I did that then I wouldn’t truly be experiencing my surroundings. Therefore, I guess I’ve taken on that, “Live it first, then write it down before you go,” mentality. Someday, hopefully I can look back on this experience and re-live the lessons I’ve learned from my life in Grenada. It’s just important not to let writing it down part get in the way of living it first.

I never considered myself either a writer or a romantic. But when it comes to this blog, I suppose I fit the profile. Either way, it’s important to live your life first and experience it with all your surroundings, emotions, and feelings. Just don’t forget to write it all down. Someday you’ll have a life-story to tell, as someday our time on Earth will be up. When that day comes, will someone have to tell your story for you? Or will you have your own story written down yourself? There is no right or wrong answer here, as that’s entirely up to you.

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I try to take time every couple weeks or so to write things from my day-to-day life into a journal. (Photo courtesy John Lyness).

“Life does not come without risks. You learn to take them, or you stay home and watch life on TV.”

They say you save the best for last, so I saved this quote for last as it is my favorite from the whole book. Blunt and calling it as it is, Buffett himself is calling out me and everyone else that is jealous of his life. It’s no secret that in today’s world, we are all absorbed in the technology that has become ingrained in our lives. When I first arrived, I was disappointed when I discovered I had a television and cable already set up in my apartment. I was looking forward to the challenge of living without it. So I cancelled the cable, despite the internal concerns I had on how I would fill my time without one. I was nervous about it, but as it turns out, I hardly notice I’m without one. Instead of staying in and watching television, I have come to develop other hobbies such as reading, writing, and playing basketball.

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My TV now gathers dust in the corner of my sitting room.

People have a hard time believing or understanding me when I tell them I don’t have a Netflix account. Honestly, not having one is something I’m kind of proud of. It’s not that I think I’m better in any way, television shows have a tremendous benefit for us. Do you every wonder why we even watch certain shows? Television shows provide an escape from our life by placing us in a fictional one, or someone else’s that we sometimes wish we had. We all have our favorites: my personals being Seinfeld, M*A*S*H, and Friends. Movies provide the same type of entertainment for a solid two or three hours at a time, in the same way also serving as an escape. When you think about it, the stories that play out on the big-screen are often very relevant to our day-to-day lives. That is why we become so attached to and invested in certain characters and shows, because we can relate to them on a personal level. We can relate to them because they’re us. They’re telling stories about life, our lives.

I’m not saying television is a bad thing. But the characters and people on your favorite shows are the very people going out and living their lives, whether it’s a fictional one or not. We spend countless hours of the week watching other people live their lives on the big screen, sometimes even longing to live out what we see ourselves. In reality, though, that very life does await us. Just like what Buffett says himself: sometimes we just have to turn off the television, step out the door, and find it.

The same goes for the life of Buffett, who has lived in exotic places ranging from Key West and St. Bart’s, to Paris and New York, all the while traveling across the world. It’s easy to admire what he’s done and be jealous of him for living in all the beautiful places he’s lived. I for one am jealous.

Originally, I had first opened his book out of curiosity to learn about the man behind the music and the “island-escapism” lifestyle. While reading it, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired. I found a man who was incredibly down-to-earth and just trying to find his way in the world. He’s not afraid of putting in the time and effort to his work, as evident of his overwhelming success across various mediums. But he strives to not forget that although we all must work, we can’t let it get in the way of us living our lives. I have come to admire him not because of the sunshine, beaches, and margaritas. I admire him because it seems like he has it all figured out.

He isn’t escaping life.

He’s living it.

Cheers!

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P.S. The Rainforest Is You

Julien Fedon, a Grenadian revolutionary, set out to abolish slavery and rid Grenada of British rule in 1795. The destination of my second hike of the year was to the site of his base camp during the rebellion. From this high point overlooking both the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of Grenada, Fedon successfully and simultaneously coordinated attacks on the towns of Grenville and Gouyave. This was a particularly impressive feat; especially given the fact that he conquered two large towns, on opposite sides of the island, at the same time. Fedon’s Rebellion continued to the point where he had gained control over the entire island outside of the parish of St. George, where the British government was seated in the capital city of St. George’s. Unfortunately for Fedon, his rebellion was put down in June of 1796 and British order was restored across the island. Slavery would go on for another 38 years, not being abolished until 1834.

As I was gathered in a circle with my fellow hikers, this brief history lesson left me captivated. It was a dreary, overcast morning complete with a persistent drizzle. The night before, a rainstorm poured heavily throughout the night, promising a muddy hike in the morning.

I took on the hike the same way I’ve taken on the others, sticking toward the back to allow myself time to enjoy the surroundings and take a few photos along the way. This hike, however, I must say was the most challenging one yet. The mud sucked in my boots, dragging my feet like a child bear-hugging his father’s leg. The hills were incredibly steep, forcing me to rely on vines, branches, and trees to pull myself up. It truly felt like I was hiking through a tropical rainforest, surrounded by the sounds of the birds in the trees and trekking through the mud with a cool breeze blowing mist onto my face. At certain points along the way, viewpoints on the mountain opened up so I could overlook the forest-covered hills that stretched all the way out to the coast. Unfortunately, the true potential of the viewpoint was compromised due to the low-hanging, stagnant rain-clouds. I wasn’t upset, however, because the ominous clouds gave the rainforest the kind of foreboding aura that something big was coming; you could feel the impending doom like a chill in your bones. It felt almost as if I was walking through a scene in Jurassic Park, where the fog and mist eerily creeps between the trees. Despite the heavy fog and clouds of the morning, the viewpoints along the way were nonetheless absolutely stunning.

By the time I reached the summit, a simple stone monument marked the site of Fedon’s Camp. Allegedly, this is the only spot on Grenada where you will find Fedon’s name. This is because after his rebellion was put down, the British essentially wiped his name from from the history books. In the small clearing atop the mountain, we stood idly around the monument surrounded by short, green foliage. Beyond the foliage, the clouds were so thick around us that we quite literally were surrounded by a wall of gray. Since this is the site where you can supposedly see both Gouyave and Grenville, I admit I was a little disappointed that the fog was so thick. But it was still enjoyable, though, because I still couldn’t get over how eerie and cool being surrounded by the clouds seemed. It was like I had quite literally hiked my way into heaven.

After a slippery and often-times treacherous trek down the mountain (during which I can proudly say I only fell once), I was exhausted. I rinsed off my clothes and boots in the stream and switched into a dry set of clothes I had stored in my backpack. Climbing into a car that served as my ride back to Gouyave, I passed out the moment we hit the winding roads. Upon arriving home, I stumbled inside and proceeded to shower and go straight to my bed for what became a glorious two-hour nap.

When I woke up, I went through the photos that I had taken that morning and began editing them. As I did this, I found them to be quite jaw-dropping. It was almost hard to accept the fact that I had actually hiked through the surreal beauty of a natural rainforest just a few hours prior. When it came time for me to sit down and translate my experience into this blog, I quite literally was at a loss for words.

But then I had an idea. I found this to be a unique opportunity to switch things up and explore something I’ve been meaning to for quite some time now. I did find the words that accurately reflected my experience hiking to Fedon’s Camp; they come in the form of a poem.

Now before you roll your eyes (as you may already have), bear with me.  Poetry is a complex field of language arts. It often takes time and effort to truly understand and appreciate a poem, which is why it can be often overlooked and neglected. However, when read appropriately it can be an enlightening experience for the reader. Consequently, when I found myself a bit puzzled on where to begin this next post-I turned to poetry to guide me.

Before you begin your own reading of the poem, let me pass on a word of advice from an old college professor of mine: when reading a poem, you must read it at least three times. The first time to become introduced to the main idea or theme of the poem; the second time as an attempt to grasp an understanding; the third time to appreciate and capture meaning from it. It may even help you to read it out loud. Now you don’t have to read it three times over or even reflect on it yourself, as I have done this already. When you hike through a mountainous rainforest, a lot of thoughts cross your mind. Multiple viewpoints offer various opportunities for reflection on many different aspects of life. My thoughts and reflections on this hike covered many things related to life, the rainforest, and the relationship between the two. I have come to find that this poem appropriately and accurately depicts my experience hiking to Fedon’s Camp:

P.S. The Rainforest is You

a young rainforest has yet to know of the world 
the harsh reality of mistrust, humiliation, and disappointment  
but maybe thats the charm of it all 
trees strung about in a wild fun mess of branches 
smells of flowers and mildewy ferns on the floors 
welcomes me to close my eyes and be comfortable 
every little detail has its own story to tell 
every little creature a character of its own 
in between the plants it whispers to me 
songs and tales of the forest’s past, present, and future 
the surface of it so bright and colorful 
and the bottom so dark and wonderfully cool 
for each drop of rain that falls feels warm against the skin 
embracing me as one of its own 
not knowing of what I have seen and felt before. 

But that does not matter, 
for the rainforest is handsome, compelling, and full of surprises, 
it takes when it can and gives even more- 
optimism that everything is alright, 
that when I am in such a beautiful place, 
there is no reason to worry- 
 
in truly heartbreaking silence, 
I think to myself- 
I hope I never have to leave. 

-Victoria Ellison

This first time I read this, I breezed right through and moved on to the next one. Yet, like any good poem, something about it remained in the back of my mind until I couldn’t resist returning to it. The more I read it, the more I found it captured not only my experience with the hike to Fedon’s Camp, but also my relationship with the rainforest and how I have come to fall in love with hikes such as this one. Focusing on simple excerpts at a time, analyzing this poem enabled me to put words to the contemplative experience this hike became for me. What follows is the introspective, line-by-line breakdown of the poem. It is a poem that captures the reflective nature of my hike and what an experience like this truly means.

a young rainforest has yet to know of the world
the harsh reality of mistrust, humiliation, and disappointment
but maybe thats the charm of it all

The rainforest, much like the one I had just trekked through, is largely untouched by human presence. It is purely raw and natural, uncompromised by the development of cities, towns, and communities. Human contact with the rainforest can be deceitful; as although many explore and delve into the forest to appreciate its natural beauty, others take advantage of its resources. This can come in the form of the logging, housing, and trophy-hunting industries which in turn lead not only to the deterioration of the rainforest, but also diminishes the natural habitats and population-rates of the animals existing within. The rainforest, always welcoming the adventurous explorers with open arms, can often be betrayed as its resources are abused by the very same people it aims to please.

Despite what could go wrong, the rainforest maintains the naivety and innocence of a child. It is ‘forever young,’ expecting the best of everyone and always trusting for no rhyme or reason. To the rainforest, everyone arrives with a clean slate. It’s the very same fresh outlook and genuine spirit that we find so appealing in children and seem to have lost ourselves somewhere along the way during our self-righteous, “know-it-all,” teenage years. We can all learn from this confiding characteristic of the rainforest, in the same way we can always learn a thing or two from the unwavering, trusting nature of our children.

trees strung about in a wild fun mess of branches
smells of flowers and mildewy ferns on the floors
welcomes me to close my eyes and be comfortable

Did you capture a visual image in your mind with this passage? Maybe you envisioned a tree standing curved but strong, surrounded by other trees with branches so intermingled, you don’t know where the first one begins and the other one ends. Maybe you pictured a tree fallen over. Held up by its unwavering counterparts, the fallen tree is covered in a thick coat of moss and draped in vines. Maybe you inhaled deep breath of fresh scents coming from exotic and vibrantly-colored flowers. Maybe you envisioned the patterned-layers of green ferns across a sun-spotted forest floor. Visual as much as it is experiential, this passage begins to describe the relationship between man and rainforest.

The forest, not concerned with any opinion you may have of it, exists as itself unapologetically. When you can appreciate and acknowledge this aspect of the rainforest, recognizing there’s no concern for any judgment to be passed, you can free up yourself to be unapologetically you. You feel at home, at peace with yourself: who you are, how far you’ve come, where you’re headed, and why you’ve come here in the first place. You close your eyes, comforted by the sweet seclusion the forest offers you.

every little detail has its own story to tell
every little creature a character of its own

As simple as a forest may seem, it’s truly complicated within. Do you remember those ecosystem graphics in the science textbooks of your early school days? In the river there’s fish, in the sky there’s birds, and there’s various animals pictured in the forest between. Cyclical arrows are drawn around the page to signify that something is always happening. The sun with its light feeds the plants, which in turn gives off the oxygen we breathe. Some animals eat the plants, while other animals higher up in the food chain feed on them. When the animals and plants die, they decompose to feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants and the cycle begins all over again. The cycle is never-ending and constantly moving. Each plant and animal plays a vital role, whether it’s as a minor or major character in the story of the forest. Yet no matter how large or small the role each character plays, the forest would be incomplete without it. On top of it all, each of these “characters,” has its own story entirely unique to itself. Therefore, the variety of characters and their stories are what truly brings the rainforest to life.

in between the plants it whispers to me
songs and tales of the forest’s past, present, and future

Close your eyes and imagine yourself walking alone through the rainforest. Now ask yourself, “Do you feel like you’re alone?” If you’re like me, you never feel alone in the woods. Whether it’s the birds chirping in the trees, the small lizards scurrying on the ground, or the rustling branches in the breeze, there’s always something that seems to give you that ominous feeling that you are not alone. Much like this passage describes, it’s almost as if the forest speaks to you. It speaks to you in a language that you hear, but may not always understand.

Yet, you can feel the history breathing within. It’s like you’ve stepped back into the past, to a time when a small army of rebels and escaped slaves are stalking through the woods to find a proper place to set up camp. It’s a time when your next day isn’t guaranteed, much less your next meal. It’s a time where you have to rely on the natural resources that surround you: the fish in the rivers, the fruits in the trees, and the game in the forest.

The rainforest you find yourself in is one that seems lost in time, enabling you to return to the past despite existing in the present. This rainforest seems not to care about the development of the outside world: where cities literally scrape the sky, stadiums light up the night, and airplanes soar through the air. The forest just continues on its stubborn path, disinterested in the changing world we live in and seeking only mind its own business. It will always maintain this mindset, as the present forever chases the future with each passing second.

the surface of it so bright and colorful
and the bottom so dark and wonderfully cool   

This excerpt simply expresses the beauty of your surroundings in the forest. All around you there are assorted, vibrant shades of green. The rain-soaked palm leaves sparkle from its glimmering coat of rain. Bright red and yellow flowers blossom by your side, opening its bell to take in what rain it can. The fog pushes through the canopy of trees, oddly enlightening the scene around you despite its intimidating presence. The forest floor is thick with mud that stains the otherwise clear streams. Freshly-fallen green leaves, along with the lackluster brown of decomposing ones, blanket the soft ground beneath your boots. The incessant breeze brings the mist, cooling you off with a refreshing, yet hair-tingling chill. The canopy of the trees provides concealment and cover on your hike, as if you were penetrating the forest in secrecy from the omniscient sun.

for each drop of rain that falls feels warm against the skin
embracing me as one of its own
not knowing of what I have seen and felt before.

That’s the beauty about the rain, it falls on everyone. The rain is unbiased and beautifully color-blind. It treats everyone the same. It doesn’t care about who you are or what you’ve done, good or bad, it falls on you just the same. I find the rain to be a fascinating thing in this manner. It’s funny-people often carry a negative connotation with the rain. After all, the rain is synonymous with dreary, lazy days curled up on a couch with a good book. In my time down here, the slightest rain has also come to mean the fear and likelihood of catching a cold (which might sound bizarre at first, but believe me: when you’ve been in the Caribbean long enough, it happens).

Yet despite this negative connotation, I find the rain to be soothing and refreshing in nature. Early on in my Peace Corps journey, I came across a quote from Bob Marley that simply states: “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.” I first came to appreciate this quote when I reached the top of Gros Piton Mountain on a rain-soaked morning in St. Lucia. That morning I cast a glance to the sky, rain falling through the canopy of the trees. My arms outstretched, I embraced the feeling of the rain falling on my skin. It was cool, yet soothing. The rain can certainly be dreary; but more importantly, it can be cleansing. It washes away your past and impresses a self-reflection into the present. When it falls gently, it calmly offers you an opportunity for a fresh start and promises you a clean slate after it passes.

But that does not matter,
for the rainforest is handsome, compelling, and full of surprises,

When I came across this part of the poem, I found the word “compelling” to be a particularly striking way to describe the rainforest. Yet, after some thought I find it accurate. There is a presence about it that convinces you to move forward. It necessitates action on your part, all the while somehow convincing you that the decision to move forward was one of your own accord.

This goes without mentioning, of course, that the forest will always throw a curveball or two your way. You dig your heels into the mud, careful of each step and mindful of where the vines and trees are in the event you need to catch your fall. But right when you think you’re in the clear, your foot slips and gives way. Arms flailing, as if crossed up between the decision of reaching for something to grab or stubbornly thinking they can maintain your balance, you land in the thick mud.

You can’t help but laugh…Rainforest: 1 You: 0. That’s the underlying beauty of the rainforest, it’s not afraid to knock you on your ass and remind you who’s boss. Which leads us to the next excerpt…

it takes when it can and gives even more-
optimism that everything is alright,
that when I am in such a beautiful place,
there is no reason to worry-

The rainforest is by no means a gift-giver. It can disorient you, take advantage of you, and manipulate you unforgivingly. But as much as it takes from you, it leaves as compensation that beautiful word called, “optimism.” To have optimism is to maintain hope. This hope can take the form of many things: hope for a better future, hope for a successful career, hope for a healthy family, hope for a peaceful world. There is a saying that goes: “Hope is seeing the light in spite of being surrounded by darkness.” This reinforces the point that as long as we have hope, in reality that is all we really need. Hope provides the motivation to make our dreams become reality. Hope inspires us to overcome our setbacks and challenges us to reach our goals. So for every setback and challenge the rainforest throws your way, as long as you maintain hope that you will make it to your destination, you will. The rainforest teaches you patience, as you may not reach your destination right away. But as long as you maintain that hope and continue moving forward, there is no need to worry. You will reach your destination and your goal. I find comfort in this.

in truly heartbreaking silence,
I think to myself-
I hope I never have to leave.

Ahh-the feeling that comes at the completion of every successful hike. Your limbs ache with exhaustion, but spiritually you are rejuvenated and alive. You’re disappointed that your journey has to come to an end and you have to return to the world of schedules and responsibilities. The rainforest is the epitome of an escape, a sanctuary from the stressful and often irrelevant cares of the world. It provides an opportunity for self-reflection and promises hope for the future. It reminds you that there are things in the world larger than you. It humbles you and reminds you to be patient, re-assuring you that you will overcome your struggles all in due time. It serves as a distraction from the seemingly overwhelming responsibilities the societal world forces upon you. It takes you back in time, all while appreciating the present and contemplative of what the future holds. It reminds you that even on a rainy, dreary day there is awe-inspiring beauty to be found in this world. It leaves you comforted by the thought that one day you’ll return to the sanctuary of ‘escapism’ that the rainforest has become.

Above all, perhaps, it reminds you of the most important thing: you. It reminds you of who you are. It reminds you that you must first understand yourself, before you can truly be yourself. Once you’ve accomplished this, much like the rainforest, you can unapologetically be yourself. You can keep that innocence and trust of a child, seeing the best in people regardless of their past. You can appreciate the various characters that play vital roles in your story, no matter how big or small their roles in your life may be. You can recognize your appearance on the surface and find value in both its beauty and its blemishes, the flowers and the mud. Much like the rain, you can embrace the fact that we are all in this life together, despite how checkered our past may or may not be. You can acknowledge the fact that despite the challenges that darken our surroundings, you don’t ever have to worry because you always have that flashlight we call, ‘Hope.’

Now let’s return to that final line:

I hope I never have to leave.

Now allow me to let you in on a little secret…you don’t have to.

Remember the title?

P.S. The Rainforest Is You

Cheers!