“On to De Next One”; St. Peter’s RC Sports Day

“Nothing ever gets done during Sports Term.”

I was told this more times than I can count upon arriving to Grenada. The school system here is structured into three academic terms. The first one, from the first week of September to the first week of December, is essentially when the majority of classroom learning is done. The second term, known as “Sports Term,” runs from January to Easter and is usually the shortest of the three terms. This is the term where sports takes priority, as students are pulled from the classrooms to train for Sports Day. The third term, from after Easter until about the first week of July, is largely focused on assessments and preparing the students for the next level.

I can’t speak much to the third term, given I’ve only been here for the first term and now halfway through the second. But after being told that, “Nothing gets done during Sports Term,” I set out at the start of January to seize every opportunity I would have to work with my pull-out students.

Thank God for rain.

Grenada’s rainy season on a calendar-year historically runs from June 1st to January 1st. It’s now late February, and still raining nearly every day (keep in mind by raining, I mean passing showers that last a few minutes at a time throughout the day). Due to the unusual lingering of the rainy season this year, much of the sports training has gotten pushed back and postponed due to the wet and muddy field conditions. As a result, I’ve been able to meet with my pull-out students pretty regularly; I’m happy with the progress we’re making with long vowel sounds and the “Silent E.” With my two students reading at the Pre-K level, we’re building up fluency skills before moving on to the next step. That being said, for the past two weeks the weather has been more favorable and I have had to compete with sports training for time with my students. But as I’ve learned, Sports Day is a pretty big deal for the school and the community.

Now I know why.

I showed up at school early on Friday morning, dressed in my casual pair of khaki pants and my bright yellow Ecuador football jersey and wearing a yellow hat. All the teachers were dressed in their respective red, green, blue, and yellow colors. Much like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, the students and teachers here are divided into one of four houses: red, green, blue, and yellow. When I first arrived I was placed in blue house, but was soon moved to yellow. In recent years tending to finish toward the bottom of the totem pole in sports, yellow house is the school underdog. But luckily since I’m from Cleveland, the home of the underdog story, yellow house suits me just fine.

I quickly hopped into my principal’s car with one of the caretakers of the school, and the three of us went down to the park to begin preparing the field for Sports Day. Stepping out of the car and unloading the trunk, we carried the miscellaneous contents to the field. It was a picturesque summer morning. Birds chirped from the trees and the sun seemed to  burn increasingly hotter by the minute. A few, puffy white clouds drifted gently in the sky, pushed by a warm breeze that passed through.

The first task at hand was staking in small flags of various colors around the track. Hammer in hand, I squatted down in the hot sun, pounding the wooden-staked flags into the soft ground. As I did this, flashbacks of preparing ball fields for baseball tournaments came to mind. This time, instead of measuring and chalking baselines, I was pounding in flags marking the inside perimeter of the track.

The next step was carrying chairs out to the two tents set-up in the center of the field, where the scoreboard and special invited guests were to be seated. Students from a local secondary school were completing their javelin and discus training. As I dropped a set of three chairs under a tent, one of the female students turns to me and says hello. Looking up, I acknowledge her with a smile and hello before turning to double-back for more chairs.

“I like you,” she says. “Do you like me?”

I paused, caught off guard and not sure what to say. So with a polite smile I said, “Sure, I do.”

“You like me to be your girlfriend?”

Well this is awkward.

“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry no, I can’t. But have a good day.”

I shuffled off and went to get more chairs. You know, I knew I was signing up for a lot of unexpected things when I joined the Peace Corps, but being asked out by a fifteen-year-old was not one of those things.

The rest of the morning was spent carrying chairs, tables, benches, coolers, and those metal barricade fencing you always see at parades downtown. The DJ set up his speaker system in front of the stands. “I Feel It Coming,” by The Weeknd was blasting on repeat from the speakers with a delayed echo reverberating off the surrounding mountains. The DJ would cut in intermittently, “Check. One. Two. Sound check. One. Two.” By this time I was seated in the chairs under the tent in the center of the field. Wiping the sweat from my brow and resting my legs, I was exhausted from being on my feet all morning. I was taking a brief moment to rest alongside the caretaker and the physical education teacher, who had been helping set up the field all morning as well. Somehow the microphones found their way out to us, and we laughed as we passed it around sound-checking it ourselves and throwing our own karaoke-take into “Skankin’ Sweet,” the song by reggae artist Chronixx the DJ now had blaring.

The environment of the morning at this point was exciting and anticipatory. You could feel the impending excitement ahead, envisioning when the stands would be full, the athletes on the track, and the races taking place. Drifting off in thought, I was sitting in a chair underneath the same type of large, white tents you would always see at graduation parties. The last time I was sitting under one of these tents before an event was before my going-away party the day before I left for the Peace Corps. Back then I was seated under a white tent in my parent’s backyard. The birds were chirping on a cool, spring morning and much like today, you could feel the sun get increasingly hotter as the morning went on. The excitement I felt at this moment was similar to that of my going-away party, when you’re tired from the morning’s preparations but excited for the day’s events to come. I’ve come a long way since that cool, spring morning, but I look fondly back on that day frequently as it was easily one of the best days of my life.

I suppose that’s what happens when you’re living abroad by yourself, simple things trigger your memories of home.

The morning drifted into the early afternoon and the sun continued beating down mercilessly. A few people began trickling into the stands. Carrying the two blackboards out to the scorer’s tent, I pulled out the chalk and began writing down the current standings. It took a couple of tries, as I’m not even sure why I was the one assigned this task in the first place, given my lack of artistic ability. Needless to say, I was somewhat relieved when another teacher arrived and ‘fixed’ my scoreboard so it looked more like a scoreboard and less like a neighborhood sidewalk.

Drums thundered from down the road, as the students were about to arrive. I ran over to the entrance and watched the students, dressed in their colorful costumes and covered in glitter, march to the field. A few remarks were said and after some formalities, including a singing of Grenada’s national anthem, St. Peter’s RC Sports Day was officially underway. I took my seat alongside the three other teachers assigned to scoreboard-duty. We kicked back under the life-saving shade of the tent and watched as race after race unfolded before us. The students would line up in their respective lanes and take their mark; some were donning sneakers or cleats, others opted to run barefoot in the grass. The official would raise the gun and fire, unleashing a puff of smoke as the students took off in a sprint for the finish. I would step out into the sun, calling out and cheering my yellow house students on. I needed yellow house to do well, as pride was at stake. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who takes house pride more seriously: the students or the teachers. All the teachers, myself included, would laugh and ‘talk smack’ back and forth about each race, depending on which house won or lost. I would return to the scoreboard, taking turns reading the scores, rubbing off the board, counting, and re-writing the scores with the other teachers.

Somewhere along the way my chair was taken, but I was too busy running back and forth from the track and scoreboard to mind. A group of kindergartners were lined up in the distance, prepared for their inauguration into Sports Day with a 100-meter dash. The gun goes off and the children take off with it, running as fast as their little legs could carry them.

“Go Williams!” one of the teachers, a member of Williams House (otherwise known as red house), calls as she jumps from her seat and pounds on the desk of score-papers.

“Come on, Glean!” I shout louder, rooting for my girl in yellow running neck-in-neck with the girl in red.

The competition between the two girls quickly unfolded into a competition of pride between the two of us, cheering our respective girl on so we can thumb our nose in the others’ face afterwards with a laugh.

The girl in red out-stepped the girl in yellow as they crossed the finish line. I shake my head and laugh, “We almost had you there,” I tell the red house teacher. “Don’t lie you were nervous for a second there.”

“Nope. We had it the whole way,” she remarks slyly.

Then an uproar of calls captures our attention. I turn around to realize (along with everyone else in the park), that the kindergarten girls were still running! Caught up in the adrenaline of the race, they ran right past the finish line and kept right on going. They didn’t realize the race was over, much to the amusement of everyone watching. After that, a teacher was placed behind the finish line to ‘catch’ and stop the younger students after the finish.

As the day progressed, the races for the older children began taking place. My feet began to ache but I continued on, running back and forth between the scoreboard and the track to cheer on my yellow house students. Before I knew it, the sun had begun its descent and we had reached the day’s intermission. Seeing an open chair as an opportunity, I plopped down with a sigh. Being on my feet all day under the overbearing heat of the sun, combined with the emotional roller-coaster of excitement that was the races, my energy level was depleted. I stretched my legs out and crossed them at the ankles. Tilting my cap over my eyes, I closed them to try and catch a moment’s rest.

“Mr. King,” I was roused awake with a nudge on the shoulder. “Have you eaten your meal yet?”

“No, not since lunch,” I replied, still dazed and confused from the snooze and unsure of what she was talking about.

I was then handed a styrofoam box, inside of which was a typical Grenadian meal complete with a leg of barbeque chicken, macaroni pie, dasheen, rice, beans, plantains, and a small side-salad. It was just the hearty pick-me-up meal that I needed.

In the distance, I could see a group of police officers arrive at the gate. They strode out to the center of the field, as if on official business. A secondary school drum corps played rhythmically as the houses gathered to make their march pass. Dressed in full uniform and carrying the banner to their respective house, the four houses performed their “eyes right,” marching in unison and passing in front of the now-packed audience in the stands. After each house made their military-esque march pass, the police officers of the community gathered to score each house’s performance.

While they did this, it was time for the cheerleading performances to take place. Now, over the course of the term so far, groups of students would frequently lock and barricade themselves into a classroom after school. They took extreme measures to ensure that no one could see the rehearsal unfolding inside, while many idle students did everything they could to sneak a peek to see what that respective house’s cheerleading performance was going to be. There was a lot of talk about the cheerleading performances, as it is one of the focal points of Sports Day. It didn’t disappoint either, as it was wildly entertaining.

The blue house students started it off, dancing to various excerpts of music dressed as sailors. They completed their performance with a student in a cardboard boat ‘eliminating the enemy,’ by throwing water balloon ‘cannonballs’ at three students dressed in a red, green, and yellow shirts.

Green house went next. A Peter-Pan themed performance, the girls were dressed as fairies as the boys danced with them chivalrously. Frequent prop changes occurred with each song that was played, culminating in one of the boys wearing a dread-locked Rastafarian hat as the sweet reggae tune of “Skankin’ Sweet,” boomed yet again from the speakers. I might be a little biased, as all the students that performed for green house are part of my third grade class, but theirs was already my favorite.

Next was red house, dressed in beautiful, flowing African garb and decorative hats. A boy brought out a drum and beat it while the girls danced and twirled in a circle around him. Two other boys ran back and forth in front of them, catapulting themselves into somersaults and front-flips before the crowd. A blue, green, and yellow-painted fence was brought out, to which the girls knocked down and destroyed. At the conclusion of their dance, the crowd erupted in applause.

It was at this time I happened to look behind me. The sun was down, and a jaw-dropping shade of pink, purple, and dark blue was cast across the sky while a remnant trace of yellow lingered on the horizon. The stadium lights around the park had kicked on, illuminating the field around us. But quite honestly, the sky was doing enough of that already.

The music of yellow house’s performance kicked off with the all-too-familiar, “Are you ready kids?” “Eye, eye, captain!” call-and-response of the Spongebob Squarepants introduction. Snapping myself out the trance that was the sky, I ran back over to see the yellow house performance. Dressed in bright, yellow sailor uniforms, the students danced in circles, swaying back and forth to the music. They carried a yellow-painted cardboard coffin, moving systematically with and around it while twirling foam pirate swords. It concluded with three of the girls losing in a sword fight with the boy sailor. The three ‘casualties’ were then placed in the coffin as red, blue, and green shirts were thrown on each of one of them.

All the performances were wildly entertaining and incredibly creative. I got great amusement, particularly, out of the creative ways each house “destroyed,” their competition. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have seen it from the stands, particularly with the lavish-colored sky in the background. But now I can see why it was such a big deal to keep their rehearsals concealed and in-secret. By the end of the cheerleading performances, my cheeks were sore from smiling.

Now it was time for the relays and medleys to complete the second half of the Sports Day. The races unfolded much like they did earlier in the day, as I ran back and forth from the scoreboard and the track to cheer on my yellows.

I called out to one of my students in yellow, “Get us going strong now! You got this!”

He looked up, a wide grin spreading across his face as he nodded in acknowledgement. I ran over to where the second leg of the race was to begin.

I call out to the boy in yellow and he looks up.

“[He] is going to get us going,” I said, pointing to the first yellow runner. “Then it’s your turn to get us through!”

He jumped up excitedly and clapped his hands, ready for the challenge.

Bang!

The gun went off and the students in the first leg took off to a roar of the crowd.

“Let’s go Gleeaaaaaannn!!” I called.

The students came around the bend and handed off the batons, passing right in front of me. Blue and red were out front, followed by green, and then tailed by my guy in yellow. I bit my lip and smacked my hands together as I began walking back to the tent, eyes still on the race. This one just didn’t seem like it was to be our race. I looked down momentarily, as the third leg came around the far side of the track to the final hand-off of the 4×100 relay. My yellows had closed the gap and we’re still looking at a third place finish at-best, still trailing blue and red. As my third yellow handed the baton to the fourth, it was like the boy was touched by the speed-inducing golden mushroom from Mario Kart. The boy in yellow quickly jumped to the pace of blue before sprinting past him to catch up with red. The crowd simultaneously jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering the students on. It was shaping up to be a close finish.

“Go! Go! Go Glean! Go!” I called out, sprinting past the tent toward the finish line.

Coming down the home stretch, the boys in red and yellow were running stride-for-stride. Students chased them along the edge of the track, urging their housemates on. Teachers were jumping up and down, waving their arms frantically, trying to be heard over the crowd and their opposing colleagues. I ran right up alongside the teachers, calling out with a rough and now-strained voice. The boys’ had grimaces on their sweaty faces, pushing as hard as they could to beat the other to the finish. As they leaned across the finish line, it was clear which one had won. In the last few steps, he had created enough separation to out-step the other at the finish. The underdog yellow house won the race!

I leaped in the air, throwing my fist forward and yelling victoriously. Arms raised in celebration, I also made sure to throw a wide grin at the other teachers in red.

“Now that was a relay,” one of them says.

This is what sports is all about. Oh, how I’ve missed playing sports. I primarily played baseball my entire life,  including two years in college. When I stopped playing, I channeled my competitive drive toward running: completing a half-marathon and a full-marathon in subsequent years. I stayed around the game of baseball by coaching a youth travel team in the summer. It’s hard to lose that competitive drive when its been ingrained into who you are.

But someone once said, “Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.”

Well, my wish came true. The second-to-last race on Sports Day is known as, “The Teachers Race.” Myself and the other teachers were divided into four teams for a 4×100 meter relay race. I was to take the last leg for my team, so I ran through an old calisthenics routine from my baseball days to warm-up.  My heartbeat quickened, as the familiar feeling of adrenaline began pumping through my body.

At this point I’d like to digress by letting you in on a little secret about the King family: we’re all built like runners, but we’re notorious for seemingly running in slow-motion. During my time playing baseball, I largely played in the corner outfield spots. Laying out for a diving catch was always my favorite part. It’s a feeling like none other when you dive to the grass, the baseball falling seamlessly into the leather pocket of the glove. It’s a good thing I enjoyed diving for catches anyway, because fact of the matter is I wasn’t fast enough to catch those fly balls on the run. But when it came to running, I was always preferential to the endurance races anyway; the races where I can strategically set a proper pace before sprinting to the finish. But this was to be a plain, good old-fashioned sprint to the finish. So I took my place in Lane 5, the adjacent lane to my principal. The word on the street is he was quite the runner, so I knew I was going to have to put in some work to keep up with him.

The gun was fired and the teachers in the first leg took off. I could see a little bit of the race unfolding in the distance, but it was hard to see through the tents and spectators on the field. The batons were handed off to the second leg. The second leg on my relay team was taken by the District Education Officer for the parish of St. John’s. Due to some unexpected last-minute changes, he had joined the race lineup despite being dressed in full shirt and tie. But that didn’t stop him, as he ran a great leg and just about gave my team the lead coming into the third leg.

He handed the baton off to his daughter, whom came around the bend a step behind the leading team. Reaching back, I grabbed the baton from her and took off.  I knew there was no way I could beat the physical education teacher of the school, whose team was in first place at the final leg. So I had just one goal: give my principal a run for his money. At this point I was in second place, receiving my baton a moment ahead of him.

I came around the last of the bend to the straight-away, pumping my arms and lengthening my stride. I was running as hard and as fast as my legs could take me. My principal quickly caught up to me and forged ahead. A dark mountainside momentarily concealed the stands and stadium lights from our view, but as we hit the lights of the straight-away it was unveiled to the crowd that it might be a tight finish for second place. I pushed to keep up my pace, giving all I had to make this a close race for second. I think the crowd realized this, too, almost gasping collectively in anticipation as I tailed the pace of my principal closely; that is, until he took over the final stretch with a closing speed that I just didn’t have. I kept pushing my pace, but I was already going as fast as I could. I strode through the finish line in third place, a smile on my face.

I was happy with the race; I finished it strong. For a moment I gave the crowd hope that I could beat my principal, but for them it was just a tease before realizing my little ‘King family secret.’ I walked over to my principal and shook his hand as we laughed about the race.

“I almost had you there!” I grinned, panting and out of breath.

Next thing I knew, a flurry of students came running up to my side. They grabbed my hands and jumped on my arms, wanting their own opportunity to race Mr. King (as this was the first time they’ve seen me do anything remotely active). I just laughed, still needing to catch my breath first. That was the hardest I ran in a long time. I was going to be sore the next morning.

But it was worth it; it was all worth it. Yes, it is more challenging to accomplish what I’m here to do during Sports Term. But there is a value in having a term primarily devoted to sports. It stresses to the students the importance of maintaining good, physical health. There’s a reason every one here seems so fit, even the elderly are active. It’s also the reason, I believe, the Caribbean nations are so competitive during the Summer Olympics.

By the end of the night, blue house had won both the boys and girls division championship, sweeping St. Peter’s RC Sports Day. Red house, however, won the march pass and cheerleading competition. My yellow house finished third in the girls division, last in the boys division, and third in the march pass.

But like any unreasonably faithful underdog would say, “Maybe next year.”

In the meantime, the focus now shifts to the Branch Sports Championship. In two weeks’ time, St. Peter’s RC will go against our rival school, St. John’s Anglican. Other schools like Concord Government, Grand Roy Primary, and Florida Government will be competing as well to determine which school has the best sports in the parish of St. John’s. St. Peter’s RC won the Branch Sports last year, so this year we will have a target on our backs. If my school’s Sports Day was this exciting, I can’t wait to see what the Branch Sports will be like.

Last year the St. Peter’s RC rallying anthem was, “Take it to dem,” which they did. This year, our motto for Branch Sports will be, “On to de next one.”

So until that day comes, there’s work to be done.

“On to de next one.”

Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cleveland Heights, by Forrest Hills Park.”

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t agree more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Independence Day, Grenada.

Cheers!

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A Flip of the Switch; My Return to Life on Grenada

Returning to Grenada was a particularly conflicting experience. It was conflicting because although every fiber in my being wanted more time at home, I still remembered the fact that I did not even want to leave Grenada in the first place just a week before.

“Wasn’t it just two weeks ago, leaving for St. Vincent that you said you didn’t want to leave Grenada?” I tried consoling myself, but to no avail.

I didn’t have any time to process my time at home in the grand scheme of things. Consequently, I was forced to overwhelmingly try and process it all during my flight from Cleveland to Miami. The three prior weeks were an incredible stretch of time in which I did so much and saw so many people in such a short span of time. Having burnt out from this non-stop, three-countries-in-three-weeks itinerary, I was straight exhausted. I was drained emotionally, and had just become numb to my surroundings. I was constantly trapped in thought, and had flat-lined from an energy standpoint.

Fitting to my less-than-exuberant state when arriving in Miami, I found out I missed my connecting flight to Trinidad. Consequently, I was stranded in Miami, a place I didn’t know a soul.

So I called my mother.

“Hold on, let me call your Aunt Colleen,” she told me. “I think she actually might be in Miami.”

I hung up the phone, looking at it puzzlingly. I have family in Northern Florida, but not in Miami.

“No way,” I shook my head. “What would they be doing in Miami?”

A moment later my phone lit up with a call from one of my cousins.

“Wait, so you guys are in Miami?” I asked.

“Yeah! We’re on our way to get you right now,” she answered.

Grabbing my suitcase and stepping out into a bright, sunny Miami day, I waited outside as cars circled past like a never-ending carousel. While waiting, I dialed the airline number and was put on hold, forever trying to get through so I could re-schedule my flight (the airliner’s desk had already closed).

Eventually a car rolled up, with two familiar, smiling faces inside.

“Boy, am I glad to see you guys,” I laughed, hugging my cousins as they helped me load my luggage into the rental car.

Riding in the backseat along a Miami highway, I was re-familiarized with the sight of palm trees and a blue summer sky. I wasn’t able to appreciate the passing views much, however, as I still had a phone pressed to my ear waiting for the incessant ‘elevator music’ to end. As we reached the hotel, just to my luck, the call dropped. So, putting it off for the time being, I was reunited with the Willis family: my aunt, uncle, and cousins on my mother’s side. They helped me get situated into their hotel room and waited at the lobby bar while I paced aimlessly back and forth, once again on the phone with the airline. Then about forty-five minutes to an hour later, my flight the next morning was booked. Crisis averted. I was still going to make it to Grenada.

I was down, but with my flight resolved I could now enjoy my time with the extended family. Being with them was exactly the pick-me-up I needed. I hadn’t seen any of them since my cousin Billy’s wedding back in April. I tagged along as they had a family gathering to attend. In a quiet, retirement community, we spent time together around a dinner table while the young children ran around in games of hide and seek. My uncle showed me his father’s office space. Old, faded photos hung on the walls and shelves. In many of the photos, vintage race cars were on a track, a helmet peeking out of the seat behind the wheel. The helmeted man was his father, a former racer and avid car-enthusiast, whose home I was graciously welcomed into despite being teased for my Notre Dame shirt.

I needed a night like this for many reasons. Mostly, it served as a buffer. For me, it was one final home-cooked meal. It was one more night in the States. It was one more hot-water, strong-pressure shower. It was one more night’s rest in complete silence. It was one more night of being with family, catching up on each other’s lives and re-telling of old family tales.

Although appreciative of one extra night in the States, it was still time for me to return. The next morning it was yet another round of goodbyes, this time in a hotel parking lot, as they then took me back to the airport.

I made it through check-in and TSA seamlessly, boarded my flight and was off to Trinidad.

In all the airports I’ve flown in to, I am always somewhat lost in terms of where I should go, particularly after disembarking from the airplane. When I arrived in Trinidad, it was no different. I stepped off the plane and proceeded to follow the people in front of me, presuming I was headed in the right direction. After making a couple turns and going down a set of stairs, I found myself in the immigration line.

“Okay, something’s not right,” I thought to myself.

I walked around to the front of the line and asked for assistance, given I was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Grenada. The lady asked me to wait for a moment, disappearing behind the desk. Re-emerging she asked me to come with her, along with the two other Americans also going to Grenada that had followed me to the desk.

“Your flight has been canceled,” she tells us. “You will be put on the next flight that leaves at 5:30 tomorrow morning.”

“Okay,” I shrugged passively.

I didn’t mind. I saw this simply as an opportunity, as it brought back a memory of the last time a flight of mine was canceled. On my way back from Cape Town last year, I had a connecting flight to Cleveland from JFK Airport in New York City. At the time I had never been to New York City, so when they requested for someone to offer up their seat I quickly jumped at the opportunity. As it turned out, the flight was canceled anyway due to weather. But regardless, the airline put me up in the Holiday Inn at Times Square. So late that night and early the next morning, I took advantage of staying in the heart of the City, running around and finding sights such as Times Square and the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center (not to mention getting lost a time or two). It was an awe-inspiring experience seeing the towering skyscrapers, endless traffic, and bright lights. Although I only got to spend a few hours in the Big Apple, I hope to return someday to experience it more fully.

Anyway, after waiting for quite some time, a taxi finally arrived at the airport to take us to the nearby hotel. We stepped out in the hot, humid, Caribbean air as standing puddles from a recent rainfall were spotted the street. We piled in the van and after arriving, checked in to the hotel.

I was giddy. After another day of dwelling on what I left behind in the States, the overnight stay in Trinidad reminded me why I love international travel so much. I got the same excitement I have whenever I arrive in a new country. It was that bubbly, new, not-sure-what’s-going-to-happen-next type of feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve become addicted to, a feeling otherwise known as the travel bug.

The hotel and the accommodation I was provided was nothing short of fantastic. The tile floors of the halls were polished and clean. A glass chandelier hung elegantly in the lobby. Adventures of a Lifetime, a song from Coldplay’s ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ album played over the lobby speakers. (This was particularly ironic, as it was that very same Coldplay album that I listened on repeat during my twelve-hour flights to and from South Africa). The hotel room itself was pristine, yet subtle, as a hotel room should be in order for one to relax and truly be at ease. The bed was large and the pillows were firm, but comfortable nonetheless. A single lounge chair sat in the corner and a flat screen TV was mounted on the wall.

With my new-found energy, I went over to the bar next to the lobby. The only individual there was the bartender, a light-skinned woman with her hair pulled back into a pony-tail as wiped down the countertop. I took a seat at one of the stools and ordered a beer. But the beer really wasn’t what I was looking for.

While a tennis match played idly on the television in the background, we struck up conversation. She was a local Trinidadian. With a pleasant smile, she began to explain to me how Trinidad differs from the other islands. A large producer of oil, the economy is a lot stronger and the population is a lot bigger than many of the other, smaller Eastern Caribbean islands. But with the higher population, she noted, inevitably comes higher crime rates. She described a country that benefited from the stable rule as a British colony before gaining its own Independence. She delved into the make-up of ‘Trini’s’, as one half of the population comes from African descent, while the other comes from Indian descent; meanwhile, with the addition of the original Carib people, a melting pot of cultures and people have come to fruition here.

She spent some time bartending on Turks and Caicos, an island-nation made up of countless, smaller islands on both the Turks-side and the Caicos-side. Her favorite part, she said, was a part of Caicos with a highway on a stretch of land so narrow, the Caribbean Sea straddled you on either side.

She hasn’t visited much of the Eastern Caribbean islands, with the exception of St. Lucia. However, she mentioned there was one thing that remained the same no matter where you went in the Caribbean: the generosity of the people. The best island, in her opinion, was the Bahamas. With an economy almost solely reliant on tourism, she described the people as willing to go above and beyond to accommodate their visitors. They are the type of people that would open your door and lay their jacket down so you wouldn’t have to step in the mud. Of course, that’s not to mention the pristine, white-sand beaches and turquoise waters unmatched by the rest of the Caribbean. To her, the Bahamas is the penultimate Caribbean experience.

Rejuvenated from the conversation, I thanked her and bid her good night, returning to my room. Leaping into the finely-made bed, I shut the lights and flipped on the television, where I found Ohio State playing in their bowl game. Now it was time for me to relax, and enjoy one more night to myself, doing what I would be if I were at home: watching football.

But ultimately, the overnight in Trinidad was just another blessing for me to count. It meant another opportunity to learn about and experience (to a small extent), a new country. It meant one more night’s rest in complete silence. It meant one more night of having access to a television. It meant one more night with a hot water, strong-pressure shower. This goes without mentioning my favorite part, that it also meant one more stamp on my passport.

By sunrise the next morning, I had arrived in Grenada after a twenty minute flight. Jumping into the first available taxi, I cruised up the coast to Gouyave. I passed the same beaches, the same resorts, the same towns, the same mountains, and the Caribbean Sea was as beautiful as ever. Flashbacks from my first ride up to Gouyave, in the shotgun seat with my host dad on a late July afternoon, ran through my mind. The views were just as stunning, but this time I wasn’t so thrilled. Having come down from the ‘high’ that Trinidad was for me, I was back to ‘old, familiar Grenada.’ Truthfully, it took a couple days for me to re-gather my bearings. After all, my break from school was a non-stop emotional roller coaster that included traveling for three weeks straight. All of a sudden, I was brought back to reality.

Thankfully, school has started up and since then I’ve had time to process all that has happened and reflect on the experience. I have come to terms with my return and I can assure you, I am happy to be back.

Which brings me to this: While I was at home I was frequently asked the question, “What is it like to be back home?”

My answer: “It was like a flip of the switch.”

It was such a seamless transition back into my life at home that it almost seemed as if the past six months never happened.

From the beginning they always said, “The culture shock when returning home is tougher than the culture shock upon arriving in your host country.”

So when coming home for this past Christmas I had mentally prepared for the impending culture shock. I had a taste of it when I toured St. George’s University’s campus a couple months prior: when the sight of water fountains, clean public restrooms, spacious roads, and air-conditioning units was almost overwhelming. That experience largely led to my uneasiness about what it would be like for me to return home.

But as my previous post showed, it was like I had never left in the first place.

While I was home, everything was go-go-go. I had places to go, people to see. I had a full agenda to see as many of my family and friends as I possibly could in the short week I was allotted at home. Although I did not see everyone, I am satisfied with how many of my family and friends I was able to see.

But that would not have been possible if not for you guys. You guys stepped up; and I mean stepped UP.

It was an incredibly touching and heart-warming experience for me to witness those that went entirely out of their way to see me. For those that tried and weren’t able to, the conversation and effort you gave was truly appreciated.

It humbled me and reminded me about what I gave up in coming here. Let me tell you, I gave up a lot.

From meeting out to get breakfast, to buying a drink, to covering the uber, to stopping by my home, and everything in between I am truly grateful for everyone that made my time at home so enjoyable.

So when it came time for me to leave, it’s not surprising that I wasn’t ready. I had returned to the place I’m from, with the people I love. I was home.

But home is not where I need to be right now. I need to be here.

I need to be here because I have a purpose. During the first week of school, I re-evaluated my pull-out students. There were a total of fourteen students from the third grade that I worked with over the course of the last term. Using the same assessment I used to gauge their reading levels when I first arrived, I went to measure their progress. From the results, I discovered that seven out of my fourteen students’ reading improved by one grade level. By this, I mean a student could have improved from a Pre-K reading level to Kindergarten, Kindergarten to grade one, or grade one to grade two, etc. Out of the seven students that showed one grade level of progress, three of them improved from a grade two to grade three. Given that those three are now reading at their actual grade level, I will no longer be pulling them out for additional work. Aside from the seven that improved, four maintained their initial reading level and three actually declined.

I’m very encouraged by the results of my second assessment. I only met with the students once per week. I’m also not a true teacher by any means. But having witnessed a student read something they couldn’t before is incredibly rewarding, to say the least.

I can’t take full credit, however. Some of the students could have had a difficult time or been lackadaisical the day of the first assessment, and been at full focus on the second assessment, or vice versa. But, these results are what I’ve measured. I’m proud of my students and the work they put in, but I’m not satisfied.

I now have additional time available after releasing the three students from the pull-out program. Having two third-graders reading at a Pre-K level, I aim to meet with them twice a week to provide them that much more one-on-one attention. I will also be adding a second grader and a seventh grader to my schedule. Assessing the seventh grader, I discovered he was able to identify only fourteen letters and make just six letter sounds. He’s fifteen years old and now I am now his last chance at being able to read. Just another humble reminder of why Peace Corps is needed here.

Having spent the past term in a Caribbean classroom, I can see how a student like my seventh-grader can slip through the cracks. It might seem unbelievable or implausible at home, but believe me, differentiated classrooms are a very real thing and a difficult problem to address.

During our parent-teacher conferences, it was clear which students had a family foundation at home. It was not surprising which ones didn’t. Consequently, I have witnessed how a solid family foundation can positively influence a student’s academic abilities.

Being here has led me to realize that I am a product of the efforts of my parents and the family foundation they provided for me. Without them, or any of my teachers throughout my years of education, I don’t know where I would be. I certainly wouldn’t be here.

That foundation was exactly why leaving the States was so difficult for me. I wasn’t ready to come back. I was thriving in the blessings I was born with and was provided all my life. I admit, I didn’t feel much regret for having grown up with more than what my students have grown up with here. I’ve just come to recognize the blessings I have and truly appreciate them. What I can do, however, is do everything in my power to take the same blessings and opportunities I received, and relay them to my students here. So, in this sense, it was a humbling reminder and a re-kindling of motivation for me to return home.

In the meantime, I have once again flipped the switch. I flipped back into my alternative life that is uniquely my own, and distinctly Caribbean. The same students still passes by my window, calling my name in requests to go to the park and throw the frisbee or the “American football.” The same group of guys still play basketball every Sunday night. I returned to the Fish Fridays and shoot pool at Mansah’s. I have returned to my community walks to see the sun set. I even shook the hand of Grenada’s only Olympic gold medalist Kirani James, who hails from Gouyave, at the local church.

Last weekend, I met up with the other Volunteers at Grand Anse Beach. Every time we have gone, some local men with their speedboats and inflatable couches and tubes persistently offer to take us for a ride, wanting our business. I always turn them down. But last Saturday, after initially declining the offer out of reflex, I joined some other Volunteers for a water-tubing joyride. White-knuckling the handles to my sides, I hung on for dear life as the boat accelerated at tremendous speeds. We sped back and forth along the coast, the beach and resorts passing in a blur. Mist from the wakes of the boat sprayed on my face as I laughed uncontrollably, doing everything in my power not to get tossed from my seat. What a thrill.

So yes, I did have a difficult time re-adjusting to Grenada. But now that I’ve had time to process all that has happened in the past two months, I am happy to be back. I’m back into the swing of things.

My time at home reminded me of what I’m missing. But it also left me comforted with the thought of knowing what I’ll be blessed to return to when my service is up.

In the meantime, the switch is flipped. When I originally left the States, I was only here for six months. Those six months, although they felt long, really went by like a snap of the fingers. But I still have a year and a half left. I certainly aim to make the most of it.

Here’s to looking ahead at the adventures and the progress to come.

Cheers!

 

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