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 One That Says, “Play”

Picture this:

You’re sitting in your living room and all the lights are out. A storm is raging in the night outside. Rain is pounding heavily on the roof while on the window pane, droplets nonchalantly race down the glass. The trees are swaying, surrendering to the storm’s strong gusts of wind. A crack of lightning brightens the room momentarily, followed by a distant rumbling of thunder. The storm has knocked the power out in the area. Candles you’ve lit flicker ominously around the room. All is silent, besides the angry storm that is. When a storm of this nature rages through, knocking out all the power on every block in its path, sometimes there isn’t a whole lot you can do.

Getting up from the sofa you’ve been sitting in, you walk over to a dusty, old cabinet in the corner of the room. You grab the handle, opening the door gently. A series of photo albums lay askew inside, stowed away safely in various-colored binders. In the corner of the cabinet, next to all the binders, is a gray stereo. It’s tall, but slim. You reach in and grab it by the handle that runs across the top. Pulling out the stereo, you sink back into your spot on the sofa.

The stereo now sits on the coffee table in front of you. Its speakers, two round black discs, look back at you like beady, expectant eyes. A small, square compartment sits between the speakers; it’s a cassette player. You punch a button and it pops open. Finding a cassette and slipping it inside, the door snaps shut. Back in these days, when the power was out and a storm was raging, sometimes a battery-powered stereo was all you needed to pass the time.

In front of you, along the top of the stereo, are a series of buttons each with its own symbol.

The sideways triangle is the Play button.

Two sideways triangles pointing to the right is Skip.

Two sideways triangles pointing the left, Rewind.

Two vertical lines mean Pause.

The block square means Stop.

You sit back, contemplating if what you’re doing to pass the time is in your best interest, mentally. But what other way could you?

So as another rumble of thunder echoes from the heavens. You punch the button that says Play

* * *

It’s a quiet Caribbean night. The thunder is gone, having been replaced by the resonating murmur of the crickets as they begin to wake from their diurnal slumber to sing their nighttime choruses. The lightning has been replaced by the humming industrial park lights above you. Instead of sitting on your sofa, you’re on a white, wooden bench. You’re on a basketball court; one with wooden backboards, black iron rims, freshly painted lines, and cracks in the surface of the concrete.

You’ve joined a basketball team for the island-wide knockout tournament in your community. You pull out a pair of basketball shoes, already worn-down in just three months’ time. They were brand new when you brought them back with you from the States just a few months prior. But the nightly practices for the past month have put a number on them, as holes have opened up underneath each big toe, nearly exposing them entirely. You laugh with your teammates about it, poking your finger through the holes. Your shoes are just another victim of the concrete court, notorious for “eating shoes.”

But your shoes weren’t the only ones banged up. You glance down at the abrasion on your right knee that hasn’t quite healed yet, having skinned it in a fall during practice a few weeks ago. Getting up from the bench, you run through a simple routine of calisthenics, just something to begin to get the body loose before the team stretches together. You place your hands on a concrete wall, rotating your right ankle in various patterns. In another practice two weeks’ prior, you re-aggravated an old injury when you sprained it contesting for a rebound, coming down on another player’s foot. You ignored it when it happened and played on, your pride getting the best of you. Due to that, you had to return to an old-school remedy of icing and small exercises. You even threw in a taste of the new-school: drinking a glass of water with a teaspoon of turmeric powder to ease the inflammation (a local remedy). A soft, worn-down Ace brace now supports it underneath your black, mid-calf sock. Realistically, the brace probably doesn’t help much, but you figure it’s better than nothing.

You jog out to join your other teammates shooting at the far end of the court. Various members of the community have begun to trickle in. Some set up chairs outside the fencing, others take their seats on a fallen telephone pole. A couple stray dogs run to and from the field behind the court.

Looking to your right, you notice the silhouette of a palm tree peering over the concrete wall. Behind its leaves, however, it looked as if God had spilled buckets of pink, purple, and orange paint across the sky. It was nothing short of majestic.

As time went on the night took over, laying a thick black blanket across the sky. We began a series of team warm-ups, complete with lay-ups and shooting drills. You size up the competition on the other side of the court, butterflies fluttering in your stomach. This was to be your first competitive basketball game in years. Your heart begins racing with adrenaline, pumping alongside the soca music now blasting from the DJ’s tent. A whistle blows, signaling us to return to our benches. It was time to start.

Skip

You’re on the right wing of the court. Byron, the point guard, dribbles the ball past the half-court line and into the teeth of a pressing defense. He flips the ball over the top to Kitty, our tall and lanky center, who gathered himself at the high post of the key. The defense collapses fast on him. Seeing an opening on the block, you dart toward the basket and connect eyes with him, as he’s immediately swarmed. He dishes the ball right into your hands. Everything seemed to freeze, as you were wide open on the block with the ball in hand. You put the ball off the backboard and it falls in for an easy two points.

We’re back on defense now. Due to an injury to one of your teammates, you’ve moved from the top of the 2-3 zone defense to the bottom right block. The man in your zone is twice your size. It was no secret that you were at a mismatch here. But you’re up to the challenge. Their point guard lofts the ball up across the zone toward the basket in a half-shot, half-pass manner. You hold your breath, realizing your man is reaching for glory at the end of an alley-oop pass and you were to be the poster child of that dunk. You jump in to contest it and he fumbles with the high pass, coming down with the ball. When he gathers himself, he’s beside the basket. He knows you’re behind him, but jumps to put in a lay-up, boldly thinking you didn’t really have a chance at blocking him anyway.

What he didn’t know, however, was your entire youth was spent playing basketball in the paint. In that time, you’ve learned a thing or two about blocking shots. Back then you were bigger than everyone else so it was easy, but now you’ve learned different strategies to make up for the height you now lack. The ball comes up over his head and you time your jump with him, slapping your left hand hard on the ball. It pins on the backboard and you remain airborne, as if lifted with the shot (given your size and having what’s called “white boy hops,” you’re still figuring out how that happened). The ball bounces off the board and falls back into the hands of the shooter, as you both land on the ground. A thrill rushes through you as the crowd reacts to the unexpected white-boy’s block. He gathers himself and jumps again, determined to put the ball in the hoop this time. You jump again to contest, excited with the last block and determined to embarrass him again. This time, however, instead of blocking the ball, you got his elbow and a whistle blows.

You slap your hands together in frustration at the missed opportunity for a second block, as instead you were called for a foul. But then one of your teammates comes up, bumping into your chest.

“Nice block, King!”

“Good trouble!” Another says, reaching out for a high-five.

You find consolation in that, being reminded of the first block before the foul. After all, it’s not every day a white boy gets a block against the backboard on this court.

By the final buzzer, you and your teammates were run to exhaustion, coated in glistening sweat. Despite the loss, you guys walked out with your heads held high. It was a hard-fought game, but unfortunately the other team came away with it in the end.

You had picked up a couple more scrapes and bruises in the game. You’re reminded that diving for a loose ball isn’t exactly a good idea on a concrete court, particularly when a 6″4′ beast of a man is going for it too and you’re bounced off of him like a pinball. But the ‘battle scars’ don’t matter much to you. You were just happy to have experienced playing in a competitive basketball game again.

At this point in your service, joining this team was one of the best decisions you made. The practices got you out of the house and exercising regularly. You returned to the suicide runs, shooting and ball-handling drills, and full-court scrimmages. You were re-acquainted with the frustration of seemingly having no free time, having to give up your time and energy every night to practice. Your commitment to the team changed how you spent your spare time, at that. Therefore, you were making better decisions about taking care of yourself and your body. You began making a more conscious effort to cook and eat better.

But like the end of every season, all good things must come to an end.

Skip

You’re standing in a clearing on the top of a hill. The ground is covered in dead grass and fallen leaves. Two large wooden poles protrude from each corner of the clearing. The poles are the only remnants left of the fort that used to stand on the top of this hill, overlooking the town of Gouyave. The cannon that used to be posted here you’re told now sits inside the secondary school down the hill. Past the green foliage surrounding the summit, music echoes from the town. It’s Easter Sunday and celebrations are taking place across Gouyave.

Your two host brothers take turns throwing small kites into the air, trying to catch a passing breeze. Their children, two girls and a boy between them, run around aimlessly as their wives sit and watch. It’s a picture-perfect family scene.

There’s a serenity to it all. An overcast sky of bluish-gray clouds float above the sea in the distance. The setting sun casts an orange glow beneath them. The Sea was calm yet pale, matching the placid sky. The air was still, outside of the distant music that is. The children giggled as they ran in circles until my host brothers, finally having raised a kite up, gathered them in to fly it.

It’s moments like these you’re grateful to have a host family with whom to spend a holiday. Being in a strong family environment helps ease the feeling that comes from the constant reminder that you’re over 2,000 miles away from yours. Seeing your host brothers interact with their wives and kids makes you envision a similar life of your own in the future. A life in which the holidays are once again spent with the people you love most.

Skip

It’s Easter Monday. Due to the holiday, buses aren’t running. This means the last sliver of hope you had in catching the ferry to Carriacou with some other Volunteers just went out the window.

So you go up the road a-ways to the house of some guys you’ve gotten to know. They have a PlayStation, one in which you can play NBA 2k17. Let’s be honest here, playing 2k was not something you think you’d be able to do when you signed up for the Peace Corps. But you spend a hot afternoon sitting on a couch, sweating in the stifling heat and taking turns playing the game. They make up a pot of mannish waters, a local soup containing various parts of goat cooked with herbs, spices, and vegetables. They hand you a serving. It’s not exactly appealing, but you dig in anyway. At this point, you’ve become accustomed to eating things in which you’re better off not knowing what it is until after you ate it. When you finish, they tease you for hardly touching the best parts (the goat, that is). You laugh, shrugging to acknowledge the fact that at least you tried.

You go with them down into The Lance, the part of Gouyave across the river. You step over a construction rope and cross the new bridge that is currently being built over the river. The structure and foundation have already been built, as all that needs to be done now is the surface of the pavement.

The road in The Lance spills out before you as you come off the bridge. Small, colored homes are intermingled among the shops and bars on either side of the road. Various people sit on the street corners, verandas, and shop stoops. A white tent is set up on the corner of a junction. Music booms from the stacked speakers, shaking not only the ground below your feet, but your ear drums as well. A group of girls stand in a circle on the corner of the junction, taking turns dancing in front of and with each other. A drunk man stumbles back and forth, dancing in the middle of the street. He’s swaying and twirling with the music while somehow managing to avoid the occasional passing vehicle (or was it the other way around?). Other patrons are set up around the tent, standing on the side of the road, or sitting on empty crates with beers in hand. It’s holiday time in the Caribbean.

Pause 

* * *

Snapping back into the present, you sit back, sinking into your sofa. Your chest rises and falls with a heaving sigh. The rain is still falling and the power is still out. The thought of where this storm came from or how it came to be puzzles you. It was as if it came out of nowhere just to knock out the lights and leave you in the dark. You’re not sure what to do, or even can do. You go back to trying to pass the time, turning back to the stereo…

Play

* * *

You’re riding in the back right corner of a bus, weaving up and down the hills outside of Grenville. The seats next to you have emptied out. You’re relieved because of this, as this means no one will have to move so you can climb out at your stop. You keep one eye out the window, looking for any familiar marker but still not sure if you’ll know it to see it. The conductor, a young man with a flat-brimmed Miami Heat hat cocked to the side, turns around and gives you a look as if to say, “Where you going?”

“The school junction,” you say to him confidently.

He looks to the woman beside him, puzzled. She shrugs, not knowing what I mean by that, either.

“By the school,” you explain. “St. Mary’s RC.”

“Oh, we pass already,” he nods, finally understanding. “We drop you back.”

“That’s fine,” you shrug passively, conceding to the fact that you missed your stop.

After dropping, you walk down the road to PCV Katelyn’s house. A cool breeze blows past, providing the natural air conditioning that comes with living in the mountains. Houses line either side of the road, giving it a suburban community-type of feeling. The air is quiet and tranquil. The green mountains loom in the distance. When you arrive at her home, Katelyn gets up from her veranda to greet you.

“So…I went all the way to Paraclete,” you smile slyly, explaining why it took you so long to get there.

“I figured you did,” she laughs.

The rest of the day and night was spent in the company of friends, both PCV and local, that passed through to give Katelyn’s mother, who had been visiting for the holiday, a proper Grenadian send-off.

Skip

You’re wading into the refreshingly cool and transparent waters of Grand Anse Beach. Soft waves roll past, crashing behind you onto the shore. Off to your right, the lush green coast is speckled with vibrantly colored houses leading the way to the town of St. George’s. Mountains rise up behind the town, looking over the capital city like a big brother in the schoolyard. A blue haze seems to hover over the mountains, a humble reminder of the jaw-dropping beauty that this tropical island has.

You dive under the surface. The cool water soothes your body, hot from the sweltering sun. You turn your shoulders as you come up to the surface and begin floating on your back. Then letting your feet fall to the ground, you look back at the shore in front of you. Resorts line the coast as vacationers are passed out on beach chairs with books in their laps. Palm trees run along the coast behind the beachhead. You turn around, taking in the vast, empty expanse of the turquoise waters before you.

It’s a picturesque panoramic view, like a calendar photo you would find in the month of July. People dream all their lives of visiting places like this and here you are, living that dream. You should be relishing in this moment, in this environment. But something is off. You don’t quite feel like yourself, haven’t really for the past couple of days come to think of it. It doesn’t feel right, like something is missing…

Skip

You’re back at the basketball court in Gouyave. Only this time instead of being on the inside playing, you’re on the outside watching. You stand on the hillside along many of the friends you’ve made in the past year.

Wait, did you just say past year? Yeah, it’s almost been that long. You’re still trying to wrap your head around reaching your 11th month of service.

To your right is the guys you went out with the other night in The Lance, then there’s Mansa, after him is your neighbor Roseanne and one of your students. To your left is some of the guys from your own basketball team, guys you can now call friends. It seems everyone in the community has come out to watch The Sparklers (Gouyave’s primary basketball team and traditionally the best team on the island, who we scrimmaged many times to prepare for the tournament) as they play in their semi-final match.

Skip

You’re lying in bed with a pit in your stomach, staring at a framed photograph. It was given to you as a gift by a close friend from home. In it, a dozen graduates dressed in black cap and gowns smile broadly arm-in-arm. They had just reached the pinnacle of their undergraduate studies at Capital University. Four years ago they were complete strangers. But now, they were practically family. Your very own, “Capfam.” It’s hard to believe that at this time last year, you all lived across the street from each other.

Just the week prior, someone had asked you what item you were the most grateful to have brought down with you. They probably anticipated an answer of something practical like a tablet, adapter, or computer.

Nope, none of the above.

It was this photo, along with another one of your family that you brought down, that gives you comfort when you’re down. They are the gentle reminder of the people you left behind and the support and love they provide you on a daily basis. It may not come regularly in verbal or written form, but that’s no matter, you can still feel it. There’s solace in knowing one day you’ll return to them.

Sometimes, however, that’s what makes being here all the more difficult. Periodically, the homesickness becomes almost unbearable, to the point you find yourself sitting alone in your room, crying as you stare at a photograph. It’s times like these you realize how long two years really is. You wipe away a tear. Sometimes, you just want your service to be over.

Skip

It’s the first day back at school. You’re not as prepared as you should be, so you’re standing behind your desk desperately digging through your box of school supplies. You feel a presence that someone has just entered the stage area where you conduct your pull-out sessions. You look up to find a student of yours cautiously peering in.

The student, who we’ll call “K,” is a 14-year-old seventh grader at the school. At the start of the previous term, you were asked by your principal to include him in your tutoring schedule. Upon initial assessment, he could identify only six letters in the alphabet. Over the course of the last term you’ve worked your way down the alphabet with him, building vocabulary and reading CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words along the way.

“Afternoon, sir. We going to work today?” He asks you, eyes fixed on the floor.

“Uhmm,” you hesitate.

Your priority at school is your third graders. You usually work with K on Thursday afternoons, as that’s when your third-graders have Physical Education. But you have his lessons already planned out through the rest of the alphabet. His attendance isn’t regular, either, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity you get with him. You already admitted you weren’t prepared to pull-out any of your third-graders today, so you decide to run with it.

“Actually, yeah. Go ahead and take a seat right there” you respond.

You sit down and get to work. He was doing well the past couple times you worked with him. You decide to push the pace and tackle four letters today: M, N, O, and P. After a quick review of the letter shapes and sounds. You move to the chalkboard, where all the real learning happens.

“You remember your alphabet, right?” I say, as he nods (As it turns out, K was always able to recite the alphabet verbally, but lacks letter recognition).

“Good. Then put it on the board like you’ve done before, up to the letter P this time,” you toss him a piece of chalk, which he catches.

He gets to work writing his capital and common letters on the board. He makes it to Ff when he pauses and says, “Sir, I forget.”

“Nope,” you respond cheerfully but curtly, “You’re not allowed. Saying ‘I forget’ means you’re giving up. How about you think of a question to ask me so I can help you.”

Together we work out how to draw a proper Gg.

We sit in our respective chairs, staring at the CVC words you scrawled on the chalkboard as he forcibly sounds them out. You encourage him to take his time, reminding him that there is no rush or outside pressure. Occasionally, he scans the alphabet across the top of the board, reciting his alphabet to decipher the name of an unfamiliar letter and try to determine its correlating sound. His decoding and fluency has gotten stronger, but he still forcibly strings the sounds of each letter together until the word finally clicks. But now he’s getting to the point where he’s reading words successfully on his second or third try.

“That’s it!” You exclaim as he reads the word map aloud. “You’re crushing this, K! And not only that, allow me to let you in on a little secret: Have you noticed some of these words have letters in them that we haven’t even covered yet?”

A look of surprise pops on his face, as he eagerly scans the alphabet and the words on the board to see if what you told him was true.

“I noticed you already knew some of these other letters, so I’ve been slipping them in there and you haven’t missed a beat. I think you’re ready for a sentence.”

“A sentence?”

“Yes, a sentence. It’s a series of words put together that says something. You want to try one?”

“Okay.”

On the board you write: The dog bit the cat.

The was a challenge for him but you help him through it. He read dog easily, before he struggled but successfully decoded bit. He then finished repeating the before finally sounding out the word cat.

“Give me a bounce!” You laugh, reaching out for a fist bump. He returns it proudly, yet with a look of disbelief.

You write another sentence on the board. As you do this, he buries his head in his hands.

“Sir, my head is hurting,” he says.

“Your head is hurting?” You laugh. “Good! That means you’re learning. But you know how when you’re training for a sport you have to keep going even though you’re tired? Well this has to work the same way, as you’re working out your brain right now. You’ve been doing amazing so far. Let’s try two more and we’ll call it a day. Think you can handle two more?”

He nods.

You write two more simple sentences on the board. They challenged him, but he overcame each word to read the sentences without any of my assistance. After the last one, he turns his head to the side, away from you.

“What’s wrong?”

“I want to read,” he says turning back to you and wiping a tear from his eye.

Your heart breaks. It’s the first time he’s said something like this. Tears of your own start welling up inside. You hold them back, but damn you’re proud of him.

“You know, I’m happy to hear that,” you say. “And you are reading. You read all of this without any of my help!”

He smiles.

The bell rings, signaling the end of the day.

“You’re doing well, K. Keep it up. But if you want to read, it’s important that you be at school every day. Last term there were days where I could have met with you, but you weren’t here. If you want to continue making progress, you need to make sure you’re here. Especially on Thursdays, as that’s when I have the whole afternoon reserved just for you.”

He agrees. You hope he follows through on his word, as attendance was still a problem last term.

“Nice work today, K.”

“Thanks,” he replies as he gets up from his chair, turning to leave the room.

“Hey.”

He stops and looks back at you. “I’m proud of you, K.”

A smirk creeps across his face. Putting his head back down, he turns and walks out of the door.

Stop

* * *

You sit up, not sure exactly what just happened. You wipe a tear from your eye. Standing up to look outside, you find that the storm has passed. Just then various beeps ring through the house as it comes back to life, the power returning.

* * *

For the past two weeks, I have been on break for the Easter holiday. It was an eventful two weeks, in which I once again removed myself from this blog in order to just try and experience what I could. The last break from school I had was a four-week break at Christmastime, in which I spent traveling across three countries and reuniting with family and friends, new and old. This one was a little bit different.

Due to obligations, I had to remain in my community for most of it, which I’m happy to have done. However, I did jump at the first opportunity to escape and do anything that remotely felt like a vacation. I took my own personal tour of Grenada, visiting the other Volunteers and seeing their communities. I re-visited some of my favorite spots around the island. However, over the course of those two weeks, something just felt off.

It felt like something was missing. It’s something you can mindlessly pass over when caught up in the day-to-day obligations of the work week. I felt like I should be enjoying all of my free time, but the something that was missing just kept pressing itself in the back of my mind. I tried distracting myself from it with the same people, places, and activities that lead me to fall in love with this country in the first place. So I continued passing the time, but the figurative storm still raged outside. I think it all came to a head on that final night, when after wiping the tears from my eyes, I was still staring at the framed photograph I brought from home.

Yep, you guessed it. That something that was missing was home. It was my friends. It was my family. It was the fact that I was not able to spend the Easter holiday with them that was weighing on my mind all this time. It just took me awhile to realize it.

So while this storm of homesickness swirled around my head I just kept pressing Skip, trying to pass the time with the stories on the figurative stereo. Honestly, deep down I think I was just trying to distract myself from acknowledging what was truly affecting me.

On the surface, everything operated as normal and I acted as such. I didn’t want anyone to know I was feeling this way. Even now, I have mixed feelings writing about my homesickness. After all, I am living on an island in the Caribbean and I know there’s many people out there that would dream of an opportunity like this. They tell me how lucky I am to experience life down here; and truly, I am. But whenever I’m told that, I can’t help but think how lucky they are to be able to spend their free time during the holidays with their friends and family at home.

I guess the old saying rings true that, “We all want what we ain’t got.”

But then it wasn’t until I was back in school last week that everything fell back into place. In working with K and seeing the advancements he’s made, I was reminded of why I’m here. I was reminded of why I’ve given up that free time and holidays with family in order to do this. Witnessing the breakthrough that K made in our first session of the new term, it made all the mixed feelings wash away. It re-motivated me and inspired me to continue doing what I can to get my students, who I have come to know and love, reading and writing. Sure, I’m over 2,000 miles away from home. Yes, I miss my friends and family immensely. But never was I as proud as the moment K was reading his first sentences.

My mother recently told me that by coming here I had put my life on hold, pressing the Pause button, so to speak. So while a passing storm of homesickness swirled around me, I kept pressing Skip in hopes of fast-forwarding to the day where I actually could go home. But now that I’m back at school, I have re-discovered why I pressed the Pause button to begin with.

Time is moving right along and I’ll be home before I know it. When I do come home, I know I will miss these days spent as a school teacher in the Caribbean. I love what I’m doing here and who I’m becoming because of it. But that’s not to say there aren’t days that I wish it were already over. I dream of the day I’ll be able hop in a car and drive home for a holiday dinner. Now, if only there were a way of having both: a love of a foreign experience with an ability to come home whenever you want.

In the meantime, I’m learning to leave the Skip button alone. After all, what’s playing is life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s a life with a lot of exhilarating highs and some pretty challenging lows.

But I guess that’s why they call Peace Corps, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”

Sometimes you need a reminder that the only button that needs pressing, is the one that says: Play.

Cheers!

 

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The Sweet Escape Part III: Home

I woke up on the morning of December 20th and it felt like any other morning. As I put my feet on the floor, kids were laughing, cars were passing, and conversations were being had just outside my bedroom window. I’ve grown accustomed to the noise right outside to the point I hardly even notice it anymore. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, which was, in fact, exactly what was unusual.

It was December 20th. I have a calendar that hangs on the inside of my bedroom door. December 20th was the date with the word Home scrawled in the box. It was the ever-distant milestone that I had been chasing ever since my flight home was booked. It became a ritual for me to tick off each box at the end of the day to make myself feel like I was that much closer to December 20th, that much closer to home.

I opened the fridge and prepared a simple breakfast of eggs and back bacon ham. After taking a quick shower, I checked through my luggage one last time. I wasn’t bringing back much. I had a backpack full of spare clothes and a suitcase empty except for some Christmas gifts for my family. I dressed in the heaviest set of clothes I had, casual khaki pants, boots, a long-sleeve shirt, and jacket. Ironically enough, all the clothes I had here would be useless at home. I was leaving 80s and sunshine for 30s and snow.

I sat down on my bed, staring at my suitcase. The conversations and sounds of passing vehicles continued outside my window.

“By the end of today, I’ll be home,” I said softly, trying to convince myself it was real.

“Well, might as well get going,” I shrugged as I collected my things.

A moment of excitement came through me and on my way out I slapped the wall above my door, similar in fashion to the old Notre Dame football tradition. This was it. I was on my way home.

I closed up my apartment and stepped out into a bright sunny day, complete with a baby blue sky and puffy-white clouds. Setting my suitcase down, I waited on the sidewalk for a bus to pass. Traffic and pedestrians were bustling by. A few members of the community, upon seeing me with a suitcase on the side of the road, inquired about my intentions. I explained to them I was going home for the holiday and I’ll be back in one week.

“Mr. King!” two students of mine called out from across the street. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going back home. I’ll see you in a week!” I answered, reassuring them of my return.

Truth be told, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was them I was reassuring, or me.

A bus came by and I climbed in with my suitcase. I had to pay for two seats because of the suitcase, but I didn’t mind. It was still way cheaper to pay extra on the buses than to taxi all the way to the airport.

As the driver and conductor dropped me off they inquired where I was going and bid me safe travels. My last sight of Grenada was their smiling faces, waving as the van door closed while they drove off. It was quite a friendly send-off from two guys I didn’t know. I wasn’t surprised, though. That’s just how they are here.

As I waited in line to check in, I struck up conversation with an Asian American girl from L.A. that attends St. George’s University. She was halfway through her first year at the Med School, and had arrived on the island just about the same time I did. She was surprised to find out that Peace Corps was in Grenada, and confessed she never knew anyone who did Peace Corps until me. I tried to establish common ground by talking about different features of Grenada, but everything seemed to fall flat. She couldn’t believe I took the buses to get to the airport. It was baffling to her that I was only going home for one week. She had never been up to Gouyave or even heard of ‘Fish Friday,’ much less been to any other parish (Grenada’s equivalent of states and provinces) on the island.

It was a striking conversation, as we were two Americans living abroad on Grenada. Although we did have somewhat of a connection in that regard, our experiences couldn’t have been more different. Her Grenada was different than mine, plain and simple.

After clearing security and entering the waiting area for the second time in as many weeks, I went upstairs to grab a bite to eat. I sat down at the bar and ordered a chicken roti and a Ting. (For those that don’t know what Ting is, it is probably the most refreshing and glorious carbonated beverage I’ve ever had). As my meal was brought to me, I looked up to see Sportscenter playing on the television. I haven’t watched a single television program in months, having cancelled my cable awhile back. So with a passive disinterest in the Sportscenter broadcast, my attention was drawn to the mirror backdrop of the bar. I paused, finding my reflection looking back at me. I was left captivated and intrigued.

I was intrigued because I not only looked the same, but also felt the same. Since the start of this journey, I had almost envisioned a grand reveal of a ‘new me,’ re-born by this experience, whenever the time came for me to return home. But now that I was finally on my way home, I looked and felt no different. I re-started my life in a new country, and I felt as if I should feel different. All those months of walking into rooms not knowing a soul, of awkward conversations, of not being able to understand the locals, of being uncertain about what I am eating, and out of all of that difficulty I somehow managed to successfully create a life for myself. Having landed on my feet, so to speak, this experience has given me a confidence I never knew I needed. Every day is unpredictable here, and somehow I’ve come to establish a routine out of this unpredictability. But seeing my reflection, there was nothing to show for it on the outside. It made me curious to see what, if any, changes my family and friends would see in me.

Moving back downstairs to the waiting area of the terminal, it was flooded with SGU students and tourists. For the first time in six months, I once again was a part of the majority, and not the minority. Truthfully, I became nervous; I felt out of place. It was such a puzzling feeling. Why would I be uncomfortable now? Particularly considering the fact that I am no longer a minority? And if I feel uncomfortable here, how will I feel when I finally reach the States?

I began to look around for someone to distract myself with conversation. A stewardess was waiting to board another flight. We happened to strike up conversation. She was a local woman. I explained to her who I was and how I ended up living in Gouyave. She was from St. George’s. Much like in the States, those that grow up in cities and those that grow up in the country have vastly different life experiences. St. George’s is the city life; everything else, including Gouyave, is considered country. So we laughed about the differences of living in St. George’s and Gouyave. Nevertheless, we had ample things to talk about. I was comfortable again. It was ironic: I had more of a personal connection with a local Grenadian, than with an American SGU student living in Grenada. This realization didn’t help my growing uneasiness.

My boarding number was called and after saying a quick goodbye, I left the terminal to board my flight to Miami. It was time.

The flight to Miami was relatively uneventful. They played a movie about phones and apps, I forget what it was called. It was baffling, yet unsurprising, that they would make a movie solely based on iPhones and their apps. I didn’t pay it much attention, as I plugged my earbuds into the armrest radio and started thumbing through the airline’s limited selection of music.

As I arrived in Miami, however, I realized I was going to be cutting it close on my connecting flight. I claimed my luggage, re-checked it, and passed through customs seamlessly. But upon arriving at the TSA line, I gave up all hope. The line snaked endlessly in and around bends and I only had twenty minutes until I was supposed to board. To reinforce this point, my boarding number was the last one. I resigned to my fate and accepted the fact that I likely won’t actually make it home in one try.

A British man, suddenly, came bulldozing through shouting, “I’m sorry! Coming through! I have a connecting to catch! I’m going to miss it!”’

I thought about following his lead. It worked for him, as he made his way right to the front. I was in the same position as him, if not a more desperate one. I considered it, but I couldn’t make myself push ahead of everybody. So I waited.

The line surprisingly shuffled steadily along and when I cleared TSA, I looked at my watch to see that I had five minutes left to board. Grabbing my backpack, boots, belt, and tablet out of the bins, I hustled to the television prompter with the gate listings.

I found the departures for Cleveland. The gate listed was D60. I spun around to see what gate I was next to…D25.

“D60?! You gotta be kidding me!” I blurted as I took off running.

“Good luck!” the man that was standing next to me called.

I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, given I had a flight to catch, but I appreciated that call of support.

So there I was, dashing through the airport, weaving in and out of people calmly walking to their gates and destinations. Everyone in the airport must’ve known exactly what my situation was. Mind you, I hadn’t even put on my boots yet. Running in my socks, holding up my pants, my boots, belt, and tablet in my hands and the backpack unstrapped, bouncing on my back, I must have looked all out of sorts.

It was at this point I realized, despite playing basketball and going on hikes, I was not in as good of shape as I thought. I was out of breath by D35. I thought about slowing down to catch my breath and consequently sealing my fate; but as fast as that thought came through, it passed. I had to catch this flight.

So I kept running.

D40, D45, D50. Ten gates to go. D55, D56, D57, D58, D59….staircase.

My heart dropped.

Of course it had to be that much farther.

I stumbled down the staircase and upon reaching ground level, my momentum carried me forward. A line was in front of me and I ran right into the group of people congregated in the back.

“Is this to Cleveland?” I blurted, stumbling into the circle, panting.

All eyes in the waiting area seemed to turn to the guy that just ran into the line, completely out of breath and looking entirely disheveled.

“Yeah, you made it,” One of them says, clapping me on the back.

I sighed in great relief as they broke out in laughter. I laughed along with them. I could laugh because I made it. I was going home.

I boarded the flight almost immediately, stumbling into my boots in an attempt to pull myself back together.

As the plane took off I was in awe at the expanse of lights, endlessly stretching across the distance. The lights seemed to pulsate hypnotically, which lead me to realize that it was the Christmas lights strung up throughout the neighborhoods that gave that pulsating impression. Captivated by the colorful and pulsating lights, I drifted off to sleep…

The plane skidded onto the runway and I snapped awake. Ice stuck to the outside of the window as the cold air seemed to try and creep its way inside. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I threw on my jacket and rubbed my shoulders while I waited to disembark.

I stepped off the plane and into the airport, ironically enough at the gate adjacent to the one I left from six long months ago. As I made my way to the baggage claim, flashbacks of the morning I left ran through my mind. I thought about how much has changed in those six months.

Going down the stairs and coming around the bend, I found the track to my flight’s baggage claim. As I walked toward it, a familiar face walking with that ‘King strut’ looked up to the screen to check the flight number associated with the baggage claim. The face was familiar because, well, I saw that face every day growing up. I smiled slyly, but tried to contain the excitement bubbling within me. I thought about calling out, but didn’t. The moment I waited and envisioned in my head for the past six months was finally here. He turned as I approached.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” I grinned, embracing my twin brother, Tom, in a long-awaited hug.

“Welcome home, dude,” he answered.

Gathering my suitcase, we stepped outside into the brisk, Cleveland-winter air. Out from the driver-side door stepped my sister, Mj. I wrapped her up in a big hug as the trunk popped open.

The parade of hugs had begun.

The drive home was short, it was after 1:00 a.m. and I-71 was clear of traffic. We passed through the familiar landscape of Cleveland: the Terminal Tower lit in festive green and red lights, the Lebron banner hung from the building across from the Q Arena, Dead Man’s Curve, and an empty Muni Lot.

Finally reaching home, I dropped everything and climbed up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. Having done this all through high school and college, I was cautious and tapped lightly on the door before entering. For those who know my mother well, she has quite a sudden wake-up when awoken unexpectedly.

“Mom,” I whispered, poking my head in. “Dad. I’m home.”

Let me tell you, I have never seen my mother jump out of bed faster.

The parade of hugs continued as I went downstairs and woke up my grandmother, who opened her arms for a warm hug only a grandmother could give.

The first part of my weekend was spent trying to see as many people in the one, short week I would have at home.

The first night some old high school friends came over and we took to my parents’ basement, the old stomping grounds for many late nights over the years. I took a seat next to the pool table, but wasn’t sitting often. I had to keep getting up as familiar face after familiar face came down the stairs and the parade continued. These guys were some of my oldest and closest friends, having gone through high school together and spending much time throughout our college years as well. These were the guys I made some of the best, worst, and most questionable decisions of my life with. These guys saw me at my best, and they were with me during my worst.

The last time I saw their faces was six months ago, on a sunny and cool late May morning. They were all that were left of my going-away party the night before. Conversation was minimal, as we all sat around my family room, hungover, waiting, wishing to prolong the inevitable just a minute longer. (Okay, maybe that was just me). The inevitable came and the guys stood up for me as I prepared to make my final round of goodbyes. I didn’t make it through my first hug before I broke down uncontrollably. I hugged each one of them goodbye, tears streaming down my cheeks.

But this time the hugs were different. They were just as strong, just as caring. But these were joyful hugs, hugs of reunion. I was home; and life was good.

We went out bar-hopping in Ohio City, just a short walk from the high school we attended together. We started out at Porco’s, a hole-in-the-wall tiki bar inside a plain brick building. It made sense to start there, as that’s where we first went when we became of age. That’s where we would meet after work during our internships downtown in the summer. That’s where we would start the night before going out to downtown, an Indians game, or Cavaliers watch-party. At Porco’s, more familiar faces rolled through, as the parade of hugs marched on. In just one night, I had seen just about each one of my friends from high school. I even reunited with a close friend I coached a youth baseball team with for a summer.

The night that ensued was just like any other I had with them: another night of drinks, another night of stories, another night of laughs, but most importantly, another night of memories. Nothing seemed different. It was like I had never left. All seemed right in the world.

The next morning, Tom and I drove down to Columbus, Ohio. It was wedding time. A roommate and close friend of mine from college was getting married that day, and it was time to celebrate. Tom dropped me off at the location of the wedding, held in a quiet, beautiful little community center in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The reunion with the two of my senior year roommates was quick and seamless, as we fell right into place to prepare for pictures and the ensuing ceremony.

I stood outside in the waiting area, pinning my corsage on with the other groomsmen when all of a sudden, “Scott!” was shouted and a tackling hug hit me from behind.
I laughed, turning around and embracing the other college friends able to attend the ceremony; but the reunion was prolonged for later, as just like that the ceremony started.

The wedding was small, but beautiful as you could feel the love emanating from the close family and friends in the room. It was a wonderful time in which the smile never left my face. What a beautiful thing, weddings are.

After the wedding, it was time to commute to Columbus for the reception at a bar downtown. The area upstairs was rented out and reserved for us. Upon arriving, I was wrapped up in a conversation downstairs and I hadn’t even made it up to the reception yet, when another, “Scott!” rang out.

Looking up at the top of the stairs was another close friend of mine from school. She ran down the stairs and I moved immediately to greet her in another celebratory, reunion-type hug. Then proceeding upstairs, I found Tom sitting with more college friends of mine, those that weren’t able to be at the wedding but were able to make the reception. Included in this group was one of my first college friends, who I hadn’t seen in over a year since he had moved to Florida. The parade marched on.

For the duration of the night, I was surrounded by the people I love, friends who became family. We were finally reunited, in celebration of the holy union of two of our own. The night was much like the one I had the night before, only this time with a set of people from a completely different facet of my life. It was crazy to think that just one year ago, we all lived within a two-minute walk from one another. Oh, how life has changed in just one year. But for this night, much like the last, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Nothing seemed different. It was like I had never left. All seemed right in the world.

On our way back home the next morning, Tom and I stopped to see our brother Jeff and his wife Joy, in their new home just outside of Columbus. The morning was pleasant, as he proudly showed off each part of his newly-acquired home. You could tell from their smiles that they were happy there. Their house certainly beats the small, one-room apartment they used to live in, one in which I would crash on the couch at various times throughout college. We kicked back together and watched Ocean’s Thirteen, a movie I hadn’t seen before. The family time was simple. Our presence together was all that mattered.

The next day was Christmas. The reunions and parade of hugs continued, from my brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, and of course a long-awaited kiss to my new-born niece and goddaughter, Brenna. We gathered in our family room around the tree, mimosas and coffee-Baileys in hand, and opened and exchanged gifts. Christmas this past year operated much like many of the holidays before it. Everyone gathered in the kitchen, a million conversations going on at once, a grand family dinner, a holiday-themed game, and a late-night trip to see the ‘West Side Rodgers.’ Nothing seemed different. It was like I had never left. All seemed right in the world.

Two days later, it was time for Brenna’s baptism. My immediate family and other close family gathered at the same church in Twinsburg, Ohio, that my two nephews were baptized in just a few years before. The ceremony was small and quiet; peaceful, really. The priest went through a short sermon and proceeded through the ceremony. Tom and I shared the honors of godfather. Fitting, as having two godfathers is a blessing only a King girl could have. At this time let me say that there are many things of which I am proud of, but being a godfather has to be one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had the privilege of having.

After the christening, we returned to my brother’s house for a light brunch. I was surrounded by the people I love. I was surrounded by all those who have been with me and supported me since Day 1. It’s not often that we get all the Kings together in one room, so times like these carry a special weight. Once again, nothing seemed different. Once again, it was like I had never left. Once again, all seemed right in the world.

Then it was time to say goodbye. It was at this point, reality began to set in. Time suddenly began to feel like sand sifting through my fingers as I desperately tried to hold on to it. My return flight was set to leave the next day, and this would be the last time I would be seeing most of my family. I knelt down to say goodbye to my nephews, already having grown so much in my six months’ abroad. I started my rounds farewell-hugs, being re-acquainted with the sinking pit in my stomach. The tears welled up in my eyes and a knot tightened in my chest. I didn’t want to let go. I returned back to where my nephews were one last time,

“Give me another hug,” I said, as they leaned in and ‘squeezed the stuffing out of me.’

“I miss you guys,” I whispered, giving in to the tears.

They probably don’t understand at their young ages. I likely won’t see them for another year. After seeing how much they’ve grown over the past six months, I can only imagine how much they’ll grow in the next year.

Then coming around the corner I found my niece, sleeping silently in her motion rocker. I knelt down and kissed her little forehead, still streaked with oil from the christening. Then turning aside, I walked out the door and returned home one final time.

The next day I found myself back at the airport, set to depart for Miami. I checked my bag, cleared customs, and made it to my departure gate. With a deep sigh, I took a seat in the waiting area in front of the window. A small plane sat outside in the cold, early morning light. Looking into the window, I saw my faint reflection looking back at me.

It was the same reflection I saw one week ago in Grenada. My time at home was up. Once again I found myself sitting there, alone, with only my thoughts to keep me company. I thought I had only wanted one week at home. At the time I figured that would be enough. But the week ended just as quickly as it had started. I didn’t have any time to process it all, so I was left wishing ‘if only I had more…’

Cheers!

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The Sweet Escape Part II: Island-Hopping

After saying our goodbyes, Don and Kevin climbed into the taxi and drove off down the road. Turning back into my apartment, I had things to do. The very next morning I had a flight to catch to go to St. Vincent. So after a thorough cleaning of my apartment, I began to pack a bag to prepare for the long weekend ahead of me. There was an excitement building up within me at the prospect of getting to see another island in the Caribbean. When I first learned I would be serving in the EC, I made a promise to myself that I would do everything I could to do as much island-hopping as possible. So when an opportunity arose when there was talk among some fellow volunteers about a reunion in St. Vincent, I decided to join in. This point in my break marked my transition from being the host on one island, to a tourist on another.

Before the crack of dawn the following morning, fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Katie Riley and I were at the airport waiting to board our flight. After a short time, our boarding number was called and we stepped through the automatic sliding doors and out into the warm, early morning air. Up ahead was our plane, a small aircraft with propellers on the wings. To our left, behind the aircraft, a hint of orange began to seep across the lavender-colored horizon. All around the airfield was the Caribbean Sea, as still and serene as ever, mimicking the lavender of the sky. We climbed the mobile staircase and ducked our heads as we stepped into the plane.

Taking my seat next to the window and looking out, I was soon lost in thought. This was my first time leaving Grenada since I arrived in July. My excitement at seeing a new island soon melted into an uneasy feeling as the flight attendant went through the safety procedures. The plane eased forward and turned toward the runway. The engines kicked into a roar and the plane surged ahead. The uneasy feeling within me jumped to an immediate regret.

“What are you doing? Why would you leave?” I thought to myself, feeling as a child being reluctantly dragged away from a fun afternoon at a friend’s house.

The wheels came off the runway and the plane lifted smoothly into the sky. I closed my eyes and with a deep sigh, came to the realization that I had become emotionally attached to the Spice Isle. Regret was not something I was planning on feeling, especially given that I was on my way to see yet another Caribbean island. But I was comforted by the fact that I felt regret, because regret meant that I was happy. Regret meant that I have a good life in Grenada, where everything makes sense and there’s plenty to do and explore. The feeling of regret, in this particular instance, meant that Grenada has not only been my host country, but has become my home.

As I came to this realization, I opened my eyes and looked out the window. The lavender sky was nearly gone, overrun by a burning orange, early morning light with a fade of pink among the clouds. The landmass of Grenada seemed to crawl out like fingers poking into the sea. A ridge-line of mountains rose from the landmass and sprawled out across the island, like that of the LIFE board game’s playing surface. Colored rooftops speckled the mountainsides, as houses were tucked in sporadically along the ridges and out along the coast. I looked out intently, trying to spot different landmarks and the places I had been. In the distance, I came to recognize Bathway Beach on the northeastern coast. Beyond that was Sugar Loaf, Green, and Sandy Islands, the keys that sit just off the northern coast. Then with a snap of the fingers we drifted into the cotton-strand clouds, blocking my view of the island I have come to call home. It was time to look ahead to the island of St. Vincent.

After a quick layover in Barbados, we arrived in St. Vincent by the early afternoon. At the airport, Katie and I met fellow PCV Madeleine Humm, who had just arrived on her flight from St. Lucia. Equipped with nothing but our backpacks, we stepped out into the hot, Caribbean air. Walking up the road to the top of a hill, we flagged down a bus. Our plan was to take the bus to Stubbs Government School, where PCV Alexa Cline is placed and is just a short distance from the airport. The busses on St. Vincent operate much the same way as the other islands, packed full and speeding around bends and turns. But there were a few differences. In Vincy, the busses are notorious for packing the busses so full that it is not uncommon for not only the conductor, but also passengers to be standing for the ride. Whereas in Grenada you knock on the window to signal a stop, Vincy is much like St. Lucia in that you need to call out to the driver when you’re ready to drop. Additionally, many of the Vincy busses are spray-painted in vibrant, glittery colors of green, purple, blue, and the like. The drivers there take great pride in the appearance of their busses, oftentimes even donning their nicknames spray-painted across the hood.

The bus rumbled to a stop in front of a three-story building, complete with outdoor corridors connecting the classrooms. We walked onto the ground-level, second-story corridor and were greeted by Alexa and an influx of her young students, already excited by the class parties going on during their last day of school. Her school environment was much like mine: loud, chaotic, exciting. We gathered on the corridor as the principal brought us some snacks from the lunch room. I leaned against the railing as the girls sat on the bench while kids darted past us. Feeling a tug on my pant leg, I turned around and looked down the staircase behind me to find three boys trying to hide from my view. What quickly ensued was essentially a loose game of whack-a-mole; as the boys would pop up and reaching through the beams of the rail, tag my leg before crouching low to keep out of my reach in retaliation. This game entertained them, and me, for the next twenty minutes. It’s the simple things, really.

Later that afternoon we met up with PCVs Hannah Schroeder, Diamond Elam, Crystal Sherriff, and Ford Boozer for dinner at a quiet, waterfront restaurant. Within swimming distance across the way was Young Island, teasing to the eye as ideal for a quick island get-away. The dinner was spent conversing and catching up on all that has happened in our lives since we all parted ways after our new home countries were revealed to us that late July afternoon. The sun faded and night fell as we moved next door to a nearby bar. There the reunion continued until it was time to head north. A few of us caught a ride up the coast to Point, a community where a Christmas-lighting festival was taking place as part of the Nine Nights tradition. When we dropped in Point, we were engulfed in a mass of people. Lights of various colors strung up on houses and street posts, illuminating the community all around us. At a fork in the road a stage was set-up, as live music was being played by various bands and performers serving as the focal point of entertainment for the night. The holiday spirit filled the air as families and friends from far and near seemed to gather just for this night under the festive lights. Off the coast in the darkness, a silhouette of a large landmass speckled with a few lights loomed in the distance. I later learned that the silhouette was in fact St. Lucia, just a few miles off the coast.

The next morning we awoke to the steep mountains and hillsides surrounded us, jutting out into the ocean. We had no idea we were surrounded by such beautiful mountains, due to the cloak of darkness that concealed them when we arrived the night before in Owia, where PCV Olivia Chavez is located. Nonetheless, we walked down a steep road to the salt ponds. Sharp rocks protruded out from the collected pools of salt water, constantly filling from the waves that frequently crashed over the wall of rocks at the edge. Being in among the rocks of the salt ponds and surrounded by the green mountainsides, it truly felt as if I were in an entirely different world. We made our way across the rocks to the salt ponds, careful with each step on the sharp rocks and wary of the sea urchins known to dwell in the ponds. Eventually, we reached where the water was deep enough to jump in. The morning was spent floating in the salt ponds as local children soon came to join us. Barefoot, they effortlessly dashed across the rocks, flipping and jumping into the water. From someone who easily spent ten minutes covering the distance it took them to cover in thirty seconds, I was amazed. Then as we were treading in the water, an ominous sound of an incoming wave grew louder and louder. Looking off to my left, a large wave crashed through the crevices and over the top of the rocks. The local children dove wildly into the water as the wave overcame them and pushed all of us across the pond in its current.

After returning from the salt ponds, we spent the rest of the day going out to the Falls of Baleine. An isolated and hard to reach spot, it took quite some time for us to reach it. Lead by a local, we followed a river, dancing across rocks large and small as the towering green trees of the forest seemed to engulf us. A heavy sound of rushing water thundered in the distance, building up the anticipation within me of what was around the bend. I jumped from rock to rock, careful so as not to disturb the clear and transparent water of the river. Then coming around the bend, I look up to see a raging waterfall tucked into the mountains at the end of a tunnel of trees. The view was absolutely astounding. When we reached a point where we could no longer walk across the rocks, we stepped into the river, wading through icy-cold, waist-high water until we reached a path of higher ground that took us directly to the waterfall. Upon reaching the spring at the base of the waterfall, we jumped into its chilling, fresh waters. One of the locals that served as our guide climbed up the jagged rock-face. A few of us followed suit, taking turns leaping off the edge and into the spring below. This place was so isolated, so untouched, and so pure that it has easily become one of my favorite places in the world. I’m saddened to say that my GoPro malfunctioned while I was at the falls, so I lost all photos and footage of our trip there and from the salt ponds, as well. But that’s okay. Although disappointed, some things are best left as a memory.

The next day we embarked for Bequia, the largest and closest Grenadine island to St. Vincent. Our trip there was surprisingly eventful, as we made the trip through ‘The Bullet’ (the rough stretch of water between St. Vincent and Bequia) while a storm passed through. I must admit, I revisited my old affair with seasickness on this trip. As the mainland of St. Vincent faded into the clouds in the distance, the forested coast of Bequia emerged from the clouds ahead. When I saw a forested coast, my heart dropped a little. An uninhabited coast meant the dock was on the other side and we still had a-ways to go. The whole trip there made me question whether Bequia was even going to be worth the trouble. Looking back now, it certainly was. As we made our turn around the edge of the coast into the U-shaped bay of the island, the storm clouds immediately scattered, as if frightened by the omnipotent sun. Spilling into my view was your prototypical Caribbean scene. White sailboats, vessels, and yachts rocked gently in the turquoise blue waters. Simple homes of various colors spotted the luscious green coast and hillsides.

After we docked, I spent some time sitting on the pier and taking in the view in front of me. A few small, humble fishing boats were tethered to the posts of the pier. Two young boys were playing tag, jumping in and out of the boats and leaping into the water as they chased one another. I began speaking to a guy named Glen, a Vincentian fluent in Japanese, who does business in Japan and owns a small business in Manhattan. He was a lean man, donning shades and wearing a white, long-sleeve shirt and cornrow hair. A fast-talking and long-winded individual, I had an enjoyable time learning his story. In between his business travels, he often buys a one-way ticket to St. Lucia and travels to St. Vincent and Bequia by his personal boat. It was clear that he had spent significant time in the States, however, as just by his mannerisms and way of speaking was very American. This was not something I had expected to encounter while I was down here; but nevertheless, I have come to be able to tell who from the locals has spent time in America or England and who has remained in the Caribbean their entire lives. There’s a certain way they speak, dress, and carry themselves that gives it away.

For two picturesque Caribbean days basking in the hot sun and two nights looking up in awe at the vast, starry night sky; life seemed to have been put on hold. We spent the days bathing in the refreshing waters of the Sea and took in the nightlife of the bars and restaurants in the bustling little town on the main strip. Our Air BnB seemed suited for a honeymooning couple, complete with two floors with three bedrooms, a sitting room, fully-equipped kitchen, an outdoor patio ,and dinner table underneath a canopy. Mosquito nets were strung up over the beds, allowing us to sleep with the doors open to catch the warm sea breeze as it passed through. Due to the house being up the hillside, our patio-view was prime viewing for the sun to set down over the peninsula to our left. If you haven’t picked up on it yet: if you intend on vacationing in the Caribbean, Air BnB’s are the way to go.

Plainly said, my time in Bequia was way too short. It had all the characteristics and beauty of the Caribbean, but a humble, bustling character to it that served for a unique experience. Our final night on the island, we walked along the two small stretches of beach, up through a wooded path, and around a boardwalk over the water that bends around a mountain. All the while, the sunset was spilling a majestic array of pink and purple colors across the sky. Being able to spend that night and those few days in such a beautiful place, reuniting with friends undergoing this once in a lifetime experience with me, was truly remarkable. After all, how many people get the chance to experience such a beautiful place with friendships formed abroad?

It was exciting seeing St. Vincent, particularly as it compares to Grenada and St. Lucia. Each island seems to have its own personality that makes it so unique. There are some underlying characteristics that are found on each of the island, especially when it comes to the people. Even the little Grenadine islands like Bequai and Carriacou (the latter I hope to visit soon), have a character about them that makes them unique. But just like the natives of St. Lucia and Grenada, Vincentians have a generosity about them in hopes that you are enjoying visiting their home country as much as they enjoy living there.

Ironically enough, through all of this my favorite part about the trip to St. Vincent and Bequia wasn’t the turquoise water or sandy beaches. It wasn’t the Christmas-lighting in the community of Point. It wasn’t the salt ponds of Owia or Falls of Baleine. It wasn’t experiencing the nightlife of Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent. It wasn’t the ferry rides, sunsets, or nights spent stargazing. My favorite part happened after all that.

On our way back to Grenada, Katie and I had a couple-hour layover in Barbados. During the layover, the air conditioning inside the airport terminal was so chilling, we sat outside in the warmth of the Caribbean air while we waited for our flight. A short man wearing a blue polo shirt was standing off to the side, headphones in and looking at his phone. I sat down on the curb and leaned back on the tree behind me while we waited. The door to the right opened and a gust of cold air rushed out, as another man in a green button-down shirt and well-trimmed mustache walked out briskly, folding his arms and rubbing his shoulders proclaiming, “Ooohh! It’s cold in there!”

The few of us that were outside laughed heartily, for without ever collectively acknowledging it, the air conditioning was exactly why each one of us was outside. I stood up and introduced myself to the man in the green shirt, whose name was Clifton. He was a small-business owner living in Canada, just outside of Toronto and on his way to visit family in his native home country of St. Vincent. I explained to him that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in Grenada, and had just came from St. Vincent and Bequia. When I told him I am originally from cold-weather Cleveland, Ohio, we laughed and talked about life in the cold as compared to life here. He was nearly in stitches laughing after hearing me confess to him that 78 degrees was now ‘cold’ for me.

The man in the blue polo pulled out his headphones and stepped into the conversation, introducing himself as Leon. Originally from Grenada, he had family on St. Kitts and Nevis and spent the latter part of his life living and raising a family in the Washington D.C. area. An avid Carnival-goer, he attends each Caribbean island’s Carnival every year. I told him about my experience at last year’s Spicemas Carnival on Grenada, to which we swapped stories and photos, as naturally he was there as well.  Having been to Carnivals across the Eastern Caribbean, I asked him where Grenada’s stands among the rest, to which he responded slyly, “Grenada has a good Carnival, but they have the best J’ouvert (joo-vay).” For those who don’t remember or don’t know, the J’ouvert is the Carnival event on Grenada in which everyone parades the streets covered in motor oil. Although I may be a bit biased, I must agree.

It was at this time another burst of cold air came bursting through the doors. An elderly man, probably about 70-something years old came shuffling out of the terminal, digging his hands deep in his jacket pockets. I rushed over to close the door behind him, as we had come to take turns opening and closing the door for people passing through. The purpose of this was actually two-fold: the first for the sake of good, old-fashioned chivalry, the second so that we can close the door shut and trap the cold air in that much faster.

“Coming out to escape the cold?” Clifton asked, as the elderly man stepped into our circle.

“Mhmm,” he nodded.

To be perfectly honest, I wish I could remember this man’s name. For what he said next, I may never forget. He began to tell his story, which was humbling, to say the least. A native Vincentian, he and his wife moved to Maryland to provide a better life and education for their daughters. He was successful in this endeavor, as both of his daughters went on to prestigious schools and have found successful positions in the professional world. I couldn’t help but notice a nervousness about him, however, and it was soon revealed why. He was returning to St. Vincent to lay his wife of fifty years to rest. Tears welled up in his eyes as he painfully explained her valiant fight against cancer, a battle in which he was by her side every step of the way. Clifton and Leon both reached out and placed a hand on of his shoulders in consolation. I just stood there, silent, speechless.

“Wow, she must have been a tremendous woman,” Clifton tells him.

The man then proceeds to tell the story of how he met his wife. Working at a beach-side restaurant, he looked up from a table to see a sailboat out on the water with two girls on it. The man motions as he explains how he had picked up a pair of binoculars to get a better look. You could see the man envisioning it all fondly, as if it happened just yesterday. As it turns out, the first girl was a cousin of a friend of his. But it was the second girl that had truly captivated his attention. As soon as his shift had ended, he jumped in the water and swam out fifty yards to the boat and the rest you could say, was history. He was nineteen at the time; she was seventeen. They were married for over fifty years until her recent passing. The love was evident in his expressions; the pain of his loss still fresh in his eyes. We expressed our condolences.

This was a highlight of my trip because of the people I met and how humbling hearing their stories was for me. It all started simply because I seemed to have lost my ‘Northern blood,’ and had to sit outside in the heat because the air conditioning was too cold. However, the fact that I couldn’t handle the air conditioning isn’t the only thing I had in common with these Caribbean-born men. Here we were, four men from different countries, different backgrounds, and different stages of life. Yet, each of our lives seemed to be intertwined. Each of us lived on an island in the Caribbean at some point in time. Each of us had lived in the United States or Canada at some point in time as well. We all had distinctly unique Caribbean experiences from tasting national dishes like Grenada’s oil down, to travelling on the local buses and visiting the beaches, to jumping in Carnival. We had all been to the various islands of St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Bequia. Each of us had experienced the luxury that life in the West can seem to be compared to the simple lifestyles of those in the Caribbean.

Before this Peace Corps experience I never would have had any common ground to share with these men, nor them to me.  Yet they accepted me like one of their own as we shared our life stories, opinions on politics, recommendations on places to visit, and spoke like old friends reunited after time spent apart. It would likely surprise an unsuspecting passerby to discover that an hour ago we had never even seen each other before. Then one by one, we returned into the air conditioned-terminal to board our respective flights. It’s probably safe to say I will never see any of them again. However, that two-hour layover in Barbados and the time I spent conversing with those three men was one the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Hearing each man’s life story was altogether inspiring and humbling. It truly goes to show that despite all the differences we seem to have, we really are all in this life together.

And just like that I was back on Grenada, but only for one short day as then the moment I waited six long months for finally arrived–it was time to go home. Not home as in Grenada, but home as in the States. Home as in Ohio. Home as in Cleveland.

I couldn’t contain my excitement. How could I? You know what they say…

There’s no place like home.

Cheers!

 

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The Sweet Escape Part I: A Rec House Reunion

December was the month I had long-awaited for. I had so much anticipation built up for this month for a couple of reasons: 1) the school term ended on December 7th 2) I had a three-week Christmas break with a three-country itinerary planned 3) The final week of that itinerary meant it was finally time to return home to the States for Christmas. Therefore, I decided to take a literal ‘break’ and go off the grid for those three weeks so that I could truly enjoy my time off. After all, it wasn’t easy leaving everything I have ever known to start a new life from scratch in a country I’ve never been before. I had gone through so much over the course of the past six months that I simply needed to escape and take some time to enjoy myself and forget about life for a while.

So here comes into play one of the best perks of volunteering abroad, aside from the life-changing experience that is international volunteering; and that is the opportunity to explore all that your host country has to offer. This is where all those cool and awesome photos come into play, where people will then question me whether I’m actually doing any work at all or just simply ‘on vacation.’ Trust me, the majority of my time here is, in fact, work. After all, I just spent the past fourteen weeks engrossed with obligations at school. But now that Christmas break was here, it was time to truly take advantage of life in the Caribbean.

That being said, these past three weeks have been nothing short of incredible. Since so much happened over my three-week, three-country vacation, I decided to break down my next blog posts into a series. I titled this series: The Sweet Escape Part 1: A Rec House Reunion, because this break reminded me the wonders of international travel and the amazing people you meet in the most unlikely of places. This first post will cover the week I had the pleasure of hosting and showing around the island two friends I had met while volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa one year ago.

It started as I walked home after my last day at school. Don Nguyen and Kevin Wang, the two friends I volunteered with in Cape Town, had just been dropped off at my apartment by a taxi I had arranged to pick them up at the airport. It had been nearly a year to the day since I last saw them. The previous time I had seen them was as we said goodbye at the infamous “Rec House” volunteer homestay in Muizenberg, just outside of Cape Town, (*insert shameless “Rec House, Best House” plug here). For those that don’t know about my homestay in Cape Town, Rec House was a literal melting pot of volunteers from all over the world. The house included volunteers from countries such as: USA, Netherlands, France, New Zealand, Germany, Morocco, England, and Canada among others. The memories I have with those at Rec House are ones I will cherish forever. Before leaving Rec House, I had told Don and Kevin of my plans to serve with the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean and they had promised they would come visit me. I’ll be brutally honest when I say I didn’t believe them. That’s the thing about forming friendships with people in foreign places, the reality is that you don’t know when or even if you’ll ever see them again. Little did I know, however, that almost exactly one year to the day they would be my first visitors to Grenada. So as I walked out of the alley that leads to my apartment, I looked up the road to my left to see none other than Kevin and Don, awaiting me with big smiles, open arms, and un-canned excitement. Suddenly, their arrival quite literally became real. I was overcome with joy as they were literally the first familiar faces I had seen in six long months.

It was particularly exciting for me, as they were the first ones that got to see first-hand the life I have established for myself down here. This was the first time I got to be the experienced ‘local’ and show off my new home. It also meant that this was the first time I wouldn’t be experiencing everyday life down here alone.

To celebrate, the first night I took them to a beachside restaurant at Grand Anse for dinner and drinks. The Caribbean sky showed off its vibrant colors that evening, as we laughed and recalled stories from our time together in Africa as the sun set slowly on the horizon. We got caught up on what we’ve been doing since Africa under what became a vast, star-speckled night sky while the water lapped calmly on the shore. We had picked up right where we left off, as it seemed nothing had changed from when we were together just one year ago.

The next morning they woke up with my unusual Friday morning ‘alarm,’ a wake-up call not for the faint of heart. Some of you may know that my apartment in Gouyave is located next to a market. Well, within this market is a slaughterhouse. Consequently, every Friday morning at about 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., I am wakened by, ‘calls of distress,’ to put it lightly. Let’s just say that the goats are better than the pigs.

Nevertheless, that day we took to Grand Anse beach, unusually overcrowded with tourists from the cruise ship that docked in St. George’s that morning. There they got to meet two of the other Peace Corps Volunteers on the island, Sarah Bowman and Riley Doerlerr. The day that ensued was a sign of the week to come, as when you get some international volunteers together, there is already a connection established just by being Americans together in a foreign country. After a day of sunshine and bathing in the waters of Grand Anse, we returned to Gouyave. I had a school commitment that night, but Don and Kevin got to experience Gouyave’s Fish Friday festival that occurs just up the road from my apartment.

The next day, Saturday, was probably one of the best days of the trip. We woke up and grabbed an early breakfast before making our way down to Dragon Bay, the location of Grenada’s famous Underwater Sculpture Park. We dropped from a bus and made our way down the hill to a quiet seaside shoreline. A man sitting quietly under a gazebo waved us in. His name was Arendell, a local tour guide and experienced diver. For the next couple hours we dove in and around the statues that rested eerily on the ocean floor. There are a variety of statues in the park, including: a mermaid, a man breaking bread at the table, another man stretching his arms to the sky, and the well-known ring of people holding hands, among others. There is an ominous presence about each and every one of them, silently resting while covered in coral and sea urchins. It was especially fun getting to experience the Sculpture Park with them as the last time I was in ocean waters with these guys, we were shark-cage diving with great white sharks in the African waters of Gansbaii Bay.

Afterwards, we made our way to BBC Beach to meet up with another PCV, John Lyness, and grab what is in my opinion, (and later theirs), the best fish tacos in the world. We didn’t spend much time in the water that day, having been exhausted from the hours-long dive at the Sculpture Park. (Which believe me, totally worth it, but incredibly tiring). Anyhow, the rain from that morning came to pass and the sun broke through the clouds as we all took naps on the beach before bathing in the water and heading back to Gouyave that night.

When we got back I took them to Mansah’s, the local bar I frequent to shoot pool. This was honestly one of the highlights of my week with them. I sat on a stool next to the pool table, awaiting my turn in the game I was playing against one of the locals. Then, looking off to my left was Don, embracing appreciatively one of the locals like old friends having been reunited after a long time apart. It was kind of unexpected and a bit ironic, as after all they never would have met before now. But nevertheless, it was a special moment for me. I’ve told many people that the locals here are so incredibly warm and welcoming, but sometimes you just have to experience it yourself to truly understand. It was comforting, too, after hearing about the conversation Don had with that local man, to know that I am not the only one that has had this type of experience here.

The next morning we were woken up by one of my other unusual alarm clocks, this one a little more pleasant. One of my students, in a high-pitched voice repeatedly called, “Mr. King!” through my apartment window. Sure enough, just as they did with the local kids in South Africa, Don and Kevin quickly befriended the student to the point that by the end of that day and subsequent days there were not only calls of “Mr. King!” through my window, but “Don!” and “Kevin!” as well. They were truly getting my full Peace Corps experience.

Since buses don’t run on Sundays, we walked to Palmiste Beach. Palmiste is a quiet, isolated beach primarily used for fishing that is about a half hour’s walk from Gouyave. It’s the type of beach that has that “untouched” feel to it, where a few pieces of litter are tucked in among the trees and overgrowth behind the sandy shore. We took it easy that day, resting up because we had another big night ahead of us. That night, while Don took some of the local kids skateboarding, Kevin joined me at the community basketball court to square off against the locals that gather there to play every Sunday night. There were enough guys for a three-team, pick-up game rotation. We started playing while the sun began to fade and played for hours on end into the night. Hot, sweaty, and exhausted, we made our way back to my apartment to find Don inside, with roasted chicken coming fresh out of the oven. Let me tell you, that night we feasted like kings. It was a pleasant surprise, which in reality wasn’t actually all that surprising. It wasn’t surprising because just the morning before, Kevin had gone to the supermarket and prepared breakfast for all of us. Kevin said it best that morning when he said, “It’s just like back in Rec House, everyone takes turns cooking for everybody.” He couldn’t have been more right. Once again it was like we were back in Rec House, where the kitchen was the gathering place of food and conversation before hanging out for late night discussions on the veranda out front.

We hit the midway point of their week in Grenada, as the next day we left for La Sagesse Beach in the parish of St. David’s. There we spent the day bathing in the tides of the Atlantic with Peace Corps Volunteers Katie Riley, Katelyn Earnest, and John Lyness. Later that night we stopped in Grenville, the second-largest town on Grenada, for drinks and met additional Volunteers living on that side of the island. It was a truly memorable night of stories, laughs, and dancing to music under the awe-inspiring meteor shower taking place in the heavens above us. I was pleased that they got the chance to meet the other PCVs on Grenada, as I can assure you I’m here with nothing less than the best.

We had finally reached their final day, but that didn’t slow us down as we took to Grand Etang National Park with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Hannah Melin to see the Mona monkeys. The three of us had to get our ‘wild animal fix,’ as when we were in South Africa, we went on a two-day safari to see Africa’s ‘Big 5:’ elephants, lions, rhinos, water buffaloes, and cheetahs. So after a morning of ‘monkeying around’ and hiking to a jaw-dropping island viewpoint, one in which you can see both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, we went back to Grand Anse for one final beach day and glorious sunset.

After the sun went down it was time to head back to Gouyave, as they were to leave for the airport the next morning. However, one thing was for certain: the fun wasn’t going to stop there. While we were on our way back to Gouyave, we saw a roadside karaoke competition going on in the community of Grand Roy. Now, in Cape Town, there was a tradition in Rec House for the volunteers to go out on Wednesday night and sing karaoke at Brass Bell, a local bar. So, it seemed like a no-brainer to make a little pit stop on our way home. We jumped out of the bus and got drinks at a roadside tent. Across the street from us was a stage at about head-height underneath a large, white tent. On the stage was a DJ crouched behind his laptop and large speakers, playing music while the videos were projected onto the screen. A crowd of people was gathered at and around the junction and in the street, conversing with each other and seemingly waiting for the night to begin. It was clear a karaoke night was going to happen, but as per usual, no one ever wants to be the first to go. So, handing off my backpack to the guys, I walked across the street and up to the stage. The DJ leaned over and I called out my request: Africa by Toto. I chose this song for a couple reasons: 1) the obvious fact that I met Don and Kevin in Africa 2) most locals here are familiar with this song and therefore it will vibe well with the crowd 3) it’s a classic.

The DJ handed me the microphone and I stepped onto the side of the road so I could see the lyrics projected on the screen above me. I began singing until, just as I finished the first verse, the DJ cut the music…

“Ooooh, that was nice; and when something is nice we got to go twice!” He called out as he ran the track back.

That having excited the crowd and built up my confidence even more, I sang the song all the way through the way I believe karaoke ought to be done. After finishing the song, the community of Grand Roy applauded as I handed back the mic and walked back across the street.

Sure enough, now that someone had gone first a que formed to participate in the competition, which we later found out was being broadcast live on a Grenada radio station. Kevin threw down the house with his hip-shaking rendition of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas and Don dropped the always popular track of the Ignition Remix by R. Kelly. Everyone seemed to respond well to each of the songs the ‘foreigners’ were singing, as even the DJ himself proclaimed, “Looks like the foreign nations crowd is representing tonight!”

That’s the way it is with these guys. You can throw them into almost any uncomfortable situation, which can happen often when you’re doing things like singing karaoke in front of a whole community in a foreign country, and they can make it fun. No one likes being in an uncomfortable situation, but when you have each other, that’s all the comfort you need. It’s times like these that led me to fall in love with international travel and creating memories and friendships in foreign places that I will cherish forever .

The next morning the taxi came to pick them up from my apartment. As per another Rec House tradition, I played See You Again by Charlie Puth and Whiz Khalifa, as that was the song we would play when a volunteer was leaving. Last time I heard this song with them and the rest of Rec House, I was fighting back the tears that would eventually overwhelm me until I arrived at the Cape Town airport. Saying goodbye then was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do. It was certainly hard saying goodbye this time, too.

However, it was a bit easier than last time because I know that someday, I will see them again. My initial doubts of ever seeing them were proven wrong when they became my first visitors to Grenada. I take comfort in that, even though I don’t know for sure when I will see them again.

The first time we met was the day I arrived in South Africa. The second time we were all together again was on the Eastern Caribbean island of Grenada. So given that we are three Americans that have never been Stateside together, the more pressing question I think is, “Where will we be when we see each other again?”

There was talk of maybe Vietnam. But who knows? Only time will tell.

Cheers!

Note: This post would be incomplete without a few photos from our time together in South Africa. Enjoy!

 

Coming at You on ‘Island Time,’ My Thanksgiving Reflection

Last weekend, I got together with the other Peace Corps Volunteers on Grenada to celebrate our American Thanksgiving together. It was fitting that we celebrated it a little over a week late, as if maybe now we’re just used to running on ‘island time.’ But since then, I have taken some time to reflect on a few things I have become grateful for since beginning this experience:

Sidewalks: In most towns on Grenada, sidewalks are pretty scarce. The streets that do have sidewalks are often uneven and narrow. Consequently, walking to school, the park, or any other place is always an adventure as vehicles narrowly pass on your shoulder. Often times you can literally feel the air from the vehicle as it brushes past. But after one or two near misses, I’ve grown accustomed to listening for approaching vehicles and moving accordingly.

Boneless Chicken (or boneless anything): Just about any source of meat I’ve had here comes with the bones. I’ve come to appreciate how good I had it back home when I could just pick up a package of boneless chicken from the grocery store, cut it up, and cook it with ease. Eating meat with the bones also makes you eat a bit cautiously, not wanting to get stabbed by any unexpected bones. I admit I could find boneless chicken here, but I have not taken the extra effort to go all the way to the IGA grocery store in Grand Anse that essentially functions like your Western-style grocery. I’d rather get my groceries in the local market that’s just a stone’s throw from my apartment as opposed to an hour’s traveling on two separate busses to and from IGA.

Soca and Reggae Music: Before moving here, I had a very limited exposure to different genres of music. I had never even heard of soca before, but now it is one of my favorite varieties of music. The songs are so fast and rhythmic, they get into your bones and it’s hard to resist dancing (even though I’m the prime example of why some say white people can’t dance). Whenever I heard the word ‘reggae,’ my first thought would always be Bob Marley. Surprisingly, Bob Marley isn’t overly-popular here. You do hear his music occasionally; but I have more been exposed to the likes of Lucky Dube, Beres Hammond, and Chronixx, all of whom I would highly recommend giving a listen.

The Grenadian Bus System: If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve seen me mention the busses here a number of times. That’s simply because they never fail to amuse me as no two rides are ever the same. This being said, the bus system on Grenada is immensely easier to navigate than St. Lucia’s, and from what I understand, the other islands as well. It is easier here in thanks to the numbered bus routes so you actually know where the bus is going, as well as the conductors who ride along and handle all the monetary transactions, enabling the bus to run more efficiently.

Crickets: The crickets here sound very mechanical, almost like what you would hear from a baby monitor. This was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in St. Lucia to begin my training for service. Their sound resonates incessantly throughout the night and I have grown so accustomed to hearing them to the point I almost forget they’re there. However, their sound never fails to accompany me and remind me of how lively this place can be, especially at night.

Sunsets: This one is obvious, right? Since I’m living on the west coast that means I see a sunset on the Caribbean Sea just about every night. The colors are absolutely astounding and the pictures, although jaw-dropping in and of themselves, still don’t do the real thing justice. However, I am also grateful because my walks to watch the sunset have helped me in two ways: my integration into the community, and humbling me when I’m feeling homesick. The children that are always by the rocks highlight my day with their tremendous hugs, throwing complete and utter trust in me when they shout, “Mr. King!” and launch themselves off the rocks and onto my back or into my arms. I have also met a number of locals and have had some very meaningful conversations with them while on these walks. On the final note, when I’m feeling homesick, watching the sun go down reminds me of how lucky I am to be here and to be grateful for the opportunity to witness such beauty.

Roosters: Just kidding. They’re the worst; particularly when they call right outside your window endlessly throughout the early morning.

Bucket Baths: During my seven-week homestay in the rural community of Desruisseaux, St. Lucia, I had to take bucket baths. The process was humbling in and of itself, and I was surprised at how quickly I had grown accustomed to it. That being said, I often had to throw on some music to hype myself up for the douse of cold water. But after coming home from working out at the park, the cold water in the bucket was actually quite a relief from the stifling heat. All in all, I did just about cry tears of joy when I discovered I had reliable running water and a hot water tank in both my homestay and my apartment here in Gouyave. It was also a humbling experience in Desruisseaux to have water shut off on you, no matter how inconvenient the time. My host mother had a sixth sense about when it would shut off and would always prepare accordingly, much to my amazement and admiration.

Hand-Washing Clothes: I have come to take pride in the fact that I now hand-wash my clothes. The process I take, I admit, is not as intensive as it probably should be but I can assure you my clothes smell clean and fresh by the time I finish. The hand-washing, in addition to hanging clothes on the line to dry, have turned doing laundry into a full day’s chore. At times it’s very tedious and frustrating, but ultimately I am happy and humbled to have had this experience.

The Rainy Season: The rainy season in Grenada begins June 1st and runs through to January 1st. The rainy season means that there will sometimes be half a dozen or so random rain showers throughout the day. Although this has wrecked havoc on me trying to hang-dry my clothes outside, I enjoy the change in weather as it tends to cool things down from the heat (I know, I sound spoiled). Additionally, the second it starts raining just about everybody makes a break for shelter for fear of catching a cold. At first I got a lot of humor out of this, as I was one to think a little rain never hurt anybody. That being said, as time has gone on I have felt the urge to take shelter as soon as I feel a single rain drop fall. The good thing is, the showers never last more than a few minutes and often bring out beautiful rainbows. While I’m on the topic of rain, however, never have I seen it rain while the sun was out until I reached here. It will rain on you with only a few clouds in the sky and it never fails to baffle me. The locals say that this happens when, “The devil is beating his wife.”

Large Bugs: I’m not actually grateful for them. But what I am grateful for is that since I have become accustomed to seeing them, I react less dramatically. On one occasion, I opened my cupboard door to the likes of a large cockroach flying right past my face. Let me tell you, I never ran faster in my life as I stumbled over my kitchen table trying to get away. After my heart rate settled and I located and took care of said cockroach, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I’m happy no one else was around to witness this unfold, but I sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself. When this happened another time a few months later, I simply grabbed my shoe and took care of it. Additionally, the BOP spray has been tremendously effective in mediating this issue. However, I’m not sure if I should be encouraged or disheartened when I see how effective the spray really is: encouraged by the fact it works, or disheartened by the fact they get in my apartment in the first place.

“Just Now”: I have fallen in love with this expression. It is used by locals to say that whatever task that is the subject of the conversation will be completed, but in a short time. That time can be anything from a few minutes to an hour. This expression I find myself using a lot, as it actually can properly allocate time in my opinion. My personal take is that it also reflects the importance of taking your time and appreciating the moment. Consequently, I have made up my mind to buy a boat someday, solely for the purpose of naming it Just Now. The other Volunteers have heard this already, but I think it would be a perfect name for a boat. After all, when you’re on a boat you can’t help but appreciate the moment. You’re not in any particular rush to get anywhere, as you just take in the open water around you and the coastline in front of you. It’s the “Just Now mentality”: you’ll get to where you’re going, but you’re going to take your time getting there. There’s no rush. You’re a little too preoccupied with enjoying the moment, something we sometimes don’t do enough of.

My Staff: The teachers and staff at my school are nothing short of amazing. They are an incredibly welcoming and fun-loving bunch. From the day I met them, they have looked out for my personal well-being and have encouraged me to ‘free-up.’ They are also incredibly creative. This past weekend we had our school Christmas concert. The Friday before the concert, in about an hour’s time they came up with a hilarious full-length skit in which each character was catered to each one of the teacher’s strengths and personality. On top of that, they’re spontaneous as well, as they adjusted to last-minute changes to the skit even while on stage the night of the performance. As one who has always been prone to ‘winging-it,’ it’s nice to be surrounded by people I can relate to in this way as it keeps things interesting.

The Students: As much as they can drive me nuts and test my patience, my life would be so dull without them. Their endless energy and curiosity has rubbed off on me, as I can almost envision my own 8-year-old self in them. The notes and hugs I receive from them on an almost daily basis, as well as them holding my hand on the walk to school, has easily become one of the best parts of my job. The joy they have reminds me why life is worth living. I have enjoyed the opportunity to teach them how to read, as many are behind the expected reading level of their age group. I can only hope that my presence in their lives will have as much of an effect on their life as much as their presence has already affected mine.

Education: Having been exposed to the school systems here and around the world, I am so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up and be educated in the United States. My education was something I had taken for granted, as if it was owed to me. Every child is deserving of an education, but that doesn’t mean every child receives a proper one. After witnessing a third-grader respond blankly to an alphabet letter or listening to a seventh-grader struggle through a children’s book, I have realized I am beyond blessed to have received the education I did. I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it more than these kids, though, as only the time and place in which I was born was the determining factor.

FaceTime: Thank God for 21st century technology. FaceTime has played a pivotal role in my service so far. Who knows where my mental health would be if not for being able to see my family and friends from home on FaceTime. To those family and friends that I have connected with already: know that those conversations lift my spirits more than you realize. (And yes, I did take screenshots so look for yourself in the slideshow). For those I haven’t FaceTimed with yet: feel free to reach out as I am always looking forward to seeing a familiar face.

‘The G-Unit’: The group of Peace Corps Volunteers on Grenada, or the ‘G-Unit’ as we affectionately call ourselves, have been a tremendous support system throughout this whole journey. I couldn’t have asked for a better and more admirable group of people with whom to share this experience. Each and every one of us is motivated to accomplish the goals that Peace Corps sets out for us, but we certainly are having a fun time doing it. They have become my family away from home and I wouldn’t want to be stranded on an island with anyone else.

My Family and Friends: You miss a lot of things when you are far from home, and become grateful for things you didn’t realize you had taken for granted. But you miss nothing more than your family and the friends you left behind. Words cannot describe how excited I am to being able to see them again in just two short weeks. I am forever grateful for how supportive you have all been throughout this journey. That being said, I will see you all very soon!

This Peace Corps Experience: This experience has been everything I could have asked for and more. There are certainly a tremendous amount of ups and downs, but each one provides a learning experience. To me, joining the Peace Corps and living abroad in a foreign community was the ultimate challenge. But as much as it has been a challenge, it has also been that much of a rewarding experience. No two days are alike, and for that I am grateful. I have already learned so much, and have become grateful for things I may had originally not given a second thought.

I hope you all had a pleasant and enjoyable Thanksgiving. I certainly did.

Cheers!

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When You Got Salt in the Shaker…Shake It Up

You had a long week. It started out hearing some heart-wrenching news from a school on the southern part of the island. The news weighs on your mind all day. Appalling.

But school carried on per usual. You and your counterpart teacher are reviewing some material before conducting tests over the course of the week.

You take your regular pull-out students for their weekly sessions. They go well. You found an activity on Pinterest (an educational goldmine) that focuses on blending consonant sounds. The blends you chose challenged them, but they worked through and overcame them. It was encouraging to see. Inadvertently, the blending strips provided an opportunity to reinforce their short vowel sounds that we covered the two weeks prior.

Then came Wednesday. You and your counterpart hand out a reading comprehension assessment for your students to complete. It’s a simple assessment: read a poem and answer the questions.

During the exam, your counterpart steps out of the room to make some work-related phone calls. The class completes the exam and the bell rings, dismissing them for break.

“The next language arts class is your homeroom class,” you think to yourself. “They’ll listen to you, it should be fine.”

Reality check: it’s not always easy working in a differentiated classroom.

You give instructions for the exam. The students are distracted. They don’t seem to be taking this test seriously. They stand up and walk around the room. The talking doesn’t ever seem to stop.

They ask for help understanding the same simple questions, but you know it’s because they weren’t paying attention. So you repeat the instructions for the class, yet still struggling to really capture their attention. They repeat the same questions, as if you were speaking a different language.

You begin to feel frustrated.

“Sir! He copying my work!” One student calls.

“Sir! He just cuss me!” Another one calls.

“Sir! Tell her to behave!”

You feel like a dog running in circles trying catch its tail. You go to one table to address one problem; something goes wrong at the other end of the room. You go to the other end, only to have the same problem re-surface at another table.

All the while, you try to give the struggling students the proper attention so they can complete the exam. You’re making progress with the one that is still learning his letters. You find out he knows his alphabet and can recite the song, it’s just the letter recognition that he lacks. You make a mental note to keep that in mind for your next pull-out session with him.

“Sir! I done!” A students shouts.

“Raise your hand,” you say, still focused on the student at hand. “I’ll be right with you.”

You walk over and collect the student’s completed exam. Answers are left blank and those that are completed don’t even answer the question. He is one of your smarter students too, just goes to show he wasn’t listening.

“No, you’re not,” you tell him. “Go back and finish numbers five and eight; you might want to check number three while you’re at it.”

You begin helping a student who was waiting with his hand raised. A student walks up to you.

“Sir!”

“Sir!”

“Sir!”

“How are you supposed to get my attention?” you sigh gently, finally looking at her. She turns and heads back to her seat, raising her hand. Much better.

Another student walks up, tugging on your sleeve.

“Sir!”

“Sir!”

“Hold on,” you say, holding up your index finger. “Can’t you see I’m working with somebody? Go back to your seat and raise your hand and I’ll be right with you.”

There’s only one of you, but fifteen of them. It seems they all have questions. If they don’t have questions, there’s a petty problem that needs resolved. You’re getting to the point that you’re beyond frustrated; you’re straight overwhelmed.

You go to the front of the class and raising your voice, finally capture their attention. You lecture them on their misbehavior. They still don’t seem to be taking you seriously.

The bell rings.

You go back to your one established leverage that’s worked in the past. You hold them back a couple minutes from lunch. All of a sudden their great listeners, now that their misbehavior would cause them to lose precious time at recess. Since you have their attention now, you review the classroom rules hanging on the wall. You ask them if they did a good job following them, they admit they weren’t. You explain to them your disappointment and that you expected better. You tell them that when they are quiet and seated; they’ll be dismissed to lunch. Two tables follow those instructions promptly and you dismiss them. Two students defiantly remain standing, as if to make a point. You dismiss the rest of those that are seated. Now, it’s just you and the two standing students. You sigh. You can play this game all day, but you don’t want to.

One girl turns her back to you, arms crossed. You’re not surprised; she’s been acting out all day. She already wasn’t happy with you after she was caught looking off another student’s paper. The boy that was standing, realizing he lost his audience and that all his friends were gone at lunch, finally sits down and you dismiss him.

The girl proceeds to pace back and forth across the room, crying. You try to calm her down, but she still won’t listen. She threatens to tell her mother.

“Go ahead,” you answer. “I would love to talk to your mother about your behavior today.”

She continues to cry, upset still as I was not intimidated by the threat of her mother. After all, you are not afraid to speak to any of the parents. You’ve already met a few of them, including hers. You’ve worked with children and their parents in the past, so this isn’t your first rodeo, so to speak. You have no problem explaining the reasons for your actions. Everything you do is done in the best interest of the child.

But by now five to ten minutes have passed; the point was already made and you don’t want her to miss lunch. She’s still a growing child and needs to eat. You ease the conversation into calming her down and when she finally does, you dismiss her to lunch. She saunters out of the door to join her classmates.

You sit back in your chair and sigh. Exhausted and stressed, you head down to the lunch room to meet up with the other teachers. Your counterpart is there.

“How did everything go?”

“Not good.”

You explain to her what happened: the cussing (which here basically means insulting), the copying, the lack of attention, the disrespect.

The bell rings and you return to class to grab your bag before heading down to your own space at the stage downstairs for the afternoon’s pull-out sessions.

What happened next you wish you could forget.

You immediately regret letting them get to you.

They paid the price for it.

You vow to do better.

You return home at the end of the day. Your wifi is still out. It’s been out since Monday. At first it didn’t bother you. But coming on day three and still not having reliable contact with home begins to wear on you. You begin to think about the upcoming weekend. You could go to the same beaches you’ve been to, but you’re craving something different. You call another PCV. You decide to go visit an isolated beach on the northern part of the island that weekend. You’re not exactly sure how to get there, but it’ll work out.

Friday rolls around. You’re looking forward to your Creative Writing Club after school. It’s usually the highlight of your week. You corral a student that’s been skipping. When you step into the classroom, one student, upset and in tears, is packing up and leaving. The other students are laughing at him for crying. You step with him outside and try to calm him down and figure out what has him upset. One of the other students cussed him. You decide you’ll address it between the two of them at the end of the day. You allow him to catch his breath, drink some water, and take his time returning, as long as he returns.

You begin your lesson on haikus. The upset student slips back into the class and takes a seat in the back of the classroom. Usually you don’t allow that, requiring them to sit in the tables you arranged into a U-shape that’s conducive for conversation, but in this case you let it go. You’re just happy he came back inside.

The session went well. The kids bought into the 5-7-5 syllable scheme and by the end of the session, were coming up with haikus off the top of their heads (with the incentive of off-brand Oreo cookies you’ve become known for bringing). The bell rings and you dismiss the students. You hold the two involved students back; it was time to get to the bottom of what had happened before the session started. The offending student apologizes, but only while looking at the floor. You remind her that she didn’t hurt the floor, and that she must apologize to the other student properly by looking at him when she does. After about five minutes of repeating this process, reluctantly and unapologetically, she mumbles the words, “I’m sorry.”

Not quite satisfied but ready to move on, you are about to dismiss them when she claims he said something back to her. So to be fair, you give her a chance to explain. As she’s doing so, he mouths something to her; it was too quick for you to catch. She jumps up aggressively and sizes him up; she’s taller than him. He grabs a chair.

“That’s it! Come with me, now!” you separate the two and walk them to the principal’s office.

The boy follows obediently, the girl gets cold feet. You explain to them it didn’t have to be this way, reminding them of the chances and warnings you gave them.

The principal is not pleased. We all sit down and I explain to him why I brought them in. The students explain their sides of the stories. He lectures them appropriately. You watch and admire how he expertly diffuses the situation. The boy is remorseful but the girl, however, defiantly unapologetic. They’re dismissed. The principal then informs you of the girl’s troubled upbringing and thus the resulting misconduct.

It’s time for the weekend and to decompress from the week. Your wifi finally gets fixed. You stop by the fish fry and listen to the live band performing there. Then you decide to make your way up to the road to shoot some pool. You grab a drink and shoot a game or two, but don’t say much. You recognize the faces, but don’t remember all of their names, so you don’t have much to say.

One of them comes up to you.

“Hey man, you good?” he asks.

You tell him yes.

He tells you to loosen up a bit and relax, be one of the guys.

“You’re looking anti-social over here,” he says. “You can relax here, man. You’re in a good place with some good people.”

“I know,” you tell him. “I’m comfortable. I don’t mean to seem anti-social.”

“I seen you a couple times now,” he says. “You come in, have a drink, shoot a couple games and that’s it. Enjoy yourself, is all.”

You tell him you will.

“I just hope that if I’m ever in your country, your people would do the same for me,” he says. “So that’s why I wanted to tell you that, since you’re in my country.”

“I appreciate that man,” you reply, shaking his hand. “Thank you.”

As he buys you a drink, you wonder if anyone would ever tell him that if he showed up at a random bar in America. You hope someone would, but you don’t know for sure.

You appreciate him for reminding you to relax. It’s that very same warm persona that caused you to fall in love with this place, and its people, in the first place. But that is the first time you’ve ever been called anti-social and it bothers you more than it should. He couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be in your shoes, a minority, a foreigner. It’s not easy when you’re not like everybody else. On the other hand, maybe he does know what it’s like, and that is why he reached out to you in the first place. Or, maybe the effects and stresses of the week were showing. Regardless, you’re grateful for the reality check.

The next day you prepare a bag for your spontaneous adventure. John Lyness, the PCV living nearby, arrives at your apartment. You trade stories from the week. It’s relieving when you can confide in people that can relate to your experiences. Together you walk to the bus stop up the road. The same man from the night before stops you in the street. You introduce him to John. He tells you to bring him by to shoot some pool. You tell him you will.

You hop on a bus that drives uncharacteristically slow. The driver and conductor don’t seem to be in much of a hurry, taking phone calls and stopping to converse with seemingly every other bus driver on the road. You don’t mind, though, as the ride was absolutely stunning.

Off to your left was the vast, quiet expanse of the blue Caribbean Sea. The bus winds along the coastline highway, running alongside the rock shoreline that juts in and out of the lush, green mountains. Every bend you wind around, palm trees would pop out and disappear along with the small fishing vessels that float on the water below.

You reach Sauters, the northernmost town on island. A couple-mile hike would take you to Levera Beach, our ultimate destination. We begin walking up a steep hill. A taxi aggressively offers his service: halfway for fifteen dollars. Not worth it. You decline and say you’ll walk as he looks at you, befuddled that you would attempt to walk all the way to Levera.

After about five minutes or so of walking you reach a fork in the road. A bus is stopped at the bend, the conductor is looking around for pedestrians to take south to Grenville. You decline his offer but ask him the best way to get to Levera Beach. He points you in the direction, then flagging down an oncoming black pickup truck, offers the driver’s vehicle to give you a ride there.

The driver of the truck, a quiet, pleasant Grenadian woman welcomes you as you climb into the backseat. A friend of hers, a young, white, European woman is in the shotgun seat but doesn’t say much. You pass time with small talk as the road becomes unpaved, increasingly bumpy and pothole-ridden. The Grenadian woman says she rents out an apartment in Sauters. You tell her Peace Corps is looking to place a Volunteer in Sauters in the near future. She drops you as far as she was willing to go, which she admits was farther than she’s ever driven down that road. You graciously thank her as you climb out, leaving her the Peace Corps number for her to potentially arrange housing for a future Volunteer. You hope she follows through so someone does get placed in Sauters, what a town.

You follow a gravel driveway up to a well-kept, but vacant private home. You slip to the backyard where a drained pool and grassy area with a palm tree-perimeter opens up to an absolutely jaw-dropping view. Straight ahead is Levera Beach. A smooth, sandy beachhead crawls around a bend. Shimmering, turquoise water connects the beachhead to the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea. Small, uninhabitable islands span a short distance from the coastline. In the distance, past the haze of the horizon, a faint outline of Carriacou can be seen.

You’re ecstatic. You feel like you’re on an island. The view in front of you is exactly the type of view you would see in a post card or travel advertisement. You continue your hike down to the beachhead. Walking on the beach now, your feet sink with each step in the soft, sun-warmed sand. You find out that you’re at the northernmost point on the island, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. It makes sense, though, as a strong ocean breeze incessantly blows through. The still water of the Caribbean Sea on your left begins to churn in counter-clockwise waves, signifying the point where the strong currents of the Atlantic spill over into the still Caribbean Sea.

You’re blown away. All around you the beachhead and waters are void of tourists. Other than a security guard and local Rastafarian listening to the radio and reading a paper, you’re the only ones there. The trees and foliage beyond the beach seem as if untouched by man. You could almost envision what it must’ve been like to arrive on these shores in a wooden vessel hundreds of years ago.

You spend some time floating and bathing in the cool, refreshing water. You’ve become accustomed to beautiful beaches like this. You admit you’ve been spoiled by the beaches you’ve bathed in here. Yet, this one seemed special. Maybe it was the long trek to get here, which for us was miraculously shortened by yet another gracious local. Maybe it was the natural, untouched beachhead and small islands just off the coast. Maybe it was the lack of tourists, as if Levera Beach was Grenada’s best-kept secret.

You climb out of the water and dry off. The coastline juts out to the West, and it seems like there could be a trail to hike. You pack up your bag and follow a path where you find a massive bull grazing on the hillside. You double-take, the last thing you would expect to see on an isolated Caribbean coastline is a grazing cow. The path disappears into an overcrowded area of branches, leaves, and trees. After ducking and dodging tree limbs and vines, you climb the hill where it opens into an open, grassy field. An old, stone wall crawls along the top of the hillside. You wonder if it is the last remnants of an old fort from the days of colonization. Once you reach the top of the hill, you survey the expansive horizon before you. In front of you are vibrant blue waters, tree-covered islands, and a clean shot at the island of Carriacou in the distance. A group of palm trees protrude on the far side on one of the small islands. A white sailboat circumnavigates the island. You wonder what beautiful beach could be around that bend and how long of a swim it would take to get there.

And just like that you realize all your stresses from the week have been washed away. All of a sudden all your troubles seem trivial, unimportant. Anyone that works with children will tell you that they come to love them as if they were their own. You realize you certainly have come to feel that way. Consequently, when they misbehave and don’t listen, it wears on you because you so badly want to see them do well and succeed in life. But sometimes you have to take a step back and remember, they’re still children. They’re still figuring out this game called life. You remind yourself to appreciate where you are, where you came from, and where you’re headed. There will always be stressful days and long weeks no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It’s what you do to bounce back from those days that matters. Sometimes a spontaneous adventure is what you need to get you back on your feet.

That’s what I love about this. That’s what I love about international travel. When I woke up on Saturday morning, I had no idea what I was going to see or experience when I caught a bus up to Sauters. John and I went up north, began our long hike in hopes of hitching a ride along the way, which we gratefully but unsurprisingly found. When we finally arrived, I immediately realized I found my favorite spot on the island. It’s funny how things have a way of working themselves out like that. I got caught up in the routine of the workweek and needed to shake things up. What better way to shake things up then by packing up a bag and exploring someplace you haven’t been before.

Granted, not all of us can steal away to an isolated Caribbean beach for a day. But I suppose the lesson I take away from last week was to shake things up every once in awhile. Go someplace and experience something new. You never know what’s around the corner: whether it’s an awe-inspiring view from an abandoned vacation home, a grazing bull, remnants of a deserted fort, or a Rasta taking a beachside stroll.

You think back to what the man said to you in the bar.

“You can relax here, man. You’re in a good place with some good people.”

Yes…yes I am.

Cheers!

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Candles Burning in the Night; A Family Tradition

“Mr. King, are you a Catholic?” a fellow teacher asked me as we strolled down the hill from St. Peter’s RC.

“Yes, I was raised Catholic,” I responded as a large truck barreled past, three individuals riding in the back.

“Are you going to light candles tonight?” she asked.

“You know, I heard about that. What exactly is it?”

“Catholics go to the cemetery to light candles around the graves on the night of All Saints Day,” she says as two school children stomp past us. “You don’t do that in America?”

I never did,” I say, not wanting to generalize Americans. “I like that idea, though.”

When I arrived home, my bag dropped to the floor and I kicked off my shoes. After opening the windows to try and ease the stifling heat inside, I began to pass the time relaxing on my couch and contemplated whether I should attend the candlelight vigil.

A few teachers that day mentioned the ceremony to me. Every year on All Saints Day, Grenadians of the Catholic faith go to their local cemetery to light candles and spend time with loved ones that have passed on. It seemed to be a popular community event. One of the teachers was even having a barbeque after, so I figured I’d check it out and at least stop and get some dinner there.

A few hours passed and the night sky dropped its curtain outside. I idly passed the time, wanting to arrive after it started so I could show up and not directly deal with any inevitable awkward conversations. Word was it would start at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., so I decided I would leave my apartment at 7:15; that would be about right for ‘island time.’

When 7:15 rolled around, I threw on some khaki pants and a plain green t-shirt. I wasn’t sure how formal this event would be, so I figured this outfit was a solid middle ground. Not too casual for a formal setting, but not too formal for a casual setting. After closing up my apartment, I stepped out onto the road and locked the gate behind me. As I turned around, a mother with three children were walking hand-in-hand. I fell in behind them, figuring they were headed to the cemetery as well. When we reached the main road, families, couples, and other pedestrians were all making their way down the road to the cemetery. There was a bit of a buzz in the air as I followed the stream of people along the coastline sidewalk. A few cars were passing by, their headlights briefly shining on the pedestrians before they faded back into silhouettes in the night.

It was a clear, picture perfect night. A few stars speckled across the banner of the sky, but the streetlights drowned out most of them from my view on the sidewalk. The rhythm of a reggae song boomed from a sound system within a simple wooden shack-house perched on the hillside next to the park. Walking along the concrete wall that separates the park from the road, a line of cars was parked on both sides of the road. I hadn’t seen this many cars parked here since I arrived a few months ago. Looking just beyond the bus stop ahead, a series of flames spotted the hillside cemetery. It was like a scene out of a Halloween movie and gave an eerie presence to the night.

When I walked through the overarching gate to the cemetery, however, the atmosphere was anything but eerie. People were everywhere. I walked up the beaten dirt path overcrowded with families, couples, and children while still more were intermittently scattered around candlelit graves. The candle flames flickered their light, illuminating all their faces in the dark night. Some of the graves had a single candle, others had candles on all four corners, and still more had candles all around and across the top.

As I made my way up the hill, to my left a man was leaning over a tomb. He carefully lights the candles he’s placed on the grave. I wonder who he’s there for: his wife? His mother? His father or brother? But it doesn’t matter who he’s there for, what’s important is that he is spending his night of All Saints Day with his deceased loved one.

I continue my way up the hill and turn left into the concrete structure where benches are filled with people conversing. I weasel my way through the mass of people and it opens to the rest of the hillside cemetery.

“Mr. King! You came!” another teacher from the school, with her teenage daughter at her side, calls to me.

“Yes, I came to see what this was all about,” I laughed, as she had been the first one to suggest that afternoon that I come.

She proceeded to tell me where some of the other teachers were, and where I could get the barbecue chicken. She asked me my thoughts on the candlelight ceremony. I was still processing my surroundings and the serenity of the night, but I told her I was pleased and couldn’t understand why we didn’t do it in the States. Personally, I was captivated by the night, and was anxious to continue observing all that was going on.

“All right,” I said. “I’m going to float around for a little bit so I’ll see you at the barbecue.”

We parted ways and I walked along the path. Passing across the center of the hill, a sea of candlelit graves lay below to my left and countless more rose up the hill to my right. There was no need for street lights that night, there were enough candles to see clearly enough.

I continued wandering aimlessly down the path, taking it all in and not really knowing where I was going. I reached the end of the path as it came to a dead-end (pun not originally intended, but decided to keep it). One final column of tombs marked the end of the cemetery. I stopped and paused for a moment, turning around and scanning the glimmering cemetery hillside in front of me.

To my left were some younger men leaning up against a tomb, drinking Caribs and smoking cigarettes while they conversed. At the tomb in front of me a couple arrives with two small children. The mother bends over unpacking her bag and handing each child a candle. They run over to a neighboring grave, lined along the front with half a dozen or so candles. After lighting the candles their mother gave them, they ran back and wedged them into the ground around the tomb of their loved one. The kids then took off into the night, leaving to find their friends while the couple took a seat under the tree next to the gravesite.

“King!” a voice called out.

Caught off guard, I spun around to see halfway up the hill was Slade, one of the first people I met in Gouyave.

He waves me up, so I make my way up the hill where he was sitting on a tomb. In front of him was a soft, earthy grave, covered in flowers and wreaths with a perimeter of candles burning around it.

“If you don’t mind me asking, who do you have here?” I asked him.

“My grandfather,” he says.

He proceeds to tell me about his grandfather, someone he was particularly close to. He and his grandfather had a connection no one else in the family seemed to have. He told me about when he was young; he had been the one to teach his grandfather how to use a television remote.

We laughed at the thought.

“Well, did you light a candle?” he asks me.

“Uh, no I haven’t. I didn’t bring one,” I replied.

“You came to the candlelight and didn’t even bring a candle!? Well here, go ahead and light one,” he says, reaching into his bag and tossing me a candle.

“Yeah? Okay, thanks,” I crouched down, lighting the white candlestick from another one rapidly melting at the corner of the grave. Scanning the earthy grave before me, I found a spot and wedged it securely into the ground.

“Come sit down,” he slaps the spot next to him on the tomb he was sitting on.

I had been standing for some time now, not wanting to be rude or insensitive by sitting on a tomb. But his permission freed me from that thought so I hopped up next to him. We spent the next hour or so sharing family stories, talking about life on Grenada and life in America. The flames from the candles reflected off his glasses as he told me about the history of the candle-lighting tradition on All Saints Day.

Supposedly a few years back a priest from somewhere in Africa visited Gouyave, and upon learning of the tradition preached aggressively against the candle lighting on All Saints Day. Instead, the priest proposed, the community should light candles on All Souls Day the following day, as that would be more appropriate to the nature of a cemetery’s inhabitants. Ever since then, it seems as though half the community lights candles on All Saints Day, the other half on All Souls Day. But before that time, he told me as his eyes lit up, there would be so many candles it was as if the whole hillside was on fire. I could almost see it myself as he envisioned it all in front of him from memory. I thought there was a substantial amount of candles as it was, so I can only imagine what it must have been like before the African priest came.

All around us there was a buzz in the air. It was like the atmosphere of a Fourth of July fireworks show. Not the firework show itself, though, but the evening part before it where everyone lays out blankets and shares a picnic. There’s an excitement bubbling in the air as kids run around and a steady murmur of activity resonates in the air. That’s what the atmosphere of this night felt like to me.

“Mr. King! Is that your father?” a student from my class asks, running up to me and looking down at the candlelit grave before me.

“No, it is not,” I answer with a smile.

I smiled because I did find some humor in the innocence of the question. He was genuinely wondering, to which I am grateful he would consider asking me. However, he must not have processed that because I am not from here, no one from my family would be laid to rest in this cemetery. It’s the little things that can make you laugh.

It was nice to get to spend some time in a family atmosphere. All around me was an abundance of candlelit graves that made for such a tranquil view. Off to the right a group of children surrounded a tomb, trying to put as many candles as possible on its surface so that it seemed as if the whole tomb itself was on fire. Other children ran around from grave to grave, collecting the wax that ran off the top of the candle to make a ball to play with.

I fell in love with the concept of lighting candles at the graves on All Saints Day. It made for such a serene and beautiful night. I suppose no one does it in Cleveland simply because it’s too cold by November 1st. But this is a tradition I could buy into. I love how it incorporates both past and present, bringing families together around the final resting place of the loved ones that went before them.

Looking on, at the heart of the candlelit hillside was a single palm tree, stretching out to the sky above all the other surrounding trees so it appeared to almost stand on its own. The light from the candles illuminated the leaves from underneath, as if a streetlight were shining under it.

It felt like I was in a foreign place. I felt far from home.

Maybe it was being in a family atmosphere again, where a holiday is observed and families gather to commemorate those that have passed on. Its times like these that leads you to reflect on the family and friends you left behind that can make you feel homesick. As you can imagine, homesickness is something that plays a huge role in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Up to this point, I think I’ve managed it fairly well. It comes and goes in waves. I try not to dwell on it too much and get out of the apartment instead. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you’re missing stateside, so I try and distract myself by enveloping myself in the community around me. There is certainly seems to be enough going on to occupy my mind.

But for the first time in my life I didn’t experience the fall season. I didn’t see the leaves change color or feel the temperature drop with each passing day. I didn’t get to carve a pumpkin or tailgate the Muni Lot before a Browns game.

Over the summer I missed a close friend’s wedding and a family vacation. Both of which were tough, but at the time there was enough excitement around my training on St. Lucia that I was able to distract myself from the thought of what I was missing until they were over.

Just this past month, however, I missed my cousin’s wedding. I saw the pictures and videos. I heard the family’s stories from the night. It was strange not being part of that, as it was the first family wedding that I missed. Weddings are a focal point and one of the most significant moments in a person’s life, so I place a lot of value on attending them to celebrate alongside family and friends. I wish I could have been a part of that, but it was just not feasible for me to attend due my current circumstances. However, I also understood that I would be giving up family events like that when I accepted the invitation to serve.

A few days before the candlelight ceremony, in the wee hours of the morning on October 28, I learned that my brother and sister-in-law just welcomed a baby girl, Brenna Elizabeth King, into the world. For those that aren’t aware of the nature of the King family, girls are a rare occurrence. My father is one of four boys. I am one of five boys with only one sister. I already have two nephews. But now I can proudly say I have a niece. A King girl being born is a cause to celebrate, as we now have another “rose amongst the thorns,” as my father always says.

When I heard the news that late October night, I stepped outside and sat down on the staircase of a veranda, looking up at the star-speckled night sky. The palm trees, breadfruit trees, and surrounding foliage were rustling in the early morning breeze around me. It was another beautiful island night as the never-ending mechanical sound of the crickets accompanied me. I was overcome with an uplifting joy in my chest and began to cry as the reality of the news sank in. They weren’t tears of sadness, but tears of joy; I now have a niece. I admit, I was hoping for a girl. I can’t wait to meet her.

This was another one of those moments, much like the one I would feel again the night of the candlelight vigil, when I felt far from home. Like I said before, it comes in waves. For about five months now, I have been roughly 2,500 miles from home. So much has happened in five months, but when you think about it, five months really is not a long time at all.

One thing I miss the most is the convenience of going home for a weekend or for special family occasions. If I were still in Columbus or Cleveland, I would’ve been able to attend those weddings, that family vacation, and met beautiful, little Brenna already. I would have been able to return to Capital University for alumni weekend and hit up the Zig with old classmates and friends. I would’ve been able to go downtown for the playoff games to cheer on the Indians and Cavs while they played.

I’m not asking for pity, after all I hardly deserve it. I knew what I was giving up before coming here. I accepted that those sacrifices come with nature of the position. Being here really is a dream come true. But that doesn’t mean sometimes I wish I could be home. In fact, I think of home every night. Thankfully, I’ll be coming home for a week in December around Christmastime.

I’ll be able to attend a wedding of a college roommate and one of my closest friends. I’ll get to see my ‘Capfam’ and the hometown squad of ‘Iggy boys.’ But most importantly, I’ll get to see my family. Just thinking about coming home puts a smile on my face and a bubbling excitement in my chest.

That’s what experiencing the graveside candlelight vigil on All Saints Day meant to me. It reminded me of the importance of doing things as a family. It reminded me of the importance of taking the time to acknowledge the past and celebrate the present. It was an opportunity to think about where I came from and how it got me to where I am now. It reminded me of the value that holidays and special family events have, where a certain day in the year is cause to come together as a family and celebrate.

It also showed me the value in my experience serving with the Peace Corps in a foreign country. I experienced first-hand a tradition that was totally foreign to me. It’s a tradition that I would like to bring back with me. I certainly have some people that were in my life that shaped who I am and deserve to be commemorated with a graveside candlelight. That being said, I have other people still on this Earth that deserve my time. Sometimes, it takes being stranded on an island 2,500 miles away to remind you of that.

“Well, I’m about to go stop for some barbecue chicken,” I said to Slade after snapping back to reality.

“It’s about time I go, too,” he replied. “I’ll walk out with you.”

As we made our way through the cemetery, I would pause every few steps to snap a quick photo of the enlightened scene before me. After walking back out through the gate, I did a double-take as a boy was dressed head-to-toe in a red Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume. I laughed, for two reasons. The first, is that a child actually had a Halloween costume, which is unusual given that Halloween is not celebrated in Grenada. The second reason being that exact red Ninja Turtle was what one of my nephews was for Halloween this year. It’s funny how things can come full circle like that.

After parting ways with Slade, I bought some barbecue and began the walk back to my apartment. Upon reaching the gap in the concrete wall to enter the park, I quickly ducked through to see if I could catch a view of the cemetery from the football stands. Bounding up the concrete stairs and reaching the top of the stands, I turned around.

It looked as if the hillside was on fire.

There is that old, cliché saying that, “You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.”

Well, I know what I got. I left them all behind in the States on Memorial Day weekend. But in six weeks’ time, I’ll be home to see them all again, albeit briefly, for the Christmas holiday.

Maybe I’ll even visit the cemetery to light a candle or two.

I can’t wait.

Cheers!

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Discovering Common Ground; My Grenadian Thanksgiving

I stumbled out of the bus and onto the coastline road outside of Kirani James Athletics Stadium. The sun had already set, and so leaving the darkness of the road I made my way to the lights and sounds that resonated from the stadium. It was a Tuesday night, the night before Grenada’s Thanksgiving Holiday that is celebrated on October 25th. Grenada’s national football team, The Spice Boys, was slated for a FIFA-sanctioned International Friendly against Panama. Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, school was not going to be in session the next day; so myself and Sarah Bowman, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, decided to venture out and see our first International Friendly. We didn’t have tickets, but word was you could get them at the door.

A steel pan group was playing off to the side of the stadium. So following the music, we made our way there only to realize that they were playing at the entrance, not where you purchase tickets. A steady stream of locals and tourists strolled past us as we tried to figure out where we needed to go. Turning to some local bystanders, we were pointed in the direction of a small trailer, the type of trailer you would see selling hot dogs and burgers at a middle school football game. After purchasing our tickets, we went back to the gate with the steel pan, attracted to the music as a bug is to the light.

There were about five members of the steel pan group, moving rhythmically and systematically around their drums with the beat of the music. We stood there for a moment, soaking it in. They stopped simultaneously, signaling the end of one song before synchronizing themselves into the rhythm of the next one. I was a bit confused, uncertain of the next song. Then with what seemed like a snap of the fingers the band burst into the rhythm of the wildly popular tune Despacito by Luis Fonsi. If you’ve heard a rhythmic song on the radio with smooth Spanish lyrics recently, that’s the one I’m talking about. I was delighted by how well that song sounded on the steel pan. I’m finding that it’s nearly impossible for a song not to sound better on the steel pan.

Turning to the gate, we went through the turnstile and handed the attendant our tickets. Then climbing the right-hand staircase and turning left at the top, we followed the bright lights that opened up to the field in the center of a nearly empty stadium. The teams, dressed in their warm-ups, were making their way into the locker rooms before coming out for the opening ceremony. We were early, so looking around for the best seats we decided to go to the upper deck that overlooked the center of the field. As we were sitting down, the teams came out following their respective flags.

“Please rise and stand at attention for the playing of Panama and Grenada’s national anthems,” a deep voice echoed over the loud-speakers.

The players ceremoniously lined up across from us in single-file lines; Grenada dressed in green, Panama in white. Some had their hands over their hearts, others had their hands behind their backs and heads bowed, other players shifted back and forth shaking their legs to keep loose as the anthems played.

After the anthems finished and the starting line-ups were announced, the players took to their respective positions scattered across the field. The official, with a long blow on his whistle, signaled the start of the match and the friendly was underway.

The stadium was nearly quiet, to the point you could almost hear the players call out to each other on the field. My interest in football is still relatively new, so I don’t know much when it comes to the strategies the teams employ to set up their shots with crosses across the pitch. So I kicked back in my seat, placing my foot on the seat in front of me and followed the path of the ball as the players weaved seamlessly across the field.

It was almost a bit bizarre for me, at first. I haven’t been to a professional sporting event since a Cleveland Indians game early this past spring. A lot of it was still the same: the stadium, the lights, the tickets, the vendors, and food stands. But this match seemed a little more personal. Off to our left, just beyond the track that circumnavigated the field was a quiet hillside decorated with lights from the humble homes that overlooked the stadium. The residents of those homes probably have a fine view of the field and could watch the matches from their verandas. Back in the States, there might be hotels or skyscrapers overlooking a professional sporting venue such as a stadium, but hardly ever a hillside of residential homes. The vendors weren’t selling cotton candy or ice cold beer, but rather they were selling peanuts and other candies in clear plastic bags they carried in a basket. They walked up the aisles and down the rows, offering their hand-prepared products to each patron because realistically, this is simply how they made their living. Inside the stadium they had concession stands, but instead of big ovens, grills, refrigerators, and television-screen menus, there was just one large grill frying chicken, metal warming trays covered in foil for the sides, and coolers filled with bottles of rum, beer, and ice. At one point during the match, the announcer came on to describe a vehicle in the parking lot that was involved in an accident in the parking lot, and thus the owner of that vehicle was needed outside. Calling a license plate number might happen at a high school football game, but it’s not exactly something that would happen at a professional game back home.

The crowd filling in the seats as the game went on was a mix of students, tourists, and locals, all proudly donning assorted combinations of Grenada’s red, yellow, and green colors. You could feel the national pride beaming from each fan in the stadium. They all knew the odds were stacked against them, as Panama had already qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But this game was the talk of the island for some time now, as advertisements for the game were displayed on billboards and busses, and heard on the radio weeks in advance. Although the stands were relatively empty when we first arrived, it was no surprise as over the course of the match the stadium steadily filled and then was overflowing in both the lower bowl and upper deck. It was no surprise because the fans stayed true to arriving on what some call “island time,” which can be noticeably longer than fashionably late. By the end of the match, the announcer declared an attendance of over 2,500 fans that came out to support The Spice Boys.

A striker from Panama booted a bullet toward the goal; diving to his left, the Grenada goal-keeper blocked the hard strike with his outstretched arms. The stadium collectively held its breath as the ball ricocheted back out into a clearing. Another white jersey came striding in from the top of the field and kicked the ball with ease into the back of the empty net. Goal.

Unfortunately, this was how the night went for The Spice Boys, as Panama was able to find the back of the net five times during the match. With each goal given up, an outcry would erupt from the stadium as each fan shared their displeasure. Despite this, the drums kept beating and chants of support would periodically break out over the steady murmur of the stadium. Curiously, a group of fans seated below us, with roughly two minutes left in the game, even began singing Amazing Grace (not exactly something you think you’d hear at a football match, but amusing given how the game went).

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my first FIFA-sanctioned International Friendly. Growing up attending Indians and Browns games, watching professional sports has always been a part of my life. Seeing this football match, it was a step above the professional level as these players were playing for their country on an international level. Although the atmosphere didn’t entirely match up with that of a professional game back home, I appreciated how personal it felt. It felt like they putting their hearts on the line just for you, right in front of you. They weren’t playing for a paycheck or a big sponsorship. They were playing for their country and their countrymen. They were playing for Grenada.

That’s how sports should be.

After the final whistle blew, a ceremony took place on the field commemorating the retirement of Grenada’s long-time captain, who just completed his final match playing for The Spice Boys. A stage was set up outside the stadium as a benefit concert started for the hurricane-ravaged island of Dominica. All the attendants of the game had automatic admission to the concert featuring many of Grenada’s most popular soca artists. But that concert would run late into the night and we needed to return to our respective communities farther north on the island, so we slipped out of the gate and made our way through the parking lot as rain began to drizzle. Traffic was backed up on the road next to the stadium, as people were leaving the match, arriving for the concert, or making a late commute home. A bus was pulled over on the road up ahead, so slipping through stopped cars and walking up the coastline sidewalk, we caught up to it and hopped on, as it was a 5 bus headed in the direction we needed to go.

What ensued was probably the most lively bus ride I’ve had since coming here. Two or three guys were passed out; sleeping with their heads leaned back on the window and seat backs, mouths gaping. But those who were awake, smelling of booze and excited by the match, were in a lively football discussion. They debated back and forth on the important aspects of football, such as controlling the ball and spreading the field. They griped about where Grenada stood in international competition and argued about how best the team can improve. They laughed and ribbed each other as old friends do.

“Bus driver stop one time, I gotta mess,” a guy in the back calls out.

The bus immediately broke out in laughter, not believing this guy made such an odd request. The bus drivers here will do a lot for you. They (and consequently everyone else on the bus) will wait for you to run an errand, buy food from a stand, or pull money from an ATM. I’ve witnessed all of this, but to stop so someone could relieve himself was a first. Sure enough, however, the bus driver pulled over and the guy ran into the bush. Another guy took advantage of the opportunity and jumped off, too. They returned a few moments later and the conductor laughed as he gave each of them squirts from his hand-held Purell bottle before allowing them back on the bus.

Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Upon returning home, I turned on the television and lay back on the couch. Finally re-connecting to wifi, a text came up on my phone from a local friend who was shooting pool in a nearby bar. So after slipping on some flip-flops, I closed up my apartment and made my way up the back alley to the main road. It was a relatively quiet night, aside from the crickets and occasional passing vehicle on the road. I walked up the hill to ‘D Banana Bar.’ It’s a small little bar owned and run by a friend of my host father’s. My host brother, in fact, took me there during my first weeks in Gouyave to shoot some pool.

I stepped through what feels like an open garage door. A well-kept pool table is to the right with stools of various heights around it. A few locals are sitting back on the stools, leaning back but attentive to the game being played as their drinks sit on the ledge that runs along the wall. Banana trees, leaves, and monkeys are painted on what space there is on the walls, reminiscent of the type of scene you would see on a child’s jungle-themed puzzle. The serenading and rhythmic voice of Reggae artist Lucky Dube plays over the speakers. Mansah, a tall man with broad shoulders, is the owner. He sits in the corner behind the bar, trying to fix the connection to his internet TV as a World Series game between the Dodgers and Astros was buffering. At this time last year, I was watching the Indians play in the World Series from various bars across Columbus and Cleveland. The bars then were jam-packed and raucous, riding the emotions of each game.

I guess you could my scene is a bit different now.

“Good night,” I announce, giving a wave and leaning up on the bar.

I order a drink and take a seat on the stool next to Byron, a local from the basketball court that had texted me to come by. I sat back on my stool and watched as game after game of pool was played in front of me. I wasn’t ready to jump in just yet; so I just observed, paying special attention to how they played. Back in the States, every bar seems to have its own set of rules when it comes to pool. I wanted to make sure I understood how they play before I joined.

Feeling comfortable enough to throw my hat in the ring, I casually walked up to the table and slipped two quarters on the collection of coins under the rail on the felt table. (First difference I noticed, you reserve your spot in the next game by placing the coins under the rail, not on the rail as you would in the States). Returning to my seat, I waited for my turn to come.

A man in his late 20s-early 30s was running the table. Wearing a gray and blue horizontal-striped shirt and a black glove on his left hand, he was wiping the table clean every game. He knocked in the black 8-ball and returned to his seat to await the next man up. Everyone in the bar seemed to pause, collectively looking around to see who the next man up was. I stayed in my seat, unsure if that next man up was supposed to be me. Looking over my left shoulder, I caught eyes with Mansah, who gave an approving nod to step up.

Grabbing two quarters from the table and punching them in, the balls spilled out and I racked them up. I racked them the way I would at home, but kept an eye out on how the others might react. But no one seemed to notice as the stripe-shirted man broke the rack and I grabbed a pool cue to chalk up.

I caught an early lead knocking in a couple stripes. But he came storming back effortlessly clearing solids off the table. As the game winded down, he was on the 8 ball and I had two stripes on the table. I was done for, the way he was shooting, as he had a clear shot to win. He lines up the shot as I prepare to rack my cue stick and return to my seat.

“Oohh!” a chorus breaks out as the 8-ball narrowly banks off the rail and drifts away from the corner pocket.

Seeing an opportunity to take the game, I confidently knocked the remaining stripes and measured up the angle to knock in the 8-ball. With two calculated practice strokes I followed through on the third, striking the 8-ball just off the mark as it careens to the other side of the table. The stripe-shirted man finished the game on his next shot and my chance at overtaking the table squandered.

Bumping fists to acknowledge the intense match, I take a seat at a stool next to the table. A bald man with thick-rimmed glasses and a red polo shirt was sitting to my right. He had been seated there the whole night, not having played but simply watching. I introduce myself and find out he’s a school teacher at Concord Government School, where another Volunteer I know is placed.

“You remind me of Max,” he says. “You blend right in.”

“Really?” I respond curiously.

Blending in is the last thing I felt I was doing. First off, I’m a minority; so from a physical standpoint, I stick out. Second, I had hardly said a word during my time at the bar, simply watching while the other guys played until my own game finished.

Mansah, walking over and pulling out his phone, shows me a photo of Max, the former PCV in Concord, sitting in the very same bar with two locals on either side of him.

Hearing and seeing that really kind of put things in perspective for me. I’ve been on these islands for about five months now, long enough I suppose to be and appear comfortable. I do feel at home here now, but I don’t necessarily feel like I ‘blend in,’ per se.

The next day, I went to a church service at St. Peter’s Church in Gouyave. The US Ambassador to the Eastern Caribbean, Linda Taglialatela, was in attendance. I almost had to double-take when I came across her Secret Service vehicle, donning the American flag, that was parked out front. There were notable figures in attendance outside of the Ambassador, as the Prime Minister of Grenada, The Honorable Keith Mitchell, and the Bishop, Clyde Harvey, came to speak to the congregation as well. They all spoke about the history of the Thanksgiving Holiday on Grenada, as it commemorates in gratitude the lives lost in 1983 when America intervened to rid Grenada of a communist uprising and lifted a shoot-on-sight curfew that was put in place by the ruling Revolutionary Military Council after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Nineteen Americans were killed, over one hundred wounded, and nine helicopters were shot down in the conflict. Each year on October 25, the anniversary of the invasion, Grenada commemorates the ultimate sacrifice many men made that day in order to successfully re-instate democracy to the island.

One thing the US Ambassador said really resonated with me: “I wish my fellow countrymen and women could see the gratitude and warmth of the Grenadian people that I am seeing in front of me today, and everyday.”

Little did she know a fellow countryman was in attendance, and I agree with her whole-heartedly.

I wish everyone back home could experience the culture here. I wish everyone can see how warm and welcoming the people are. I wish everyone could witness the natural beauty from the beaches and sulfur springs, to the bush and waterfalls. I wish everyone could experience the bumpy, overcrowded bus rides with the blaring rhythm of soca music and drivers that will make a stop at any point to meet your needs. I wish everyone could witness the simple way of living where you hang-dry your clothes on a line. I wish everyone could see the endless energy of the children and the caring nature of the teachers. I wish everyone could feel the overbearing heat and the soothing breeze. I wish everyone could witness an International Friendly that feels like they’re playing just for you. I wish everyone could experience a low-key night shooting pool in a bar with the locals.

That’s the thing I’ve come to realize about being told I was, ‘blending-in.’ They may see me as a “white boy,” as I’m sometimes called here. (The locals are very upfront and blunt in their descriptions, so no negative connotation is meant whatsoever by this. Last week I met a boy that goes by the name “Fat Boy,” and he isn’t bothered by the name in the least bit). The important thing to note here is, however, that their opinion of me does not change because of the color of my skin. I may be standing out as the only white guy in the bar, but I was ‘blending-in’ because I was playing a game they all knew.

That’s the beauty of sports. Whether it’s a jam-packed stadium for a FIFA match or a game of pool at a local bar, sports is a language that everyone can speak. It’s a way to pass time and connect with others. Sports gives us a common ground with which to form relationships. In fact, playing basketball has played a big role as I’ve integrated into the community of Gouyave. But that’s a topic for another day.

The night of Thanksgiving I was walking home on the coastline sidewalk after playing basketball at the court in Gouyave. Stars speckled across the night sky as light, casted from a half-crescent moon, shimmered off the quiet Caribbean Sea. As I was walking, something bright in the distance caught my eye. A cruise ship, lit up brighter than the moon, began drifting across the horizon. It was the first cruise ship I’ve seen in my five months here.

Tourist season is right around the corner. Word is they’re predicting the largest tourist season for Grenada to date this spring. Wall Street Journal just ranked Grenada in the top 10 hottest destinations to travel to in 2018. I hope my fellow countrymen and women as well as other international travelers come to experience this beautiful country I now call home.

The Grenadian people are an appreciative people. Their Thanksgiving Holiday alone, not to mention their character and culture, proves that.

Additionally, whether it be through sports, tourism, or even history, there is quite a bit Americans share in common with Grenadians. Who knows, one day you may get the opportunity to experience Grenada for yourself; and if that day comes, you may even find yourself ‘blending-in,’ too.

Cheers!

Never a Dull Day; Snapshots from My First Seven Weeks at St. Peter’s RC

The students are gathered around the compound of the school, sheltered from the blistering sun under the ‘peachy-pink’ painted corridor. It’s the first general assembly on the first day of the new school year. The principal, a well-put-together and passionate man equipped with a handful of notes and a microphone, runs through the announcements and theme of the newly-commenced school year: “An Attitude of Gratitude.” The students all shift their weight restlessly, tired of standing in the heat and losing interest in the lengthy ceremony.

“And now we’d like to welcome our new students, teachers, and staff to St. Peter’s RC School,” he announces.

Creating a gap between two students, I step out into the bright sunlight and make my way toward the principal along with the two other new teachers. Then turning and facing the school, I await my turn as he introduces each of the students and teachers.

“We welcome our very new Peace Corps Volunteer, Mr. Scott King,” his voice echoed on the speaker. “He came all the way from the United States of America to be with us so let’s give him a warm welcome.”

A resounding chorus of claps rang out from the students, anxious to have an excuse to make noise. The principal affixes a nametag to the pocket of my white dress shirt that simply states, “Mr. King,” with a yellow smiley-face sticker next to my name. I shake his outstretched hand and we embrace in a formal version of what many would call a ‘bro-hug.’

It was time to get to work.

* * *

For the first two days, I set-up a small desk in the back corner of my counterpart teacher’s third grade classroom and simply observed, getting a bearing of my new environment.

“If it’s okay with you,” I asked my counterpart one morning. “I’d like to do this Eastern Caribbean Basic Literacy Assessment to gauge the student’s abilities.”

“Sure, you can do that this morning,” she responded as the students took their seats.

“Good morning, class,” I announce.

“Good morning,” they responded collectively.

“As you may know already my name is Mr. King and I am here to help out with your Language Arts classes. Now, I have a little writing exercise I’d like for you guys to try,” I state as I pass out ECBLA packets to each of them.

Proceeding to give them instructions on what to do, I started the stopwatch on my phone. They had fifteen minutes to create their own story based on a sequence of pictures in the packet. I paced aimlessly across the front of the classroom, anxiously watching the timer as it seemed to drag on forever.

“Five minutes!” I called as each student’s eyes lit up like a deer in headlights. “It’s okay, just try your best and wrap it up,” I re-assured them.

At the end of the timer, I collected the packets and after the classes switched, I administered the same assessment to the other third grade class.

That afternoon on my fruit-print table cloth covering my kitchen table, I dropped the stack of assessments and began sifting through them. Upon reviewing their story responses, I immediately regretted administering that part of the assessment. It was clear that they just weren’t ready for that type of task. It was surprising, to an extent, as I remember reading some relatively good responses when I did this during my Pre-Service Training on St. Lucia. But these were just not on par with even those responses. I had a few that were what I considered developed responses, but most of them were a few simple lines stating what was in each box.

My heart dropped when I realized one of my students, unable to read or write, simply copied down the text from a poster on the classroom wall.

There was one enjoyable moment in this process for me, however, when reading one student’s response finished with: “The boy’s friends did not help him. The boy’s friends ran in fear and the boy’s friends did not help him and the dog was biting his butt so bad the boy screamed for help but no one helped him. THE END.”

To say I was amused by this would be an understatement.

All in all, I was a bit conflicted as although I regret giving the writing portion because they were simply not capable of that activity just yet, but at least now I knew where they were at.

* * *

The next day I began the reading portion of the assessment, pulling students out for one-on-one oral reading assessments. With two chairs facing each other in the corridor, the rest of the morning was spent trying to block out all the sounds from the other classrooms so I could focus on how each student was reading.

The bell rang to cue lunch.

“Mr. King, I am going to the doctor’s down the road during lunch. I will be back just now,” my counterpart told me.

(Just now does not mean what you might think, it could mean anything between the next ten minutes to an hour).

The bell rang again signaling the close of lunch. My counterpart arrives just in time and takes a seat at her desk as the students pray their routine Grace After Meals.

“I have been put on sick leave. The doctor wants me to go home and rest,” she tells me, pulling her things together.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I reply. “Wait, so what’s going to happen with this class?”

But I already knew the answer to that question.

“I’ll write up some lesson plans for you to take you through to next week. I’ll be back on Thursday, God’s-willing,” she said.

The next day and following week was certainly a baptism by fire. I was catapulted to full-on teacher status in just my fourth day at a school in a foreign country. I spent the week teaching Religious Education, Language Arts (English), Health and Family Life Education, and Social Studies out of the respective texts. I admit I wasn’t happy about having to go way beyond my job description in just my first week. However, I felt it was important so early on that I do this without complaint and take it in stride. So I did.

There was certainly an upside to it, however, as I got to learn my students very quickly. I figured out who were the excelling students, who were the trouble-makers, and who were the struggling readers. I also got first-hand experience working with these students and gauging their capabilities in the classroom. So for those reasons, I am actually grateful I had to teach solo my first week at school.

* * *

“Sir!” a student calls. “She is crying!”

“Okay. Leave her be and go outside,” I respond, making my way over to a girl seated with her head buried in her arms on the desk.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, crouching down to her level and placing a comforting hand on her back.

She sits up and wipes tears from her eyes, muttering, “Sir, it’s broken.”

Following her pointing finger I see an opened package of cheese crackers, the same kind like those bland Keebler cheese crackers you’d have as a child. Well, in her package some of them had been smashed and crumbled.

“Sweetheart,” I say, “It’s just a cracker. You can still eat it.”

I’ll be honest when I say it was almost hard not to laugh. I mean I expected to do a lot of things for these students. But consoling a student for her broken crackers was not one of those things.

* * *

“Sir! Can I go to the toilet?” one of my students, a smart but loquacious boy, asks me.

“When do you have time to go to the bathroom?” I respond systematically, my attention still on another student’s paper I was grading.

“Break and lunch time,” he says. But I got to pee bad, sir,” he pleaded.

I look up as he squirms in his seat and I try to gauge whether he was putting on a show or not.

“No. Lunch is in, like, ten minutes,” I said, calling his bluff. “You can wait until then.”

“Sir. I going to pee.”

“You better not pee in my classroom,” I stated bluntly, silently hoping that my gamble would pay off and I wouldn’t be that mean teacher that made a kid pee in the classroom.

Ten minutes went by and the bell rang, releasing the students to lunch.

An hour later the bell rings again and students return from lunch, all sweaty and excited from recess.

“Okay, eyes on me,” I said to the class. “Let’s breath in through the nose,” I said inhaling deeply.

“And exhale,” I sigh as we go through the breathing exercise I use to calm them down.

About ten or twenty minutes into the class, the same boy comes up to me, “Sir, can I go to the toilet?”

I look up at him, surprised at first, but then I smiled—I got him.

“You mean you didn’t go during lunch?” I smirked.

“Uh…no,” he hung his head, knowing I caught him.

“You mean, you made that big show having to go to the bathroom and you didn’t even go during lunch? No. You were lying to me so you lose your bathroom privileges. Now, take a seat,” I told him as he sulked back to his sit, defeated.

It’s funny. I’ve used the old ‘bathroom break’ excuse to leave class. It’s about the oldest trick in the book. But it took me just a few days to ban them altogether in my class. If one student has to go, they all do. You let one out, prepare yourself for a queue the length of the rest of the class that ‘needs to go.’ I was learning quickly.

* * *

“Sir, look!” a quiet, unassuming boy says to me as he pushes a loose tooth forward with his tongue.

“Oh, okay. Well don’t touch it, let it fall out on its own and come back to me when it does,” I tell him.

A few hours pass.

“Sir!” the same boy exclaims, running up to me with the small tooth in the palm of his hand.

“Oh! All right! Well looks like you’ll get a visit from the tooth fairy tonight,” I say, then wondering to myself if the tooth fairy is even a thing here. “Let’s go see the principal.”

He was sitting in his office, buried in paperwork neatly stacked all across his desk.

“Sir?” I ask. “We got a loose tooth.”

“Oh!” He jumps up excitedly. “Well congratulations! Uh-hold on…”

He pulls out his phone and places it on his ear.

“Yes, tooth fairy? Well I have a boy here who just lost a tooth. Will you stop by his home tonight? Very good! Thank you.”

Placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder, he walks the boy out of the office saying, “Now, you put it in your pocket and take that tooth home to your parents tonight, okay? You just might have a special visitor tonight.”

I admit I felt like a kid again, swept up in the phone call conversation with the tooth fairy that unfolded before me. I was a little taken aback, though, as I remember having lost a tooth in grade school and being given a bio-hazard container by the nurse to put it in to take home. Now, we don’t have a school nurse or bio-hazard containers, so those type of sanitary precautions are kind of swept under the rug; so to that extent I wasn’t surprised. But it was comforting knowing that the tooth fairy makes her way to the Caribbean when called upon.

* * *

“Sir! Someone vomited upstairs!” one my students called, poking his head into the small lunchroom where I was seated with the other teachers.

I paused mid-bite on the chicken and dumpling soup; hoping that I didn’t just hear what I thought I did. I beckoned him over with my finger.

The boy hurried inside to me, excited at the prospect of catching a moment in the lunchroom at the same time as the teachers. He repeated to me that one of my students vomited in my classroom.

I look up over to the young, amicable physical education teacher sitting across from me that all the kids adore.

“What do I do?” I ask him, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

“Well, you gotta clean it up!” he replied with the type of ‘I’m just glad it’s not me’-type smile.

With a sigh, I quickly finished my lunch and located a mop and bucket. By the time I reached upstairs, matters only got worse as I discovered three other students got sick in the corridor.

I shook my head, thinking, “It’s like they all just teamed up to say, ‘Hey, let’s all throw up and ruin Mr. King’s day.’ But in reality, they’re just children and likely it was a combination of the food they scarfed down too quickly and running around on a queasy stomach.

Of course with any event such as this, there was an audience of curious children. So I cleared them out, trying to salvage the reputation of the sick and embarrassed child in my room. After ensuring each student was okay, I began mopping each spot up; albeit mumbling anything but sweet nothings under my breath.

I don’t mean to share this with you to gross you out. But I work at a primary school and these things happen. The school does have caretakers that clean the school, but they often don’t arrive until after school lets out. In the meantime, teachers take on that role. Unfortunately, I was the one who was told about it as it was in my classroom; therefore, I drew the short straw.

* * *

“Happy Teacher’s Day, Mr. King!” a tall, wiry pre-school teacher says as she walks into my classroom one morning and pins an orange ribbon to my shirt.

As she did so a chorus of well-wishes for World Teacher’s Day rang out from the rest of the students. It was touching and it truly warmed my heart as students over the course of the day came up to me with hand-drawn cards and Crayola-crayon colored pictures. Some students went so far as to bring me candy (special shout-out the student who gave me an off-brand Twinkie).

I had been at the school for a few weeks now at this point and had really gotten to know the students pretty well. It’s funny; it never occurred to me that a day like World Teacher’s Day would pertain to me. I never thought I would be a teacher, let alone one in a foreign country. But that’s just it; I am the textbook definition of a world teacher. I am an American teacher in a Grenadian classroom. So that day really struck me as a moment that makes you pause to think, “How did I even get to this point?”

But to receive that much appreciation for just the few weeks I’ve been here just shows the warm nature of the Caribbean people. Not only are they welcoming to visitors, but they appreciate the efforts put forth by their teachers as they are held in high regard here.

* * *

I shift uncomfortably in a chair small enough to suit a primary school student, but not quite big enough for me. Across from me in two of the same type of chairs are two wide-eyed students, not sure what to expect as I had pulled them out of class for a tutoring lesson. A two-person desk separates us on a stage in a poorly lit room, the desk strategically placed under the sole light that actually works.

“Okay, so do either of you remember what a noun is?” I ask.

“A verb!” one blurts out.

“No,” I said shaking my head. “A verb is an action word, a doing word. A noun is a naming word.”

They nodded, recalling what we covered in class a few weeks prior.

“Now, do you remember what three things a noun names?” I ask as a soothing breeze cuts through the shutter windows behind me.

“A person! A place! And a thing!” They respond excitedly.

“Very good. Now, we’re going to play a little game,” I say as they perk up, all of a sudden interested. “If you take a look around you’ll see post-it notes scattered around the room. I want you guys to work together to find them and place them under the correct column on the chalkboard over there. Ready? Go!”

They race off in different directions, gathering as many of them as they can and putting them under the respective “Person, Place, or Thing” columns. I sit back in my chair and smiled as the sounds of their feet thundered on the wooden stage beneath us.

I laughed as one girl climbed on her chair to pull one off the ceiling while the boy pulled one from the shutter window. They found all of them but two, as I low-key prided myself in the fact that I strategically hid some they couldn’t find. So I resorted to dropping, ‘hot and cold’ hints until they found the last two.

After all the post-it notes were found, we read each noun and rearranged the ones so they fell into the proper column. Each of them read the words individually, so as to unknowingly practice their blending skills and reading fluency. Then after reinforcing the purpose of the lesson on learning the types of nouns, they each received a sticker and were dismissed.

(The excitement they have for stickers is parallel to that of your favorite puppy for his doggie treats. They’re an incredible incentive.)

* * *

“Okay, you guys remember what we talked about last time?” I ask the two boys sitting across from me. “It’s that big S-word.”

“Syllable!” the smaller of the two calls out excitedly.

“That’s it! Give me a fist bump!” I smile back while he beamed with pride at receiving a fist bump from a teacher.

“And how many syllables are in syl-la-ble?”

The bigger of the two boys, sitting back in his chair, quietly places two fingers under his chin and mouths the word syllable.

“Three!” He blurted.

“Nice job!” I exclaim. “Way to use your fingers!”

The last sessions we were practicing identifying how many syllables are in a word by placing two fingers horizontally under your chin and counting how many times your chin moves as you pronounce each word slowly.

(Did you try it? It works.)

But the fact that each of them remembered parts of the last session had me excited.

“We’re going to do a little matching activity today,” I explain. “Now, I drew some pictures on these cards. Each one shares a sound with another. It’s your job to find it’s match.”

The boys feverishly sort through the picture cards I made out of yellow and orange construction paper.

“What’s this one?” one asks.

“A poorly-drawn cloud,” I laugh.

The other’s eyes light up as he picks up the card with a clock and takes the cloud card from the other boy’s hand.

“Clock and cloud!” He shouts.

“Good! And what sound do they share?”

We proceed to pronounce the words slowly, in what we call “snail talk,” so that emphasis is placed on each sound and they reinforce their blending skills. They need more work on their blending, particularly certain letter combinations like ‘c and l.’ They’re still early on in developing their blending skills and there is still a-ways to go. But after all, that’s what I am here for.

* * *

“Sir! We coming to you today?” a small girl asks, looking up at me shyly.

“Yes,” I smile back, “I’ll come get you this afternoon.”

That afternoon, I slip into the classroom and make eye contact with my counterpart, ensuring I have her permission to take students out. She acknowledges and it’s always at this point I feel like a game show host selecting contestants. The students watch anxiously as I point to two students to follow me to the stage in my room downstairs. The two students jump up, immediately abandoning their work and coming to the door as the rest of the class murmurs in disappointment.

“Sir! When am I going to go?!” a boy shouts.

“Not today,” I tell him as I turn away and leave the room.

I haven’t figured out how to go about this part just yet. I have about a dozen or so students selected for pull-out sessions with me. These are the students who are truly struggling, reading at a Pre-K to first grade level as third graders. I don’t want the other, better-performing students to know that. So for now, I just brush off the question.

I’m happy because it means they’re excited. It means that the literacy activities I’ve been working on the struggling students with are engaging enough that the other students want to participate. But my focus is on the struggling ones. They are receiving my attention because they’re the ones who truly need it.

* * *

I sit back on Gouyave’s rock shoreline with two other Peace Corps Volunteers, Katie Riley and Katelyn Earnest. They were visiting Gouyave and wanted to see the sunset, however, there wasn’t much of one that day due to the overcast sky.

Shortly thereafter, the group of kids that usually sits with me on the rocks came running, climbing down and joining us at the rocks. We all begin skipping rocks across the Caribbean Sea in the bleak, fading daylight. I introduce Katie and Katelyn to the kids, all of whom attend my school but none of whom are in any of my classes.

“You like Mr. King?” one of them asks the kids.

“Yes,” the oldest of the group, a fifth grader, says. “He doesn’t beat me.”

I about dropped the stone in my hand.

He doesn’t beat me.

I couldn’t believe he said that.

An unfortunate aspect of education in the Caribbean is that corporal punishment is still used in many of the schools. Corporal punishment has a considerable presence at many of the schools the other Volunteers are placed. I’m lucky that the majority of the teachers at my school do not use it. However, that does not mean it doesn’t happen.

I’ve held my breath and internally prayed that a student would correct their behavior before a belt would be taken out. I’ve winced and turned away as a belt lashes against a student’s hand. I’ve looked up in surprise when I heard a slap across a student’s shoulder.

One day a girl came running up to me exclaiming nervously, “The pink crayon from the box you gave me fell off the desk and broke!”

“Are you going to beat me?” she asks.

“Accidents happen,” I say. “Just be more careful.”

This has been one of the more difficult adjustments I’ve had to make. I, of course, am of the mindset that corporal punishment has no place in schools. That being said, naturally as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am not allowed to use corporal punishment as a method of discipline. The kids know this and they do, at times, take advantage of that. However, I also know that they appreciate it.

I just didn’t know it be so noticeable that a fifth grader, who I haven’t had in any of my classes, would know that I won’t beat them.

I’ve broken up fistfights. I’ve settled arguments and ensured apologies were issued and handshakes were given. They’ve certainly pushed my buttons and tested me over time. But I will never raise a hand against one of them. They are my students. I still care for them as if they were my own. They need that type of positive guidance that some may not receive at home.

Just this morning a girl took my hand as I walked to my classroom saying, “Mr. King, I wish you were my father.”

“Oh, is that right?” I reply simply, not wanting to know the reason why.

I wish there was more I can do in regards to this. However, it is not my place as a Peace Corps Volunteer to resolve the use of corporal punishment. It is integrated into the culture at home and at school. To interfere with that would potentially jeopardize my relationship with some members of the community and would ultimately be detrimental to my ability to accomplish what I need to–teaching literacy. Keep in mind, however, it really wasn’t all that long ago corporal punishment was used in America. Grenada is moving away from its use; a process that certainly takes time. So in the meantime, I don’t mind carrying the label as a teacher that, “won’t beat me.”

* * *

My first seven weeks have been a roller-coaster to say the least. It’s hard to believe that I am halfway through the first school term. I’ve run my own class, conducted pull-out tutoring sessions, began a Creative Writing Club, instructed writing strategies in the sixth grade classroom, consoled crying children, and lectured misbehaving ones. I’ve been proud, frustrated, angry, encouraged, and excited.

One thing remains certain: there will never be a dull day at St. Peter’s RC.

Cheers!

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