Something About Summer: A Series (2)

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

* * *

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

“Friendship Circle, right dey” he calls.

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

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

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

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

* * *

“Good night.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

To be continued…

Cheers!

 

Something About Summer: A Series (1)

Summer.

There’s something about that word, isn’t there?

It brings to mind sunshine, fresh-cut grass, baseball, and burgers on the grill during a 4th of July cook-out.

It’s reveled by children as a time away from school; a time to run wild and free from the responsibilities school places on them.

It’s hot, sunny days jumping in the lake and warm, firefly-filled nights roasting marshmallows by a bonfire.

Each and every one of us have fond summer memories to look back on. Each one of our summer memories may vary, but the question remains the same:

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

As I stated before, at the conclusion of the past school year at St. Peter’s RC and the onset of the summer holiday, I could summarize my feelings in one word: relief.

Relief that I had made it. Relief that I had made it through my first full year not only as a teacher, but as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Relief that I had eight weeks of freedom and escape. Relief that I could now start counting down the months, instead of counting up.

That relief, however, was short-lived.

From the moment the final bell rang and school was officially closed for the summer holiday, I had to hit the ground running. I had various commitments booked throughout the summer, taking me from my first day off in July to my first day back in September…

 * * *

You stand on a concrete slab with overgrown weeds threatening to wrap your feet and pull you down. The hot sun bears down through the sporadic, cloud-covered sky. You remain standing silently, hands clasped behind your back and a solemn expression on your face. Beside you were PCVs Deb Campelia and John Lyness, as well as a small Grenadian family delicately dressed in black. Looking up through the dark tint of your shades, a small band equipped with simple instruments played songs of mourning from atop an above-ground tomb. Before them was an open tomb where a casket had been placed and looked after by a pastor in the midst of a gathering of family and friends, all donned in black. Although you did not directly know the deceased, a pit bottoms out in your stomach as you helplessly watch a beloved member of the Peace Corps Grenada family mourn the loss of a loved one.

You gaze into the distance, looking down to the high-standing pink walls of the National Stadium at the bottom of the steep cemetery’s hill. Trucks, vans, and cars navigate methodically through a roundabout, off to their destinations like ants on a hill. On the far side of the road was the Caribbean Sea, its vast and empty expanse taking on the colors of the dark clouds but glimmering in the spots where the sun shone through.

Voices cry out as the casket is slowly lowered into the tomb. Small slabs, much like the one you are standing on, are placed over the tomb and permanently sealed with wet concrete. As the service closes, you scan the faces of the gathering. Women holding each other arm-in-arm, men with hands placed on the shoulders on their confused and somber-faced children. Many of the gathered wear thick black shades, not unlike the pair you are currently wearing, as if to try and hide the pain.

You turn and step down into the weeds, high-stepping through the overgrown cemetery and onto the adjacent road as you leave the congregation. Walking down the hill toward the Stadium, you place your hands in your pockets as something you heard recently echoes in your mind.

It was a quote, by Jamie Anderson, that reads like this:

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

* * *

The waves crash on the rocks, a soft mist sprays on you as you cling to the rough and misshapen volcanic cliff-side. Delicately balancing barefoot on the uneven rock, you inch along one step at a time to the edge where the cliff meets the beach. When the tide pulls the water back to the Sea, you turn and after a faithful leap, your feet stick into the soft-soaked sand. Stumbling forward, you laugh as you join the others in reaching a previously-unknown destination.

Throwing down a towel, you fall back on your backpack and take a look around. Tucked in between two cliffs, you find yourself on a secluded little beach-head seemingly straight from the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. Trees and brush look down on you from the U-shaped cliff above, protectively shading you from the bullying heat of the sun. In front of you large, jagged rocks protrude from the Sea as bright blue waves crash up the shore. To the right is the cliff-side you climbed down, around which the red-roofed city of St. George’s can be seen tucked into the blue-green Grenadian mountains in the distance.

Laying all around you, various friends you’ve come to call family lay out on towels and bathe in the water. Some of them you’ve known for over a year, others just a week. Of all different ages, backgrounds, sizes, and nationalities, you’ve all come together for one purpose only: to celebrate.

To celebrate the conclusion of a successful Camp GLOW: Girls Leading Our World, (see A Cause Worth Dancing For).

To celebrate the new friendships made during that incredible, sleep-deprived week.

To celebrate the collaboration between Peace Corps Volunteers and local counterparts, counselors, and friends.

To celebrate the recent birthdays of three PCVs: Sarah Bowman, Riley Doerrler, and Hannah Melin.

To celebrate the Close-of-Service of two of our own, PCVs Sarah and Riley.

Drinks are passed around and turns are taken bathing in the Sea. Stories are shared, laughs are abundant, and pictures are taken. A crab curiously pokes its head out from the sand, only to scurry back to its burrow, paying no mind to the chaos outside…

 

 

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* * *

You’re sitting on a worn-down couch, the kind where you have to sit on the edge so as not to get swallowed in. Cards are being passed around the coffee table. A plate with a greasy slice of Papa John’s pizza and breadsticks rest on the nightstand to the right of the couch.

The crickets, as they always do, sing their chorus through the screen door and windows outside. Reggae tunes subtly play from a small blue-tooth speaker on the corner of the table. Various Volunteers are scattered about the room. Two laying down on the other couch to the left. Three others sit in the high-backed chairs of the dining table, surrounded by the boxes of take-out pizza and a few bottles of rum and juice. The rest crowd around the card-laden coffee table as a competitive game of Egyptian Rat-screw ensues.

You’re back in St. Lucia, where your Peace Corps journey all began, with many of the people who began the journey with you. After being separated about a year ago (almost to the day) and sent to different islands across the Eastern Caribbean, you were all brought back to St. Lucia in for different reasons, yet ironically, for the same reason: to aid in the training of the incoming group of new Peace Corps Trainees.

Some of you belong on the Volunteer Advisory Council, to which you belong as the Volunteer representative of the island post of Grenada. Others were brought in as part of their role with the ICD&I Committee, newly formed by your EC89 peers to facilitate conversations and address the questions and concerns related to diversity and inclusion among Volunteers. Earlier in the day you sat on a few panels to answer questions the new group of Trainees have about Peace Corps service in the EC. It was odd, honestly, that all of a sudden you realize you have all the answers to the very same questions you had just one year ago.

No longer the newbies in Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean, you are among the seasoned veterans with a whole year of experience living, working, and teaching in the EC. Since that day just a year ago when our individual site assignments were revealed and we were swept off on our own, it’s been hard to stay in touch. But being back in the same room with these people, it was like we had never left our small, St. Lucian host-community of Desruisseaux.

With all the training sessions being done for the day, it was finally time to relax and enjoy our brief time together again. Being full-fledged Volunteers living across various islands and no longer within our greater cohort, the times we are together come far and few between. Consequently, these occasions call for indulging in take-out pizza from the capital and a bottle of rum or two while playing a competitive hand of cards to pass the time.

 

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* * *

“Bus stop!” You call from the back of a half-empty bus veering fast around the bend.

It jolts to a stop and you stumble out, reaching into your pocket and paying the fare to the driver, who speeds off down the road. Turning around, you walk in between two weather-beaten bars to the beach on the other side. Rain is falling soft and cold, so you hustle across the dirt path to one of your early St. Lucian stomping grounds. A little restaurant sits just off the beach, tarps pulled down around the seating area and flapping in the wind. Two figures are sitting with their backs turned, but you recognized them all the same.

“Julie! Lady Zeph! Good afternoon!” you call as you step up to the restaurant.

“Ooooh, Scott!” Julie, your St. Lucian host mother hops up, embracing you in that warm, familiar hug.

Formalities and greetings aside, you all jump in a car and take off for a new place to grab lunch. It’s a special occasion after all, reuniting with your first host mother and her best friend, who in her own right was like a second mother to you. Arriving in a quiet, little air-conditioned restaurant, you sit down with the two women who although you were a stranger on their doorstep, welcomed you into their homes and cared for you as if you were their own. You order and share a meal; retired teachers themselves, they laugh as you share tales of your first year teaching in a Caribbean classroom. You explain how you’ve utilized the lessons they taught you those first few weeks from classroom advice to home-cooking. You brag a little bit about the local dishes you’ve now made, citing all the baking you did together during those seven weeks in Desruisseaux. You laugh about how word had gotten around back then, too, as it didn’t take long until you were arriving home from training to find fellow Trainees cooking with everyone’s favorite host mom Julie.

 

* * *

Bzzzz

Your phone vibrates in your pocket. Pulling it out, a text message alert pops across the screen.

With all the rain we are having it is HIGHLY possible for our water systems to be blocked.

PLEASE HAVE A 3 DAYS SUPPLY OF STORED WATER.

START STORING NOW!

“Great,” you sigh sarcastically, slipping your phone back into your pocket.

You turn and push through the doors and step back out into the heavy rains that have been falling since you woke up that morning. You hadn’t ever seen rains like this before, thinking back to seeing the parking lot of the National Stadium under at least a foot of water while you were on your way to town.

Nonetheless, you pop open your large umbrella and hustle around the Carenage, the horseshoe-shaped harbor of St. George’s, over to the nearest shopping center. Going straight to the jugs of water on the corner bottom shelf, you grab four of them and waddle over to the check-out counter. Once the transaction is processed it sinks in how ridiculous this is about to look..

Here you’re going to have four large jugs of water.

But only two hands.

And one large umbrella.

Of course this is the one time you didn’t bring your backpack with you to town.

So you tuck your large umbrella under your arm, pick up the four jugs of water and walk out into the pouring rain. Ignoring the funny looks that come from being a foreigner walking in the torrential rain, carrying four large jugs of water with an unused umbrella tucked under his arm, you turn the corner and flag down the first bus you see.

The funny looks don’t bother you much. After all, it wouldn’t be worth explaining that you live here, not to mention in the area currently being hit with the most flooding, where you hadn’t re-stocked on water since the last time the water was shut off.

So you climb onto the bus, taking up the whole first row with the jugs of water, dripping wet.

“Can you take me to the airport?” you ask.

The conductor looks at you, a puzzled look on his face. You can’t blame him, as he had to be wondering what the foreign kid with nothing but four jugs of water and an unused umbrella needed to go to the airport for.

What he didn’t know, however, was that was the day your parents were to arrive in Grenada.

And to think you told them that during rainy season the showers don’t last any longer than a few minutes.

The next few minutes turned into hours as the rain kept falling. You waited outside as the airport periodically lost power with the storm. You scan the flight monitor frequently when the power came back on, knowing their flight was supposed to land early in the afternoon, but it was continually being shown as delayed.

You’re told from someone that the plane came in for landing but pulled back up due to poor visibility and flew on to Barbados. With an uneasy feeling, you take a seat by the bar in the waiting area. An hour passes by, then another. You’ve never been concerned about flights before, always having a take-things-as-they-go approach to flying. But this time it was a little different: you’ve never seen a tropical wave and flooding like this before and can’t imagine how someone could possibly land a plane in such conditions. This goes without mentioning that your parents, whom you hadn’t seen since Christmas, were on one of those flights scheduled to land. But you keep a positive mind and patiently wait alongside the others passing the time in the waiting area.

A few hours later, the rain lightens up as night begins to fall. The sky fades from gray to black and the orange lighting of the street lamps illuminate the puddles of standing water all around you. A number of re-directed flights finally land, alongside the one holding your parents, four and a half hours after its initial arrival time. You stand in the mass of people outside as a soft rain drizzles down, passengers re-uniting with friends and family in the waiting area all around you. Another hour passes as you continue watching the doors, awaiting your reunion with those two familiar faces set to come out of those airport doors.

The taxi you hired, making the most of the downtime, goes off on another service for the second time, knowing he can still return in time to take me and my guests home. As you glance over to a man wrapping up his sister and nephew in a joyous hug, you look up when the doors open yet again. This time, however, it’s the two most formative people in your life, the one’s who’ve raised you into who you are, the one’s you hadn’t seen since Christmas eight long months ago, that are the one’s walking through the door. They pause momentarily as they step outside, scanning the faces of the crowd. You raise your hat and wave it, catching your mother’s eye. The suitcase and backpacks were dropped and after a quick dash through the crowd, you’re wrapped up in that old, familiar hug that only a true mother can give.

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After a long day of traveling, my parents finally arrived in Grenada.

* * *

To be continued…

Cheers!

A Cause Worth Dancing For

Ever wonder what happens when a male volunteer spends a whole week at a girls’ empowerment camp?

Well, now that I’ve completed a week serving as a counselor at Peace Corps Grenada’s Camp G.L.O.W. (Girls Leading Our World), let me tell you:

I sit on the cool tile, back against the railing of the balcony. Two closed, white wooden doors stand looming in front of me. The glass windows on either side of the doors are dark, only a dim light illuminating the far end of the room inside. Joyous laughter and muffled cheers ring out periodically from behind the doors. But outside it was quiet and peaceful, only the mechanical chorus of the crickets accompany me under the star-lit sky and silhouetted mountains.

Although the night was quiet and peaceful, my emotions were anything but. My heart thumped rapidly against my chest as butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Tilting my head back and closing my eyes, I inhale deeply. Holding my breath for a moment, I exhale slowly, trying to ease the racing of my heart.

“I can’t believe I’m actually going to do this,” I laugh to myself, shaking my head.

Just then the door cracks open and out slips Chanda, one of the camp counselors, who quickly closes the door behind her.

“Are we up yet?” I ask anxiously.

“One more; then us,” she responds.

Placing my hands on the ground, I push myself to my feet.

Chanda steps up to the window and peers back inside.

Needing a way to expel my pent-up nerves, I hop back and forth on my toes, the way a boxer would before his big fight. My heart continued pounding on my chest, almost looking for a way out the whole ordeal itself.

“I haven’t been this nervous in a long time,” I thought to myself. Only the last time I was this nervous, I was about to bungee jump off of a bridge over seven-hundred feet in the air.

Thankfully, this time the stakes weren’t as high (literally and figuratively). But I knew once I stepped through those doors, I would be facing something that to me was just as intimidating as a seven-hundred foot bungee. On the other side of those doors was over thirty teenage girls, and I was about to do the unthinkable and perform a dance routine in front of them.

But not only was I going to dance, I was going to dance to Beyonce.

“Lord, help me,” I laugh under my breath.

The door cracks open again and another counselor, Roya, steps out onto the dark veranda.

“You ready?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say confidently, a smile cracking across my face as I raise my hand for a high-five.

A sort of defense mechanism, I often try to approach my most uncomfortable, nerve-racking situations with a false sense of confidence. Oftentimes, it’s an attempt to convince everyone around me that I know what I’m doing, but sometimes the only one I’m really trying to convince is myself.

I stand before the doors as Chanda and Roya take their places behind me. It’s showtime.

Closing my eyes, I run the routine through my head one last time and take one final, deep breath.

The door swings open. I look up and confidently strut into the room the way a model walks down the catwalk. A raucous applause of teenage girls erupts in the room. Single Ladies by Beyonce begins playing on the loud speakers as we entered, but was nearly drowned out by the screams of the audience. I take my position in the center of the floor, just under the overhead stage lights with Chanda and Roya each a step behind me.

The nerves getting the best of me and unable to hear the music, I jumped right into the routine, dropping one foot back and snapping my fingers, rotating and repeating the motion on the other side. As I did this, however, I glanced back to notice Chanda and Roya were still in the starting position and hadn’t moved…

Yep…I jumped the gun.

Just as I came to this realization, the beat dropped and our routine began when it was supposed to. I quickly recovered, doing my best to catch up and make sure the routine was back in-sync. Inside I was vexed that I muffed the start, but I quickly pushed that to the back of my mind and focused instead on the routine at hand. Complete with side-steps, hip shakes, catwalks, and hand-turns, I followed the routine we rehearsed as best I could and didn’t think of anything else.

The song quickly reached its close and with a wide turn of the shoulder, I closed with an outstretched hand, the ring I borrowed from Chanda glimmering on my finger in the stage lights.

The place went nuts.

I laughed and celebrated with Chanda and Roya, my extraordinary back-up dancers. I walked over to a corner and stood in front of a fan by the window, catching my breath and wiping the sweat from my face. Sighing deeply, I finally began to relax as I posted up in the corner and delightedly watched the rest of the show.

Now what might all this have to do with Camp GLOW?

So little, yet so much.

For those that don’t know, Camp GLOW is a Peace Corps program put on by Volunteers across posts worldwide. In professional terms: Camp GLOW is a selective all-girl leadership camp designed to give promising, passionate secondary school girls the skills and knowledge to make a positive difference in their personal lives, their schools, and their communities. Girls aged 13-17 participate in group activities focusing on teamwork, self-esteem, goal-setting, and career development. Camp GLOW offers an opportunity for these young women to openly discuss their opinions regarding themselves, the world, and the future of both together. In addition to these activities, the girls also participate in a variety of team games, sports, crafts, art, and fun.

In layman’s terms: it’s a week-long camp that serves as an opportunity for at-risk teenage girls to discover themselves and empower them to become the leaders of the future.

The week started with some ice-breakers, as the girls came from secondary schools all across the island, and a majority of them were meeting each other for the first time. The air was filled with nervousness and uncertainty. For many of the girls, this was their first time away from home. To add to their discomfort and as per Camp GLOW procedure, their phones were confiscated for the week (the girls were allotted time to call home using the Camp Directors’ phones each night, otherwise no phones). They were sectioned off into pre-selected groups identifiable by color. Each group then had the task of coming up with a team name and a song or chant.

As one of the counselors of the yellow group, after some prodding and encouraging, eventually the girls in my group came up with the name “Golden Squad.” Then moving outside into the night, one of the girls thankfully took the reigns and orchestrated our song and chant to introduce our group to the rest of the girls. The Camp broke for the night as the girls were settled into their rooms and the counselors prepared for the long week ahead.

What followed suit was probably one of the craziest, most exhausting weeks of my life. Fact of the matter is, it all went by so fast. There was so much going on, with so little time. There were ups and downs, tears and laughter, frustration and anxiety, and an extreme lack of sleep.

Each day consisted of various workshops and learning sessions led by the Camp Directors, PCVs, counselors, and local women volunteering their time, effort, and resources in order to encourage these young girls to become the leaders they are capable of being.

Although the list below doesn’t cover all the workshops and sessions showcased in Camp GLOW, it will give you a basic understanding of the types of activities that the Camp entailed and how they fit into Camp GLOW’s greater mission:

Cake Decorating- For this workshop, a local bakery owner (and former GLOW camper), came in to discuss how she started her own business at the ripe age of 20. She explained the concepts and strategies in cake-decorating, showing the girls how to use the different instruments needed for the perfect touch. The girls then had an opportunity to try it themselves, decorating their own individual cupcakes and working together to create team cakes.

Yoga- Led by PCV Hannah, this session was an introduction to yoga as a means of meditation, exercise, and relaxation. The girls embraced the opportunity of trying various poses, maneuvers, and breathing strategies.

Natural Hair- A session lead by a local hair stylist, this workshop encouraged the girls to embrace and take pride in their natural hair. The campers learned how to properly care for their hair and establish healthy habits in maintaining their natural hair.

Improv- Two women came in to orchestrate a series of activities and games enabling the girls to think and express themselves freely. These included the games Ships and Sailors, Team Princess-Knight-Dragon (a form of rock, paper, scissors), Splat, and others. The session concluded with an opportunity for girls to come up with an impromptu political speech on a random topic which went surprisingly well with plenty of laughs.

Woodshop- Facilitated by one of the only female woodshop teachers on the island, the girls had an opportunity to measure and cut wood to create key rings. This was a hands-on experience for girls to work with power tools, paint, and create their own key rings to take home with them.

Public Speaking and Zumba- A local radio host and zumba instructor presented to the girls the keys to developing strong public speaking skills. The session included public speaking activities that enabled the girls to develop and showcase their skills by stepping out of their comfort zone. The public speaking session was then followed by a zumba class where the girls got to open up and burn some energy exercising to local soca music.

Spa Night- Because what would be a girls’ empowerment camp without a spa night? Led by the PCVs and camp counselors, the girls all received face-masks and spent a night properly taking care of their skin and embracing their natural beauty.

Financial Responsibility- A local woman came in to discuss with the girls financial responsibility and saving strategies. During this session, the girls were asked to create a fictional, financially-responsible person. Unfortunately, four out of the five groups had a male as their financially-responsible person. This goes to show the purpose of this camp is for the girls to realize that they can be that person.

Vision Boards- A secondary activity to the financial responsibility session, the girls were given a piece of cardboard and several magazines. From the magazines, they cut out pictures and pasted them to the cardboard, which became their “vision board” of who they want to be in the future. The vision boards were theirs to take home and use to motivate them to achieve the dreams they have set out for themselves.

TED Talks- After watching two TED Talks video segments, PCVs and Camp GLOW Directors Lili and Riley facilitated group discussions on bullying, social acceptance, and the power of spoken-word poetry.

Health and Personal Well-being- A local female doctor presented to the girls good habits to ensure a healthy body and lifestyle. These included tips on diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene, and mental as well as physical health.

Career Fair- One of the pinnacle opportunities for the girls, various local women came in to hold small-group discussions with the girls on the potential career opportunities for them. These individuals had backgrounds in social work, international commerce, consultation, education, professional dance, and business. The girls had the opportunity to ask these women questions about their field of work and how they came to attain those positions as well seek career advice.

Sex Education- Arguably the most important session of the week, a whole day was devoted to the discussion of sexual health and safe sex practices. Under the guidance of the female counselors and directors (I excused myself from these sessions for obvious reasons), the girls had a chance to debunk myths and misinterpretations of sex depicted by the media. A taboo topic, many of these girls never received the “sex talk,” and consequently now had the opportunity to ask trusted female counselors questions in order to understand fact from fiction when it comes to sex. During these sessions, the girls also learned how to properly use condoms to ensure that if they exercise their right to be active, they can do so in a safe manner.

Question Box- The question box, a staple of Camp GLOW, is a means for girls to ask the Camp directors and counselors questions anonymously. This quickly became a popular activity, as it facilitated deep and meaningful conversations on what are often-times taboo topics.

These were just some of the many activities and sessions in place at Camp GLOW that enabled the girls to discover themselves and empowered them to become the leaders of the future. On the final night of the camp, a talent show was held, during which my little dance routine made an appearance. A proper finale to the week, the talent show was a means for the girls to display their talents in front of their peers and build their self-confidence by putting themselves out in front of a large audience.

I suppose this is where all my rambling is supposed to come full circle. At the start of the week, I had no idea what to expect or what I was getting myself into. After all, I was going to be a male volunteer at a girls’ empowerment camp. What I didn’t realize, was that I was going to take part in one of the most rewarding and empowering experiences of MY life.

As I said before, on the very first night the girls arrived nervous, anxious, shy, and reserved. For many of them, it was their first night away from home. They were thrown into unchartered territory, not sure what to expect.

Then during the first days’ activities, a few of them began opening up and embracing the Camp. Others took a little more time, still wrought with homesickness and an overall disinterest in being there. But with each passing day, more and more girls began fully participating in the Camp’s activities and fostering friendships with each other. As time went on, their personalities not only began to develop, but shine brightly as well. They engaged each other, the counselors, the directors, and the guest speakers; they weren’t afraid to ask the difficult questions.

When they were called upon by the counselors to speak up or present, they did. They put themselves front and center, subjecting themselves to the opinions of their peers. Naturally as with teenage girls, there were times of stress and tears resulting from ‘girl drama.’ Whenever this happened a counselor would step in to console the girl, but as the week went on it was the girls that were picking each other up when one was put down.

The camp counselors were incredible. Talk about a group of women that I absolutely admire. They expressed empathy, patience, understanding, and love for the girls that at the start of the camp, they didn’t even know. They all had a task to fulfill, to be positive role models for the girls and provide a foundation for these girls to prepare for their own future. They were confidants and provided words of wisdom and experience. They were individuals the girls could aspire to be and established a standard of living for the girls to follow.

Camps such as GLOW that push for the cause of empowering girls to become the leaders of the future are needed not just in developing countries, but across the globe. For too many people, in too many countries, conversations centering on taboo topics such as sexual education, homosexuality, feminism, and the breaking of gender roles are not being held. These conversations are necessary for young girls and boys so that this world can continue moving forward to a more accepting and loving world. Children are our future, for it’s the girls and boys of this world that can instill progress to for a better, more tolerating, accepting, and peaceful world.

Although dancing to Beyonce’s Single Ladies was a relatively insignificant event in the grand schemes of the Camp, it was still probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. As a male counselor, in addition to providing the occasional comic relief, it was my role to convey the message to them that there are men out there that support the female empowerment movement. After witnessing the transformation of these campers from quiet, shy, and timid girls to outgoing, inspiring, and ambitious young women in the span of a short week, I felt I had to do something. If they could step out of their comfort zones and speak proudly, ask difficult questions, express their opinions, and embrace their love for their fellow girl, then why couldn’t I step out of my comfort zone and show my solidarity in them with their cause.

And what better way than to show support for feminism then by dancing to the queen of female empowerment herself, Beyonce.

Beyonce once said, “We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead.”

I couldn’t find a quote that more accurately depicts not only the purpose of Camp GLOW, but how this change is already happening in this world. This change is already being implemented in thanks to women like Beyonce, women like the Camp GLOW directors, counselors, guest speakers, and Peace Corps Volunteers across the globe.

And that, my friends, is a cause worth dancing for.

 

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Off the Beaten Path

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

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

“All right, let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much farther do we have to go?”

“Are we still even on the right path?”

The questions raced through my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned around and didn’t look back.

 * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beaten Path 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

as I ever so quietly stood.

Excitedly pondering which choice to make,

but tempered by the fear of making a mistake.

For what if the choice made was wrong,

would I regret for my whole life long?

Would I ever truly be happy not knowing,

or would doubt always be silently growing?

Like a vine creeping through my mind,

laced with questions that would intertwine.

For the road not taken may be the best

and the one chosen, leading to further quest.

Looking down upon the very black ground,

on one road so many tracks did abound.

The other was covered in emerald green,

as if no traffic had it ever seen.

My mind raced and my heart did leap,

breaking its slow and steady beat.

For now the choice seemed oh so clear,

as slowly drained away all my fear.

I needed to walk the road less traveled by,

to enjoy the sights never before seen with eye.

To break away from the beaten path where most live,

exploring all the possibilities that life has to give.

And if a mistake I find I do make,

at least I made it for my own sake.

For I will have followed my waiting dreams,

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

For choice is what makes freedom so immense,

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

Cheers!

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More Than Just a Meal

Truth be told, I know very little about the life of Anthony Bourdain. I’ve seen a few episodes of his television series Parts Unknown, but that’s about it. As many of you have seen or heard, his name made headlines earlier this month after his tragic passing. In the days following his death, I read every article I could find that might shed some light on a man who lived an incredibly inspiring life. I learned about a world-renown chef and an award-winning author. I learned about a man who lead the life many only dream of having: traveling the world and sharing meals with people across the globe.

During my readings, I came across many of his famous quotes on travel, cooking, and life. His zest for life and international traveling was founded in his love for food. During his travels, he had a no-holds-barred approach, eating anything and everything that was culturally-relevant to whatever country he was in.

But in what I found, I think he was on to something bigger than just the meals he was sharing. It’s something that I think I’m just now beginning to understand myself…

* * *

“Hey King!” A voice calls from outside.

“Oh, there you are. Come on in,” I say, stepping outside and unlocking the gate to my apartment.

South, a friend of mine who works at the school, steps out of his shoes and follows me into the apartment. We head straight past the dining table to the back of the kitchen, where several pieces of salt fish and corn fish are sitting in a pot of boiling water. In the sink a few green figs were peeled and soaking in a bowl of water.

“I had the fish soaking overnight like you’re supposed to. It’s been boiling in the water there for about ten minutes now. I just got started on peeling the green figs.”

“Okay. Have a seat there and find the football game. I’ll take it from here,” he says, intuitively picking up a knife and expertly peeling the green figs.

I sat down and pulled up on my laptop the World Cup match of the afternoon: Germany vs. Sweden. By the time I turned back around, South had all the green figs were peeled.

“How many people are going to come through?” South asks.

“I’m not sure. I told some other Volunteers about it and I was going to send out messages to some others once we had it going.”

“We should get more green figs. Maybe some more dasheen and yam, too. We want enough food if people come through, but if not then you have plenty left over for tomorrow and the next day.”

“Okay that’s a good idea. I’ll run next door and get some.”

While he got started on peeling the plantains, I ran over to the market next door where I purchased a few more green figs, dasheen, and yams from the pleasant ladies conversing behind their respective vending stalls.

When I returned I handed them all to South, who inspects one of the dasheen.

“Oh, this one isn’t dasheen. It’s tania.”

“Really? How can you tell the difference?”

He begins explaining the difference between the two similar ground provisions, identifiable by the texture of the skin, color, and size. Although dasheen is preferential, the tania can still serve the purpose so he begins washing and peeling both of them anyway.

Meanwhile I turn to the freezer, pulling out a bottle of rum and some juice.

“How about some drinks?”

“Yeah, man.”

After fixing up some drinks and preparing the provisions, it was time to return to the salt fish. Turning off the burner, South picks up the pot of boiling water and pours the fish into a strainer.

“You don’t want oven pads or anything?” I ask, dumbfounded that he grabbed the pot of boiling water with his bare hands.

“Nah, man,” he smiles. “My hands are used to the heat.”

“You kidding? I’d be crying if I did that,” I reply as we break into a laugh.

He then proceeds to tell me about his time working on a ship, traveling throughout the Caribbean islands for work. It was then, during his travels to the likes of Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbuda, and Antigua, that he handled hot items so frequently it doesn’t affect him anymore.

Having lived on St. Lucia for seven weeks myself, we began sharing our opinions on the island and how it differs from Grenada. We talked about the similarities between the two as well.

Pulling the fish from the strainer, he presses the meat through and drops the flaky pieces into a dish, careful to remove all the minuscule, hard-to-see bones.

“You want to make sure you get all the bones out,” he says. “You don’t know what your friends may like, so best to make sure you get them all out. There’s a lot of them in there.”

“I see. You know, I like the salt fish but I don’t think I’ve had the corn fish before.”

“No? It’s nice. Here try a piece,” he says, handing me a piece of the corn fish.

“Hmm, that’s actually pretty good,” I say, getting my first taste of the corn fish.

Next step was the dumplings, used to complement the provisions. Pouring the flour in a large mixing bowl with increments of water, I began kneading it into dough. When the dough was ready, it was time to roll the dumplings.

South reaches in, pulling off a wad of dough. Then rolling it back and forth in his hands, the wad took on a smooth, soft, elongated shape. I pulled off a wad of my own, rolling it in my palms as it quickly thinned out and broke into two.

“No, no, here,” he says, taking the dough from my hands. “Hold it in your fingers like this,” he carefully rolls another dumpling in his fingers before mashing it back together and handing it back to me to try.

Placing it in my fingers just as he showed, I rubbed the dough in my fingers as if I were starting a primitive fire with sticks and stones. I was careful to make sure the dough stayed between my fingertips. As I did this, the dough quickly formed into the elongated shape of a dumpling. The hypothetical light bulb had gone off in my head.

“Oh! I got it now,” I say.

He nods approvingly and I place it into a pot alongside the other provisions. Looking back at my computer, I saw the score of the football match was now tied.

“Hey! Germany just scored,” I pointed to the screen.

“What?! Eh, boy,” South says, looking over as we watch a replay of the scoring point.

World Cup fever is alive and well right now in Grenada.

A short while later the salt fish and provision was ready. Grabbing my phone, I sent a few text messages to some local friends.

Honestly, I wasn’t really sure if anyone would come. I had never hosted a cook-up before. Salt fish and provision is a popular Caribbean dish and hosting a cook-up is a prominent tradition in the West Indies. The idea for me to host one originated with just me and South, cooking-up to celebrate my birthday that weekend. But when you have all this food, it’d be ridiculous not to share.

So I sent out the word about the cook-up with no real expectations. I was hoping people would come through. But like South told me earlier, if no one did it wouldn’t really matter, for then we’d have a full meal to ourselves and then some for the next couple days. That’s just how a cook-up is done here.

We set everything out in various pots, bowls, and serving dishes on the counter. South then skillfully dishes up a plate and walks it over to my upstairs neighbor, as is custom between the two old friends.

Then after a short while came Rohan, a local friend with whom I often play pool with at Mansa’s bar up the road. He was also watching the football match back in his home before he came over to join us. We pulled up the highlights and talked about the exciting finish to the match, which ended with Germany’s late goal in stoppage time to steal a 2-1 victory.

Excited about having someone to serve, I quickly dished up a plate and handed it to Rohan. The reggae sounds of Tarrus Riley, a local artist who I’ve really come to enjoy, plays on the speakers from my computer. The topic of reggae comes to the surface and we begin discussing the different artists we listen to. Rohan and I talk about how we went to the Beres Hammond concert together back on Mother’s Day. South mentions his personal favorite being Eric Donaldson, who just performed in Grenada recently. One thing we all agreed on, however, was that the Jamaican reggae artists are simply born with a gift.

“Hey King! Outside man!” Two voices call.

I hustle outside to open the gate for Akim and St. Paul, two teachers at my rival school St. John’s Anglican, who I also play basketball with on Sunday evenings. They just returned to Gouyave from the hospital, where Akim just had surgery. His right arm was now in a cast and sling, having broken it while we were playing basketball the night before at the island-wide Teachers’ Sports event up in the parish of St. Patrick. I hadn’t seen him since we carried him off the court and into a car to be rushed off to the hospital. He was still in some pain but was in otherwise good spirits.

They took a seat on my beat-in couch and I served them a dish. We updated them on the football matches of the day, which they hadn’t been able to follow. They couldn’t stay long, however, as it was time for them to return back home.

Then comes Junior, a short, athletic man with a broad smile. He’s a popular face in town, everyone recognizing him as the “Moko Jumbie” (a traditional stilts dancer popular at cultural events). A friend of South’s, I introduce myself and serve him a dish, which he sits down to enjoy. I ask him about how he does it, dancing on those stilts all day long. He laughs and explains he’s done it all his life and offered to teach me how sometime. I agreed to take him up on the offer, so I guess we’ll see how that goes.

“Hello!” A bubbly, cheery voice calls as Sarah, the PCV from my neighboring community of Grand Roy, enters my apartment.

“Happy Birthday!” She says, handing me a small bag.

Inside were two gifts: a stone from Palmiste Beach, the halfway point between our communities, and a calabash bowl. Each was hand-painted, the stone with the Peace Corps logo and the inside of the calabash bowl with various designs in Grenadian national colors. A heartfelt gift, it’s a testament of her artistic ability and the bond between Peace Corps Volunteers. There is something to be said about having “government-assigned friends” in a foreign country. She, as well as Riley, the other EC 88 Peace Corps Volunteer on Grenada, are on the last leg of their Peace Corps journeys as they COS (Close of Service) and return to the States in late July. Consequently, we’re trying to make the most of their remaining time here.

I dish up a plate for her and she joins in the conversation. South is taken by the calabash bowl, impressed by the work she did and wondering if he can get one made for himself.

Then comes Byron, one of the first guys I really got to know here. We cross paths often, shooting pool by Mansa’s and playing basketball down in the park. He takes a seat at the table and I hand him a dish.

“Hey, J!” I call out through my kitchen window, seeing one of my students sitting on the veranda of his apartment, the one behind my house.

He walks up to the window and peers through, looking between the curtains.

“Go tell your mother I cooked up some salt fish and provision and come get some.”

He nods and runs back inside his home.

A short while later Roseanne and J show up at my door, taking a break from their preparations to return to St. Vincent later this week. Having first moved to Grenada back in January, they have lived in my apartment complex for the past six months. I have gotten to know them pretty well, having J in my class and eating out with them at Fish Friday. We’ve even done some cook-ups together as well, as Roseanne was the first to show me the ropes to making salt fish and provision, in addition to the callaloo soup. We were supposed to make a Sunday lunch together, but unfortunately, we’ve run out of time.

Then came Marsha, the preschool teacher at my school. It’s with her I’ve attended all the past island-wide events celebrating Teachers’ Month this June, such as the Teachers’ Quiz, the Teachers’ Cook-up at Bathway Beach, a Secondary School Night Cruise, and Teachers’ Sports. If there’s a social event going on for the teachers, she’s the one to talk to. A prominent figure at the school, her classroom is the place to be after school lets out for the day. With the chairs and couches inside my apartment filled up, she takes a seat outside on the rail of my veranda.

“Hey Scott!” John, the PCV from Concord, calls as he enters the room. Having seen him that morning, we catch up on the rest of the day, while he mixes himself a drink and joins Marsha out on my veranda.

The day had turned to night and the salt fish and provision was running low. Drinks, much like the conversation, kept flowing. I took a step back, taking a breath and surveying my apartment before me. Inside and outside were numerous people I am proud to call friends. It was a steady mix of Volunteers, local friends, co-workers, and neighbors. I’ve met them all through different means, but they all made the effort to come through for the cook-up. The chatter was constant, multiple conversations occurring simultaneously, a pleasant chorus to the ear.

Flashbacks from home came crossing through my mind. As the youngest of six children, the front door at my house was essentially a revolving door. Growing up we often did not even lock the door, for someone was always home or passing through. Friends never had to knock, either, just walking in as if it were their own home. My dorm rooms throughout college and the house I had my senior year were much the same way, people always coming and going. That to me, gives me the feeling of home.

I always took pride in that. I always took pride in that people can feel comfortable in my home, that they know they can invite themselves over and simply be themselves. Someone else feeling at home, in your own home, to me is one of the highest compliments one can receive.

I’ve held gatherings for the other PCVs at my place before, but this was the first opportunity where I got to invite both locals and Volunteers over. Each individual that came to the cook-up had been woven into my life at various points. I’ve formed friendships with each and every one of them. Some of them have just entered into my life, others have been and will be around for awhile yet, while others only a short time more. Each one had a different story to share, but somehow we all ended up in the same place that particular evening.

But I digress, for it’s time to return to the moral of the story.

* * *

I think [Bourdain] was on to something bigger than just the meals he was sharing. It’s something that I think I’m just now beginning to understand myself…

Having lived in the Caribbean for over a year now, it is evident that hosting a “cook-up” is a common way for people to get together here. If you think about it, no matter where you go or what you do, everyone has to eat. Cooking and eating are essential to life. So hosting communal meals not only nourishes our stomachs, they nourish our souls. They are a breeding ground for companionship. Cook-ups are a reason to gather and interact with your neighbors and friends. It’s a way of meeting people and getting to know who they are and what they’re all about. Although it’s the food that brings everyone to the table, it’s the conversation that brings the cook-up to life. It’s in the conversation where you learn about someone’s past, an individual’s talents, opinions in shared interests, and find common ground through intercultural exchange.

But it’s all because of what brings everyone together: the meal.

Just look at it from the perspective of my afternoon cook-up with my friend, South. Throughout the day and night people from my community came and went. I was reunited with old friends and introduced to new ones. Some of those friends will soon be leaving Grenada, and time will tell if or when I’ll see them again. Others I’ll see again, likely at another cook-up. But that’s the way life is, people come and go. But it’s the memories that we’ll share, the memories like the time we all gathered for a cook-up, that will last forever.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Bourdain’s:

“Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”  

Like I said, I think I’m just now understanding what Bourdain seemed to have figured out long ago:

That when it comes to a cook-up, it’s about way more than just a meal.

Cheers!

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Note: As many of you have learned, Anthony Bourdain’s cause of death was determined to be a suicide. To those who knew him, it was an unexpected event.

To anyone reading this that is struggling with depression or other mental health issues, know that you are loved and that you are not alone. Mental health is a very real and very serious issue. It’s time we break the stigma. The (American) Suicide Prevention Hotline is listed below:

1-800-273-8255

A Child At Heart

“Mr. King!” A light-hearted, cheery voice calls in from outside my window.

“Ya!” I call back, leaving my open laptop on the table and slipping on a pair of flip-flops.

Stumbling out my front door, I walk toward the gate and turn the lock open. No one is out there, just the side of the market in front of me, a car parked off to the right and a dumpster down the road to the left on an otherwise empty street. But I’ve seen this trick before.

“All right, J. Where are you now?”

“Ahh!” a boy jumps out from behind a pillar, hands forward with a menacing grin.

“Almost got me that time,” I laugh, offering a fist bump as he steps inside the gate.

“Sir, lewwego fishing,” he says, hopping up on the banister of my veranda, legs dangling.

“You want to go fishing now? It’s going to be dark soon.”

“Yeah, down by the jetty.”

“I’m not sure I can,” I reply, thinking about the numerous online tabs of graduate schools and job-search websites left open on my laptop.

“Why not?” J questions, almost baffled at the thought I could possibly have something more important to do.

I lean back on the banister next to him, mulling over the thought in my head. On one hand, I didn’t have any real obligations this evening, as due to the upcoming Corpus Christi holiday we didn’t have school the following day. I was also looking forward to a night in, not doing a whole lot and begin exploring some post-Peace Corps opportunities.

On the other hand, awhile back I had promised J I would go fishing with him and had yet to fulfill that promise. So the more I thought about it, the more I suppose this was as good of a time as any.

“You have everything we need?” I ask.

“Yeah! I just have to run home to get my bait-catcher,” he says, his eyes lighting up.

“Okay, then run home and get it and we’ll go,” I agree.

“Yes!” He hops down. “Oh, but sir. Can you call my mother?”

“What?”

“My mother. Can you ask her if it’s okay I go to the jetty?”

“Uhm..sure.”

I go back inside and come back out with my phone and hand it to J, who dials his mother’s number and then hands it back to me.

Ring…Ring…

“Hi, good afternoon,” a pleasant, female voice answers.

“Good afternoon. This is Scott King, the Peace Corps at the RC. I have J here by me and was wondering if I can take him down to the jetty to go fishing.”

J watches intently.

“Oh, okay. You’ll be with him?” she asks.

“Yes. And I can have him home at a certain time if you like. Is there a certain time you would like me to bring him back home?”

“Well his bed time is 8:00, so have him home by then.”

“All right, I’ll see to that. Thank you and have a nice night.”

“Same to you.”

Click. 

“What’d she say?” J asks anxiously.

“She said it’s okay. I just have to have you home by 8.”

“What time is it now?”

“6:30. So if we go one time then we’ll have an hour down by the jetty. Quickly run home and get your things and we can go.”

J runs out of the gate and takes off down the road. I slip back inside and switch into a fresh set of clothes. Sitting back down on the couch, I then wait for the impending cheery voice to call: “Mr. King!”

A few minutes pass by…

I check the clock, J doesn’t live too far down the road, so it shouldn’t take him all that long…

“Mr. King!”

“Ahh, there it is,” I laugh.

I step outside and lock up my apartment, joining J on the street. I turn around to lock the gate to the complex. The sun had already set as we begin walking down the street. We turn the corner onto the main road, a typical Gouyave scene unfolding before us. Various people are hanging out on the sidewalks on either side of the road. Some are standing, leaning up on the buildings, others are sitting on crates or on the sidewalk. Cars and buses fly past, honking their horns in a friendly manner and dodging the vehicles parked on the side of the road. A few ladies sit out in front of the market, looking to sell their fruits and vegetables to anyone passing by. Up ahead at the junction, half a dozen men stand idly leaning against their cars waiting for someone in need of a taxi service.

“J! Come!” A lady calls from across the street.

J takes off across the road, taking in his hands a bag of mangoes that the lady gave him.

“You got some mangoes there?” I ask.

“Yeah, they’re from me auntie. You want one?”

“Sure, but in a little while.”

“Sir, can you hold this for me until we get there?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

We cross the street and continue our walk to The Lance, the part of Gouyave across the newly-built bridge. J, with a blue jersey and bathing suit, walks proudly as he swings the bucket in his hand with each stride. Inside the bucket were a couple of plastic water bottles, each with a fishing line wrapped tightly around it. Half a dozen small hooks are tied to the line, the only creases in the otherwise tightly-wrapped lines around the bottles.

“You know why I had you talk to my mother?” J asks, hopping back and forth from the sidewalk to the street.

“Why is that?”

“Because she would have said no if I asked her. But I knew she’d say yes if you asked,” he grins.

“Oh, really?”

I let out a little laugh and shake my head, remembering what it was like to use any leverage you can to try and stay out later than your parents would otherwise let you.

“You have any plans for the holiday tomorrow?” I ask him.

“My father is going to take me through the bush,” he responds enthusiastically.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, we are going to hike up through Clozier and hunt for manicou.”

“That’ll be fun.”

A white and green-painted gas station comes up on our right; it’s the only one in town. Buses and cars whip in and out, being serviced by a staffer who pumps the gas for them like they did in the olden days. We cross the street and come across a shop that sells arts, crafts, and spices. The owner locks up the red, green, and yellow-painted gate in front of the shop as he closes up for the night. Walking past the shop, we reach the apron of the bridge as the road rises up steeply before running the flat of the bridge across to the other side. Stepping up to the sidewalk at the flat of the bridge and looking directly to my left, a single palm tree stretches to the sky over a rock-strewn stream that eases seamlessly into the bleak Caribbean Sea. Looking ahead now, the rugged, green mountains off to our right overlook the homes, bars, and shops of The Lance as it finally spills into view. Fast-paced soca music pounds earth-shakingly from speakers somewhere in the distance, the rhythmic heartbeat of this part of town.

By the time we passed all the homes, shops, and bars lining the road in The Lance, the Fish Market finally came into view. Turning left onto the drive of the Fish Market, we walk toward the jetty, a concrete pier stretching out into the water. Looking to my right into the Fish Market as we pass, most of the stalls inside are now vacant, vendors having cleared out for the night. The aroma of salt water and fish fills my nostrils, as if its scent was plastered into the walls of the market itself. A single man in the back hoses down a stall as he cleans it, the water trickling along the floor before running down a drain.

Walking past the Fish Market and onto the concrete jetty, we continue to the end as we’re welcomed in by various docked fishing boats tethered to the light fixtures and concrete stoops on either side of the jetty. A group of men are standing on the end, looking out into the water and casting their lines. Some of them sit on the side, legs dangling off the edge with a Carib in one hand and a cigarette in another. Others stand with their poles in their hand, looking for a late-evening catch. J drops his bucket and gets right to work, eagerly unwinding the tangled fishing line from the bottles. Stepping up to the edge, he twirls the six-hook bait-catcher like a lasso and casts it out into the water. The water has taken on a blue gray color, reflective of the somber color of the sky from the quickly fading daylight. He almost immediately begins reeling the line back in, enticing a fish to bite at his moving bait-catcher.

The sound of waves quietly lapping against the side of the jetty and the incessant calls of the hungry seagulls complement the scene around me. Looking back over my left shoulder, a small beachhead runs along the coast of The Lance with several boats rocking quietly, anchored out off-shore in the waves. Lights began to speckle the mountainside behind us as the homes and buildings began turning on their lights, the night falling fast.

J winds the line all the way back around the bottle and casts the line out again. On about the third try, he felt a tug of resistance. He bubbles with excitement as he rapidly pulls in a small fish roughly the length of my pinky. Unhooking it and tossing it onto the concrete, he casts out another line before taking the fish and placing it in his bucket. After another couple of tries he was having no more luck, so he decided to move to another spot off the left-hand side of the jetty, where several small boats were docked.

Another boy, a year or two older than J, was also fishing at the same spot. This boy had two plastic bottles, which he took turns casting out a line before leaving the bottle propped against the concrete curb of the jetty while he pulled the other line in. J steps up next to him and throws out a line of his own. I peer over the edge, looking into the water below to see what could be down there. Looking past the ropes that held the boats to the jetty, the water was somewhat clear under the streetlights of the jetty, enabling me to see the shadows of fish scurrying across the sandy sea-floor. Just then a quick movement and a sudden splash suddenly caught my attention off to the right. I wasn’t the only one who saw or heard something either, as in a moment all the men on the jetty came rushing to the scene. A fish had caught the other boy’s line and pulled the resting bottle over the curb and into the water!

Some of the men drop on their stomachs, reaching down to try and catch hold of the bottle or the line. But the fish had already taken off with it. One of the men cast out a line of his own to catch the boy’s, which was now pulling away around the end of the jetty and out into the sea. After a few tense, anticipatory minutes, the other men were somehow able to pull in the boy’s escaped prize. They returned it to him, but not before laughing at the whole ordeal and ribbing him for nearly letting one get away. Personally, I was just baffled the fish was strong enough to be able to pull the bottle over the curb and into the water.

After the excitement settled down, J continued building his catch count. Climbing down the stairs on the side of the jetty to be directly next to the boats, he would cast his line out into the water and reel it in. Once getting a catch, he would eagerly pull it in and toss the line over his shoulder to the top of the jetty before running back up the stairs to unhook the fish and start the process all over again. He got his second fish, then his third, then his fourth. A few older men, some having come from a day out on the water or just having reached home from work in town, began taking their places on the side of the jetty. They began casting out lines of their own or simply watched J and the other boy work their lines.

At one point, J’s line got tangled with the other boy’s and they needed help untangling it. Some teenage boys on the other side came over and began helping them, mumbling under their breath and shaking their heads that such a mess was made of the lines. J ran back to the bag of mangoes he received from his auntie on the way over and handed a mango to each of them, in gratitude for their help.

At this point I checked the time on the clock, 7:45 p.m. It was almost time for J to be home. He was too busy to notice, thrilled by his handful of catches. I began to feel a pit of indecision in my stomach, not wanting to be the buzzkill that sends J home but fully-knowing that I made a promise to his mother to have him home at 8:00. I walk along the top of the jetty and crouch down so I was just over his shoulder.

“Hey, J. It’s about time we go home, it’s almost 8:00,” I tell him, out of earshot of the others.

He nods but doesn’t say anything, not wanting to go home just yet. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t ready to go home just yet either. But then again, Momma’s rules are Momma’s rules. I step back and allow him to push it another couple of minutes.

“Eh, eh! There goes a ray,” a man in a worn-down, beige-colored t-shirt with a black backpack and gray stubble on his chin says, pointing down toward the water.

“There’s a sting ray?” I ask, looking out over the edge. “I didn’t know they were out in these waters.”

“Yeah man,” he responds. “But it pass now, keep an eye out it might come back. It went by just under that boat there.”

I kept a cautious eye on the water, secretly hoping to catch my first sight at a sting ray down here. But it was to no avail.

Then with about five minutes to bed time, knowing we were already going to be late, I leaned over to J again.

“Okay J, it’s 8:00. I already let you stay past the time. It’s time to go,” I say, using a little white lie to trigger him to finish up.

“Okay, sir. Just one more,” he responds tossing out another line.

He pulls it in empty and reluctantly climbs back up to the jetty to gather his things. Wrapping up his bottle and line and putting them in the bucket with the four fish he caught, he was finally ready to go home. Bidding the guys gathered at the jetty a good night, we turn and head back home. We walk back through The Lance, now come to life in the night as locals share drinks on the side of the road, inside and in front of the rum shops. The music is still pounding and the vehicles with their bright headlights blind us as they bustle past. We cross back over the bridge and through the main part of Gouyave, walking past the market as well as my apartment and all the way to the rock shoreline just beyond town. Climbing on top of the large rocks, I turn on a flashlight as J pulls out a knife and begins scraping off the scales of his fish. He then cuts open the belly, pulling out the organs as if he were in a sophomore level biology class, explaining to me the proper way to clean a fish.

“Sir, you want one to take with you?” J asks, holding out one of the fish.

“I’m good for now, thanks J. Maybe next time.”

I wouldn’t be opposed to taking the fish, if only I knew what to do with it. One of these days I’ll learn how to prepare a fish freshly caught from the water, it’s on my list of things to learn before my time here is up. But this just wasn’t the time.

Upon returning back to my apartment, I began preparing my own dinner. While the seasoned chicken was roasting in the oven, I pulled out my laptop to continue exploring the opportunities for me post-Peace Corps. I know it’s early to start looking, but curiosity has begun to get the best of me. My motivation quickly subsided, however, as I settled in and my mind drifted elsewhere.

When I first came down to the Caribbean with the Peace Corps, I was eager for this experience to be the launching point of my adult life. On one hand, part of my reasoning in coming down here was that I did not know what I wanted to do for a living and this was a means of buying time to figure that out. Having reached this point a little over a year into my service, I do have a better idea of what I want to do. But I am still not certain, and have a-ways to go in figuring it out.

But then fishing with J reminded me of something that is important, but often neglected. His excitement at the prospect of going fishing reminded me of why so many of us are envious of children. After all, each one of us at some point feels the nostalgia to return to the days of little to no responsibilities, ample free time, and an ambition to explore and rebelliously push the limits of staying up past bed time. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, distracted with the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood and forget to take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like going fishing with a bottle and a line.

Our time on Earth, like my time here in the Caribbean, is fleeting. After all, just this past month I finally reached my one-year anniversary of being in the Caribbean. At this time next year, I’ll be preparing to return home for good. The prospect of finally returning home excites me, which is why I’ve already begun exploring post-Peace Corps options. That being said, I am also not nearly ready to close this chapter of my life, having truly come to feel at home and hit my stride here in the town of Gouyave. I’m simply having too much fun.

But fact of the matter is, as important as it is to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, it’s just as important that we never lose the passion for fun that all children have. Between my after-school tutoring, weekly Peace Corps Skype meetings with other Volunteers and staff, creating and editing news segments, and household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, my adult responsibilities have lead me to sometimes pass on the opportunities for simple childhood activities. Due to how overwhelming these obligations can seem, it’s easy for me to use them as an excuse to pass on the times J and other local kids ask me to play cricket, football, or to go fishing.

But when I do find myself back in the United States, sitting at home, at work, or at school (or wherever I may end up), I can already envision myself reflecting on my days in Grenada. The memories that already stand out in my mind are often the times I’ve spent involving myself in activities with the local kids.

A Monday evening I swam into the river to retrieve my frisbee a child accidentally threw a bit too far.

A Tuesday afternoon playing cricket with J in the green space in front of my veranda with a cut-out piece of plywood, tennis ball, and chair, before being told by my landlord not to play there in concern of a window being broken. (An unlikely possibility given the circumstances, but we’ve since kept it to the park).

A Wednesday evening taking turns as the goal-keeper and shooting for goals in a rotation with the other kids at the park.

A Thursday lunch playing cricket with my third-grade students, who get excited at the prospect of “outing,” or “hitting a six,” off their teacher.

A Friday morning racing first-graders across the courtyard of the school between classes.

A Saturday morning spent showing some local children how to run receiving routes with the American football at the park.

It’s these times, the times that I get to be a kid again, that I’m sure I’ll most likely miss.

Coming here right after graduating college, I was excited at the prospect of launching the start of my adult life. But as I have become engulfed in the responsibilities that adulthood brings, I have realized how much I am going to miss what it was like to be a kid. So in this sense, although I am still launching the start of my adult life down here, that doesn’t mean I have to give up the passion for excitement in simple activities that is inherent in children.

Going fishing with J that night reminded me of that.

Whether we’re 12 or 24, 46 or 64, 78 or 93, we are always at the launching point of our own adult lives.

At any given point, we still have the rest of our life to live.

But sometimes we need that reminder that at the end of the day, we are all really just a child at heart.

Cheers!

 

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Little Victories

It all started last week when one of my students, who I’ll refer to as “D,” performed the live reading at my school. Each day after lunch, my school does what we call “live reading,” where a student from an assigned grade goes before a microphone and reads a story for the whole school to hear. For the students who read particularly well, it’s an exciting opportunity for them to broadcast their reading skills to their fellow classmates. For the students who struggle with reading, it’s an opportunity to strengthen their reading skills while encouraging their progress. Needless to say, over the course of the year, some students get to do the live reading more often than others.

D was not one of these students.

When I first assessed him back in September, he could only identify twelve letters in the alphabet. He was a third grader, already held back one year and therefore a year older than his other classmates. More often than not, he was the student that was acting out during class. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his disruption of class was rooted in the fact that he struggled doing the work assigned to him. He was struggling with the assigned work because of the secret he kept, the secret that he couldn’t read. Consequently, he would distract his classmates and disrupt the class so that no one else would find out about his secret.

From the beginning of the year, my pull-out tutoring sessions with him were always one-on-one, unlike the others whom I have in balanced pairs. Throughout the first and second terms of the school year, my sessions with D got to be frustrating at times. He often lacked the motivation to try the activity at hand as he would rather watch what was happening outside the windows. Consequently, I often had to close the windows to force him to focus. I was never happy about doing this either, because of the stifling Caribbean heat and all. But if closing the windows got him to focus, then that’s how it was going to be. Over the course of the year, some sessions went better than others. Any session that I felt he came away with some sort of progress, I felt was some sort of victory, no matter how little it was.

Not realizing it at the time, the concept of what I’ve come to call, “Little Victories,” had begun to develop.

During our first meeting of the third term, I put before him a sentence progression sheet I had found on Pinterest. For those unfamiliar with the idea of a sentence progression, it goes a little like this:

The 

The boy 

The boy runs 

The boy runs fast 

The boy runs fast and 

The boy runs fast and jumps 

The boy runs fast and jumps high. 

In these sentence progressions, the student cannot move on to the next line until successfully reading the one before it. The constant repetition, therefore, drills into the mind of the student sight words while building de-coding and fluency skills. This goes without mentioning the feeling of accomplishment a student feels when completing a full sentence independently. I have used it with all my most struggling students and each one has responded well to the exercise. Sentence progressions have easily become my favorite activity.

The day I did the first sentence progression with D was a day I’ll never forget. He struggled through most of the words, but began de-coding his CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words), relatively well. Consequently, as he read I often covered a few letters of the larger words with my thumb so he could de-code three letters at a time until the word clicked in his mind. Upon de-coding a word correctly, his eyes lit up with surprise and a wide grin spread across his face. He proudly read and re-read each of the phrases until his first sentence was complete.

“Yes, D!” I exclaimed, reaching for a high-five he excitedly returned.

Now if you recall a previous post, The One That Says “Play,” I described a tutoring session with a seventh-grade boy, “K.” You might recall from that post that I ended a positive pull-out session with K by telling him I was proud of him. He had responded particularly well to each of our sessions ever since then.

So remembering this, I told D, “Hey, you did well today. I’m proud of you.”

Whereas K had sheepishly looked at the floor when I told him, D responded to this by beaming with pride. With that response, you would have thought it was the first time he was ever told that.

But ever since that day, something about him was different. His motivation finally began to surface. During our pull-out sessions, the smiles and high-fives continued while the windows remained open (the latter of which I’ve been particularly grateful). In class, his disruptions began to subside. Instead of pestering the other students to mask his inability to read, he began calling on me for guidance. Instead of getting in fights during break time and lunch, he was found in the classroom completing the work he hadn’t finished yet.

“D, you want to go for break now? We can finish this later,” I suggested to him one day, seeing if he’d take the opportunity to leave his work and go out to play.

“No sir, let’s finish it now,” he replied.

“That’s what I like to hear D,”  I said, clapping him on the back.

I couldn’t help but smile.

As the third term came along, our class had begun taking advantage of our new Grenada Schools Incorporated (GSI) library. During our designated library time, students have the opportunity to check out a book to read for the week. Discreetly, so his other classmates wouldn’t see, I would hand-select a book at a lower level for D to try and read. Now our pull-out sessions included him reading his library books to me.

Due to this near 180-degree change in him over the course of this term, I make sure to end each session with an, “I’m proud of you.”

The positivity is contagious.

A week ago Monday, our pull-out session ended on a strong note. So I pitched an idea to him:

“What do you think about doing a live reading this week?” I asked.

“Yeah!” his eyes lit up with excitement.

“All right, I’ll talk to Ms. about it,” I smiled.

I could see the mix of emotions flash in his eyes: the surprise, the excitement, the nervousness. He hadn’t done one before.

My counterpart, having also witnessed the improvements D has made this term, immediately supported the idea of having him do the live reading. So last Wednesday during lunch, I sat down with D in our classroom to prepare him for the live reading with his book from the GSI library. Repetition for him was key. The book was six or so pages long with a single sentence on each page, each one starting similarly to the last. The first page was the most challenging for him. But once he got past that one, it was smooth sailing from there. I tried not to put too much pressure on him, but my will for him to succeed was almost too hard to contain. I tried my best to seal my lips shut and allow him time to build his confidence in reading the story on his own. It was getting hard to focus, however, as lunch time is an environment of chaos, students constantly running about and screaming.

Students began running in and out of the classroom, playing, laughing, complaining.

It was all stressing me out, and I wasn’t even the one doing the live reading.

But I tried my best to keep them quiet and out of the classroom, knowing D needed to focus.

They were just kids being kids, I understand that, but they also didn’t understand the immensity of what it would mean for D to successfully do the live reading on his own.

Despite the chaos, D made a few successful runs through the book and the bell rang.

It was time for the live reading.

“You ready?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“All right, let’s go.”

We got up from our seats and turned left down the corridor, down the stairs, and across the courtyard to the staff room. Upon reaching the staff room, where the mic and sound system was set up, D took a seat. A surprised look pops across the physical education teacher’s face, who was in the room.

“D, you’re doing the live reading today?” He asked with a surprised smile.

D nods proudly.

“Go get it man,” he says to D, reaching out for a fist-bump.

I took a step back and out of the way, not wanting to disrupt the process as my counterpart got D ready for the live reading. I needed to remove myself, as it’s important for him to gain the confidence to read without me over his shoulder. My counterpart picked up the mic and introduced him to the school over the loud speakers.

It was showtime.

I stood in the back, nervous as all hell, but breathing deeply to keep my nerves cool. I held my hands together behind my back in a wide-legged stance, head down, praying he would read well.

My counterpart asked him to recite the title of the story, which he flawlessly read.

Now for that challenging first page.

He paused, hesitating. He stalled in silence, drawing a blank and not knowing what to say. The mic was out in front of him, silently beckoning him to begin.

Lifting my head, I bit my lip and anxiously waited.

And waited…

And waited…

When I couldn’t wait any longer, I stepped forward to whisper in his ear to help him get the ball rolling. But just as I leaned over his back shoulder, about to whisper in his ear, my counterpart murmured the first word to him.

The light bulb had clicked. He said the word to himself, repeated it into the mic, and the ball got rolling. He read the first page. Then the second. I stepped back, gratefully retreating to the back of the room and internally relieved the guidance came from my counterpart and not me. He fumbled at times through the rest of the story, but read it smoothly for the most part. But unless you had the book in front of you, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Upon finishing the story, the book was closed and my counterpart asked him a few questions about the story.

He answered them all.

“Thank you, D, for your lovely live reading,” my counterpart announced into the mic. “Now the rest of you can continue with your silent reading time.”

Click.

The mic was switched off and the few teachers and staff in the room erupted in applause. It wasn’t much of a secret to them of D’s academic ability. Just then my principal suddenly burst into the room.

“D! Well done, well done boy!” He commended, holding a notebook and some fresh pencils in his hands. “I am here to give to you the Principal’s Award for Most Improved Student! Congratulations!”

He handed the notebook and pencils to D and eagerly shook his hand. D took the items and sheepishly smiled, unsure of how to respond. Let’s just say that when the principal ever had to speak with him, it was usually not for his achievements. I stepped up, giving him a fist-bump and a pat on the shoulder as my counterpart and I began walking him back up to our second-floor classroom. He excitedly strides ahead of us, as we in our own excited, hushed voices discussed our thoughts on his big performance.

Then D turned to enter our classroom…

As he did so, his classmates erupted into a raucous applause.

Beaming with pride, he reveled in his moment; it was a moment made possible by his little victories each day over the past term.

After all, he’s the one that made the changes. He’s the one that began sacrificing his break and lunch time to finish his school work. He’s the one that asked to read his library book for me. He’s the one that instead of disrupting his classmates, began focusing on completing the assignment on his own.

All his little victories had finally translated into a major win, a win that that was his and his alone.

* * *

As a teacher, it’s not uncommon for your roles to reverse as there’s many things you learn from your students. But what happened with D was not only something that I learned from, it was something that inspired me.

After witnessing D’s little victories each day come to fruition in a major win, I have come to look for the little victories in my own life. For if D can attain all those little victories each day and translate them into a major win, then why can’t I?

So over the course of the past week, I made it my mission to take note of the little victories in my life. They came in a variety of ways, as they were a variety of victories. Therefore, I would like to now share a few of my little victories this past week with you. In the same way D inspired me, I hope his story can inspire you to do the same. So here they are:

On Saturday, it was watching an Indians-Astros baseball game on my laptop alongside a local friend in my apartment. An avid cricket fan, he had always wanted to understand the very-similar game of baseball but never had anyone to explain it to him. I was ecstatic to fill that role, having already learned cricket and wanting to return the favor. This victory was one for cross-cultural exchange.

On Sunday, it was spending an afternoon at my host family’s house. During a hearty lunch, we discussed our plans for a future Sunday lunch together when my actual parents will be visiting Grenada in August. Afterwards, we all coincidentally fell asleep on the couches and napped while The Longest Yard played on the television. The victory here is again for cross-cultural exchange, as well as for the blessing that it is for me to have a family environment here, one in which I can be comfortable enough to pass out during a movie, in my home away from home.

On Monday, it was the opportunity to experience the annual church harvest in Gouyave. Tents were set up all along the street for vendors to sell everything from toys, raffles, games, drinks, eats, and desserts. It seemed as though everyone and their mother came out to show support, a truly exciting community event. I saw my students, my teachers, my teammates from the basketball court, my host family, and other members I see frequently in the community. This fund-raising event was a victory for Gouyave and the church community that has welcomed me in.

On Tuesday, after a long day at school, it was watching a mild sunset while standing in the receding tide on the small beachhead in Gouyave. A small boat of fisherman pulled in their nets, their silhouettes set against the backdrop of a setting orange sun. One of the men on the boat waved to me and I waved back. From the distance I couldn’t tell who it was, but it didn’t matter. That gesture alone was a victory, one for social integration and the warm receptiveness of the Grenadian people.

On Wednesday, it was catching up with the other-island VACs (Volunteer Advisory Council, to which I was nominated and elected in February to represent the Grenada PCVs). During our Google Hangout meeting, we set forth a draft for a Hand-Over Notes package to be passed on from the outgoing EC88s to the incoming EC90s this summer. This was a victory for the mission of Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean, as now with the Hand-Over Notes, the progress implemented by the 88s can continue as the 90s come in to take their place.

On Thursday, it was my students eagerly waiting in line to take turns reading their library books for me during their break time. It drew a crowd, as each student was not only reading for me, but for all the other students following along over their shoulder. One even began reading (and did an impressive job I might add), the book I’ve been recently reading myself, The Broker by John Grisham. This one was a victory for my students and the joy of reading.

On Friday, it was my Creative Writing Club meeting during the chaos of extra-curricular activities. Nine of my students showed up, including one that has been skipping often as of late. Many of them excitedly responded to the prompt of the day: “What would you do if you were the last person on Earth?” They had some wild ideas, the one that had been skipping actually had one of the better responses. This victory was one for student imagination and creativity.

Then last night, I went out to The Lance (the part of Gouyave across the river), to watch the Cavs game. Upon running into some friends at a small bar there, everyone passionately discussed the game as it went on. Many argued their predictions for the rest of the NBA Playoffs, a hot topic here. During all this hoopla going on around me, I noticed a quiet man slip inside. Making eye contact, he pointed to my shirt and then to the TV, taking note that I was from Cleveland given the t-shirt I was wearing. He then pointed to his askew, purple LA Lakers hat on his head, signifying his team of choice. Just then, he pointed to his ears and shook his head. He was deaf. So I placed my hand on my chest, tapped my index and middle fingers together and spelled “S-c-o-t-t.” The man’s eyes lit up with surprise as he excitedly signed back an introduction of his own (Marko, I believe?). We laughed as I asked him to slow down and explained I only knew a little bit of sign language. He asked what I was doing here. I told him I was teaching at the RC School up the road. He apparently works in construction, spelling “B-u-i-l-d-e-r” for me. Who knew taking an ASL class my freshman year of college would pay off. This was yet another victory for cross-cultural exchange and personally, my favorite little victory of the week.

Having searched and found the little victories of each day over the course of this past week, I can look back and feel good about all that was accomplished.

Now that I’m taking note of them, my days have become that much brighter, that much more meaningful. It’s also a fun way to pass the time, honestly.

And thanks to D, I will continue to look for these little victories each and every day.

What “Major Win” all these little victories will amount to for me, personally, is still to be determined. But as long as they make the world a better place, I take comfort in the fact that they’re not only a victory for me…

They’re a victory for us all.

And to think coming here, I was supposed to be the teacher.

Thanks, D.

Cheers!

 

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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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