Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The See-You-Later’s and The Mixed Feelings

It's been one week since I returned home and I'm biting the bullet. I must write my final "Peace Corps Update." It is so hard to put these final months and my return into words, but here is my best effort:


After our Close of Service Training in January, the focus of our work turned to wrapping up our projects. I spent time discussing with each school how my libraries would continue in my absence. This "sustainability" part of our service is a challenge. Often volunteer programs fall apart after the volunteer leaves. We look at sustainability in a few different ways: the lives you have affected and the programs that continue (or not). This way, even though we may try to no avail to secure the continuation of our programs, we can still count our successes in the people that have benefited personally from our work during our service.


At one of my schools I was able to start a library schedule where classes came to the library for 30 minutes each week to allow their students to return and checkout books. During this time the teachers were able to learn the process and organization of the library. At my other school we discussed doing something similar, but never could get it off the ground. In my final weeks, however, I met a parent who was interested in helping operate the library during breaks. I am fairly confident that the students will continue to have access to the books at both schools, which is a significant improvement.


In February another volunteer and I celebrated our 25 birthdays and this began a trend of Peace Corps get-togethers and celebrations for the remaining weeks of our service. Also, my Lucian hiking buddies had me make a list of 25 things I wanted to do before I left St. Lucia. This set the tone for the last months, to enjoy everything that deserves enjoying in St. Lucia. I am thankful for these suggestions, because all my freshest memories are of the things I love most about St. Lucia, and that is the way I will always remember it. Here are some of the things I did in the final months:

  • Camped on a beach at the base of Gros Piton
  • Explored Cas En Bas beach, a beach in the north east with lots of rocks and places to explore
  • Went to Jazz at Janm de Bwa (restaurant on Pigeon Island) and hiked to the top of Pigeon Island at night.
  • Roasted s'mores over a bonfire on the beach (twice), this included introducing some Lucians and Japanese volunteers to their first s'mores ever.
  • Hiked to Anse Louvert (the same hike I sprained my ankle on over a year ago). It's a secluded beach on the eastern shore surrounded by cliffs and inhabited by iguanas. There is not much shade around this beach so I got home absolutely burnt to a crisp!
  • Did final shopping for souvenirs
  • Attended ceremonies at my schools to celebrate my service there
  • Swam to Rat Island (small island in Choc Bay) one last time with one of my favorite hiking buddies
  • Went to church with my hiking buddies
  • Did an "around the island" trip with EC79 (fellow PCV group). We went down to Soufriere, did some ziplining, ate some good food, took a boat trip around to Anse Chastenet for some snorkeling, and shared final toasts.
  • Learned to make fish cakes
  • Learned to make bakes, saltfish, and cocoa tea with my favorite hiking buddies
  • Played the national anthems for EC 83's swearing in ceremony
  • Treated myself to my very first massage
  • Had a final dinner with my host family and all the volunteers they have hosted in the past 4 or 5 years
  • Went to the bank 3 times before I successfully closed my account (It was a joke amongst the EC79 volunteers that St. Lucia would have the last laugh in everything… this rung very true). Closed my cell phone account. Transferred my internet account to the new volunteer who took over my apartment.
  • Attended a big Peace Corps get together/potluck, celebrating our end of service and EC83's beginning of service
  • Went cliff jumping over a sea cave and was presented with my very own cutlass J


My schools did a beautiful job sending me off. I was surprised and overwhelmed at the preparation and thoughtfulness of my "see-you-later" ceremonies. (I refuse to say goodbye, only see-you-later is acceptable.)  The students sang songs and recited poems. Both schools presented me with beautiful gifts. At Balata they did a skit about me in the library and performed the "So Long, Farewell" song from The Sound of Music. I was moved to tears. The Balata principle seriously embellished my accomplishments, but it was encouraging to hear her describe the ways I had affected the school, including teaching them about alternative classroom management methods, life skills, chess, and libraries.


I spent my last few days and night with my favorite hiking buddies. Those were the toughest see-you-laters. Cliff jumping was a perfect and symbolic final activity. This transition feels a lot like just jumping off a cliff. On departure day I finished cleaning and packing a few things and then sat down to wait for my favorite driver to arrive. In the last hour the electricity went out, of course (St. Lucia's last laughs). When the taxi arrived I hugged my landlords and took off on my final ride through my community and down the island, taking in all the sites, smells, and sounds. At the airport, I had lunch with four other volunteers before we headed through security. I choked back tears when we hugged goodbye, but once I was on the plane I just let go.


So many emotions surround this experience, some very low lows and high highs. It's difficult to believe that a year ago I was at my wit's end, but now it is so hard to leave. Returning has been overwhelming. I feel excitement in seeing family and friends, but grief in letting go of this amazing part of my life. I have encountered all different reactions from people at home. There are those who ask the obvious questions and those who ask the meaningful ones. Some give me great big hugs of welcome while others look at me as though they aren't quite sure where I've been and are not sure if I am here to stay. I have determined that very few people here will truly get what I've gone through or am going through. I just have to be satisfied with my experience and know how important it is to me.


In this one week I have hit the ground running. I have this frantic need to get "settled." I am sure a sense of peace will come soon. I just have to take it one day at a time. Mostly I just wander around in shock and awe thinking, "I made it! Did that really happen?"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crunch Time!

Alas, yet again I have waited way too long to update you. I am full of stories.

In the weeks after Hurricane Tomas I was surprised to see how quickly St. Lucians jumped into action. Though there is still much work to be done, the locals seem settled and back into their usual routines. Those that lost homes are relocating and rebuilding. Some roads are still precarious but functional (in that make-shift Caribbean way). There are places that are still without pipe water, but that is slowly being fixed. Schools were out for 3-4 weeks and have some catch-up work to do. Since my schools were closed, I spent some time helping with "relief" efforts. Two other volunteers and I coordinated the purchase of bulk supplies (hygiene, food, work, and shelter necessities) that we then helped package and deliver down in Soufriere by boat. From a distance we could see some very large landslides, huge reddish-brown "wounds" in the sides of mountains. Last year's severe drought probably didn't do much to help the stability of the soil in all the rain from Hurricane Tomas. The rivers are still high and extra muddy. It's amazing how powerful nature's elements can be. I was also surprised at how little attention this got from international media. Most people had no idea we were even hit by Hurricane Tomas, let alone left in a state of serious disaster. Headquarters didn't even realize until our Country Director called to inform them! All eyes were on Haiti as Tomas moved northwest toward the thousands left unsheltered by the earthquake. Fortunately, they were not badly hit.

When school finally returned in November, I got into library catalogue mode in preparation for the arrival of new books. Over the summer I contacted a nonprofit organization called Hands Across the Sea. They focus on collecting exciting, age- and culture-appropriate books to send to schools and libraries in the Caribbean. My church, Central First Wesleyan/ALIVE, helped collect books that were then shipped to Hands who then had them shipped here. After a long wait and a few hiccups with the hurricane, the much-anticipated books finally arrived at my schools. I was surprised to find at each school 8 decent sized book boxes packed to the brim with wonderful, colorful, exciting, and relevant books. The number of books more than doubled my existing library collections! I was eager to get at them, but they arrived right at the end of the term; it would have to wait until after Christmas.

On the 18th of December I headed to the airport for my 3rd trip to the States (2nd trip home). I soon realized how normal St. Lucian life had become for me and that American life would now feel a bit abnormal. As I made it into the terminal I was immediately aware that I was going from minority to majority. It felt weird. (Interesting and random fact: I met an old Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the airport. He served in the Pacific Islands!) I landed in Charlotte, NC and WELCOMED the blast of frigid, dry air as I switched from sandals to socks and boots and t-shirt to heavy jacket. (Thanks Mom!)

In the car I had to fight the urge not to tell Dad he was driving on the wrong side of the road, which I would later demonstrate to him as I pulled out onto the left side of the road. Oops! It's been a year since I drove; give me some slack. I marveled at the concept of wide lanes and a turning median. At one point I found myself walking toward Wal-Mart, because the concept of having my own personal vehicle hadn't quite set in. Also, no one uses horns correctly, if at all, in the US of A… just saying.

I jam-packed each day with things to do and people to see. On a trip to the mall to get my Macbook fixed I kept feeling this engrained impulse to say, "Good Morning!" to everybody. I suddenly felt very obscure. In St. Lucia I am "the white girl" or "the Peace Corps," but here I was nobody and it didn't matter what I did because no one was interested.

At home I had to remind myself that it was ok to drink the tap water, and I was very overwhelmed with all the STUFF that I have. Having lived the past 2 years with about 2 suitcases worth of stuff, my concept of "need" has really changed. The food was also overwhelming; there is so much of it!

I spent Christmas up in Michigan, as is tradition, with the whole family. It was wonderful. We laughed, ate, played games, ice-skated, romped in the snow, and enjoyed being together. Highlight of the year was, for the first time in a long time, taking my grandma's 72-year-old wooden toboggan out for a spin. We crossed our fingers and hoped it wouldn't fall apart as 6 of us older, heavier, and longer-legged "children" pushed off down the ice chute. As you may have guessed, we made it… several times! When I am with family I always feel blessed. This year felt extra blessed, especially with my new sister-in-law there! New Year's I was back in SC. A bunch of good friends, mostly old college buddies, came over to eat, drink, and be merry… oh and blow some things up. J Again, I felt blessed.

New Year's Day Mom, Dad, and I were up bright and early to get to the airport. I changed into sandals and t-shirt and waved goodbye. A few hours later I was greeted by a waft of hot, humid air… home. Being that is was a holiday I knew transportation might be a little scarce. So I thought if I talked to the right people I might catch a ride north. The first family I asked was more than happy to help. As we got to talking I learned that this was their fourth visit to St. Lucia and that their taxi driver was a friend of mine! (He is the preferred taxi driver for all of us Volunteers and has been for years. We love him.) He gave me a ride all the way to my front step. Later in the week their daughter, in the 4th grade, joined me for a day at school. She experienced the chaotic nature of Caribbean schools and the grade 4 class got to ask her an assortment of questions about school in the States. She was shocked when they asked, "What do they beat you with?" and they were equally shocked when she replied, "nothing!" It was eye opening for both parties, to say the least. She was able to help me unload all the new books that we received before Christmas. I was thankful for the help! It was so nice to meet a family that is actively reaching out beyond the "tourist boundaries" in St. Lucia. We are keeping in touch and they are now able to support my schools by sending some supplies. I couldn't have had a better start to the New Year!

As the southeast got pummeled with a great snowstorm, I sweated through a wonderful visit from Harriet and Tom Linskey, the founders of Hands Across the Sea, the nonprofit that shipped me the books. They live on a sailboat, and after all the books have been delivered, they come around and visit the benefitting schools. It was fun to show off the work I have done over the past year. At one school, the grade 6 class came down to sing them some songs. The principals of my schools were both grateful for the opportunity to express thanks for such a large donation of good books. Now if I can only get them all organized before April!

Last week I attended the "Close of Service Conference" held for the group of us that came in February 2009. We have only 3 months left (eek!) so the training focused on preparing us to finish things up here, readjust in the States, and move on to new things. I have procrastinated thinking about what it will be like to leave here, and it really hit me that this is going to be hard. When we left the States two years ago we had the comfort of knowing that we would return, but when we leave here in April we won't have that same comfort. Goodbyes are going to be tough and the transition will be weird and emotional. On the plus side, during training we listed all the accomplishments we have made as a group over the past two years. It was incredible to see how much we have done and to feel a part of something much bigger than myself. Our group laughed and cried together as we processed our experiences and next steps. This was our last time together as a whole group. In 3 months we will leave on separate planes to separate cities and states to begin separate lives and adventures and be with people who have most likely spent these last two years doing something way more normal than Peace Corps. Two years ago I thought I'd never make it this far and now here we are. Amazing.

In other news:

Somewhere in there we had a huge Thanksgiving gathering.

In December I made my granmama's cranberry bread on my own for the first time ever and shared it with many of my friends and colleagues here in St. Lucia.

Also, our Country Director, Margo, left us to work up in D.C. and we have a new director now, Kevin.

Sargent Shriver passed last week at the age of 95. Peace Corps is pretty much his baby. He lived from 1915 to 2011; just imagine all the things he saw!

"Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own." –Sargent Shriver

Close of Service: EC 79

My Lovely Visitor

New Posters!

The Books Arrived!

Cranberry Bread!

Hurricane Relief