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?"