I was graced last week to have my girlfriend travel down to SVG and stay with me during her school’s Thanksgiving break. It was an amazingly small time together, but truly something we won’t forget, because I was able to connect both worlds; my former life and love outside of PC service, and my current life living and serving on the island. I was able to show her around the village, help out in the classroom with the students, and we explored the largest Grenadine Bequia for the weekend. It came and went, but it reminded me how lucky I am to be with someone so open, compassionate, and adventurous. It also reminded of my life back at home, and though I am away from friends and family for some time, this work is ultimately to pay it forward onto them or at least try and pay homage or honor to that foundation of love and life that brought me to this hot and sweaty tropical little island. Two years is a lot of time and a little time in the scheme of things. This time spent together also allowed me to show some of the work that is being done here, but to also give a glimpse of what it is to live in the rural countryside of this small developing island nation. Spoiler alert, there are a lot of goats.
What do you do?
Everyone in the Peace Corps has a different project, focus, site, living situation, and routine across the globe. Even with the handful of us on the island, my fellow PCV’s and I have very different day to days, even with our similar partnerships within schools and classrooms. The tempo of life both professionally and personally here is night and day in comparison to the unstoppable, unquenchable, and forceful tempo of working and living within the US. Working in a school back in the states felt similar to a stage production without a backstage. The kids could see the successes, failures, sweat, ad-lib lines, set issues, wardrobe malfunctions, and hear the behind the scene chatter all in real time (they are always watching so you need to always be on). It’s something akin to the pacing in the movie Birdman which I really recommend, each day is just a really long long take of a production where your trying to teach rather than entertain an audience.
At times it is a breath of fresh air, and at others it is undoubtedly frustrating for things to be systematically late. 5 months in (now nearly 6 months?!) makes it all the more clear as to why, and has allowed me to accept it in many ways, because days are all the more better when you roll with it.
I’ve been asked what an average day is like, and it truly depends on the day of the week, but also depends on the weather, the power grid, my bowel movements, fatigue, hunger, hydration level, shoes, time of the month, time of the year, staffing at the school, local events, PC scheduled training, amount of sleep, fruit/ vegetable season, if it is election season, the van conductor, traffic routes, bug situation, and if I have baby powder readily available. A lot of it depends on your surroundings be it environment, location on the island, social, and professional, and below is a little my daily backdrop.
Community and at Home
I live on the small island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which has black sand beaches, with dozens of islands inhabited and uninhabited that have golden shores unlike the mainland. 1/3 of the island I live on is dense volcanic mountains with thick jungles untouched by people with rolling valleys, hills, and whose weather can turn on a dime from overbearingly humid/hot and sunny to overbearingly wet and windy and sunny. I may live on an island, but it is only perceived as such if one sees the ocean, which I cannot from anywhere in my village easily. It is a 3 mile walk to the “beach” that is the Atlantic or Windward side, which is much rougher than it’s chilled out Leeward sibling the Caribbean Sea on the Western coast. I’ve been lucky to travel between both sides, and there is an immense amount of diversity both in the land, and the type of living. The roads take time to traverse, and van’s do not run from one side to the other so you need to know the route and be lucky with the timing, so roll with it.
The community I call home is South Rivers, and the river is entirely the lifeline for the community, from food, to washing, bathing, bathroom (yup), and entertainment. At the end of my road is a large natural swimming hole called “Forteen”, and personally love that I get to use swimming hole as part of everyday lingo. Beyond the river it is jungle until you hit the other side of the island. In between there are some forest trails that take you deeper into the mountains where there are waterfalls to explore and land where farmers live growing weed, fruits, veggies, and a plethora of other herbs, spices, and ground provisions (starch on starch on starch based veggies).
My commute to school is a solid 5 minutes from my house, and my location was known to the children of the school probably within a day of me living there. Other PCV’s equate living in the community like being in a fishbowl, and they aren’t too far off. There is a reason they tell you not to poke the glass of an aquarium, and as I have been awoken by local kids and villagers alike checking on me and asking questions, I feel more and more for those fish compatriots.
It works both ways though, since I am so close to the school, simply reading outside, working out, drawing, or listening to music is a form of ‘passive’ integration. It was nice in the US to shut off from work, melt into a couch and dive into the Netflix opium binge, but out here it really makes for a bad appearance to simply move from point A to point B with out camaraderie or pleasantries in between. I personally like it more often than not since you can pick the pulse of the village with a few conversations, but also folks really do appreciate simple back and forth since it can for some be the only conversation they have that day, so why not make it a good one? My street can be quiet, but my neighbors are extremely personable, and watch out for me, as well as teach me an immense amount about the fruits and vegetables that grow on my small plot of land.
That is one thing the community has a ton of, naturally grown and harvested food. Fruit and veggies are dependent on the season, they slaughter meat in the center of the village (right in front of the school, so plan your lesson accordingly), and the river is used for spear fishing different fish, river crabs, lobster, and crayfish. At night some folks hunt with air rifles, since the natural game here is so small, to catch iguanas, possums, and armadillos, which don’t taste too bad when cooked right.
I got very lucky with the housing situation, and can confidently say this place is a much nicer location and layout than my old one in Manayunk Philadelphia. I loved having roommates and miss the good times immensely. Yet, for the work I want to do and strive toward I have found much more peace and solace in the developing world thus far, much more than the bohemian and hectic styling of life back at home. No holes in the floor, or neighbors wrecking cars on St. Patricks day, or being offered crystal meth by the 7/11. College bars, house parties, walks to Zesto’s Pizzeria, Bobs Diner, and the SEPTA bus stop have been replaced by a lush jungle, goats, colorful neighbors, lizards, chickens, dogs, and hand sized bugs. I do have a porch which is similar to the one back at home, except I don’t feel the unease of someone setting it on fire so much anymore, so you go South Rivers. I’ll take illiteracy, power outages, live stock, mice, lack of food diversity, and high humid temperatures over a drunk SGU bros yelling at a Police Officer any day. Side note, I absolutely loved Philadelphia and my time there, easily my favorite place outside of New Jersey I have gotten to live in and explore, not always crazy, and not always sunny, but good stories, memories, and most importantly friendships usually don’t start with, “We all had great salads, and then got 8 hours of sleep”.
Not to say that everything is perfect in jungle paradise. Beside the infrastructural issues within the school, and the literacy issues students face, drug and alcohol abuse are abundant. Folks don’t always have running water, power, income, food, basic necessities or the systems in place to advocate, ally, and fix these issues readily. What is lacking in materials, or school smarts is outweighed in resourcefulness, adaptability, and resiliency. Don’t have a cricket bat to play with? Just make one out of broken chair pieces. Can’t find your broom? Use some leaves, a stick, some twine, and sweep away. Don’t have shoes to play soccer with? Screw it, play rougher than the folks with boots and make them wince in pain as you slide tackle, elbow, scream, spit, and kamikaze towards the goal post. Don’t have a gym membership, but want to get big? Make equipment out of spare parts from the hydroelectric plant. The list goes on and on, and it doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or unemployed everyone is a farmer at heart out here and could find a bush remedy, meal, or spice with one quick glance on your property.
There are about ten different fruits in the back of my property from coconut, lime, orange, sweet sop, golden able, breadfruit, paw paw, and avocado that all come at different times. I have immensely enjoyed going through with my neighbors to pick, learn, and make food together with his kids on a lazy Sunday morning or after school. I don’t mind not seeing the beach when I can hear the river and live shoulder to shoulder with the folks out here. I often come home to a few neighbors walking out of my yard with some fresh cut brush or fruit for themselves or other neighbors, and since they have the tools and know how to pick it I don’t mind. They watch out for me and my house when I am out or away, and there is no way I am eating an entire bushel of plantains, 100 lbs of golden apples, and 6 coconuts, so please folks have at it.
That sharing of what you have, even if it is not plentiful is a definite bond out here. Being someone’s neighbor here carries a stronger weight than back in the states, and it is probably closer to something folks in the US had experienced before we closed ourselves up in our own personal comfort fortresses, distractions, and modern tech. I feel much closer in 5 months with the neighbors I live next to here, than any I have had in Philadelphia, or NJ, easily. It also carries a weight of respect towards each other, and how you carry yourself. If I were to walk down the block and not say hello, converse, or chat it would come off at rude and disrespectful. That 5 minute walk back to my house can add up to an hour sometimes if the stars align, or misalignment if I am in a rush. The small comforts of having good neighbors pays off when they help you with directions, yell at a van to wait for you, or deliver bread to your house when you are not feeling well. Anything is appreciated from giving small lessons after school to students, letting someone borrow a charger, picking fruits together, or giving neighbors extra food if you make too much, anything is something and a little can be a lot to some folks.
Showing Caroline the village from my house to the outskirts took well over two hours, a few contacts gained on Whatsapp, promises of football matches, dinners, and maybe a few locals beers, but it doesn’t cease to amaze me how much there is to this community if you are just willing to participate in it in big and small ways.
My life in the school is much different than my role as a City Year corps member in North Philly, or an Assistant teacher at Wissahickon Charter School, but the aim remains the same. Similarly my role in and out of the classroom has me wearing many different hats from: instructor, mentor, art teacher, librarian, disciplinary, advocate, cook, brother, body guard, coach, clown, secretary, student, and janitor. Being open to the true service of what is needed by the realities of the school/community is often much grittier than what is sold to us in training or on paper. It is immensely appreciated, and can actively seen in students and peoples faces alike, and I believe challenges us to be better members of a community rather than fit into a square role, or remain apathetic to the issues at hand.
We have two days left in Term 1, there being 3 terms in a year, and of course right before a long break I finally catch my rhythm. The election is to be held next Wednesday December 9th ,which has been at the forefront of the country’s dialogue for a long time now. It has changed the academic, and even the holiday schedule on the island. I will sincerely look forward to Christmas songs, hues of red, green, and white, rather than loud speeches, yelling, and the stark divide seen in the colors of red and yellow. Yet, who am I to judge though, with the current side show that is our election and political theater when the physical embodiment of a YouTube comment section with Oompa Loompa hair, white privilege, 1984ish idealism, and the verbal diversity you find in your tipsy semi racist Uncle during holiday party is a front runner for the GOP? But I digress.
My role at the school currently has me working with 1st – 5th graders directly doing academic pull outs with students who are struggling readers and writers. With two groups per grade with a maximum of 10 per group I get to see and work directly with solid proportion of the student body since our school is just around 160 students total grades Kindergarten-6th. I also am supposed to Co-Teach with grade 2, but much of that is still coming around since it makes more sense for me to be where the school and community needs it, rather than stick to the PC mandate on paper letter by letter. I help with school events by being on various committees that I have signed up for or been signed up for, my host father I lived with is a teacher so word spread about me liking art,making me now the fall back art instructor, mural visionary, and poster producer for the next 2 years. I am also learning how to be a librarian on the fly, and redoing, restructuring, and reorganizing the school’s library. I really look forward to making a space for the students and staff to build a foundation of a love for reading, because it opens up the service towards bringing folks together to build something hopefully long lasting.
So many of the issues the school faces can’t just be filled in with a resource, tool, or even money, a lot of the issues are systemic, misunderstood, and habitual of the developing world. Classrooms are simple, chalkboard, wooden stools, with minimal materials. Child friendly initiatives are in place, but it is still in the early stages. What I initially thought as a means to make school a safer environment for students in body and mind, is primarily a focus to beautify the schools of the country inside and out, as well as move away from corporal punishment. I sincerely look forward to focusing on positive behavior management, and finishing some older murals.
There is a lot of work to do, and the system of teaching, behavior management, curriculum, and tempo is immensely different than that of inner city Philadelphia, but many of the same issues are prevalent. Lack of funding, wrong allocation of resources, wide educational gaps in literacy and math, as well as social/psych issues for students and teachers within the household and community at home. Corporal punishment is used but it is being phased out. It can come in the form of a belt, ruler, or lash from a quick hand. I’m withholding my judgement because I know it is and old cultural practice tied back to when schools were tied directly to colonialism and religious practices, but it is also a practice that existed within the US for many years.
My role and work here was tied directly to baseline testing and data I ran during my early weeks in the school trying to gauge student efficacy and levels. It allowed me to work directly with 120 students one on one and work together with staff and teachers. The results seem stark, but at least it is something to worth with, since so much of this service is what you yourself create and form through cooperation, communication, and collaboration.
Without going into the nitty gritty of the day to day schedule, I can tell you days go from being underutilized to drowning-esque over utilization. Some days you can plan a perfect lesson, prep the space and be mentally pumped, only to realize there is no power today, or too much rain for students to arrive. A lot of things are on the fly, but it’s helped sheer the unneeded pressures, and simplify lessons and in class mechanisms to hopefully build something consistent with the staff and students these next two years. Issues and challenges aside it has got to be the most unique setting and style of service I have ever undergone. There is a sense of a vacuum of space in what you can do, where if you have the energy and time you can truly make of it what you want. I remember a friend and teacher I served under while I was a City Year Corps member speaking about such a vacuum of openness when they were a Teach for America Teacher in Camden. It is easy to ask, why, to complain, to focus on the negative, but when you see it and say “now what” you can kind of grip yourself out of the pit of circular negative thinking. This won’t be a Disney movie, Freedom Writers, or perfect and packaged service, but in terms of bringing goodness to others through hard work and leading by example, that is a definite foundation on the work to come here and at home.
There is plenty work to be done both directly with the level of education available, but also the school climate and culture itself. Working in a school in the US was one of the most stressful and rewarding experiences I have had. Teachers in the states more often than not get the short end of the stick from media, misinformation, politicians, and communities for the sheer amount of passion, time, and effort they put in on the day to day. For folks with no on the ground experience or connection to simply wave judgement or legislation with a speech or pen slash is unfair to educators, but even crueler to the students and communities who need these individuals most.
Educators are some of the biggest gamblers out there. I remembered being frustrated during my time at Wissahickon Charter with some persistent negative student behavior, and not being patient with myself for seeing our class plan not working right away. A fantastic teacher I was helping put it to me this way ” We are making investment that we will never see or feel, but hopefully others will.” Educators are gambling with their own passion, pride, focus, and time that investing into children will ultimately make them better people. Better is a broad term, but there are direct connections in this world from having a proper educated population to run a Democracy, to reduce crime rates with after school programming, teen pregnancies, drug abuse, admission into higher education, and it has been proven abroad as a way to stem the roots of terrorism, hate, and violence by educating those who need it most, young women and girls. Education is something we go through our entire lives, but the few who decide to stick with it and invest into the betterment of communities, children, and hopefully a stronger, smarter, more capable future are folks who should be revered and respected, not degraded, downsized, and defeated. When I left Wissahickon Charter to make myself ready to serve over here, the issues were still persistent, but at least I had solid sound of mind to know I wasn’t alone in my struggles, but also not alone in the efforts put forth towards those kids.
Saturday is still a Rugby day
My service and past with at risk youth and rugby has opened me up to other parts of the island, so as well as working as a teacher and literacy coordinator at the school, I help with the St. Vincent National Rugby team. I get to play in matches to build up the sport island wide, recruit, and train with them during these important foundation years. Twice a week I travel down the Windward side to practice with the national rugby team using the van system and hour each way. Since vans stop running to my village when I leave, I have to hike the rest of the way back into the community. I don’t mind it now, but early on I would be spent because I would get to my gap after practice around 8pm, and have to walk the 3 miles back home getting home around 9-10pm, after a solid day at school. I was lucky to work a similar grind back in the states when I would be in the school, after-school program, and practice, but now I feel much more energized because it is exciting to take part in something at such a grassroots and ground floor level. The walk is always better with music or company, and sometimes I am lucky enough to hop in the bed of a pick up or neighbor who is driving back, other times I simply get to enjoy the night sky and quiet hike home watching small fires in the hills, and listening to music from peoples home. It would be easy to just go home after work, but I know that feeling of looking into crystal clear night skies with warm soft breezes after a hard days work feels better post practice than in body and mind.
While playing and training with the Schuylkill River Exiles in Philadelphia, there were teammates who would travel well over an hour after a full day of work, some with families, graduate studies, extremely hard jobs, or leaders in their respected fields just for the love of the game. It paid off on the field immensely, and now the team is the premiere club in Philadelphia after a recent merger (http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/schuylkillriverexilesrfc) . I am reminded and inspired by my former team and teammates for instilling in me the benefits of what is to come if I can hack it with some van rides and a late night hike, if this is something I am truly passionate, driven by, and believe in.
If I was a female volunteer this would not be possible at all, and I have an immense amount of respect for female PCV’s because their service is entirely different than mine simply because we were born into these different gender vehicles by chance.
I have been lucky to play competitively in the US, socially in Cape Town, and have met ruggers in nearly every country I have traveled to. The global span is wide, and the lessons one can learn on and off the field are immense, and what I believe to be crucial lessons for at risk kids and communities. Such lessons in building selflessness, self-worth, communication, cooperation, challenge by choice, and physical and mental well-being come with the territory of a match, and get rooted with the discipline/camaraderie of practicing on a team. Term 2 will allow me to coach students here within the school, and I hope to lay some groundwork on the pitch that could be used within the classroom, and even within the community abroad. I am immensely excited to follow this passion in my service here, and extremely lucky for the opportunity.
I am surely leaving out stories, people, sights, sounds, and smells for now, but I can promise more to come, as well as an active sense of accepting of the unknowing openly, and a willingness to test the bounds of the community, island, service, and self out here. Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for Part 2.