Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Ripple Effect

A few days ago I got a phone call from an old friend from the Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean, one of the most wonderful, cool people I know. I'm continually amazed at my luck to still be in contact with her... I mean, we knew each other for only two weeks almost seven years ago. Two weeks! And even though we were close during that time, it wasn't like we spent every waking hour together. Her homestay family was on the other side of town from mine, and I actually spent more time with a couple other volunteers than I spent with her. Nevertheless, somehow our connection has managed to continue and stay strong over all these years and during inevitable quiet periods (those long gaps between communication that can last years sometimes). Somehow we didn't lose track of each other. I have friends from the past who have simply vanished and I cannot find, people who were my closest friends for most of my 20s and who are now utterly gone. And yet I still have this wonderful friendship, despite the odds, despite the years. We haven't physically seen each other since the last morning of training on St. Lucia, as everyone divided off into smaller groups to continue training on their islands of assignment. She went on to have the full two year PC stint, with all the experiences and relationships that involves, the days and weeks and months and years of incidents I can only imagine. My suspicion has always been that two years of Peace Corps experiences must certainly "drown out" two weeks of training experiences, that as fun as training was, it must certainly fade into the background noise of all the other time spent in the Peace Corps. That, effectively, I would be forgotten. It makes sense, if you think about it.

Turns out I'm wrong. She remembers me very well, and we reminisced on some of the incidents and shared sensations of training -- the lectures, the heat, the parties, the food, visits to the main city of Castries, etc. In fact, one of my earliest memories forged during training involved her and a couple other volunteers...

It was our first full night on St. Lucia. We were all being put up at the Skyway Hotel in Vieux Fort, on the extreme southern end of St. Lucia. We had arrived the night before after sunset -- a shame, because it would have been nice to see the island from the air -- and had undergone an endurance challenge to get through customs, so the first night involved little but dinner and bed. But the next night several of us were feeling antsy, our curiosity about the nearby town becoming difficult to abide, so spontaneously we decided to walk down the hill and check it out. It was about a quarter mile away, down a curving two-lane road that ran past a pleasant beach (Point Sable). The sun had set by the time we headed out and it was totally dark. Cars and trucks whizzed past us on the road, islanders curiously staring at this clump of Americans, so obviously out of place. The Trainees accompanying me were Rahiel, a "Pre-School Teacher Trainer" from Chicago who already had a lot of previous experience with the Caribbean, Walter, a "Vocational Skills Trainer" who had just come off a previous PC stint in Africa teaching house contruction, and my new-found friend, Michelle, a "Basic Ed Instructor" from Detroit.

The four of us made our way into the town of Vieux Fort. I remember feeling nervous, the kind of anxiety one gets in a totally foriegn environment, sharply aware of the vulnerability that comes with being new and clueless. It was exciting and frightening at the same time. I wanted to be more at-ease, but the truth was, I had only been to one Caribbean town in my life before this, Alice Town on Bimini, the Bahamas. It was completely different. Vieux Fort wasn't very brightly lit and there were simply no white people. Bimini was a haven for anglers from Miami and yachters from all over the East Coast, and I had been there during peak tourist season. Here, we were complete and total minorities. Later I would come to be more comfortable with being a minority, the lone white guy as it were, but as with anything there has to be a first time. And I was on edge. Granted, anyone who knows me would remember I tend toward being a little nervous, all the time, when around strangers. I'm not sure where that low-level distrust comes from, but even in the States, in my own neighborhood, or at the mall or at school or anywhere, I always feel slightly on guard and in a continual state of being hyperaware of my surroundings. Much of this nervousness has faded, over time, down from something bordering on raw paranoia when I was in my teens. Again, I have no idea where it all comes from, because I don't think my youth was any more traumatic than anyone else's. But nevertheless...

So we walked into town and decided to take a left at the first road we came to. This was my first real introduction to "Caribbean-style" street planning: the houses were built almost flush with the road itself, the doors opening onto the most narrow of sidewalks. On one side of the street there was a ditch or trench that was about two feet wide and two feet deep, perfectly square in cut, with no barriers as would probably have accompanied it in (litigious) America. Instead it was an unguarded hazard and I was amazed to not see more evidence of vehicle accidents. Most of the buildings seemed, as we walked down the street, to have simply no electricity whatsoever; I remember vividly seeing one open doorway that led into cavernous darkness within, and barely being able to make out the form of someone moving around in there.

At the far end of the road there was some sort of din which eventually was revealed to be coming from a stack of huge stereo speakers arranged in a brightly-lit intersection. Dancehall or Ragga music, I don't remember which, was blaring from the speakers so loudly that it hurt to be standing in their vicinity. It was a "jump up," a sort of street party that is very popular in the Caribbean. Absolutely nobody was there. Only the disc jockey was present, doggedly switching tracks for the crowd he hoped would assemble as the night wore on. People milled here and there, walking up the street or down it, as if out for a stroll or attending to errands. It was actually fairly busy, but only with foot traffic -- during the time we explored the street only one pickup truck cruised by.

We turned and went back the way we came. Partway down the street, Rahiel -- always the brave one, being more familiar with these surroudings than the rest of us -- asked a local man if there was anything interesting in the area to do. He told us of a dance club not too far away, partway toward Laborie. We walked that direction and pretty soon another truck with some locals asked if we wanted a ride. Accepting, they drove us to a cluster of shops, what in America would be a mini-mall, and we could see quite a crowd gathering in one area. Among the stores was a staircase that led up to a dance club. We timidly stayed down on the ground floor in the parking lot for a short while, eating ice cream bought from one of the nearby stores, and then made our way upstairs to check out the action. A wicked dancehall beat was shaking the floor but, again, absolutely nobody was dancing. At least this party was crowded -- we milled among the dozens of people before Rahiel and Walter took to the floor to dance for a little while. I decided to wait that one out, a prudent choice considering the stares I was getting and the fact that I knew not one bit how to dance to that type of music. I mean, I was already very familiar with Reggae and Dancehall, already they were my favorite musical styles, but I had only been exposed to it long-distance, so to speak. I didn't feel like I could possibly dance to it in any legitimate way.

Eventually we left the club and waited on the street for a "transport" (the local bus) to come by, our EC dollars in our hands. As we killed time we talked about dancing, and I shared that I knew how to do the "butterfly," a somewhat suggestive dance move that involves spreading and closing one's legs. They all laughed and wanted to see me do it, but I balked and refused. For some reason, inexplicable to me, that remains to this day something I regret. My shyness rearing its head again. It has taken the work of most of my lifetime to gradually wear that shyness down. It still haunts me, but now I have a much greater handle on it.

So after an adventure that lasted about three hours, we arrived back at the Skyway hotel and parted ways to get some sleep before more Orientation in the morning. As short a time as the whole experience was, that night stands out in my head as one of the singular memories of that time. Friendships were forged that night. Long before I even left the Peace Corps I lost my connection with Walter, but both Rahiel and Michelle remain friends of mine now, years later. I'm convinced it is because of that one night.

Amazing how such small things can ripple forever into the future.

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