Thursday, April 14, 2005

Memories of Dominica, Part II

The three days leading up to Staging were flurries of activity at my apartment. I lived in Bellingham, WA, walking distance from the university I had just graduated from, Western Washington U. For the last few months I had shared a two-bedroom apartment with, oddly enough, the twin sister of my girlfriend Michelle's roommate. Odd situation, that, because when I was home I would see Lindsey, and every time I went over to Michelle's place I would see Brooke, and there was this odd sense of displacement.

Anyway, Lindsey was moving to college in California -- good timing -- while I was packing for the Peace Corps, so everything was crazy around the apartment. For three days I barely got any sleep, staying up until dawn trying to get things packed not only to store with Michelle but to take with me to the Eastern Caribbean. Effectively, I was packing twice! By the time the day of my departure finally came around, I was exhausted and nearly delirious with sleep loss. Michelle drove me in my car to the Bellingham airport, which was just a tiny little local airfield, really. We sat there for a couple hours waiting on the tiny plane that would take me to Seattle for my connection to Miami. I was weeping bitterly, but Michelle was stone-faced. At the time I attributed that to Michelle's sometime stoicism. I figured she was trying to stay strong for me, or something like that.

When my plane arrived I promised her I'd return to her one day, and boarded the plane. I didn't stop crying for most of that leg of the flight, which probably lasted 45 minutes -- Bellingham isn't far from Seattle. At Sea-Tac I had a pleasant surprise: three of my bestest friends were waiting to see me off during my layover. We had about 40 minutes together and we got a nice picture taken with me in the new Indiana-Jones-style fedora they had bought me for my graduation party only a couple weeks before. These loyal friends performed a service I still appreciate to this day. Having them take my mind off the pain of loss and the fear accompanying such a huge change helped brighten my spirits immensely.

They were darkened again in short order, though. Somewhere over Oklahoma, I began to feel an odd tingling sensation in my upper lip. It took me no time to realize a fever blister was coming on, no doubt the spawn of so many sleep-deprived nights in a row, combined with the physical labor of packing and the mental stress of my impending journey. It couldn't have been better timed -- I would have to face 60+ new people the next day, people who would be my fellow travellers in the Peace Corps adventure, not to mention my homestay family a week or so after that, and all the myriad people in between, from trainers to shopkeepers. Everyone would see this wound which is associated with venereal disease, and this would be their first impression of me. Great.

(For posterity's sake, to this day I do not know where I got it. My first one showed up in my early 20s, and I've had one approxiimately every year and a half since. It's been a long time since my last one, so I'm going to intentionally bring one on just a couple weeks before I depart this May to avoid a repeat of history. If that's possible.)

I hadn't been to Miami in years. Not since when I was there in 1992, coincidentally enough during Hurricane Andrew. That summer, I was turning 21 and my loving parents had paid a hefty sum to Earthwatch (another volunteer organization) to send me on a trip to the Bahamas. I had gone to Bimini to a shark lab led by Samuel Gruber and several grad students from the University of Miami. They were studying the ability for adolescent Lemon sharks to inerringly navigate and they worked with Earthwatch to get a steady supply of volunteers to help with the manual labor. At the Bimini Biological Field Station, we helped them study the sharks by capturing pre-tagged sharks and taking them far out to sea, where they were then tracked via GPS and hydrophones using "pingers" implanted in their bodies. When we had arrived, Hurricane Andrew was pummeling the Eastern Caribbean. Over the next three days, it made an absolute beeline for Bimini. By the 22nd, Gruber decided to evacuate us all. We fled to Miami where half of us stayed in his home and the other half stayed in an empty house a friend was selling. It was my first time in Miami and even then I felt the place was magical. Miami has a tropical vibe I find very exciting, second only to Honolulu. Anyhow, over the next 24 hours we stayed holed up in this empty house while Andrew ravaged Miami. I remember looking out and seeing distant paper-like objects whipping through the air, and realizing they were rooftops. We were in the Kendall area, not too far from where the eye went through, so we didn't have the house collapse around us, but a small hole was torn in the roof and a window I was standing next to exploded. Good memories. Afterward, we spent about four days trying to find food in the devastated city, and then Gruber flew us all back to Bimini to clean up the lab. Turns out the damage there wasn't as bad as Miami, but there was no way to know that. We tugged the boats back into the water, piled windblown trash, and four days later headed home. Twelve days of shark tagging had turned into four, with the rest spent enduring the hurricane and its aftermath.

So there I was, several years older, arriving in Miami for the Peace Corps. It was just as I remembered: coconut palms fluttering in the wind, exotic-looking palmettoes and ferns lining the airport road, banyans in the parks. It was sunny and gorgeous, and it took me back to the days I had spent here in the early 90s. All the scars from Andrew had been cleaned up and Miami was pretty again. The taxi driver took me down Biscayne Boulevard to my hotel (the Radisson?) where I checked in and was directed to my room. I discovered I had a roommate, another volunteer named Walter. Walter was the first fellow PC volunteer I met that year, a quiet fellow who, I discovered, had just finished two years with the Peace Corps in Africa. There he had helped with carpentry and construction, and evidently he wanted to do another tour. I thought we'd be closer than we turned out to be -- you never can predict relationships. Turns out Walter ETed a few months into his Eastern Caribbean experience. Maybe he was trying to recapture his first two years, make the magic last a little longer, and discovered what all volunteers eventually learn: no two PC experiences are the same.

The next day and a half were filled with information. We assembled in the hotel's small conference room in the morning and spent through to afternoon talking about Things to Know: PC policies on drugs, dating, work attendence, leave, sickness, Caribbean attitudes on dress, that sort of thing. For some reason, specific details elude me. One thing I do remember, however, was a group exercise we did wherin we tried to predict some of the good and bad things we worried might be awaiting us. Every group was given markers and posterboard and we made an illustration of the various "bad things" we imagined, from tsunamis to hurricanes to floods to plagues. The trainers then tackled these fears and tried to alleviate them. Overall, it was good, but the best part was that information -finally!- began to flow. Anyone who's been through the Peace Corps application process will assert that information comes few and far between, and when an oasis in that desert pops up it is usually just a glorified puddle. But during Staging, we were given books and papers and forms and pamphlets. It was all quite overwhelming, compared to the starvation of the application process. Feast or famine!

That night several people formed a group to go out to Miami's famous South Beach. At the time I had never been (now that I live in Florida, I've been several times). But I was feeling very shy because of my fever blister, and was convinced everyone saw me as some kind of Typhoid Mary or something worse, so I passed up the invite. I don't think I'd do that now -- I'm more adjusted about fever blisters, for one, and have made great bounds in self-esteem issues. I actually surprise myself with my firtations and friendliness these days -- quite a turnaround from the depressive and socially paranoid me from just a few years ago. But at the time I couldn't bear to be seen, so I stayed in and attended a movie at the theatre in the mall adjoining our hotel (the movie was Small Soldiers, a bad choice for last American movie to see for two years).

We gathered our things the next morning and formed a massive mob in the valet parking area until our buses arrived. We packed into them and made our way through the freeway interchanges to Miami International, where we formed yet another massive mob in the terminal. We were all given lengths of pink string to attach to our bags so they could be easily spotted as belonging to this group, then we boarded a small plane to head to St. Lucia. I was still mortified to be seen, and shy in general, so I played it quiet. During the flight, we passed directly over the Bahamas and I watched with rapt attention as the flat little swampy islands drifted by below us. I had never been past Bimini, so I was pleased to see Andros, the Exumas, and Inagua pass underneath us (I've been a sort of passive Bahamian history enthusiast for a while now). Had I been on the left side of the plane, I could have seen Bimini as we passed overhead -- something I've always regretted, since it would have provided a sort of parallel to that long-gone other phase of my life. But this time I was going beyond Miami, beyond Bimini, beyond the tropical fantasies of my younger self. I was moving to the Caribbean, and even though I had since moved to and from Hawai`i, I knew the Caribbean would be worlds different, if it was anything at all like Bimini. My life was changing.

(Continued in an earlier post)


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