Sunday, July 19, 2015

All Ah We Is One Family

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of going to a family reunion with my host family. It was held under beautiful skies on the historic grounds of the Pigeon Island National Park (click here to see my previous story about this park ), surrounded by palm trees and remnants of 200-year-old buildings and fortifications. The Peace Corps expects us to integrate into our families and communities, and it seems to me that I accomplished that by being the only white person at this huge St. Lucian family reunion today.

The back of my host mom's shirt.

There were over a hundred people in attendance. Just like many big reunions back in the USA, customized shirts were created for the event, with different colors to indicate the different generations (gold was the oldest, then purple, green, and blue for the newest—guests like myself were expected to wear white). The “theme” for this event was printed on the back of each shirt (hence the title for this story). Proper English would rewrite the theme as “All of us are one family” but it is more fun to add a bit of a rhyme and say it in the patois/kweyole language used by many down here.

A view of a couple dancing on the stage with the band.

Big tents were set up, along with a projection system for genealogy presentations as well as a nice sound system. A St. Lucian quadrille band (local folk music) performed, and I was even given a lesson in dancing the quadrille. Later, the same stage was used for karaoke. An inflatable bounce house was set up for the younger children, and a few tables were dedicated to spirited domino games.

There was plenty of food served buffet style. Breakfast was served in the morning, then a hefty lunch ensued in the afternoon (including my first taste of calliloo soup, a local delicacy). A dessert buffet followed that, and a wide variety of drinks were available at that tent all day long. I'm convinced that no one left hungry, and everything tasted great.

An official photographer was present, who orchestrated group pictures of each colored shirt group, including my white shirted “outsider” group (luckily I had brought a white UC shirt with me). Despite my suggestions that I was fine without being in the picture, they dragged me into it. Then, everyone jammed together for one large family reunion portrait. [I'm sure there are going to be some folks trying to figure out who the white guy was in the family portrait.]

I was informed afterward that many of the younger children were excited to find out that Santa Claus is a distant cousin to their family! Back home I never had many people equate me with Santa Claus (more often it was Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, or sometimes actor Richard Dreyfuss). However down here, with few white folks and fewer still with a full white beard and a bit of a paunch, it happens frequently. I already knew from my interactions at elementary schools that the young students think I look like Santa Claus. Apparently some of the reunion children are going to be disappointed this coming December 25 when they don't get the “family bonus” from their cousin Mr. Claus.

The best part of the day was just seeing all the love generated at this family reunion. It didn't matter if you knew anyone here or not, everyone was in a gracious, welcoming mood. As a Peace Corps trainee, I enjoy living with my host mom, my host brother and sister, and we are frequently visited by the oldest sister who is married and has a three year old who often stays at his grandmother's house. My host family has made me feel a part of their family over the past five weeks, so it was easy to go along to their extended family reunion today. All of their relatives made me feel welcome today, too. The sense of community and acceptance was overwhelming. I wish I could bottle those positive vibes and share them whenever someone needs cheered up.

Speaking of love, acceptance, and positive vibes, I spent Saturday in a totally different environment. Our class of 32 Peace Corps trainees have been going through an intense “boot camp” to make us into Reading Literacy Co-Teachers in elementary classrooms in the Eastern Caribbean when school resumes in September. We just finished our big week of “model school” where we taught school children who signed up for a summer reading camp.

From the first time we met in Miami on June 11, we have bonded together and are now close friends. It is an amazing group of Americans who have been brought together to serve in the Eastern Caribbean, and I love all of them. The pressure we have been through has brought us close—but we knew that after our initial training on St. Lucia, the 32 of us would eventually be split up among the four island countries that Peace Corps serves (St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

This coming Friday, we find out which country we are destined to serve (or if you stay in St. Lucia, the particular village where you will be assigned). On August 1, all of us will be moving out of our current host families home, and be transported to a new host family for the final three weeks of our training program. Instead of one cohesive 32 member family, we will be uprooted and split up into four groups of eight volunteers on each island.

So this past Saturday, about 25 of us went on an all-day catamaran sailing adventure down the western side of the island, from Rodney Bay down to the Gros Piton we hiked last Sunday. Trips like this are primarily done by tourists, and the Peace Corps would prefer that we live like “host country nationals” rather than tourists. However, we needed to celebrate the end of model school and socialize before artificial groupings divide us into four different islands. We needed a day just for us.

Look close to see Flipper.

We had a pod of dolphins play around our boat on the way down, along with beautiful views of the island from the Caribbean Sea. After getting various views of both Petit and Gros Piton, the captain brought us back up to the town of Soufriere (where we had eaten after our Piton hike ). I headed into the town square in the heart of the city to get a picture of the old Cathedral.

Then we headed north to a secluded beach, where we swam and hung out for awhile. This was my first opportunity to use the snorkel and mask I brought with me. As a child, I loved the periodic “Jacques Cousteau” specials that showed a West Virginia kid what life was like under the ocean. Snorkeling isn't diving, but getting a clear picture of all that is going on beneath the surface still fascinates me.

After resuming our return trip north, the captain took our catamaran into Marigot Bay. This was where the movie “Dr. Doolittle” was filmed—it is beautiful! Eventually, we headed north again, stopping only when a deckhand who was fishing from the back of the boat caught a barracuda and reeled it aboard.

Heading back out to sea from beautiful Marigot Bay.

The best part of Saturday was the feeling of togetherness that our Peace Corps class enjoys. We genuinely care about each other, and it feels good. It was somewhat similar to the togetherness demonstrated at the family reunion today.

Just a portion of our class that was on the trip.

In both situations, I look through the pupils of my own eyes and don't realize that I am not exactly the same as most of the people I am with at the time. Whether it was not seeing my own white skin while attending a black family reunion, or not seeing my aging face, gray hair, and receding hairline amidst a group of predominantly 20-something-year-old Peace Corps trainees, I tend to think of myself as a member of both groups. I feel like I fit in, even if I may not look the part.

I think this is a good trait to have as a Peace Corps volunteer (if you'll permit me to say so myself). I see less divisions amongst people and more commonalities. To have peace on earth, we need to realize that we are all in this together. That is one reason why I am spending 26 months away from my beloved home state—to do my part to continue President Kennedy's dream of having Americans promote peace and mutual understanding in Third World countries. In reality, we are all brethren, and we share this one planet amidst the vast universe. Just like the back of the reunion shirt says, “All Ah We Is One Family.”

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