Let’s face it, I’m not the most patriotic American. And on July Fourth, I’m probably the last person you’d see wearing our nation’s colors. It’s not that I don’t have pride – it’s that I choose not to make a big deal. For me, July Fourth has always meant four simple things: camp-wide relay races, popsicles, barbeques, and fireworks.
But this year, as I spent my first Fourth of July outside of the United States, I felt incredibly somber about it. I was encouraged by fellow volunteers to wear red, white and blue, and to use this opportunity to educate those around me. After all, the Peace Corps is a CROSS-cultural experience.
But I chose not to, because for me, the Fourth just didn’t feel the same.
Then, when I wasn’t paying attention, something incredible happened.
“Are you coming to graduation tomorrow?” A teacher at the school asked me.
“Yes I am.”
“And how about dinner on Thursday?”
“I don’t know anything about a dinner. This is the first I’m hearing of it.”
“Oh! We’re taking the Sixth Grade class to dinner in Port Royal to celebrate. You should come.”
“I think I will.”
July 3rd – Graduation
The Cedar Valley Primary and Junior High School Graduation was held in the school’s auditorium, and followed the traditional Jamaican fashion of beginning an hour behind schedule. Like American graduations, the ceremony was exceptionally long and no one really paid attention.
There were two noticeable differences, however. The first was the graduation march. In America, the students form a straight and orderly line, and file into the auditorium to the boring tune of Pomp and Circumstance, a melody I would never recognize otherwise. I mean seriously, who uses it anymore? For Jamaican students, the march is one of the most anticipated parts. They chose an upbeat song with inspiration lyrics about loving life, and performed a dance routine as they entered the room. The second noticeable difference was that the entire community was present to show their support, whether their child was graduating that day or not.
Prior to the ceremony, I’d been briefed that the Principal would be introducing me during her speech – and what an introduction she gave me!
Last but not least, earlier that day, I received text messages from two other volunteers in the parish to let me know they’d be coming to the graduation, so I got to spend some time with them as well!
After the ceremony, there was a mingling session, some pictures, an opportunity to meet parents, dinner, and a ride home at around 10pm.
July 4th – Port Royal & Devon House
I was told to wear a dress, so that’s what I did. And at 2pm, we piled onto a bus and began the long and bumpy ride down the mountain. After making frequent stops along the way, we finally reached Port Royal a little after four o’clock.
Dinner was delicious. Our choices were fish, or fish, (I know, crazy right! How could I choose?) with a side of either rice & peas, or french fries. While we waited for our meals, and afterward, for our check, we played a couple of school ground games. How can I better describe this?? Have you ever been at camp, sitting at the dinning room table, and you begin clapping your hands and singing a song, and the lyrics are the instructions, and if you mess up, then everyone boo’s you? Yeah, something like that.
Anyway, it was great fun, and really cool to see similar types of games played in a different culture. It didn’t take me very long to catch on, and one of the songs even got stuck in my head for hours afterward.
When dinner was over, the students frolicked on the beach. We all kicked off our shoes and ran around in the sand by the surf. As I stood on the beach and watched the kids chase each other, the waves lapped at my ankles and a breeze tangled my hair. It was only then that I remembered it was the Fourth of July.
By eight o’clock, we were at Devon House to get ice cream. In honor of America’s Independence Day, I treated myself to a double scoop of cookies & crème.
July 6th – The Party
I left Cedar Valley at 8am, made three transfers, and reached St. Ann’s Bay (the capitol of St. Ann) by a quarter to two. When I woke up that morning, I was clean, but by the time I arrived, I was a hot sweaty mess, and so dirty that you could see the grime in the crease of my elbows and my palms. My hair was… well I don’t even know.
I went to St. Ann to visit my girl, Christina. I haven’t properly introduced her yet, and I promised to leave her some anonymity, but she’s my best friend. By day two of training, we were already buddied up and cracking inside jokes. Let me put it to you this way; I would not and will not be able to get through my service without her. It’s important for us to have support within our group, and Christina and I are there for each other.
We met up at her site and grabbed lunch immediately, dining like queens at the five-star establishment more commonly known as Burger King. Afterward, we picked up some nosh from the grocery store, and went back to her place to sit for five minutes. There, I met her adorable new kitten, cracked open a beer, and splashed some water on my face. An hour later, we were off again.
Two more transfers later, we arrived in a small community in west St. Ann for a July Fourth PCV get together. I spent the night with twenty other volunteers, snacking on bean or beef burritos, potato or breadfruit salad, oreos and chips. There was an assortment of beverages, card games, dancing, and a strobe light.
That night, we crashed where we landed, and I landed in a hammock on the veranda.
July 7th – The River
The next morning, after a meager breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, everyone slowly drifted out and returned from whence they came. When Christina and I finally reached her place again, we sat down for a movie and promptly fell asleep.
After waking, we decided to take a walk and try to find “her river.” She’d explained to me the day before; it was river that ran behind the houses, out of sight from the street, and there’s a part where you can jump in and swim, almost like a pool. We were determined to find it.
When at last we did, it was serene. The water was teal, and cool, surrounded by trees with long hanging limbs, a baby waterfall, and one solid wall of rock. We sat by the water at first, enjoying the scenery, but before I knew it, my shoes were off and I was jumping in!
Later that night, we ate penne with mushroom sauce, played with the kitten, and watched some episodes of Portlandia before falling asleep.
I returned to Cedar Valley the next day.
What I loved the most about celebrating July Fourth outside of the US, is the way I didn’t even realize I was celebrating. I went to a graduation and had a ball. Then I went for dinner and ice cream, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. A pre-planned outing to St. Ann turned into a wild adventure filled with spontaneity and shenanigans. For my first Fourth of July spent in another country, I’d say it was pretty fine. Actually, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Except now that I’ve set the bar, next year’s Fourth has to top it.