While some may think serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Caribbean is all white sandy beaches and coconuts, that’s not the case. On this week’s episode I talk with Megan Bordi about her service in St. Lucia. While she served 20 years ago, her memories are fresh and her fondness for her community is strong as the day she left the island.
Photos from Megan’s Service
Megan Bordi’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
I served in the Eastern Caribbean on the island of St. Lucia, 1999-2001. Our group, EC66, was comprised of about 50 volunteers serving on 5 different islands – St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Antigua and Dominica. St. Lucia had about 15 volunteers across the island, working mainly in health and education. St. Lucia is a beautiful, lush island with mountains on the coast and rainforest in the center. Many may know this island as a holiday destination, and within the Peace Corps it’s often referred to as ‘Beach Corps,’ which is not at all accurate. The minute you leave that resort or that beautiful beach, you become aware of the poverty on the island. As volunteers, we had to secure our own housing and while we had electricity (most of the time), many people had no hot water, sometimes no water at all, and definitely no cable, AC, had to hand wash, etc.
I lived in the northern part of the island, about 20 minutes from the capital city of Castries, and worked in Youth Development with the Ministry of Education. I was assigned to a primary school in a community called Grand Riviere, to work with students ages 12-15 who were unable to attain the necessary entry requirements to secondary school, and who continued at the same primary school following a program of study that failed to prepare them for the future. These students often had little to no self-worth and lacked belief in their ability to achieve. I worked to increase their self-esteem and self-confidence, building on their reading and writing skills, while giving them marketable skills to help prepare them for the real world. I ended up doing a lot of small group reading and writing classes with these students, as their levels were about 2nd / 3rd grade when they were in 7th / 8th grade. I worked with them on job training skills, such as how to fill out job applications, and helped them identify their interests and passions to understand what types of jobs might suit them well. I also put together two job training programs, which were on-the-job internships, for the students to gain practical job training. My work schedule was quite regular, and I was expected to be at school every day from about 8:30 until about 3:30pm. Aside from my ‘regular job,’ as is the case with most volunteers, there were other side projects I became involved in, especially during the summer when school was not in session.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
Oh, how could I possibly choose?! So many wonderful memories, but I would have to say that Christmas time in St. Lucia was one of my favorites. I loved how Christmas was not at all about gifts, but was truly about enjoying the good food and spending time with friends and family. So instead of spending money on gifts, people would spend it on fixing up the house, making it look nice and buying food and drinks to share. On Christmas day, it is customary to drive (or walk) around the community (we called this ‘making a round’) to pop in on all your friends and have a drink. Everyone is expected to have enough food and drink to offer to people who stop by. You might only stay 20/30 minutes and then on to the next. It’s wonderful and truly showed me how much the St. Lucians value their family and friends. Then of course the big meal of the day would be eaten at home with family.
My other favorite memory was carnival! Carnival is not just a day, but literally weeks of festivities and soca music competitions to determine the king and queen of carnival, with the main carnival lasting about 2 days. One summer I had my best friends visiting and all my local friends encouraged us to ‘jump up’ in Carnival, which means you pay a fee to ‘join a band’ and get your costume. During carnival you wear your costume and jump up with that particular band, following a huge semi-truck with a band on top while dancing (or ‘whining’ as it’s called locally) with a huge group and drinking rum in the street for days!! Everyone on the island watches and cheers you on from the sidewalks. Carnival starts with j’ouvert morning, a big ‘kickoff’ celebration starting at dawn, and continues with many parties and 2 straight days of the ‘parade of the bands,’ with thousands of people in brightly colored costumes dancing in the streets. I truly felt like a local, and by that point I nearly was. 😊
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
There was a particularly terrible incident that unfortunately happened to my mother while she was visiting. Her and her husband were touring around the island while I was working, and had gone down to visit a small village in the south. They stayed at a small bed & breakfast right on the beach, and I remember her telling me how cute the place was, that it was so peaceful, etc. Unfortunately, my mom woke up in the middle of the night because she felt something. When she opened her eyes she saw a man standing over her, literally a foot away. As it was dark and she couldn’t see well, she initially thought it was her husband, but she turned and saw her husband sleeping next to her. She looked again and instead realized it was another man who had broken in, had his pants down and was masturbating over her. She screamed and the man fled before they could catch him. They never found the man, although the Peace Corps volunteer living in that village was sure she knew who it was, and thought it was a local man who was mentally ill. Although they went to the police, without any evidence they couldn’t do much.
This incident was of course horrific and to this day I’m sorry my mother had to go through that experience. I was also truly upset that something like this could happen in St. Lucia, the beautiful island nation that had become my home.
What do you miss about Peace Corps?
Where do I begin?! I miss the food, the ‘local meal’ with baked chicken, saltfish, breadfruit, dasheen, plantain, macaroni and tons of spices. The barbecued chicken and bakes we’d buy on the street on the weekend. The fresh coconuts from the guy in the truck on the main corner in Castries. The mangoes fresh from the tree. I miss the rum shops, and just popping in to have a Piton and watch the locals play dominoes. I miss hitchhiking and riding in the back of pickup trucks standing up. I miss the soca music, and how integral music and dancing were in the culture. I miss my students, and in particular Lennon and Cocoi who were often waiting for me on my porch when I got home, as they wanted to play on the laptop and cook me dinner (yay!). I miss the slowness of island life, and how ‘just now’ could literally mean a half a day from now. I miss the hot, humid weather and the view of the ocean from my porch. I miss the genuine camaraderie among the Peace Corps volunteers, and some of the wonderful things we experienced together. And of course, I miss my community and the people – my local friends who constantly checked on me, my neighbors who fed me nearly every day, Mr. White who took care of my banana and papaya trees in the garden…I became part of a community that can be hard to find back in the U.S. St. Lucia was my home for two years, and I miss that home.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
It’s difficult to say one thing I learned, but I can say that Peace Corps helped me to ‘grow up’ faster. Peace Corps gave me leadership skills that I have used throughout my life. It truly prepares you for life’s challenges, even though you may not realize it until years later. I learned how to communicate cross-culturally, with people who have different values and cultural norms. I also learned the importance of relationship building and having empathy. I learned entrepreneurial skills. As a PCV, you are thrown into a new culture, a new job, a new community – and you just have to step up and figure out how to ‘do it.’ If you don’t, you will end up sitting around for 2 years. Peace Corps gave me so much perspective, and helped me see how very different another culture could be from my own. Sometimes one must accept and be tolerant of things they may not agree with, and that’s ok.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying that you’d like to share?
They’re more favorite words, but….
Lime – this word is both a noun and a verb and really means ‘to hang out,’ or ‘a get together,’ e.g. “Should we go for a lime this Sunday?” or “We’re just liming at Cristina’s house.” People spend so much time just hanging around in St. Lucia, so this word always felt so appropriate.
Irie – this means cool, good, nice, something positive. It’s used constantly – “That’s irie, man.”
Awa awa – No no!!