Every Peace Corps Volunteer spends the first four months apparently doing not much of anything. Those months are actually spent collecting data for a very deep heavy document. The document also known as CASI (Community and Sector Inventory) at least in Jamaica, is the heart and soul of a volunteer’s service. It is not something you can just throw together, it is also something that can terrify you, once you realize how deep it is. At the four-month mark, it is expected that you have pretty well integrated into your community and have figured out a tentative plan for your next year.
Easy, right? No not in the slightest. First off you have to present this document to your supervisor and counterparts, secondly you have to present it to your colleagues at Early Service Conference (ESC). The CASI is designed to guide you with questions and tools to utilize while looking for information. I have a hard time with the tools. PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) is designed to guide a volunteer in how to get the community to participate. In theory it is a great idea. In reality it breaks down. I tried very hard to get a needs assessment grid done. Sadly my group meetings rarely had the same people attend. This makes an assessment difficult mainly due to the groups having differing ideas on what needs are within the community. I actually gave up the idea of ever getting that done. The community mapping and seasonal or daily calendars were also unrealistic for me to try to use. Fortunately the only two tools left were the two I am best at. Interviews, both casual and structured are ways to gather much-needed information. The information gathered may be contradictory depending upon who gives that information. This just increases your knowledge base.
Peace Corps is about learning about other cultures, but it is also about learning about yourself. During the CASI you cry, you jump for joy when people show up to a meeting, you drink some, you walk away and you come back the next day. The thing is you have no idea how much of your own bias is present until you present it to others. Richard has been reading my CASI piece by piece. I have learned how much this man loves me, he actually asked what am I going to do now that you are done with that document? For someone who was not outwardly interesting in my writing before, he is my biggest fan, even on a document that has no information about me in it. He would send me back comments and ask me to clarify some statements. He also asked if some of what I wrote was real. In all of this he helped me pull my bias out of much of the document. Having my supervisor read it was even more telling. He saw things differently, but since there is no factual data it cannot be confirmed or denied. After I pulled myself out of the document what was left was the community. How the community feels about things and what they see in themselves. So yes, the document is mostly supposition, but it is the supposition of the community and not my own.
The reality is this document is a living breathing document. It changes as time passes. It expands and it grows. It will never be a stagnant document. It will be ever-changing and updating it every so often will be an exercise in grounding myself. My work plan is also not something that will stay the same. Events in the community will change how I approach my work plan. Currently I am looking at a pretty busy year, but at the same time, much of it can change.
The thing you learn about yourself in writing the CASI is that you still have biases. You still see things from an American perspective. I love it here, I really do. In fact I was already considering a third year, but I have a man at home who would probably die inside if I extend. The things that I think I see are often not what I see at all. If I see lack of motivation, what I am likely not seeing is an individual who is tired of being told no. If I see poor health and a terrible diet, what I am likely not seeing is a family who can barely buy more than a bag of rice to last a week. If I see high percentage of school drop-outs, what I am likely not seeing is a child whose parents could not afford school fees or transportation to school. So all the things that I think I see have underlying causes which I cannot see. I make assumptions based on observation. I make assumptions based on what I am told by different people in the community. What I do not see is more telling than what I do see. That is the saddest fact of any foreign aid worker’s reality. It is often hard to pull yourself out of your own bias because you have no idea just how deep your bias is.
Life in my site is not that different from life in America. I can get cheese, wine and yogurt just like at home. Although, I pay a premium price for these items! Many people own cars here, but many more do not, or a family has one vehicle so a taxi is utilized often. Ahh the taxi, the first glaring difference from America. Taxis sit and wait in Ochi to fill up. That means 4 people in the back seat and one in the front, sometimes two if they think they can get away with it. The ride is not exactly comfortable but it is not awful unless they fill the taxi up with pickney! Pickney are children and they will stuff them in tight. Unlike America where each child has a special car seat, Jamaicans will just smash them up together, the idea is more is safer. You do not move as much if you are packed in like sardines!
Buses are way worse than a taxi. You sometimes have to wait for almost an hour for a bus to fill up enough for the driver to consider leaving. I would rather take a taxi just to ensure it leaves sooner. The fare for both taxi and bus are similar. These are decided by the route drivers and should be set in stone. If a driver try to tell you wrong price and the bus/taxi full most people will call him a teif! They will accuse him of stealing, so they typically charge correct prices.
Most Jamaicans have electricity and at least water tanks in their homes. Hot water tanks are a luxury. Most have a fridge and some form of running water if they can get water. I still turn the water off to soap up, shampoo and shave. I actually run a bowl of water before my shower to shave with. I wet up and wet my soap. I then turn off the water and soap up and shave. When I wash my hair the same procedure. Since we are in a drought it makes no sense to allow the water to run down the drain if you are not using it. Sadly most Jamaicans that have no water shortage do not do this. In fact my host family washes cars almost daily.
Unless you own a car there is always a walk to catch a taxi. They are not always easy to catch leaving the area, but easy enough to get one in Ochi. Most of the people walk quite a distance to catch a taxi. In certain areas it can be difficult to find one, often they will be full before they reach your area. I have learned that it is easier to go to the crossroads than it is to go to the head of the scheme. I was very spoiled in the beginning when Tressa carried me all over the place. I now see how much more troublesome traveling can be if you have to rely on public transit. Unlike Seattle where I just pay one fare and the transfer is good for 90 minutes and most trips do not take hours, here I have to pay multiple fares. Just to find my way around. I bought a bicycle to avoid paying all the fares to do the work around my community. It has helped when the bicycle is not broken! I did the same thing in America, I would rather bike than pay bus fare, it is a source of hardship for me.
With so much walking to access taxis you would think Jamaicans have great health, this is so far from reality. Jamaicans suffer from the same diet related diseases Americans do. Much of a Jamaican diet is canned or boxed. The rest is carbcentric. It is not uncommon for a meal to consist of a whole irish potato, a hunk of yellow yam, a boiled banana and dumplings. There might even be a huge pile of rice on the plate. Most Jamaicans see vegetables as a little serving of sliced cabbage and carrot or a breakfast of callaloo, which is a type of Amaranth green. They chop it up fine and steam it with onions and sweet peppers. This is often the only vegetable served in a day. If they make a pot of soup it will have okra and scallion and hot pepper sometimes carrots. Fruit is often juiced so the fiber content is lost. I have noticed that Jamaican drink cans of Ensure like it is the greatest thing on Earth. I am guilty of taking a multi-vitamin just to ensure my B-12s are up to level, but I like to eat real food. I love a good salad, some kale with mushrooms or eggplant and zucchini cooked up onto a pasta sauce.
I am fortunate that I live outside of Ochi, where I can get all these things, sometimes the price is very steep, but I have access. I have learned to enjoy callaloo and okra, I also have found that breadfruit is amazing. Breadfruit is a major carb so I tend to eat it with my greens and keep my consumption to a reasonable amount. My host family thinks I might not like it, but I just simply am not going to eat a whole one in one sitting, or two or four. Depending on size a single breadfruit is about 8-15 carb servings. I also love cabbage and pok chow (Bok choy). I eat all kinds of thing probably not on a typical Jamaican diet, but as a vegetarian I am limited. If I do not want to woof down an entire meal of carbs, I have to be creative. I do like the vegetarian meat option they have here. They have dehydrated things called vege chunks that resemble dog food, but once it is cooked it is not so bad. I can get any Morning Star product, but prefer the Jamaican products because they are way cheaper. The secret is to not consume large quantities of them. I have managed to lose over 30 lbs in the last few months. I still have more to lose but I am feeling pretty good about that.
Unless there is a party or a dead yard most Jamaicans go home in the evening and just relax. This is something I do as well. Sometimes I go to the ball field to watch the young men play soccer, but more often than not I come home make my dinner and put on a movie or read a book. Sometimes I can get a rousing game of dominoes going with my family at night. That is always fun. I will start having game nights with the children, I have UNO and basic cards and Yahtzee along with Dominoes. Dominoes is the Jamaican past-time. Beware and keep your hands off the table when playing with Jamaicans! They tend to slam the tiles down on the table and often I am confused by the rules. I do win sometimes and since I am not competitive I am ok with losing, but many are not. Be cautious Jamaican men can be sore losers, especially if there is money on a game.
Just like back home, I kind of fall into a routine here. Unless there is something going on, I tend to stick around home. I chat with the neighbors and if I go into the community I chat with the locals. I tend to avoid certain types of people, mostly young men who are persistent in asking me to marry them. I simply tell them that I have no time for their non-sense. This typically ends the encounter. Just like America there are local watering holes, unlike America typically the only women in them are behind the counter. It makes it difficult to just start-up a conversation. Again I avoid these kinds of encounters.
Life here is similar yet very different from America. The similarities are how the people here live. They live in homes, most have electricity and running water. Most have toilet facilities indoors, many have jobs to pay the bills. The similarities end when you begin to see interactions between people. The people here tend to seem cold and uncaring. They tend to not show any or limited forms of affection. They tend not to trust each other. They tend not to trust the police. They tend to just want to be left alone. This is not like my life at home, yet there are times when you see this in America. In America people tend to come home and lock their doors and many do not know their neighbors. The times that Jamaicans show compassion are in times of emergency and death. It is not that they do not care, it is that culturally it is not appropriate to show concern or care. That shows weakness unless there is an emergency. In a country where the culture promotes a certain amount of corrupt behavior, showing weakness sets you up to be taken advantage of. The people here are not innately bad the culture just promotes an underlying sense of besting others.
In America this kind of behavior is linked to criminal mentality. Here it is not necessarily a criminal intent, more like a desire to gain above one’s place. It is hard to explain, but a great example is how men view women. Here when a man hits on a woman it has nothing to do with desire or attraction, it has everything to do with his right as a man. He has a right to have her. She should support him or support him having many women to support him. It is the strangest twist in a super-religious culture. For an ultra conservative religious culture the view on sex and relationships does not fit in the same ideology. There are a few men who are not like this, just like there are a few women who will not put up with this. There are exceptions to every cultural norm. My host family and my supervisor’s family for example are not like this at all. They are secured families with men who are committed to their wives. So not all cultural norms are displayed by all persons. I am happy that my family and the families that I am closest to are more in line with how I see normal relationships. I do not hear beatings of the children daily and I do not see side women slinking around the homes that I frequent. For this I am thankful.
I do not judge this part of the culture. Having been in multiple open-relationships, it is not in me to judge others. I simply find the prevalence of such behavior a little odd. The acceptance of infidelity among men and not women to be unfair and the relative passive attitude toward safe sex unsettling. It scares me and even if I wanted to date someone here, I would be very cautious as to what they will give me and what they will take from me. You see a woman in the relationship has to be willing to open up her purse strings and that is just something I cannot afford. I also cannot afford to get some STD, no one really can.
This blog is more about me and my life than about Jamaican culture. Although the strong religious influence here has made me stop and pause and reflect on much of my past. In the past decade there have been many cases of sexual abuse by Catholic Priests, there have been money scams done by devout Christians, and rampant denial of basic rights to anyone who is different from the mainstream. What if I told you none of this matters? What if I told you I do not actually believe in God? What if I told you that I tried to find God for many years and somehow I failed miserably?
For years I was a Pentecostal raised in the Blood Christian. So when people tell me how Christian they are I often scrutinize. Why? Because I know what I know about the Bible, and it is a ton of stuff. I can tell you that polygamy existed, that sacrifices happened, and that God tends to be a downright bastard at times. Why would you ask someone to kill their son? Or turn a woman into salt for simply turning around to see her home one last time? I for one never liked the vengeful God that causes preachers to scream at the people in church. To cause children to fear God, why would God want us to fear him? Hold onto you hats people! I have a huge revelation for you! The Bible is written in metaphors and it is written by man and interpreted by man. Sooooo this means that all that flailing and crying and wailing that happens when you feel the spirit, well it could be real but mostly I think it is a show of fear.
You see I prayed hard for most of my life. I prayed for people to accept me and for my marriage to work, for my children’s health and for a decent life. I never wanted to be rich or have wonderful things, what I wanted was a way to find contentment. Instead all I ever found was strife. When I talk about finding real true peace, I actually mean it. I hate war, I hate lies and I hate having to struggle daily to feed my family. In the last 20 years I have learned so much more about myself once I gave up this idea of God coming to my rescue. I have found an inner strength that cannot be destroyed. I have found that I actually like myself and I truly dislike the people who do not accept me for me.
I find more peace daily by simply living. I enjoy a cup of coffee and a nice breakfast in the morning. I enjoy the silence or the soft music as I sip my daily coffee. Once I realized that conforming to anyone else’s idea of who I should be was never going to find me inner peace, only depression and despair. When I stripped my beliefs down to what I truly believe and what I was taught, I began to understand myself even more. And I was left with hurt, resentment and anger. I was left with these due to those who were supposed to help me grow as a child of God but instead nearly killed my soul. So I now ask you, what stares back at you in the mirror? Is it an empty soul or a fulfilled one? Is it a sad child that never really found their place or is it a strong adult who learned from the pain of growing up?
My mother was a super-Jesus-freak when I was growing up. My dad lived with us but he didn’t live with us. He was not religious and there was always tension in the house. I grew up wearing dresses on Sundays going to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday nights. I even had to go for week-long revivals when those events happened. I would get on my knees for altar call and I would seek God. Any kind of touch would have been nice, but all I ever found was blackness.
In high school we got this wonderful energetic young pastor and his family at our church. They worked to re-energize the youth group and I happily attended. We went on skating trips, inner tube down the snowy mountain trips, and even to a CARMEN concert. Sadly even in a church youth group there are the cool kids and the not so cool kids. I was a not so cool kid. I grew up thinking I must be ugly because this was a continual problem for me. I just wanted to be accepted, no special treatment, just to be accepted, but I was always that fringe kid. If I had not been so far out in the sticks I might have found my place much sooner.
There is one incident that always stand out for me. I was a sophomore, 1986 New Year’s Eve to be exact. There was a party held at the parsonage (pastor’s house). I went and hung out for a while. The cool kids were all drinking in the street. The church kids, the ones that were cool were attending this church party and drinking in the street. I met a new kid at the party. He lived across the street, moved there over the Christmas break. He was younger than me by several years, but he was a nice kid. I remember talking for a very long time with him. I mentioned the park and was telling him the different things around the town. He did not know there was a park 2 blocks away. I decided to show him. I told my best friend where we were going and then stepped out the door. I even waved to the pastor and walked down the road. I was gone for about 30 minutes and returned back. As soon as I took my jacket off the pastor’s wife grabbed me and shoved me into the back room. She proceeded to yell at me and informed me that if I left again she was going to call my mom and tell her what a whore I was! Her exact words, I will never forget them. I already struggled daily with sexual harassment and this woman who is supposed to be my role model tells this young girl who is a virgin what a whore she is. That day I broke on the inside.
That demon that my mother feared was in me came out that day. I had my first sexual encounter that night because I was going to get beat for it anyway. That day the fragile girl who was always quiet in the corner became a raging beast. I gave up on hoping to ever belong. I gave up on trying to fit in and became a fighter. I lost all respect for authority and started speaking up for myself. I fought the boys, I fought the system and I hated everyone and everything. If this is what Godly people do, I want no part of it.
When I was pregnant I tried to go back to the church because I wanted to give my children a good moral start. I was not treated quite like that ever again, but my pain was very real. I tried to connect in the church but I just could not. I tried several churches and I sought God but just never found him.
Do not mourn my loss of faith, it was never mine anyway. Do not pray for my soul, it does not need saving. Just remember the words you say cut like a knife. Remember young girls are actually listening and your words will mean the difference between sexual promiscuity and a faithful partner. I have never forgotten those words, and frankly I have never forgiven her for her cruelty. I keep that little piece of anger inside me at all times. When people say things about me I call up that flame and protect myself. The old saying sticks and stones break bones but words can never hurt me? It is a lie! Words do the most damage, because the healing never happens, the damage is invisible and often goes unnoticed.
I am a buddhist now. I practice yoga and meditation and being a good and kind person, I have no desire to inflict the damage that was done to me in the name of God on anyone else ever. So there now you know why when I am invited to church I struggle. I have a physical reaction to the idea. I get sick to my stomach and my head begins to hurt. My soul cries No do not do this to me again, so I am sorry if I offend you by not going, but I simply just can’t!
The person I see in the mirror is someone I admire. I see a survivor. I see the scars of a life well lived. I see the pain in the eyes that swears to never inflict pain on others. I see a happiness that has replaced years of sadness and despair. I see someone who I respect and love and for me that is everything. Living many years hating yourself gives you a greater joy when you can love yourself, so no I do not go to church and I really do not know if there is a God, but I know who I am and that is enough.
The last few weeks I have fallen into a slow-paced routine. I have had three site visits and a project, but mostly I have been working on my CASI. CASI= Community and Sector Inventory and it is a huge document not only for yourself but your counterparts and community and Peace Corps. You see in Peace Corps we spend a good portion of the first four months integrating and looking at how our community can improve. More important, this document is supposed to be driven by the community. We are given a set of PACA tools to utilize as we see fit. (PACA= Participatory Analysis for Community Action) What this means is I gather information in a variety of ways to get to know the needs of my community from the people in my community. Some of the issues with this process happen to be that rumors about you being a spy or part of some governmental conspiracy can and often do come up. So pulling out a large piece of paper to have people draw a map may look overly suspicious. Yes I have heard this rumor run around about myself, so I stopped writing in my notebook and just started having conversations. Each community and assigned volunteer is different. There is no one right way to gather this information and I have found group meetings and casual conversations to be my best options.
I felt like I did not have enough information until I started to write-up my CASI. I immediately realized that I have much more knowledge about the community than many of the people who have lived here their entire life. Funny how that works out. As a rule each individual sees different things that they find important within the community. No one person sees things the same and it helps direct my next move to know as many points of view as possible.
I spent much time the last few weeks working on this document. So much time that my head some days hurts so bad. I feel that I am headed in the correct direction and even on days that I feel useless I am actually doing something. This week has been extremely busy for me even though I have spent much of it just sitting around. This last weekend I went to visit one of my host families from training. I was asked why I had never invited my host sister over to visit during the summer she was so bored. I had no idea she wanted to visit all she had to do was tell me she was coming and I would have made sure she had a good time. So we now have an agreement that my host sister will come over whenever she has extra days off.
Monday was a cleaning day since I was to have a visitor on Tuesday. So I spent the entire day cleaning and planning. Tuesday I spent making coffee and having a site visit with my Country Director. It is nice to spend some time with staff and show off some of the things you have done. I love showing off the new mural. Even though it is not done it looks good and I am proud that I designed something the farmers embraced. Another painting day is to happen soon. It is funny that when you bring other Americans out into the community the people are more energized. The farmers seem to love having visitors and I love to see them get pumped up and excited about things. Even small things can change the demeanor of the entire group.
This week was the first week of a group of dental assistants and technicians and even dentist offering free dental in the community. This will happen for three weeks. I normally sit down at the community center during Wednesday mornings. This week I spend it talking with different community members, and there was a heap of them hoping to get teeth cleaned or more serious dental work done. So next week I anticipate the same type of group. It is very exciting to see people seeking any type of health care. Dental often gets overlooked but healthy teeth are indicative of healthy bodies.
I have not been to the beach of near any water body for 2 weeks. Wednesday afternoon was spent rectifying that! I have this lovely hotel on the beach that has a pool and a small bar with a restaurant. For the cost of a soda or coffee I can stay there all day utilizing their facilities. One of the best deals around! Sometimes the ocean is just what you need. The salt water and fresh breeze are often soul healing. I needed it and am so glad I took the time to go.
Thursday was an active day and when I say active it means I got off my butt and went out on my bike! I had made an appointment to meet the new group of tour guide students. I rode my bike the farthest and the fastest I have yet to ride. I stopped at one of the local primary schools to talk to the 4-H director and the principle. One of the main focuses of the Green Initiative, my sector, is to do youth education. The local basic school is on the fence about working with me so I stopped to talk to the local primary school. The Principal was more than happy to have my help. She has already found two small projects that will not cost a lot or take much time to execute. She wants to use the environment as a teaching tool! Good for her I support this a whole heap!
I then rode down the rest of the hill to meet the tour guide students. Not knowing exactly why I was asked to come down I waited to meet them until they had a break. The instructor asked if I could just explain why I was here and what my goals and focus were. I introduced the idea of Agro-tourism and Eco-tourism and why they were important and the new shift in tourism expanding outside of the all-inclusive resorts and more into a cultural exchange. I talked about how important trying to understand other cultures was the basis for World Peace, yes I still have this insatiable hope for this one day in my lifetime!
The problem with going down a hill, super fun and fast, I might add, is that you must at some point go back up said hill. Going up it feels more like a mountain! I made it past the halfway mark before I had to stop and rest, of course there was a man standing there when I stopped to get my water bottle out. He asked me if I remembered who he was, why yes I do. “Yuh know mi a leke yuh?” Yeah I know but I am married and happily at that. “To a Jamaican?” Seriously dude what difference does it make whether he is Jamaican or American, Japanese or African? I am married his cultural background changes nothing! Dear Jamaican men, contrary to what you believe, not every white woman comes to Jamaica for the Big Bamboo! Get over yourselves and learn some manners!
I did ride off and then had to walk up a steep loose rock hill to get off the main road. No way to climb that hill the rocks just slide under you. I got lost too. In my own community I got lost! I soon got directions in the right direction, luckily I knew the name of the road I was looking for. I finally made it back to the community and spent some time catching my breath, stretching and dreading my ride back into the scheme. I can tell you I slept very well that night!
Oh I missed the craziness of Tuesday night! In the middle of the night Richard texted my iPad! It woke me up but as I rolled over I had a great pain under my breast. I reached over and felt a large painful lump. So I panicked. Because you know it was a lump in my breast, I must have………. breast cancer! Shit! I cried and texted Richard for an hour about it. I finally fell back asleep but it was not restful. The next morning I looked in the mirror, because in the night the last thing I want to do is go turn the light on and look! As I looked at it I determined it looked much like a bite of some kind. The doctor agreed but told me to keep an eye on it. Crisis averted, or was it? As I was getting ready to make my breakfast I noticed a 40 leg in my apartment! I had heard these were nasty and prevalent but had never seen a live one here yet! I got a jar and collected it for Richard. (Do not even ask!) I suspect this little bastard is what bit me, or a spider, but since I caught this one I want to think it was him!
What is a 40 leg? It is what the Jamaicans refer to a centipede as. And they can be quite poisonous! My host dad was telling me I needed to spray. Man the last thing I want to do is spray. I was hoping to avoid it!
Friday I spent writing up my CASI and panicking. I had other things I should have done but the CASI sucked up my entire day! In the end there was a ton of coffee, and a ton of frustration. Overall I think I have a good base on the document, just need to finish a couple more sections, proof it and have my supervisor help me with a one-year work plan. As I was winding down my day I sat watching an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. I noticed what looked like a moth on my leg so I flicked it off. I have no idea why I even looked down on my leg, but lucky for me I did. That moth was actually another 40-leg! OMG! There must be a nest of them just hatched in here somewhere. I now know that there is a great need for me to spray now! I stomped on the stupid thing and it did not die! Holy crap, what in the hell? I stomped on it again and it still did not die! Are your freaking serious! What the hell I have an apartment full of super 40-legs! I am so gonna turn into a spray freak! The ants were vexing me but they are not going to poison me, just annoy me. The 40-leg must die! Where are all my damn lizards and toads? Or any other creature that will eat these bastards! I would rather deal with a cockroach! Seriously a cockroach is nasty but not lethal!
So now I have a new bedtime ritual! Pull all pillows and sheets off my bed. Shake out the mosquito net, shake out blankets and pillows. Encase bed in net until I am ready to crawl in. Shake out my sleeping clothes and cautiously crawl into bed and retuck the net. There better not be a need for a nighttime visit to the toilet because it aint gonna happen! The other part of my new ritual, to be so super focused on my skin that even a loose hair sends me screaming to the bathroom! Yeah I am totally a tough girl, right? Peace Corps, what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger, or makes your screams stronger!
How you define community starts with how you see your surroundings. Do you see a fence and a tree surrounding a house, or do you see a neighbor’s home with a fence and a beautiful maple tree. The descriptions are of the same area, yet they are vastly different. So how do you see the places you frequent? It defines your community view.
I like to see my surrounding in a poetically beautiful verbage. I see the goats as living beings not noisy pests. I like to see my neighbors as people who have lives outside of what I can see. I like to see the roads as paths to adventure. This way of viewing the world has landed me in one of the most beautiful places in the World. Yet this place I now call home is not built the same way as what I have known. Does my view of community change here? Yes it does, it also changed in Africa and when I moved to California. What I had built my view of community on now had to be adjusted.
Community in Seattle was based on people and a sense of belonging. Community in California, well I still have not established it so well. I have made a few friends and people know who I am, but finding my place has not happened yet. In Liberia my vision of community was based on the host families we lived with and the neighboring homes. Here in Jamaica it is similar, yet different. When you join the Peace Corps you are given a Government issued family. You start with a group of individuals, you likely do not know, and you build relationships with them. It is important to build this community up. There are those days of struggle and having people around who have gone through the same feelings are going to be your support.
Community is not the infrastructure or the buildings that are located in a defined area. Community is the people who are in your life. It could be the mad man who informs you that touching your privates in public is very, very bad, good advice by the way. It could be the shopkeeper who begged you for sex and asked you to have his child, that I suggest you avoid at all costs. It could be the child who simply waves and jabbers at you every single time she sees you. It could be the farmer who slips a bruka (a little more) in your bag when you are not looking. It could be the host family you live with who protects you and sees that you are comfortable and safe. It could be the local man who is your escort when you go out late at night to community events. It could be the vendor who stocks a specific item just for you! These are what makes a community. Not the roads, not the building but the people. The people who impact your life and make it better daily. They could impact you negatively or positively, but they impact you daily. Remember we all have good and bad situations, the key is to make the bad situations less than bad.
In my community I have weird interactions daily. These are only weird to me, because they are not something I am accustomed to. To make it better I use humor, which builds up my community. Everyday I have men psst at me and I have informed them to pass the word that I do not intend to talk to men who sound like snakes. If they want to talk with me they should say hi and ask me how I am doing. If I get pssst at I simply wave my hand and tell them that I have no time for their non-sense. This makes the group laugh and diffuses most situations. Just last week a loader man, the man who guides you to the correct bus or taxi, informed me that he wanted to kiss me on my rings. I informed him, without even looking back at him, that if he did so he would likely get punched in the face. I did not say I would punch him, I simply stated a fact, that accosting a woman with an unwanted physical touch would likely get him in some kind of trouble. You have to say it in a way that is funny to others and lets them know that you might be a little serious. Just enough to defuse the interest. You see in this situation, most of the regular drivers know who I am and they would most likely come to my rescue if needed. The key to community is to put yourself out there. They will come to you. Even if you simply quietly sip a beer watching a netball practice, they eventually find you.
Yesterday when I returned to Ochi, I was trying to locate where the Sunday Taxi to my community is. I was struggling to figure out which taxis were mine, when a community member hollered at me and got out of the front seat and allowed me to take his seat as he took the back seat. This is when you truly know that the community knows you and respects who you are. I still have to defray the requests to join me for dinner by the taxi drivers but mostly I am kept with a level or respect that I appreciate.
In the Peace Corps you will deal with some of the most insane situations. You have to just laugh most of them off, as long as you are in no danger. Getting angry about a cultural misunderstanding is what is wrong in this world. Instead of trying to understand, we simply view it as an assault on our person. A man grabbing your hand in a public space may simply be a gesture to make you see him. It could even be a gesture of moving you to safety. It may not mean that this man wanted to touch a white woman. He may have seen the crate falling from the top of the building or the car nearly running you over. You have no idea what his intention was and as long as he lets you go, there is really no harm.
In my life, I have never been that girl that everyone want to date or be with. So I imagined being the center of attention constantly might be nice. It is not. It is annoying after the first day or so. It gets old and you realize that you are not being seen as a person but as a white woman. I have no idea if men go through this as well, but as a woman it does tend to bruise one’s ego after some time. However, once you get to the point of finding your community all of this unwanted attention is not so significant. It tends to be a mild amusement and as I stated using humor as a way to turn them down, it can be kind of fun. The other men will laugh at him, but silently they respect you standing your ground. I am very good at standing my ground, but I think that knowing who is my community is very helpful. I know the people to turn to if it gets overwhelming. If it gets too bad I can always take an American weekend and go out with my ex-pats or my Peace Corps family. In the end it really is about balance and knowing yourself and your support needs.
So imagine your community, and imagine it with only people. Understand that those people are important to not just you, but really to each other and to the community. There will be those that do not really fit, but they still belong. They will be those challenges you face daily, and that is okay. Challenges are the things that make the world more interesting. It is all about how you see yourself in your world.
I have put off even thinking about this blog. I dreaded posting it, but it is time to explore this. Peace Corps is all about building relationships. It requires cultural integration to effectively do your job. No matter what your job is, building those relationships is vital to your success. What Peace Corps and likely any other foreign service does not prepare you for, is how to retain current relationships. This is no easy feat.
I am in a long-term, basically married relationship with a beautiful soul back at home. He is wonderful and puts up with me running off on a new adventure all the time. He survived me biking across America, my training in Liberia and now this adventure in Jamaica.
The great thing is that he supports me no matter what choices I make, even at the expense of his own happiness. He always says he doesn’t want to be a dream killer. This particular adventure is starting to take its toll on him and our relationship. I have to remember that I am overwhelmed with all this new culture and new faces. He is living a place that is not really home and he is mostly alone. I wish we had taken the time to get more involved in the community and opened up friendships that would have helped him through some of these tough days. When he hurts, I hurt. I feel his misery, I can hear it in his voice.
So to future volunteers I want to give you some advice on how to hold those old relationships together during your service.
Communication! This is vital, write, email, phone, Facebook, whatever you can do it. And make it regular, do not allow more than a few days go by without a hello and how are you go by.
Pictures! Make sure you are in some pictures. I am typically behind the camera and then I realize there is no proof I am working or even here. So take the time to have someone snap you doing stuff and having fun.
Understanding! Understand that your love will begin to question the relationship right around 6 months out. This is actually very normal. Do not react and freak out. They are likely just processing their feelings and trying miserably to express to you how they feel.
Reassurance! Reassure your partner that they are very important and their support is desperately needed and appreciated. Tell them their support is often what keeps you grounded and focused, but be sure that is true.
Honesty! Again this is vital. Be honest, if you have a fling, be honest if they ask you. Also know yourself, your partner and your relationship. If a fling is not sanctioned, expect a consequence. Flings can be forgiven, dishonesty cannot.
Be authentic! Know that your feelings will change, as will theirs, you just have to be prepared to grow apart and work at holding on or letting go. Not all relationships are strong enough to endure a 27 month separation, so before you plunge in, know your relationship and either end it or make preparations for the adventure.
Ultimately I believe my relationship is strong enough to withstand. My partner is strong enough for this, as painful as it is, he will be there for me in the end. I know he loves me and I love him. No matter what happens here, when I am with him, he is my everything and that is really how a relationship survives. Living your own life apart is important, but when you are together you should be each other’s everything. You are your partners whole world and they are yours. The service you do will be a growth for both of you, be prepared to learn so much about your partner and to allow your partner to learn so much about you.
Oh and when all else fails get a new tattoo, that gives them something to look forward to!
As a volunteer in a new community life can be pretty intense. There are moments when you just want to shut down and stop meeting and engaging people. There are moments when you get rather frustrated at the acceptance in things that can easily change. You sometimes just do not want to leave your home. Going out will just invite all that unwanted attention to yourself. The constant barrage of sexual innuendos or blatant requests can just make you want to shut your door and never come out.
Hiding, however, is not really part of my personality. I like to face things head on. So I go out and create projects and hope that somehow the community figures it out. There are those certain interactions that require being faced head-on and those are the ones that I pull on all of my resources to avoid conflict. I have had a conversation with a man who turned into a very uncomfortable situation and I have been avoiding him. He made a fool of himself and made me realize that even an innocent conversation can turn ugly very quickly. Sorry man, there is no way in the world that I will ever have more babies and I certainly am not in love with you so pulling that card out was a foolish move.
One thing I have been trying to accomplish is to get the community to become involved. One of the tools Peace Corps has given to us is a Needs Assessment and prioritization. I have tried on several occasions to get this done, but it seems that it will never happen. Just like a seasonal calendar is not going to happen, nor are any other types of assessments. However, something way more important is beginning to emerge. Out of my bi-weekly meetings a potential Citizen’s Association is forming. If we can get this group diverse enough to represent the majority of the community, great things can happen. I am thrilled to see this at least being discussed.
I have been on a mission for the past month to really get a multi-purpose court and a playground built. The Citizen’s Association would be the group to spearhead such a project, and it could easily be the catalyst too much bigger and meaningful projects. There are so many things that are needed, that sometimes it feels hopeless. I do know that getting a court would increase my interactions with the girls and ladies in the community, and that would make my life more meaningful!