So technical difficulties have vexed me for the past few weeks. I actually had resigned to the idea that I might need to buy a new laptop. I could have posted from my iPad, but there would be no way to get the pictures posted. So I am clumping it into one large blog.
Jamaica is a place that many people see as an island paradise. Some wonder why is Peace Corps even here? I have even had friends confused by the constant contact I had in Liberia and the limited connectivity I have here. I can totally explain that. In Liberia I had purchased a USB 4G stick to get online. Here I have been unable to get my hands on a WiFi device. The outlets have limited supplies and they sell out almost immediately. This means that due to my limited ability to go and get what I need, and the limited supply, I have had no real connectivity.
My first two days were spent in a decent hotel with a great little bar attached to it. It also had a pool, which is a key to any 4 star accommodation! We then moved into a town outside of Kingston across the little inlet called Hellshire (pronounced: Ellsher) The native language is Patois or Patwa. It is a mix of the Queen’s English, creole and French, I think. This is my second time in a country that speaks what sounds like English but is not English. I can understand much of what is being said. My biggest difficulty is that I have some hearing loss and have a hard time hearing what is being said.
My first host family was lovely. It consisted of a woman in her mid fifties, Ms. Rose and her adopted daughter, Ms. Rose’s brother and his son. The brother and son lived in a room off the front of the house, us ladies lived upstairs. Ms. Rose is a gracious host and made me feel so at home. Being a non-religious person, I was a bit scared on living in a religious household, but she was wonderful. I miss her so much. Two of my fellow Peace Corps Trainees lived on either side of me. Our nights consisted of dinner and then dominoes and sometimes a beer or two. Spending time with other trainees is essential since they are going to be my support for the next two years, but I really loved spending time with my family.
I have seen the beach twice since I have arrived. Just so everyone is aware, Peace Corps is a job and it is not always about being on the beach. We are in class during the week and have a 7pm curfew for safety. It is hard to get used to that, but it was the same in Liberia. Knowing your community is essential to the Peace Corps and by putting a curfew on us, not only is our safety paramount, but it ensures we spend time in our host families.
The first night I arrived Ms. Rose carried me home. (This is also said in Liberia, it means showed me the way.) As I was settling in, she asked me if I like her bush? I had no idea what I was being set up for at this point. I looked at her with fear in my eyes, as she repeated “Do yuh like mi bush?” What in the name of any diety does that even mean? I continued to give her a blank stare as she shoved lettuce in my mouth and repeated “Do yuh like mi bush?” OHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Do I like lettuce? Yes, yes I do. And that is the beginning of a wonderful relationship. We shared and talked about many things over the next two weeks. My two neighbors joined us on many nights. They both had WiFi but would rather hang out with my host family. We even collaborated and made dinner for our families one night. It was like the three stooges learn to cook!
Jamaica is an island, and as with any island you have a diverse ecosystem and a specific set of problems. I will spend the next few weeks discovering the biodiversity and the specific issues of the island. I am excited to learn about a completely new ecosystem and what it looks like to live here. I have already discovered delicious new foods and a loving people. Aside from the fact that we are American there are other subtle differences. Things such as prayer before all events, big or small and the National Anthem still sung in schools.
I miss my first host family but am adjusting to the new one well. The two cooking styles are vastly different. My first host mom made everything from scratch. My new host mom likes to use canned and frozen foods. I have an idea now how to survive no matter where I get posted. I already knew how to cook, but now I know where to find my food and what is a good price. In a store the price is the price, but in an open market or a stand every price is negotiable. And part of the Peace Corps experience is to know when the price is not right. In many countries your skin tone and your accent delineates a much higher price. Be wary and vigilant and negotiate are skills that will become your new superpowers. Be aware that this is not racism but the perception that Americans or Europeans have more money and can afford to pay more. When called out the vendor/taxi driver will give you the right price. It happens in America as well, we just usually do not notice it. This is why living with a host national and traveling with them is helpful. They know the right price and will be the first to speak up.
Our breakfast and dinner is provided by our host families but lunch is on us. Being a vegetarian is a bit harder when it comes to lunch. A popular lunch in Jamaica is a patty, or something similar to a pot pie you hold in your hand. More like a poptart with meat and gravy in it. There are a few patty places in the bigger cities that have vegetarian ones but most do no carry them. Another lunch/dinner item around the Easter season is bun and cheese. This consists of a sweet bread like pumpkin or banana bread, or even a fruitcake like bread and a slab of processed cheese similar to velveeta. Having been in Africa I can tell you this snobby American is going to relish any type of cheese! This combination sounds questionable but is really quite nice. It is a traditional Easter meal, this is so that there is no real work on Easter only worship.
For me having rice for dinner and porridge for breakfast, bun and cheese is just pushing my carb limit over the top. And then I made the greatest discovery. A man with a stove. A Rasta man to be exact. A Rasta man that cooks itol food. This means he cooks clean and fresh. Oh the joy I was overcome with. For $350 I can get a large serving of steamed cabbage with carrots and okra with onions and some steamed pumpkin and or yams. It was the best lunch ever. The problem was that he cooks to order, so I put in an order at first break the next day so he would cook it ahead of time and I could eat on time. This became almost a ritual when many other students joined in the itol foods. I miss my man with a stove, it is a good thing to find.
Just like my classes in Liberia, these are long days. Days filled with cultural sensitivity and diversity training. It is also several weeks of Peace Corps policy and safety orientation. Then after nearly three weeks we split the group up. The education group went to Guys Hill up in the mountains and the environment group came to Port Morant near the beach. This split will last 6 weeks and then we reunite for a week and then we swear in and head to our new sites.
As much as Jamaica is a World country it is also stagnated in its ability to move forward. This has as much to do with trade stipulations as IMF loans. Islands have a much harder task of competing within a world market. The resources are limited and due to space it is often a raw material that is exported only to be imported back as a finished product at a much higher price. This is how capitalism works. Sadly it does not always work in the favor of the people. This is just fact not a criticism or a complaint. In a world economy those who have the ability to export value added product are the ones who are wealthy. The inability to compete stagnates ones economy. And that is so far what I have seen of the major issues of Jamaica, how do you pull yourself up from this position? This is a question I will likely continue to ask myself for the rest of my life. I would love to see some dramatic change in the economy, but I am only here for two years, and this is a 50-year-old battle. My general focus will be more on conservation than the economy, which is a whole other battle. How do you get people who are struggling financially to care about the land and the biodiversity? This is likely to be my focus for the next few years. Balancing my own belief system along with the goals of the Peace Corps and the Jamaican government will be the most challenging. Knowing that my thoughts and beliefs will not be the same as everyone else is not exactly foreign to me. I understand that what I see as a problem the people I am working with may not see as a problem. I will have to work diligently on letting go of my own perceptions.
It is this way in any type of service. Your way is not always the right way. You see issues that may not be as pressing or prevalent to the people you seek to help. I am thankful for my grad school experiences in community building and learning how to listen. Sometimes a grass hut is the most reasonable form of shelter, not every person and environment can sustain clay and wood structures. Building a brick home on the African savannah is not always the answer. You as an outsider may see that as a solution but you do not live there, you may not know that a brick home is like living inside of an oven on the savannah. Most often the best course of action is to observe and listen. You will find your place if you just sit back and observe and listen.