Friday, December 17, 2010

Let's take a trip

There are a lot of things about Jamaica that I have sort of a love/ hate relationship with. Right at the top of that list is Jamaican public transportation (usually just referred to as public). In a lot of ways, the public transportation system here is incredible – you can get to the most remote corners of the island on public and it is usually relatively cheap. But in many other ways, it is incredibly frustrating sometimes – it requires a lot of patience, a lack of need for personal space and usually a good sense of humor. Either way, it’s a huge part of my life here, and so something I should explain to those who want to know what life is really like in Jamrock. So, come, let’s take a trip on public, shall we?

As Negril is in the westernmost corner if the island, I happen to live as far from Kingston (a.k.a. – Town) as possible. Despite this, I often have to go to the Peace Corps office in Town for various reasons. The trip is about 150 miles or so, but often takes me upwards of 6 hours. Usually I have to be in Town sometime in the early afternoon, and so to make it anywhere near on time, I wake up at about 5am. I take a quick shower, get dressed, maybe grab a small bite to eat and head out. If I’m awake enough, I’ll remember to take an Alieve or two before I leave, or throw the whole bottle in my bag – my knees and back will thank me at the end of the trip.

So by about 5:30 or so, I’m heading down my lane to wait for the first of a few taxis. I’ve explained this before, but in Jamaica, taxis run like buses. They are usually regular 4-door cars, but they drive on a specific route, and people get on or off anywhere along the route for fixed prices. Licensed, insured taxis can be identified by their red license plates while private cars operating as taxis have white plates. It is usually preferred to take red plates, but in certain areas this just isn’t realistic – getting a red plate is a lot of money and work, and so a lot of drivers just don’t do it. Thus, you are sometimes left with no choice but to take a white plate. Anyway, back to the trip. After about a 2 minute walk down my lane, I reach the main road that goes down to Negril and I wait. Sometimes I luck out and get a drive in just a minute or two, other times it takes as much as half an hour – you just never know. But eventually I get a ride and after about a 5 minute drive I make it down to Negril for J$90 – just over US$1 (total vehicle count so far: 1, total cost so far: J$90, approximate total driving time: 5 minutes).

From here I have a decision to make – I can either get to Kingston via the north or south coast, and there’s a continual debate over which route is better. To go south coast, I have to get to a town called Sav, about half an hour south-east. But the road from Sav to Town is awful, and the bus park in Sav is very slow. So if you don’t get a full bus, it might be 2+ hours until the next one leaves (more on why this is so later). The north coast road is much, much better, but it’s a little longer. However, the buses on this route tend to fill faster, making the overall trip time pretty equal. I like the smoother road, so I usually take the north coast, through Montego Bay (MoBay).

So, decision made and off to MoBay we go. First stop is a town called Lucea, halfway between Negril and MoBay – there are no public buses/ cars that go straight from Negril to MoBay. I usually end up waiting for a Lucea taxi in the Negril bus park for at least 10 minutes, as it’s so early that most drivers are still asleep in their beds. But eventually a taxi will come, and at least 3 of us will pile in. The drivers like to make the most bang for their buck, so they like to put at least 5 passengers in their car – 1 in front and 4 in back (yes, this is in a standard 4 door sedan type car). Often times, there are 2 people in the front and more than 4 in the back, especially if a few of the passengers happen to be small kids or teenagers. There is no real comfortable way to sit 4 in the backseat, but the best way to do it is to have one of the two people in the middle (usually women), “sit up”. This means one of them moves up in the seat so that they are just on the edge of the seat and their knees are sort of at an angle. Usually it is the smallest or the youngest woman who does this. As long as the other passengers in the car aren’t selfish about their space or aren’t too fluffy (a Jamaican term for larger ladies, usually used in an endearing manner) this actually always terribly uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s just downright painful.

So, now we’re all “smalled up” in the car. Comfortable? Good, because we’ll be like this for about half an hour on this leg. The driver makes his way out of Negril and towards Lucea, to the north-east. If the car’s full, he’ll drive as fast as he can, passing other cars, buses, trucks or anything in his way (drivers are almost exclusively men). Often around blind curves. Yes, this is dangerous. No, he’s not going to slow down, so it’s best to just sit back and relax as best you can. (It’s a true sign of a PCV’s integration when they get out of a taxi saying “Man, he was going way too slow! Only passed like 2 people on the way!”) If the driver doesn’t have a full car, he’ll slow down at every person he passes and honk, asking if they need a ride in the direction he’s going. At one point, one of the passengers will say something like: “Wan stop driver”, or “let off”, or simply “right up here driver” to signal that they want to get out. They pay their fare, get out, and if you were smalled up, you and the rest of the passengers can now readjust. But don’t get too comfortable – the driver will soon pick up someone else, so it’ll be time to small up again. After about half an hour in this car, you’ll reach Lucea. You get out at the park (each town has a central bus park where most of the buses/ taxis gather and load, and it’s usually just referred to as the park), pay your fare and make your way to the MoBay buses. (vehicle count: 2, cost: $290, driving time: 35 minutes).

Now, time to be alert. The MoBay buses all queue up in one area, and it should be that the buses load in order that they come in, one at a time. But this isn’t always the case. So as soon as you get out of your taxis, you will have “loaders” come at you asking if you are going to MoBay. Loaders are people who are paid by the drivers to load their bus fast so they can get back out on the road. They’ll use any tactic necessary to get you into their bus: flattery, intimidation, rushing you, grabbing your arm/ bag/ sweater/ etc, they’ll lie to you about where the other buses are going – anything. This sometimes leads to fights between loaders, but usually it’s just understood that it’s part of the job and unless someone does something really out of order, the different loaders are relatively civil to each other. The key to dealing with the loaders? Stand your ground and don’t let them fluster you. You never give them your bag – that’s pretty much agreeing to go in whatever bus they put you in. And you definitely don’t want to lie to them about where you are going to get them off your back – that’s just asking for trouble. When the first loader approaches to asking if you’re going to MoBay, it’s best to say yes but also explain that you are getting on the fullest bus, no matter whose it is. Usually if you are firm enough and very clear about that point, he’ll ease up a bit. Not totally, but a little. So look around and find the fullest bus going to MoBay you can and get on. Different routes have their own areas to load in, and each bus/taxi also has their route printed either on the front or side so you know which bus is going where.

Now, we’re moving up and no longer in taxis, but in “mini-buses”, 15 passenger vans. But since this is Jamaica, there will be about 20 people in this vehicle, so once again, get ready to small up. If you’re lucky, you get a real seat, even if it is squished. If not, you get a “cross-seat”, a piece of cushion on a hard board that is spread across the 10 inch space in the “aisle” of the bus for you to sit on. These are by far the worst seats on the bus, as they are the most squished and there is no back to lean against. If it’s a long trip, it might be worth it to fight for a better seat or to wait for the next bus to load, but since this one is only about half an hour, I usually just take whatever seat I can get. So once the bus is fully loaded and more people are squished on than seems possible, you’re ready to go. Even though this is a bigger vehicle, it works exactly the same as the taxis, so there will be stops to let some people off and then on throughout the ride. By now, it’s about 6:30/7, so people will be more lively and talkative on this ride. It’s generally way to curvy and squished to read on the buses, and a few people will listen to headphones on the way. There will usually be music playing anyway – often the radio, but sometimes the pick of the driver which is pretty much like musical Russian roulette. But there’s usually a good amount of chatter, and noise to keep you entertained on this short leg. And before you know it, there you are: MoBay. After a few standard stops on the outskirts of town at different ports or factories, you’ll make it to the park. Once again, you make your way out of the bus as gracefully as possible (not always easy after being squished and likely losing circulation in at least one extremity), pay your fare and look for your next bus. (vehicle count: 3, total cost: $470, driving time: 1hr, 40 min)

Now, since MoBay – Kingston is such a long route, the drivers are much better at queuing and staying in order, so you don’t have to be so defensive with the loaders. So find the line of Town buses, make your way on to the first bus and get comfy – you’ll be here for a while. This is a much bigger bus – one of those that’s about 10 – 15 feet long and would usually seat about 25 people. They can easily sit 4 people across a row (with one unlucky passenger in the “jump seat” that folds down into the aisle), but often 5 get squeezed across. A lot of people also have big bags, boxes or other things, especially on the longer hauls. These are all creatively squeezed in somewhere. Some people make a fuss about being smalled up too much, especially if one of them happens to be fluffy. But usually it’s just understood that this is the reality of public.

If the bus is almost entirely full, you’re in luck and you’ll leave out pretty soon. If not, well, that sucks. Buses and taxis usually don’t move until they are full. Well full. I’ve waited for just over 2 hours for buses to load. It can be one of the most infuriating things in the world. Especially in the mid-day, people just aren’t travelling as much or as far so the buses take forever to fill. Sometimes the people try to convince the driver to get going anyway, but that’s usually a futile effort. And again, people don’t really read or listen to ipods, and since you already stand out enough you probably shouldn’t either. It’s not a hard and fast rule that you can’t, but you just generally don’t (the newspaper is one general exception to this). So be patient. Stressing it will do nothing but raise your blood pressure and give the Jamaicans something to tease the whitey about.

While the bus is loading, there will be plenty of vendors coming to sell you various items. Usually it’s some sort of snack or drink, or phone credit, but sometimes they pop up with really random items. Manicure sets, toothbrushes, underwear, DVDs, CDs, jewelry and more are all common items that are usually sold in the major parks. It’s pretty nice though – if you want a bottle of water, you know you don’t have to wait too long before someone walks up to the bus to sell you some. Or if you want an excuse to stretch your legs after sitting for so long, go and get one yourself.

So once the bus is full and people make their final adjustments, the bus is ready to move out. This is the long part of the trip. It’s at least a 4 hour ride, so let’s hope you’re comfortable. If not, you can try to adjust a bit, but it usually doesn’t help so just get used to it. Just like on airplanes, your neighbors can make or break your trip. Hopefully you’re not sitting next to someone too fluffy or selfish about their space, someone who smells or someone who will attempt to hit on you the entire time. But it’s all just luck of the draw on public.

The other nice thing about the north coast route is that they always make a pit stop about halfway through. So after about 1.5 – 2 hours, you’ll stop at a gas station with a bathroom that’s surprisingly clean for the circumstances, and a nice little store. After about 10 minutes, it’s time to pile back into the bus.

This is always my least favorite part of the ride. The first 2 hours or so on a ride are fine. A little boring, but nothing I can’t handle. But after about 2 hours squished into a bus, I tend to start loosing the will to live. I just don’t want to do it anymore. But I don’t really have a choice, so I have to just go with it. Hopefully there are people on the bus to make the ride entertaining. Although, just like the neighbors, this is definitely luck of the draw – they can make or break the trip. Some common topics of conversation on buses are: problems in Jamaica, politics (if this is the topic, best to keep your head down and make a few ambiguous nods), music, religion, dating, differences between men and women in general, the sex lives or preferences of different passengers, etc. Keep in mind that generally everyone on the bus is strangers. But in Jamaica, that doesn’t mean you can’t talk loudly and publicly about the last person you slept with or your preferred positions – many Jamaicans just aren’t phased by that kind of conversation. If you have a good group of people on your bus, these conversations definitely make the trip go faster.

But often times everyone is relatively quiet. In that case hopefully the driver makes good time and you don’t hit any traffic. About 3 hours into the ride, people will start getting off at various towns. On the long rides, it’s understood that you don’t get on that bus unless you’re going at least half way. On these rides, in addition to the driver, you will also have the ducta (short for conductor). He is the one that collects the fare and also the one who tells the driver when people want to get off along the way. About a half hour outside of Town, he’ll collect everyone’s fare. I’m always kind of impressed by this. He collects generally in order, but makes change for people as he goes and keeps track of where people get on and off and how much they owe. If he doesn’t have the right change at the moment, he’ll get as close as he can and then give you the rest when he gets it. In general, drivers and ductas are really honest about the fares and actually don’t try to rip people off. You’ll get your exception to this, for sure, and that’s always really frustrating. But generally they are really honest about giving you the correct change and telling you the correct fare if you ask.

(One quick aside: in Jamaica, it is standard practice to identify strangers by their job. So if you don’t know your taxi driver, but want to get his attention, you refer to him as “driver” – this isn’t at all condescending. Same with the ducta. The guy who sells small bags of nuts in the park? Nutsy. The fruit vendor? Fruitsy. It also works with physical characteristics – someone with dreadlocks is simply called Rasta, a light skinned person is brownie or browning, an Asian person is Mr or Mrs Chin, an Indian person is Coolie, someone who is particularly dark is blackie. This is a weird thing to get used to, but it’s not done to be politically incorrect and is actually really useful. If you want to point someone out, why not just use the characteristic that makes them stand out the most? When you say “That whitey over there” it’s much easier for everyone to know who you’re talking about than if you say “That man wearing the blue shirt”.)

Once you start making to the outskirts of Town, pay attention. At one point, the ducta will call out “Anyone for three mile?”. That’s the stop you want.

As the bus is getting closer to downtown and the main park in Kingston, the ducta will call out “Anyone for Three Mile?”, and this is the best spot to get off. The bus will go straight to the main park in downtown Kingston, but there’s no need to go that far. And by this point, I’m always so ready to get off the bus that I’ll stop pretty much anywhere. So I get off at three mile. The ducta has already collected my fare, and for the first time in at least 2 or 3 hours, I can actually stretch out my legs – sometimes a pretty painful process. (Vehicle count: 3, total cost: $1,120, travel time: 5hours, 40 minutes)

Now, once again there’s a choice to make. I can either take a regular taxi to the PC office, or charter. Chartering is just hiring a taxi to take you and you alone straight to where you’re going. It’s a lot more convenient, but a lot more expensive. There are always about 5 – 10 drivers waiting to be chartered at three mile, and they all know PC. So anytime a whitey gets off the bus, they automatically start yelling “Peace Corps! Come with me, Peace Corps!”. If you decide to take one of these guys, it will take about 15 minutes to reach the office, but it’ll cost about $500 – almost as much as the whole MoBay – Town trip. But usually the drivers are really nice, and like most Jamaicans, making small talk with them is really easy (if not exhausting after 5+ hours of travel). You never, ever have the same conversation with Jamaicans twice, so it’s always interesting to see where the conversation goes. And before you know it you are at the Peace Corps office! If you’re lucky, you have some time to rest and stretch out before you have to do whatever it is you came in to do. (Vehicle count: 4, total cost: $1,620 (about US$12), travel time: 5hrs, 55 min).

But sometimes I’m not in the mood to pay $500 to charter, so I continue on public. To do this, I have to walk past all the drivers waiting to be chartered, which can be pretty difficult. Just like the loaders, they can be pretty aggressive. But just beyond them, there are regular route taxis that go to Halfway Tree – the major transportation hub in local destinations in and around Town. Usually this driver doesn’t wait for a full 5 person load, and leave within a few minutes. Sometimes there’s less chatter in a route taxi but again, it’s all luck of the draw based on the driver and other passengers. Kingston is a really confusing city, and I’m always really impressed that the drivers know it so well. And it seems like I never really go the same way twice. After the 4 – 5 hour trip from MoBay, this 10/15 minute drive in a not smalled up car is always nice. And it’s only J$80 to Halfway Tree, a much cheaper option. (Vehicle Count: 4, total cost: $1,200, travel time: 5 hours, 55 min)

From Halfway Tree, you can either get in one final taxi to the area of Town the PC Office is in, or you can walk. Walking is about 20 minutes, and the ride is about 5 – 10 depending on traffic. If you opt for the taxi, when you reach the office, you’ll have been in 5 different vehicles, spent $1,280 and driven for just over 6 hours (remember, that’s not counting time spent waiting for the rides!).

Either way, it’s an exhausting trip. But at this point, it’s probably only about noon or so, and you still have a half day’s worth of activities and errands to take care of in Town. Not to mention socializing with any other volunteers who happen to be in the area after that. Needless to say I usually sleep pretty well and pretty early on travel days. And my average stay in Town is usually just about 18 hours. If you’re in Town for official PC business (meetings, Dr appts, etc), they put you up in a hotel and even give you per diem. But this adds up pretty quick, so you can usually just get one night, maybe 2 if you’re lucky. Meaning that the next day, you’ll likely have to make the whole trip in reverse! And yes, that is just as depressing as it seems. After a half day of travel, waking up the next morning knowing you have to do it all over again is a bit demoralizing. But at least at the end of that trip, you can sleep in your own bed – sometimes my only motivation to get back on that bus.

This was a rather long post, so congrats for making it all the way through! But it seems fitting that a long ordeal like this gets a long post, no? And stay tuned for a post in the next few weeks too – this year is my first and only Jamaican Christmas, and I’ll definitely share the experience with all of you! Till then, Happy Holidays to all!

Friday, November 19, 2010

How to fill every "whitey" stereotype in 5 minutes or less!

I think I mentioned this in my last post, but recently I've started working in a school once a week. The amount that I've learned in just a few weeks has been amazing, and it's really helped me to understand Jamaicans and Jamaican culture a lot better. To be totally honest and politically incorrect, Jamaican schools are a mess. I am planning on doing a whole post on schools, and that soon come. But for the purpose of this post, suffice it to say that I've seen a lot at the schools that makes my sick for a lot of reasons - teachers using belts as their primary discipline tactic, 10 year olds who can barely write their own names, students embarrassed in front of the whole class for the smallest transgressions, and much more. But yesterday, I saw something that truly made my skin crawl. And the most ironic part is that it has nothing to do with Jamaicans, just with naive and ignorant white people. Life is funny.

After school finished, I was walking down the road with some of the kids, chatting, joking, and having a good time. There's a central spot nearby the school where the kids go to get their taxis home (there are no school buses in Jamaica, so people who drive taxis through the different neighborhoods come to take them too and from school, and the kids pay about J$50 each way - about $0.60). It's organized chaos - there are about 150 students in this little area, but the kids usually go with one of the same 2 or 3 drivers every day, and the drivers know where to let the kids off. But collecting all the kids they are supposed to collect, squeezing them in the car (at least 8 kids, usually more like 10, in a typical 4 door Civic type car), collecting the fare, etc, is a bit of a circus. But it actually works pretty well.

Anyway, the students and I approached this taxi area, and as we were about to go our separate ways, a car with 3 white woman in their late 20's and one Jamaican man drives up. The women were wearing matching tye-die t-shirts and seemed very, very out of place. I was walking away and I saw them approach one of the kids I had just been talking to. They draped this brand new, really nice backpack around his shoulder, took a few pictures each and walked away. I could not believe my eyes. And of course before they made it back to their car, a fight had broken out with all the kids trying to get their piece of the bag (which, I found out afterwards, also had a brand new soccer ball and notebooks inside). The Jamaican the women were with had to come over and mediate, meaning he yelled at the kids to behave and told them that the bag was his and his alone.

I was in shock about what I had seen - could they really be so ...I'm not even sure what the word is. But I think white is the word I'm looking for. Not in color, but attitude. You just come here, give a kid a bag, take some pictures and walk away? Never to be heard from again? And you think that's helpful in any real sense? Really? Stop pretending there's anything altruistic about this and just admit to yourself that you're real goal has nothing to do with this poor Jamaican kid you are "helping" but with making yourself feel good and having some cute pictures you can put on facebook to show off to your friends.

I couldn't just walk away, so I went up to the Jamaican who had brought them up, and asked where they were from. "Colorado" he said. And I asked what they were doing here, and he gave some vauge answer about helping. I asked if they were working at the school or just giving things away, and the Jamaican said no, just giving things away. In response I muttered "That is not what Jamaica needs". He didn't really hear me, but I didn't want to get into anything, so I just walked away, ignoring the women. I wanted to make it clear to the whole of my community and especially the kids that I had nothing to do with this whole thing.

Then I went over to the kid who had gotten the backpack to ask if he had ever seen those women before. He hadn't. "Well, did they say why they gave that to you?" "Because they saw me talking to you, Miss." Greeeaat. Pick the one kid out of 150 that the only other whitey is talking to and single him out with a random gift for no good reason. I truly hope that the kid misunderstood the situation, and that they had a better reason for giving it to him. But who knows. And at this point, I was so upset at the whole situation that I had to walk away before I went over and made a scene with the women. Who were still standing awkwardly by their car, about to be mobbed by kids wanting a backpack for themselves, or money, or candy or really anything.

Now, I know that on the surface my reaction might seem pretty harsh. They were just trying to do some good, right? I do understand that, and yes, I'm glad this kid now has a new backpack. But there is so much wrong with the whole situation that I don't even know where to begin.

For one, they know nothing about the kid except that another whitey was talking to him. I barely know anything about this kid - he's not one of the ones I work with on a regular basis. He seems like a good kid, but he could have easily been the biggest bully in school. Or the richest kid in school. They had no idea.

More importantly though, they are just feeding into a mentality that is awful in Jamaica. There's a sense that all white people are rich and have something to give to everyone here - I can't tell you how often people beg me for things. Anything. Sometimes they actually need what they're begging for, but often times they just want to see if they can get something out of you. It's a game of sorts. In fact, the kid who they gave the backpack to had just finished asking me for $50 for his fare home, despite the fact that he knew I had just seen him put more than that in his pocket right before asking me. But it makes sense. If people are constantly coming and giving you things, why do you need to work for anything? Eventually someone will come along with something. Whether it's a new backpack for a student, a new computer lab, a new road for the country, or a meal. It's actually a demotivator in Jamaica. Now, if these women had come and spent some time with the kids and given the bag as some sort of prize, that would have been different. Still a little weird, but at least there would have been interaction and incentive for the kids, instead of just this random gift.

Not to mention that in a selfish way, it just makes my job harder. I don't have any material things to give anyone, or any money. But I will gladly spend the day with almost anyone in my community who is interested in learning something from me. Or even who just wants someone to chat with. And that's why Peace Corps is such a great model. It goes back to that old cliche - give a man a fish he'll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime. Teaching takes more time, yes, but usually the investment is well worth it in the end.

The last point I'll bring up is the lack of cultural knowledge. These women probably had no idea the kids would start fighting right away. But talk to anyone who has worked with kids here at all, and they could have seen that coming a mile away. And there's a good chance that when the kid went home with his goodies, telling the parent about the white women who came to give it to him and him alone, they aren't going to believe him. Best case scenario, they laugh it off and let it go. Worst case, the kid gets beat for lying and stealing the bag from someone else. And then the parent will probably take the bag for themselves or, more likely try and sell it, because what use is a nice backpack when you can't put food on the table?

I could go on and on about this. And I realize that it goes deeper than just this one instance. But this was such a clear example of a lot of what bothers me about relationships between developed and developing countries and their citizens. And I know there's no right answer. Like I said, these women thought they were doing good. The kid now has a nice new backpack (hopefully he still has it). But, I don't know. It's just such a bad way to go about "helping", and will make me think a lot harder anytime next time I try to "help" people in a one-off situation like this.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Summer Update

As usual, I am long overdue on an update. While you should be used to it by now, that's no excuse and this was an exceptionally long lag between posts. I’m sorry. I will try to recap my summer in one post. Ready? Go.

China - the last post was so long ago that I was actually on a different continent when I wrote it. I was in China for the first week or so of June for the FEE Annual Meeting (see last post for a 2 sentence synopsis). It is incredible that I had the opportunity to travel to China as a PCV and something that I am very grateful for. I learned a lot at the conference, and had a wonderful time traveling around Hong Kong. Luckily people in HK spoke enough English that I could get by. Travelling solo is not really for me, especially in a country where people don't speak enough English to just start up a conversation, but it was still an amazing few days. And yes - the food was awesome. The flavors were surprisingly similar to American Chinese food, but the ingredients were definitely different. My favorite dish? Pineapple & chicken fried rice. I know, not exotic at all, but totally delish. Since I'm not really sure what else to share about the trip, I'll just share some photos - they tell the story better than I could:

On my 46 hours of travel back from HK (yes, 46 HOURS), I was lucky enough to have a 12 hour layover in New York! My sister Morgan was nice enough to lend the use of her apartment (even though she was not there herself) and my mom was nice enough to pick me up for some QT, and so I could use a washer and dryer, eat a good Italian meal and take a shower. I landed in Jamaica exhausted, but overall really happy to be back.

July seemed to fly by, and ended with an exhibit at the Denbigh Agricultural Show. It’s like a state fair, except for all of Jamaica, and it’s a pretty big deal. Each parish has their own pavilion where they display the accomplishments of the last year and try to out-do the other parishes. In true Jamaican style, this involves a competition to see who has the most impressive pavilion. (Want to get a Jamaican to really, really work hard on something? Make it a competition.) NEPT was asked to do the environmental section of Westmoreland’s display, and I have to say, I think we did a pretty good job. We had a huge table display of the Negril Great Morass (Wetland) and used it to explain what a morass does and how important it is and what activities take place in the morass (farming, building, dumping, etc). It was really interesting talking to Jamaicans about all this – most of them had no idea. And while I’m not sure how much behavior change will come of it, it was promising to see how interested they were in it. It was an incredibly stressful weekend – we spent all night Friday setting up and not sleeping, had to stand and talk to people all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday and there were a lot of frustrations that came out of lack of sleep, cultural differences, heat and the like. But overall it was something that I’m happy I did…just something that I never really want to do again. Oh, and no, Westmoreland didn’t win. We came in a disappointing 7th. I think this was a bit unfair, but yes, I am biased.

As a result of the lack of sleep, stress and drama of Denbigh I spent the middle half of August pretty sick with a bad respiratory infection. After a few trips to the doctor (including one memorable trip where I was sent to a quarantine room while waiting to see her because I was coughing so much), a week of bed rest, plenty of soup and a course of antibiotics, the infection passed and the rest of August went by pretty slowly and uneventfully.

September brought a new school year and a new secondary project for me. I now work one day a week in my local school. The school is what’s called an All Age School, and it houses students from grade 1 – 9 (the ages of these grade are roughly the same as in American schools). There are 500 kids in the school and I have to say, Jamaican schools are a lesson in organized chaos. The fact that any kid learns in the environment is a testament to his or her own determination more than anything else. That may seem a bit harsh, but I can barely focus when I’m sitting in on a class! I’ll likely be teaching kids in grade 4 and 6, helping them with a sort of small group tutoring sessions. At the end of the school year, kids in both of these grades take big tests (grade 4 a literacy test and grade 6 a test called GSAT, which decides where they can go to high school). So getting those kids ready is a huge deal. I’m not at all qualified to work in a school and have not really ever done anything like this before. I’m kind of just figuring it out as I go though – something I’ve learned to be very good at through Peace Corps. I could go on and on about school and the intricacies of it, but I’ll save that for a post of its own in the coming weeks.

The end of September/ beginning of October brought Tropical Storm Nicole to Jamaica. It was 5 days of rain and about 2 of pretty high wind. Luckily, the damage was relatively minimal, but the flooding was huge. The road leading up to my school was totally flooded out and for about a week after the storm the students who live below the flooding just couldn’t go to school. People who lived above the flooding could get into town a different way, but this turned what was normally a 10 minute drive into a 30 minute drive. The water has since been pumped out from that area and things are mostly back to normal. After making it through a relatively minor storm, I take back all the times I ever said I wanted to see a hurricane – I definitely don’t, and I’m glad hurricane season will soon finish!

And the middle of October was spent in the states on a wonderful 2 week vacation. Even though I wasn’t able to pull off a birthday surprise for my mom (how did I ever think I could?? That woman knows everything!), it was a great two weeks spent with family and friends. I got to see my mom’s condo in Burlington, which is really nice and in such an amazing town. I also spent time in NY and DC – two of my favorite places. I got to see friends, eat amazing food (the culinary obsession this time around? Salads and craisins.). The amount of choices that confront Americans everywhere was a bit overwhelming, but it was a good way for me to recharge myself for the rest of my 6.5 months in Jamaica.

And that, my friends brings us up to today. Coming back was hard, and I feel like a lot of the other volunteers are in a bit of a slump right now. We have just over 6 months left, which is a long time, but will go by fast. We have a lot of decisions and transitions coming up but can’t do anything about them yet. We still want to do work but don’t want to start any new projects since we probably won’t have enough time to see them through. It’s a strange time in a PCV’s service. (but then again, when isn’t??) But! There’s a lot to look forward to in the next few months. Some amazing concerts, at least 1 visitor, possibly 3, a repeat of the Reggae (half) Marathon, Christmas and New Year’s and a possible sprint triathalon among others. The 6 months will be up before I know it and I’m trying to remind myself of that every day! I promise my next post won’t be in another 4 months, but until then, there are two more links I wanted to leave you with.

The first is the latest newsletter that I put together for NEPT:

And the second is some more pictures from my summer:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

China? China.

Yes, that's right - I'm in China. Hong Kong to be exact. How and why did I get to China you ask? Well, it just so happens that Green Key (the eco-certification program I'm developing with hotels) is part of an international organization, FEE - the Foundation for Environmental Education. FEE runs 4 programs in addition to Greek Key, and there are member countries around the world. Once a year, FEE has an Annual General Assembly, and this year the meeting was guessed it! China. And I got to go. Pretty neat, huh?

Everyone was so nice, and I learned a lot from just sitting in the meeting and just talking with everyone. The first day, I had lunch with a Kenyan, Moroccan, Brit, Cyrprus...ian(?), Greek, Tunisian, Slovakian, Jordanian and Matla...n(?). It was one of the coolest experiences I've had in a while.

The conference finished yesterday and now I'm playing tourist in Hong Kong for a few days. I only got here yesterday but I already really like Hong Kong a lot - it actually reminds me a lot of Manhattan. I spent yesterday walking around, getting to know the city and browsing in the street markets here. It's such a different lifestyle than Jamaica, and I'm not sure I could live here, but I'm really glad I'm getting to see it, if only for a few days.

More updates and definitely some pictures to come when I get back to Jamaica this weekend.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Long overdue update

My apologies for lack of updates for the past month. I’ve moved houses, and no longer have internet at my house. And I’ve actually been busy at work, leaving me little time for blogging! But I’ll try to get back on track with more regular updates. For now, the biggest update I have is my new house, which I absolutely love.

Before I get to that, I should mention that May 15th was my 1 year anniversary of Swearing-In! That means I’ve gotten over the 1 year milestone, and let me tell you, it feels awesome. I feel like my projects are at a good point, that I have a lot of traction with them and that I’ll be able to get a lot of work done in the next year (11.5 months, technically. But who’s counting?). Most importantly, I really understand the culture now and I really know how to work and get things done and relate to Jamaicans. That’s something that is vital to any successful Peace Corps service, and I’m so happy to have reached that point.

The other big change for me this past month was moving to a new community! I moved to Negril in August, and was living on the Beach Road – a strip of all hotels and no community. I didn’t realize until a few months ago how lonely it really was, and although I really enjoyed living close to my landlords, I decided to move. I found an apartment I really liked in a community I knew I liked, got Peace Corps approval and moved in on May 1! The main house on the property is a HUGE 8 bedroom, 2 story house. There’s an older married couple who live in the main house, and they don’t even use the second story of the house – it’s just for when guests and family come to visit. There are 2 kitchens in the house (one for each story), 2 huge living rooms (again, one for each story) and a huge dining room. It’s crazy big. And my apartment? It’s the maid quarters. Yup, around the back they built a small, semi-attached studio and had it for a live in maid. But to my luck, they haven’t wanted to hire one yet and wanted to make a little extra money, so they decided to rent it! It’s the perfect amount of space too. My own kitchen, bathroom, bed room and even a veranda that has become more like a living room. The veranda has a long zinc roofed overhang, and sitting out there during a rain storm has become one of my favorite past times. And lucky for me it’s rainy season!

But more than just a good apartment, the best part has been having neighbors and a community. I live about halfway down a lane that’s loaded with people, and they all knew my name within a week of me moving in. Not so hard to learn one white girl’s name I guess. But learning all their names? That’s something I’m still working on. Soon come. My closest friends on the lane so far? The two little girls from next door, Shea and Sabrina. Shea is 3, Sabrina is 5. They are adorable, and start yelling my name as soon as they see me walking down the lane (maybe part of the reason everyone knows me…) They come over my house as often as they can, and are making good use of the two coloring books that I brought down! I’ve introduced Sabrina to go-fish and memory, two games that she loves. I’m gonna start watching cartoons with them (educational, don’t worry!), and maybe even doing some crafts. They’ve given me countless tours around the neighborhood, and introduced me to all their friends (I’m totally a hit in the 3 – 7 year old demographic, by the way). All the adults love to see me walking around with the kids too – they get a total kick out of it. And of course they use it as an excuse to say that I should have a brown baby and stay in Jamaica (specifically Good Hope). I think it’s a compliment, but it’s not a piece of advice I’m planning on taking... But it’s been a great move for me, and something I should have done a while ago. I do miss my old landlords, but the tradeoff was well worth it.

Before I go, I should also say that none of the civil unrest that went down in Kingston last week really affected me much. Peace Corps has all volunteers on a travel ban and a 6:30 curfew due to an upswing in crime, but that should be lifted soon. Things seem to be calming down for now and hopefully it’ll stay that way. I’m planning on writing a more detailed post about the whole situation later this week, so I’ll save my thoughts for that. But thank you to everyone who emailed and called asking how I was – I really appreciate it. But like I said, look for another update about it soon!

Monday, April 19, 2010

NEPT April Newsletter

I recently put together another newsletter for NEPT, my agency and I wanted to share it with you. The easiest way to see it is to go to the NEPT website and click the link from there. It should be easy enough to find, but it was posted there on April 16 if you need to search for it.

You can also take a look around the website if you want - one of my co-workers put it together and it's awesome!


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Just another Sunday

“Did you hear what happened at 23/7?”

“No, what happened?”

“Well, it’s kind of not there anymore…”

23/7 is (was) a bar about half a mile from my house. It was a really cool place – a bar right on the beach that never closed, had amazing pizza and a truly laid back vibe. There are plenty of bars on the beach in Negril, but this was one of the rare places that would let you sit at the bar for hours and didn’t really care how much you ordered (which is key for PCVs who make less than $10/day). When you did order, they had delicious drinks, awesome pizza and cold, cold Red Stripes ready. In short, it was one of our favorite places to hang out, watch the sunset and play bananagrams.

But all good things must come to an end, right? I got a call from Eric today (fellow Negril PCV and fellow 23/7 patron) who informed me that the bar was no longer there. “Um, what do you mean, not there?”

Apparently, late last night the owner (a middle aged Canadian man) got into a huge fight with a Jamaican – I think over a girl. The fight involved machetes and baseball bats and the Jamaican man got pretty cut up. He was taken the hospital to get all his cuts stitched up, but as far as I know he’s gonna be alright.

And the owner? He was caught by the cops at the airport while trying to flee the country. He’s in jail now, and no one is really sure what’s gonna happen to him.

After Eric relayed all this to me, I took a walk down to the bar to see what happened. The bar was a completely open bar, with a big thatched roof, lots of tables and chairs a big circular bar and thick, wood bar benches. Well, the tables and chairs were all gone, the flags, posters and signs on the wall had been taken, the alcohol was long gone and the bar itself was being taken apart by 2 Jamaicans who are planning on using the wood in their house. One of the bar employees was trying to sell off the equipment that was left – huge gas tanks, industrial stoves, etc. He has no idea what’s going to happen to the land or the property, and said he didn’t have enough money to try and take it over. (He did ask if I wanted to invest some of my money and go into a partnership with him. Thanks, but no thanks.) It’s a prime spot right on the beach and a good amount of property, so I can’t imagine it’ll stay vacant for long. I guess only time will tell.

In the meantime, it looks like we’ll have to find a new spot for bananagrams. There’s never a dull moment in Jamaica…