imagesIn Jamaica, cats and dogs are treated with considerable difference compared to what we are used to in America. Instead of loving and adoring these pets, they’re feared or ignored completely. But the blame lies in years and years of cultural upbringing, dating back to the days of Jamaican Slavery. Dogs, you see, were used to keep slaves in line, and cats are the source of a large number of superstitions. Today, most Jamaicans pay little mind to our four-legged friends, but if you were to ask them for their thoughts, they’d tell you that they are afraid of them.

Lately, however, small changes in attitude have been made, and Jamaicans are slowly beginning to appreciate these animals for what they have to offer. Dogs are kept in the yard to protect the house and eat the scraps, and cats are kept around for mouse-ing purposes. Most surprisingly, there are a few Jamaicans who DO love their pets and spoil them like we do.

Understanding this cultural apprehension is important when considering the next part of my story.

DSCN1310Sometime during the summer, I was having a conversation with a Jamaican friend and I mentioned that I wanted a kitten. To my utmost delight, he declared that his cat recently had kittens and he’d be happy to give me one. They were born about a month ago, he explained, so in another month, they’ll ready to leave their mom.

I was elated. I’d found myself a kitten, and six weeks later, he calls me to tell me he’s ready to find them good homes. But first he had to catch them. It took a few more days, but I finally got the phone call I’d been waiting for. “Mi catch di puss, finally! Mi a bring ‘im now.”

When at last his car pulled up in front of my house, I hurried outside to greet him. He was standing at the trunk of his car, untying something, then quickly thrust the kitten into my arms. Tiny, wet (it had been raining for days), and terrified, this little kitten was handed to me with claws bared, fur on end, and hissing. It also had a shoelace tied around its neck. I knew this was to keep the cat from running, but it wasn’t until I tried to hug my friend, who quickly backed away, that I realized what was really happening. The poor man was just as scared as the kitten, and the kitten was feral.

Feral is a word used to describe a cat who has never had human interaction. After a certain age, this is irreversible, and feral cats who are forced into human contact will become aggressive and vicious.

The first four days with Kitty were a nightmare. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t come out from hiding, and cried all night, keeping me awake. At one point, he ended up behind my dresser, climbed into a drawer, and got stuck there until 5:30am, which is when I finally found him. I also realized that he hadn’t been properly weaned from his mother, which was why he wouldn’t eat, and was probably starving. This required fishing him out, suffering tiny claws, and making him eat some canned tuna. It only took me one try before he learned that he enjoyed eating, and everything went uphill from there.

On Friday, I had the house to myself, and in the quiet, Kitty came out from hiding. Skittish though he was, he wanted to remain in my sight, cried when I left the room, and would periodically wake up from his much needed nap to make sure I was still there. That night, as I fell asleep, Kitty settled in on top of a large pillow against my headboard, scant inches above mine. He stayed there all night, and it is now one of his favorite spots to doze.

Bowser, from Super Mario Brothers

Within the next week, much happened. Kitty rolled over enough times, allowing me to finally determine his sex and name him Bowser. And if you’re at all familiar with this fella (pictured left), then you’d understand when I tell you that Bowser is an incredibly fitting name.

Having a kitten is like having a toddler, and this little furball is exceptionally troublesome. He gets into everything, plays in his litterbox rather than use it for its intended purpose, and continuously tries to climb the curtains. I have to make sure to secure all my electrical cords before I leave the room and hide anything he might break.

But he’s just so cute!! The day he discovered his tail was particularly entertaining to observe, and when I’m not paying attention, my toes are victim to pounces. Naturally curious, he likes to watch me in the mornings and evenings as I move about my room getting dressed or undressed, and he’ll sleep curled up with me at night.

Unfortunately, I’m still not allowed to touch him. If my hand comes anywhere near him, he’ll back away or hiss. He’s territorial about his food and likes to pee on my bed.

After three days of using his litterbox properly, I decided it was safe to leave my jeans on the bed. I was mistaken.
After three days of using his litterbox properly, I decided it was safe to leave my jeans on the bed. I was mistaken.

Everyday, however, Bowser improves. In the mornings, he’ll pounce my fingers as he would my toes, and he’s taken to exploring beyond the confines of my room. A loud bang will still send him into hiding, but he’s not as timid as he used to be. Luckily, pooping in the litterbox isn’t an issue, but burying it is, so air fresheners have become my new best friend.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be picking him up whether he likes it or not, and petting him and scratching behind his ears until he figures out that he likes it. I’m not okay with having a cat that I can’t hold or pet.

And if you’re wondering if this cat will be coming home with me in two years, that has yet to be decided. When Bowser gets a little bigger (and a little more normal with me and my host mother), I’ll begin letting him outside to explore, like most other Jamaican cats. If he loves the outdoors and never wants to come in, then I’ll consider letting him stay. There would be nowhere in America I could bring him that would compare to the wild outdoors that is Jamaica. If, however, he prefers to stay inside and becomes the lovebug I hope he’ll be, then we’ll have another option to consider.

For now, I am experiencing a brief taste of motherhood, as I watch him destroy my room, pee on my jeans, and keep me awake at night because he thinks it’s playtime. When I’m at school, I’m fretting over what kind of mess I’ll come home to find. No, he can’t draw on my walls with crayons, but sooner or later, I’m convinced I’ll come home to find something broken, or spilled, or knocked over and peed on.

When he's not busy getting into trouble, he's snoozing in his favorite spot
When he’s not busy getting into trouble, he’s snoozing in his favorite spot

What I Came Here To Do

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 6.06.57 PM
Finally, I can begin!

After seven months in Jamaica, and five of them as a volunteer, it is only now that I am able to begin what I came here to do. And because I spent the first three weeks planning, I was able to jump straight into my lessons after ESC.

Regardless of my preparations, I was still swamped under a ridiculous workload. My week consists of meeting with each group twice, taking into account planning between sessions, school-wide schedule changes (like an unexpected early dismissal), and reminding teachers of which students to send and at what times. To top it off, even though I’d made a decent set of activity sheets for each lesson, I didn’t remember to label them properly, and returned to school with a mess of my own making to sort out.

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 5.59.00 PMMy first week was exhausting. And because every class did the same thing for the first lesson, I felt like a broken record by Thursday. Luckily, my schedule allowed for a Friday without students, so I was able to get some more planning work done, and then spend the weekend on hiatus.

Meanwhile, week two (the week we are currently in) picked up at a great start. Most of my students behave well enough, and lessons, for the most part, are going as planned.

But adjustments always need to be made, so flexibility is a major part of the job. I’ve already scouted out some potential changes to my groups and have had to make some alterations in lesson plans. Additionally, I’ve been able to iron out a couple of small details to help make my life easier, like giving each child a post-it with their days and class times on them, and asking them to help remind their teachers that they need to come see me. This, at least, eliminates my need to constantly remind or come fetch my students, and it provides them with a feeling of responsibility.


This week also marks the beginning of my Reading Club, which is held after school on Thursdays. Due to limited resources, and because asking children to read additional pages might pose as a challenge, the Reading Club consists primarily of games to help reinforce the fundamentals. Some of the materials I’ve made for my students turned out to be perfect for this. Things like Sounding-Out Dominoes or Rhyming Bingo, Matching (or Memory) with uppercase and lowercase letters, and even introducing Hangman was a great success. I’ll continue with this club for a few weeks, and then try something new. I have an idea for a Writing Club, and another idea for a Study Hall, which, if all goes well, has potential to evolve into something bigger and more permanent.

DSCN1272One of the teachers at school has also noticed some of the materials I’ve made, and has requested help with some materials of her own to help her struggling students. She understands the importance of reinforcement through repetition, and hopes that these students (I have six from her class) can continue to improve on their reading even outside my classroom. This teacher and I have partnered together for our Reading Club, and she will lend a tremendous hand with my Library Improvement Project.

Speaking of projects, the school has voiced its desire for a computer lab, and since ESC was partially about secondary projects, I will begin the plans for that as well. I’ll be working with the teachers, ancillary staff, and other members of the community to help establish a functioning computer lab with Internet, as well as incorporating a computer class into the curriculum. Of course, all these things take time, so when there is an update on my projects, I’ll be sure to include it.

All in all, despite how much I am already accomplishing, there still seems to be an endless to-do list, both at school and in my personal life. My bedroom floor is in desperate need of a good sweeping, I’m overdue for a load of laundry, and busy tracking down missing care packages or arranging for those that have arrived to be picked up or delivered. I’m keeping up with friends back at home through Skype, email, Facebook and my blog, and making Halloween plans with PCV friends around the island. Let’s not forget my dedication to lose the weight I put on during the summer. That includes a regular workout routine, and the necessity to stop being lazy and actually cook myself a decent dinner. Which, if we’re being honest, hasn’t happened yet this week.

The Sixth Grade girls drew this for me
The Sixth Grade girls drew this for me
(left) Letter Tiles, (right) Sounding Out Dominoes
(left) Letter Tiles, (right) Sounding Out Dominoes

“These children will never forget you.”

This blog post was written by another Jamaica PCV, about our Education Sector Supervisor, whose life was touched at a young age by, not one, but two Peace Corps Volunteers. I found this entry to be beautiful, inspirational, and motivating. It was imperative that I share it with you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks, Michelle, for supplying us with this gem. =)

Simply Intentional

Introducing: Sue W.
A gifted child, Sue grew up in a community where she and her mother were taught by- and interacted with- a number of Peace Corps Volunteers over the years. If I remember correctly, she later befriended a Volunteer who, now returned to the States, is her best friend. Sue is a trained Jamaican teacher but she also started working part-time with Peace Corps as a community liaison or a Language & Culture Facilitator when volunteer training groups came to her town. Eventually she was promoted and is now in charge of PCJ’s Education sector, which makes her my supervisor.

Sue’s Story (transcribed from a video)
Where I come from, we’ve always had Peace Corps Volunteers. So, my mother was taught to sew by a volunteer in the 60’s when volunteers were focusing on vocational work. And as a result of that, my mother was able to make…

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Hit The Ground Running

My calendar has been lying to me again. First it told me that August would never end, and now it claims it’s October. Apparently there was an entire month in between that flew by when I wasn’t paying attention.

But I’m not complaining. After the hot, lazy, fattening month of August, I was thrilled to jump head first into my intense workload. School began with a flurry of activity, changes in my daily routine, and a very long set of goals and deadlines to be met.

Here’s a shortened list of what I’ve accomplished this month:

  • Developed 20 lessons plans for five different reading levels
  • Made upwards of 15 activity sheets, three sets of letter tiles and two vowel wheels
  • Gave 25 students a Diagnostic Reading Test
  • Sorted them into groups by reading level
  • Made up a weekly schedule to meet with groups
  • Completed a 9 page paper, a 12 slide Powerpoint presentation and a five-day PC training conference

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I also changed my diet, resumed a regular workout routine, and suffered ten days without Internet.

I’m feeling rather accomplished.

In addition to crossing off a large majority of my to-do list, September heralded a milestone for me as a PCV. During the last week, I spent my time in Mandeville with Group 84 at our Early Service Conference (ESC).

ESC occurs at every Peace Corps post around the world, and it marks the completion of a volunteer’s first four months at site, during which our primary job is to integrate.

Lots of different things happen at this conference. The first (not all countries do this) is that we are expected to conduct a Community and Sector Inventory (CASI), which was given to us as a twenty-eight page manual prior to our Swearing In Ceremony. The booklet outlines the steps we should follow to properly integrate into our communities, conduct our survey, and write our report. We were also expected to present our CASIs to our sector at ESC.

With many thanks to Facebook, I can safely say that, as a group, the CASI quickly became the bane of our existence. As summer came to a close, finishing it was our top priority. Personally speaking, I put myself on a 48-hour lockdown mode just to get it done.

Another large portion of ESC was the Project Design and Management (PDM) segment, which comprised of two and a half days of training with our community counterparts. In case it hasn’t been mentioned before, my role as a teacher isn’t the only aspect of my service. Each volunteer has a secondary project, which usually involves some sort of development with the community. As we conduct our CASIs, we’re supposed to be identifying the needs and deficits of our community, selecting a project partner (or group of partners), and brainstorming ideas for development. Then at ESC, our training is broken down into sessions that will help us get our project rolling. This includes topics such as The Community Development Cycle, identifying resources and selecting priorities, assigning tasks, roles and timelines, action planning, monitoring and evaluations, budgeting, and applying for/writing grants.

The third aspect of ESC also includes processing our first four months at site. The word processing in PC terms generally means a discussion. We’ll get together as a group or in sectors and talk about what we experienced, whether it be good times or bad, and how we’ve managed to cope. We revisit techniques acquired during PST and evaluate whether or not they were helpful, all the while providing emotional support. It was enjoyable to talk about our experiences and to hear from others that dealt with similar challenges.

And if the expression, misery loves company, has ever been more relevant, I wonder how my non-PCV friends will find this video:

We found it hilarious.

Lastly, ESC came with a few extra goodies wrapped up in the package. It was great to get together with everyone from Group 84, and to see how everyone has been handling themselves out at site. We were also fed three delicious meals a day, coffee throughout, and were blessed with hot showers and an air-conditioned venue. The hotel staff was excited to host us and went out of their way to provide us with a friendly and comfortable atmosphere.

Here are my next three upcoming events:

  • A PCV Halloween
  • A PCV Thanksgiving
  • Two weeks visiting back home

Month Six

My six-month anniversary of being in Jamaica is just around the corner. A lot of things are happening at once. But before I break them down for you, it’s imperative that you understand the I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude.

In life, when too many things exist beyond a person’s control, they tend to adopt a sense of apathy toward the situation(s). It’s part of a coping mechanism that allows for small doses of acceptance.

Peace Corps Volunteers understand this well. From the moment we arrive in our host countries, almost every aspect of our lives spirals out of control. We don’t understand the language and customs of our new homes, people stare at us, and our perspective on the life we left behind begins to shift. We feel out of place everywhere we go and in everything we do. Additionally, our daily schedules change, we’re forced to adapt our diets, and slowly but surely, we’ll grow accustomed to living without certain creature comforts. Through all this, we quickly learn that the best way to cope is to say, “I don’t give a shit.”

Our apathy is derived from the concept of picking and choosing our battles. There are some things about this experience that we simply can’t control, and it isn’t worth getting upset over.

If a student at the school can’t remember my name and calls me, Ms. Whitey, it’s a battle that I don’t care enough about to fight anymore.

As the months pass, however, what a volunteer cares or doesn’t care about can frequently change. With the beginning of Month Six just around the corner, I’ve decided to include a short list of some things that I am choosing to care about once more.

  • Eating healthier
    Many minor adjustments were made to my diet when I arrived on island, and as is true with little things, they always add up. My I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude also allowed for an increase of junk comfort food. As a result, I’ve thickened a little around the middle. Month Six, and all other months to follow, will bring about the return of a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Exercising more
    It really doesn’t matter that I’m from Miami; living in Jamaica without A/C is HOT! I never realized until this summer how heavily I relied upon this modern convenience. Without it, I was able to excuse my desire to remain indoors, parked in front of my large, circulating fan. Living in a culture where women are preferred a little thick, and feeling as though I had no one special in my life to impress, made way for my I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude when it came to keeping in shape. However, when school started up again this past Monday, and I struggled to fit into my pants, I abruptly decided that it’s time to resume exercising. If I’m going to be hot and sweaty anyway, I need to stop letting it be an excuse for laziness.
  • Showering regularly
    Okay, okay, I confess; I let my personal hygiene fall to the wayside these past six months.  But in my defense, I loved showering! There was nothing better than to wash the day away with a hot shower. It’s also where did all my best thinking. But without hot water, showering became a tiresome chore that I quickly decided could be cut down to twice a week. Washing my hair? That could be done once. If a PCV is known for being dirty and smelly anyway, did it really matter how often I subjected myself to the torture of a cold shower? But I’m going to be living here for two years, and the thought of going that long and showering that little is beginning to turn me off. I’m sick of feeling grimy. I’m tired of my dirty hair. And if the Jamaicans can keep clean with a cold shower, then goddamn it, so can I.

An empathetic shift isn’t the only thing brought on by Month Six. According to the PC Cycle of Vulnerability, Month Six marks the end of emotional roller coaster, and the beginning of a gradual incline toward continual happiness. The idea is that after the first six months, you’ve had time to adapt, adjust, settle in and integrate. We’ve begun building relationships in our community and have identified projects and assignments we’d like to work on. That period of being stagnant is drawing to a close, and we’re now approaching a period of productivity.

For the Group 84 Education volunteers, Month Six also marks the beginning of the new school year. The summer was long, boring, hot, and in some ways, miserable. Too much time on one’s hands leads to dangerous thinking; thoughts about going home and forsaking one’s service, let’s say. But with the beginning of a new school year, we teachers are back to work, and I for one, feel much happier when I have a reason to get out of bed and dressed each day. Most importantly however, after six months of being on island, I can finally begin what I came here to do.

Lastly, Month Six heralds a milestone for PCV’s known as Early Service Conference. ESC is one of three major conferences held during a volunteer’s service, the other two existing at the middle of our term, and at the end. ESC marks the completion of a volunteer’s first four months at site, which are devoted primarily toward integration. At this conference, we process our time at site, make plans for the remainder of our first year of service, and bring community counterparts so we can begin rolling out the first phase of our secondary projects. And though many of us have kept in touch, ESC is also the first time we’ll return together as Group 84 since our Swearing In Ceremony.

Personally speaking, Month Six has also brought on a very special gift; one that I cherish dearly and certainly DO NOT take for granted. Does everyone remember the rooster? Good news, folks, my neighbor ate him! For three weeks, I’ve enjoyed undisturbed sleep and my earplugs have remained untouched.

It’s been wonderful.

From The Inside

What do you think of when you hear the words, Peace Corps?

Do you think of a crazy adventure? Do you think of amazing life lessons that can only be learned out there? Do you imagine new foods, breath-taking scenery, or tribal dances around bonfires?

From the outside looking in, the Peace Corps is an exclusive club filled with individuals brave enough and bold enough to take on a challenge that will change their lives forever. Volunteers are dedicated, selfless, and kind-hearted. From the outside, they are hardcore, they beat the odds, and they do things that the common folk could never dream of doing. Volunteers will change the world.

The view from this side, however, is quite different.

From the inside looking out, we’re tired, sweaty, covered in mysterious rashes or bug bites, and are used to feeling out of place or being stared at. Our clothes have stains and holes, finding a few ants in our food doesn’t irk us, and we’re experts at taking bucket baths. We understand how tiresome laundry is, how a care package can make or break the day, and we will never again underestimate a good cup of coffee or a slice of pizza.

From this side, your first world problems don’t concern us. (Your A/C is broken? Oh how tragic.) Advertisements for fast food and Facebook images of your dinner infuriate us. And call me a hater, but I sure as hell don’t want to see how cute you look in that outfit, or how hard you worked in the gym this morning. On second thought, I don’t think anyone does.


When I joined the Peace Corps, I envisioned an idea of what service would be like. It’s the same perspective that you, my readers, have. Throughout our ten weeks of training, as we began to make our adjustments and adaptations, we began see the Peace Corps differently. We were on the outside before, and now, we were moving to the inside.

I’ve been a volunteer for three months, and have been on island for a little over five. As someone who is officially “on the inside,” my perspective on the outside world (the life I left behind) is beginning to shift.

I like to think of it as looking through a rose-tinted window, aka: my computer screen. On one side of this window is you, a non-PCV, surrounded by everything that is familiar. You have your modern conveniences, friends and family at your fingertips, and you may even be a big shot in your law school class or at work.

But on my side, I live in a world where nothing makes sense. I am an outsider; judged and criticized by the very same people I’m trying to integrate with. I feel embarrassed walking past a shop, and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. On a regular basis, I ask my host mother questions that make me feel spoiled and elitist from having been from America in the first place. Questions like, how do I clean this toilet? Or, my hair clogged the shower drain. How can I unclog it?

From the inside, my only glimpse into the outside is what you post online or supply in an email. As I battle with feelings of insecurity, I watch you get married, pass your Bar Exams, or move into your new apartments. I get to hear your thoughts on the latest blockbuster film that I won’t get to see, and my mouth waters over images of your dessert or iced coffee. And because all these things remind me of how out-of-place I feel, I end up resenting your happiness.

A disconnect is occurring.

goq9zBut on this side, I find comfort in the shared misery of other volunteers. Simultaneously, we also find joy in each other’s accomplishments. In the Peace Corps, we call these small wins, and from the inside, we understand how important they are. We learn how to share ideas, support each other when in need, and lend a hand where applicable. We will never judge each other’s body odor, or how long it’s been since we last shaved or showered. Most importantly, a fellow PCV understands why your diet consists of cinnamon rolls and mac & cheese, but will also understand why you refuse to share any of the food you received in your latest care package.

On this side, we stick together. PC training teaches us that we’ll encounter hardships, and that our friends and family might not always understand. This much is true. Training also warned about the inevitable divide that would occur between us, and those we left back at home. While I was still on the outside, I didn’t understand what they meant by that, but now that I’m on the inside, I get it.

The paradigm has shifted. I can’t say that Peace Corps isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (because that simply isn’t true), but I can say it isn’t what I expected. I came into this with certain expectations that feel as though they haven’t been met, but in some strange, paradoxical way, they have. My new world is crazy and it doesn’t make sense, and I both love and hate it. I want to go home every day, but I wouldn’t dream of leaving.

Try to explain these things to your friends back home, and they think you’re losing it. A helpful, empathetic friend might even try to give you advice. But the truth is they don’t understand. How could they? They aren’t where I am. I’ve crossed the threshold. I’ve moved over the line. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, and now that I’m on the inside, I finally understand what that means.

“From the outside looking in, you could never understand it. But from the inside looking out, we could never explain it.”

Facebook Is Not My Friend

Early Termination (E.T.) (verb) [ur-lee tur-muh-ney-shuh n]
1. When a PCV exits their service prematurely
“Another one bites the dust.”
“Oh? Who ET-ed?”
“No, I mean another friend just got married. But it’s the same thing.”

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook these days. I enjoy that I am still connected with my friends, but the flipside is that every week, someone else has either gotten married or engaged. It’s a painful reminder of the fact that I’m still single, broke, and jobless.

“But April, Peace Corps is your job now.”

Oh please! I can’t decide if this is a never-ending version of riding the Tilt-o-Whirl, or It’s A Small World After All. And if I choose the latter, I’m not sure if I’m in the little boat, watching and learning about this new culture, or if I’m a little mechanical doll, and everyone else is staring at me.

The other day, I smiled at a curious child and made him cry.

My friends and family are supportive. They tell me what I’m doing is amazing, and that I am a role model. But I don’t feel like any kind of superhero. I’m not wearing a flashy outfit with a cape; I’m wearing a t-shirt with armpit stains and I smell bad. Showering is a hassle, because my hair clumps and clogs the drain, and the amount of dirt that comes off me would make you think I’m a real life version of Pig-Pen.


But I’m good, until I face the choice between taking a walk in the blazing sunlight, or camping out in front of my fan and playing solitaire on my computer all day. Reading on the veranda is always a winning option, if I can tolerate being interrupted by every other person passing by who wants my attention.

But between crowing roosters, oversized spiders, little black ants that will get into your food if you’re not careful, and the abundance of mosquito bites that adorn my body, I’m doing pretty well.

I’ve done a thirty-mile hike, I frequent the beach, I’ve attended a church service, and I’m finally remembering more community member names than I am forgetting them. I’ve made many Jamaican friends, my students occasionally stop by to say hello, and I keep myself busy by organizing dusty books in the library (when playing solitaire doesn’t sound more appealing). I’ve also managed to balance a social life with my responsibilities, which for many volunteers in other countries is considered a challenge. Then again, I’ve only been a PCV for three months, and it’s the summer time. Let’s see how things go when school starts up again in September.

facebook-sign-outMy bitterness comes primarily from my lack of A/C and pizza. I also grow impatient while I wait for friends to reply to my emails or send out the care packages they’ve promised. Mom and Nana, meanwhile, are busy gallivanting through Italy on a five-star cruise. This friend is posting pictures of her dinner, that one is complaining that a specific television show isn’t on tonight, he’s boasting about that awesome concert he just went to, and – oh shit. Another friend is engaged.

It’s time to log off Facebook.


Four Crazy White Girls

Route 2

Part 1 – Winging it

“Let’s just start walking and see what happens.”
“We’re all broke. We should try to spend as little money as possible.”
“How far is it to the Peak from here?”
“Who cares? This is our adventure.”

And so we walked from Bethel Gap to Ness Castle and waited for the fifth member of our party, a seventeen y/o Jamaican boy who is good friends with Sarah. He led us down a short cut that allowed us to by-pass forty-five minutes of road, and soon after we reached Hagley Gap.

With nothing but time on our hands, we waded through the river and sat by the bank on the other side, reapplying sunscreen, refilling our water bottles, catching our breath, and discussing the next part of our journey.

“The [Hagley Gap] Square isn’t too far from here. There is a shortcut, but it’s steep. Should we take it?”
“Nah. We should save our energy.”
“It’s only two o’clock, and we’re not hiking the peak until Eleven. We should use the road.”
“We’ll see if we can catch a ride to Penlyne at the square.”

We were able to find a ride, but it cost way too much for our tight budget. Besides, deep down, I think we all wanted to be able to say we walked the whole way. So we made the unanimous decision to hike the steep dirt road from Hagley Gap to Penlyne Castle, where we knew a lengthy and much needed rest awaited us.

Part 2 – We’re really cold

625419_10100174541080474_1299730450_n“Wow, it’s really cold up here.”
“I’d like to know how high up we are.”
“Hey, can I borrow that hat?”
“I don’t think anyone would believe us if we told them it was this cold in Jamaica.”

Approximately 3,300 ft in elevation, the wind blew around us and chilled our bones. But we had no idea what we were in for. Regardless, we hung out in a well-lit, out-of-use bus stop while we rested our legs and passed the time. Our goal was to resume our hike at 11pm, so we would reach the peak in time to see the sunrise. We acquired a sixth member; another good friend of Sarah’s who’d hiked the peak several times.

At around 10, we gave up our convictions and sought shelter in a shop to fend off the wind. For an hour, we hung out with a couple other locals, chatting over a variety of things to pass the time. We bought some snacks to keep us until morning, and finished off the sandwiches we’d packed with us. As promised, we set off again at Eleven.

Our next goal was to get to Portland Gap, which was 3.5 miles from Penlyne Castle, and exactly halfway to the top. We’ll take another break there, we decided. The nearly full moon lit our path for a mile, and then we switched to our headlamps.

Unfortunately, Portland Gap was not an appropriate place to rest. It was a small, open field, vulnerable to the fierce and icy wind. While icy might in fact be an exaggeration, I’d guess it was close to mid-forties up there. But in our defense, our clothes were soaked with our sweat and made of cotton, regardless. The grass had already collected a thick layer of dew, and so sitting was impossible as well.

We pressed on.


Part 3 – We must be crazy

At 6,500 ft, about a mile from the peak, I had my first asthma attack.

I am not asthmatic.

It was 2am and we’d been hiking since ten that morning. Exhaustion was setting in. Our muscles ached. We were freezing and victim to that cursed wind every time we stopped for a rest. It was around this point when we started questioning our sanity. We must have been crazy.

While we weren’t opposed to hiking the peak again, we all agreed that it would be done differently the next time around. Like spending the extra couple of bucks to catch a ride and not kill ourselves.

Up was the only way to go, and we’d been reassured by our unofficial trail guide that there was shelter at the summit. An hour and a half later, we finally made it.

Our shelter was the remains of a concrete house-like structure with a collapsed roof. We sat huddled on cinderblocks surrounding a pathetic excuse for a fire until sunrise. Miraculously, two members of our group found sleep, but I was not one of them.

With my hood drawn tightly around my head, my arms crossed over my chest, I rested my forehead on my knees and shivered my way through the next two hours.

7,402 feet.

The wind never stopped once.

Part 4 – Tired is an understatement

521895_10100174556289994_1398611121_nWe didn’t get to see our sunrise. The wind had blown in a thick layer of cloud cover, and by 5am, the sky was growing lighter in gradients but we still couldn’t see anything. Eventually, we stretched our aching bodies and began to dance, if just to keep us awake and warm. Other hikers drifted in, shook their heads at us, and left. Only two girls from Europe stayed for a while to chat with us, and at Seven, we began our trek back down.

It was sunny and warming up when we reached Portland Gap, and this time, we were able to appreciate the view. A man with a donkey and a blanket sold apples, bananas, and Jamaican peaches, so we enjoyed a light breakfast while we thawed out.

And down we continued.

Before we returned to Penlyne Castle, our guide told us of a shortcut – a rocky dirt road – that would enable to bypass Penlyne entirely, and bring us back to Hagley Gap in two hours less time. So we did that.

With gravity against us, every step we took sent a shockwave of pain up our legs and into our bodies. The rocks were loose, and I slipped several times. Our previous reluctance to walk (and save money on a ride) had long ago been discarded, and we were now on the sharp lookout for a cab running on a Sunday.

We were not so lucky.

Part 5 – We’re badasses

Sarah’s friend, our trail guide, left us at Hagley Gap, but our perseverance had returned. We were so close to the end and it still seemed so early in the day. It just before noon.

At Hagley Gap River, we rinsed off and cooled down, taking another short break and filling our bottles once more. Now that we were back on a main road, maybe this time we’d catch a ride. Again, no luck.

The shortcut we’d taken the day before, the one that allowed to save forty-five minutes, was almost impossible now. It was a steep climb down the first time around, and coming up now, it nearly killed us. We reached Ness Castle and rested again at the school, trying to estimate when we’d reach home. I felt a twinge of guilt knowing that the ending point for me was five miles closer than for them. Bethel Gap marked the end of my hike, but Sarah, Jackie, Briana and Jamaican Schooler (I did not have permission to use his name) still had to return to their starting point.

One more painful incline later, we reached a shop at Ness Castle where we purchased bun & cheese for lunch and finally succeeded in finding a ride. I was dropped off in front of my house, and the others were carried down another mile or two.


Part 6 – Recovery

My host mother returned from church to find me sleeping on the loveseat on my veranda. We chatted for a few minutes before I slugged myself into the shower. Once cleaned, I collapsed into bed for an extended nap. I awoke at 7pm, spoke to my Dad for ten minutes, and then fell asleep again for another twelve hours.

On Monday, I was so sore it hurt to walk from my room to the kitchen.

Although it was rewarding to track our hike, count the miles, and take pride in our accomplishment, I still maintain that if I hike the peak again, I’m doing it differently.

Bethel Gap -> Penlyne Castle = 9.3miles
Penlyne Castle -> Blue Mountain Peak = 7miles
Distance hiked in one direction = 16.3miles
Total distance hiked = 32.3miles

Mad props to all of us, with a couple of extra points for Sarah, Jackie and Briana, whose ending point was five miles further than mine.

And many extra points for our Jamaican Schooler who hiked a grand total of 40 miles that weekend!


My First Site Visit

Every once in a while, staff will come to a PCV’s site and check in on them. This is usually always a good thing, and while I can’t speak for everyone, most of us love them. We get feedback on our projects, help with ideas for further development, and if we’re really lucky, a care package.

DSCN0964Last week, my PM, my PTS, and one of the PC nurses graced me with their presence. For two of them, it was their first time seeing my site, and they were in absolute awe. I mentioned earlier that my school was exceptional compared to most other sites, and seeing their reactions only confirmed that belief. When I showed them my incredibly spacious classroom, they immediately launched into a frenzied discussion of its potential. At last, PM declared that PCV’s were not allowed to visit my site, because she’d get too many phone calls from angry people, upset they weren’t as spoiled as me. Evidently, I really lucked out.

Then I brought them into the library. First, I showed them the teaching materials I’ve been working on, and they were very impressed. They asked me if I would please take pictures of them so they could show Group 85 during their training! Then we reviewed lesson plans, and I received more praise.

Next we moved on to discussion of my library project. They liked all of my ideas and even threw in some more of their own. This launched a twenty-minute discussion that resulted in me having to take notes because they were all so good!

During the last part of their visit, I put PM and PTS to work moving some boxes, while Nurse and I drove up the road to my house to chat privately. She likes to have a visualization of where I live and keep health-related items in my room in case there is ever an emergency. Then we sat on the veranda and filled out a few forms and answered a few questions. One those questions included something like, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you say you feel on a regular basis; 1 being depressed, 5 or 6 is coping, and 10 is incredibly content?” I mulled it over for a moment and happily reported that I am at an 8 or 9.

Much later that day, long after they’d left, PTS called to commend me again on my ideas and progress. He told me to keep up the good work and he looks forward to visiting my site again in the future.

And to top it all off, my first site visit also came with my first care package. Thanks Mom!!

My first site visit also came with my first care package!!!
Whoa, big package.

The Fourth

fourth-of-july-fireworksLet’s face it, I’m not the most patriotic American. And on July Fourth, I’m probably the last person you’d see wearing our nation’s colors. It’s not that I don’t have pride – it’s that I choose not to make a big deal. For me, July Fourth has always meant four simple things: camp-wide relay races, popsicles, barbeques, and fireworks.

But this year, as I spent my first Fourth of July outside of the United States, I felt incredibly somber about it. I was encouraged by fellow volunteers to wear red, white and blue, and to use this opportunity to educate those around me. After all, the Peace Corps is a CROSS-cultural experience.

But I chose not to, because for me, the Fourth just didn’t feel the same.

Then, when I wasn’t paying attention, something incredible happened.

July 2nd
“Are you coming to graduation tomorrow?” A teacher at the school asked me.
“Yes I am.”
“And how about dinner on Thursday?”
“I don’t know anything about a dinner. This is the first I’m hearing of it.”
“Oh! We’re taking the Sixth Grade class to dinner in Port Royal to celebrate. You should come.”
“I think I will.”

July 3rd – Graduation
The Cedar Valley Primary and Junior High School Graduation was held in the school’s auditorium, and followed the traditional Jamaican fashion of beginning an hour behind schedule. Like American graduations, the ceremony was exceptionally long and no one really paid attention.

There were two noticeable differences, however. The first was the graduation march. In America, the students form a straight and orderly line, and file into the auditorium to the boring tune of Pomp and Circumstance, a melody I would never recognize otherwise. I mean seriously, who uses it anymore? For Jamaican students, the march is one of the most anticipated parts. They chose an upbeat song with inspiration lyrics about loving life, and performed a dance routine as they entered the room. The second noticeable difference was that the entire community was present to show their support, whether their child was graduating that day or not.

Prior to the ceremony, I’d been briefed that the Principal would be introducing me during her speech – and what an introduction she gave me!

Last but not least, earlier that day, I received text messages from two other volunteers in the parish to let me know they’d be coming to the graduation, so I got to spend some time with them as well!

After the ceremony, there was a mingling session, some pictures, an opportunity to meet parents, dinner, and a ride home at around 10pm.

July 4th – Port Royal & Devon House
I was told to wear a dress, so that’s what I did. And at 2pm, we piled onto a bus and began the long and bumpy ride down the mountain. After making frequent stops along the way, we finally reached Port Royal a little after four o’clock.

Dinner was delicious. Our choices were fish, or fish, (I know, crazy right! How could I choose?) with a side of either rice & peas, or french fries. While we waited for our meals, and afterward, for our check, we played a couple of school ground games. How can I better describe this?? Have you ever been at camp, sitting at the dinning room table, and you begin clapping your hands and singing a song, and the lyrics are the instructions, and if you mess up, then everyone boo’s you? Yeah, something like that.

2324245Anyway, it was great fun, and really cool to see similar types of games played in a different culture. It didn’t take me very long to catch on, and one of the songs even got stuck in my head for hours afterward.

When dinner was over, the students frolicked on the beach. We all kicked off our shoes and ran around in the sand by the surf. As I stood on the beach and watched the kids chase each other, the waves lapped at my ankles and a breeze tangled my hair. It was only then that I remembered it was the Fourth of July.

By eight o’clock, we were at Devon House to get ice cream. In honor of America’s Independence Day, I treated myself to a double scoop of cookies & crème.


July 6th – The Party
I left Cedar Valley at 8am, made three transfers, and reached St. Ann’s Bay (the capitol of St. Ann) by a quarter to two. When I woke up that morning, I was clean, but by the time I arrived, I was a hot sweaty mess, and so dirty that you could see the grime in the crease of my elbows and my palms. My hair was… well I don’t even know.

I went to St. Ann to visit my girl, Christina. I haven’t properly introduced her yet, and I promised to leave her some anonymity, but she’s my best friend. By day two of training, we were already buddied up and cracking inside jokes. Let me put it to you this way; I would not and will not be able to get through my service without her. It’s important for us to have support within our group, and Christina and I are there for each other.

994507_646608865644_1756410935_nWe met up at her site and grabbed lunch immediately, dining like queens at the five-star establishment more commonly known as Burger King. Afterward, we picked up some nosh from the grocery store, and went back to her place to sit for five minutes. There, I met her adorable new kitten, cracked open a beer, and splashed some water on my face. An hour later, we were off again.

Two more transfers later, we arrived in a small community in west St. Ann for a July Fourth PCV get together. I spent the night with twenty other volunteers, snacking on bean or beef burritos, potato or breadfruit salad, oreos and chips. There was an assortment of beverages, card games, dancing, and a strobe light.

That night, we crashed where we landed, and I landed in a hammock on the veranda.

July 7th – The River
The next morning, after a meager breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, everyone slowly drifted out and returned from whence they came. When Christina and I finally reached her place again, we sat down for a movie and promptly fell asleep.

After waking, we decided to take a walk and try to find “her river.” She’d explained to me the day before; it was river that ran behind the houses, out of sight from the street, and there’s a part where you can jump in and swim, almost like a pool. We were determined to find it.

When at last we did, it was serene. The water was teal, and cool, surrounded by trees with long hanging limbs, a baby waterfall, and one solid wall of rock. We sat by the water at first, enjoying the scenery, but before I knew it, my shoes were off and I was jumping in!

Later that night, we ate penne with mushroom sauce, played with the kitten, and watched some episodes of Portlandia before falling asleep.

I returned to Cedar Valley the next day.


999476_646609329714_1469206755_nWhat I loved the most about celebrating July Fourth outside of the US, is the way I didn’t even realize I was celebrating. I went to a graduation and had a ball. Then I went for dinner and ice cream, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. A pre-planned outing to St. Ann turned into a wild adventure filled with spontaneity and shenanigans. For my first Fourth of July spent in another country, I’d say it was pretty fine. Actually, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Except now that I’ve set the bar, next year’s Fourth has to top it.