Dorothy

When I arrived home for the first time in nine months, I stood in the center of my childhood bedroom and looked around. Aside from my closet – vacant of my clothes, but overflowing with my sister’s – my room was exactly as I remembered it. Everything was in its place; from the tiny trinkets that sit on my dresser, to the piles of paper shoved in a corner, to the post-it notes around my room that were relevant at the time. It was eerie feeling. Old memories flooded back, reminding me of what I thought and felt the last time I was here. Time came to a stand still, and I silently asked myself if the last nine months really happened.

During the next few days, as I moved about my house and the city I know so well, I asked myself the same question. Everything was consistent no matter where I went. Familiar foods filled the pantry, the landscape of my neighborhood was static, and even the billboards appeared unchanged. Behind the wheel of my sister’s car, as if I’d been driving my whole life, Jamaica seemed so far away. Surely, it must have been a dream.

Ruby-slippers-wizard-of-ozThen, slowly, realizations began to flood my mind. Everything looked the same, and for a short time, felt the same, but there was one glaring difference that couldn’t be denied: I was not the same. A timid girl lived here before – a girl who dreamed of great adventures, yet panicked at the idea of failure. A girl who possessed incredible potential, but lacked the confidence to tap it. A girl who took so much for granted.

Everywhere I looked, my perspective changed, but some things stood out more than others. There was a developed appreciation for supermarkets and the wide variety of choices available (21 different kinds of Oreos, 16 flavors of coffee creamer, and an entire isle devoted to breakfast cereal), a recognizable advancement in the use of everyday technology (I barely remembered how to use a Smartphone), and the overwhelming joy of not having to be home before dark. I also learned that going to the movies is a beautiful thing, and one should never, ever skimp on popcorn.

But the most notable difference was my feelings on the subject of moving out. After college, I came home. For reasons I’ll keep to myself, I felt as though I had unfinished business, and that I wasn’t quite ready to live on my own. Prior to departure, that initial reluctance transformed itself into the overwhelming fear the Peace Corps wouldn’t work out, and I’d end up back in Miami. Once in Jamaica, I transgressed, and for a few painful months, all I wanted was to return, never to leave home again. Never in my dreams would I have imagined that nine short months would prepare me for my inevitable independence. Surely it’s more complicated than that…

And yet for every day that I was home, feeling a little more like a guest and less like a member of the house, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own life. They say home is where the heart is, but what happens when your heart keeps questioning the things that make it beat? Is it possible, or even normal, to love your home and want to leave it at the same time? Will I be able to find the balance between chasing my adventurous dreams and accepting what is safe and familiar?

WizardOfOz-700x1010As I enter this next segment of my service – indicated by the block of time before I’ll visit home again – I have to remind myself of a few things. The first is that nothing at home really changed, and it’s not likely that things will before my two years are up. If I were to quit and go home now (those feelings still occasionally plague me), I can safely assume I’ll fall right back into my old routine and experience the same feelings of suffocation that drove me to join Peace Corps in the first place. The second thing I need to remember is that I have too many good ideas for projects to stop now, and the only way I’ll learn from them, is to actually do them.

Finally, there is this: When I began this journey (which sometimes feels like a lifetime ago, and other times feels like yesterday), I didn’t know who I would be when I finished. I still don’t who I will be, but I do know who I am, and I know that I’m not done yet. I’m not satisfied with my short list of accomplishments; I want more. I don’t think I’ve learned all the lessons I’m supposed to learn, and at this point in my service, I’m still not the person I want to be.

Unfortunately, you can’t speed up time. You can’t rush the growing process either. I have eighteen months left of service (oh yes, I’m counting), which means that I get another eighteen months of overcoming challenges and obstacles, and learning from them. This is quite possibly the truest test of my character; will I make it to the end, or won’t I? How I handle this determines how I handle the rest of my adult life.

And if there is one thing that I do know about myself – something I’ve proven over and over, and over again – it’s that I am one determined son of a b****. If I want it, I don’t stop until I have it. I hate quitting, and if ever I’ve stuck it out and made it to the end, I’ve always been proud of myself.

But I Didn’t Get Married

Every year around Christmas time, I get a little reminiscent. I begin looking back and remembering where I was a year before. I think to myself, what is today’s date, and what was I doing on this day last year? It provides stunning clarity, and helps me see just how far I’ve come. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in a year.

In honor of the New Year – a period of “personal growth” – I’ve decided to include a short list of my top thirteen moments of 2013

Visited 3 cities and 5 friends in 7 days, then visited Chicago for the first time a week later
Got dumped
Moved to a Jamaica
Learned to speak Patios (Patwa)
Adapted to a new culture
Integrated into a community
Made serious headway in the cooking department
Finally taught myself to French Braid my hair
Killed a spider
And several cockroaches
Hiked 30 miles in 30 hours
Adopted a kitten
Read 14 books

My next two weeks will be spent in America. After nine months abroad, I look forward to going home and celebrating my birthday with my friends and family. I’ll write again after the New Year.

Happy Holidays!

Turn Your Hand

One of the most remarked about traits of a Peace Corps Volunteer is our ability to adapt. There are the obvious things; language, culture, and food. Then there are the less discernible things, among them being our attitude toward a lack of resources. Back in America, if a person needs an end table for their couch, or a tiki torch for their patio, they’re simply going to go to a store and pick one up. But in the Peace Corps, it’s not that easy. For one thing, we have our budget to consider. For another, lack of personal transportation makes carrying these items a challenge. And finally, in our deep rural communities, sometimes what we need can’t even be found.

And so we make do.

The Peace Corps has, by no intention of its own, produced a group of creative individuals, capable of taking every day objects and turning them into something new. In Jamaica, there is a phrase for that – tun ya han, mek fashion – and the locals here could teach us a thing or two. Regardless, we’ve got plenty of ingenuity to go around.

In a recent post on her own blog, another PCJ Volunteer asked us to submit pictures and descriptions of our crafts, and I was widely impressed by what I saw. It’s nice to know I’m in the company of such creative people! Below, I’ve included a list of some of my own tun ya han, mek fashion items, but I highly recommend you check out these other crafty items too!

Cat Stuff

Cat scratching box
DSCN1436Created by cutting strips of cardboard, and gluing them in a shoebox lid.
My shoebox lid is the top to a case of Cliff Bars that were included in a care package,
reinforced with bit of duct tape

DSCN1495 Litter scoops – These are water bottles, cut to suit my need. I’ve got one for scooping the nasties and another for scooping the sand I have to put in.

Cat toys
Crocheted mousie – stuffed with a scandal bag
Crochet jellyfish – stuffed with a scandal bag
Crocheted desk ornament – he won’t play with this
Sock buddy – worn out sock, scrap yarn, and stuffed with… can you guess?

School Materials

Vowel wheels
DSCN1438The individual letter wheels are made from Pringles Cans, a very small amount of poster board, and some clear tape. The inside is obviously a water bottle.

Letter Tiles and Dominoes
I saved my cereal boxes and cut them up. I used a bit more of my poster board to create a white space, but you could just as easily use the brown side alone.

Chalk jar  – Cheez Whiz jar

Good recyclablesDSCN1368

Scandal Bag Dispenser
Made with fifteen to twenty scandal bags (and there’s still plenty to spare!), two elastic hair ties, and crocheted together to make a scandal bag dispenser.

Q-tip jar – Cheez Whiz jar
School materials

Personal

Bandana Throw Pillows – two bandanas sewn together, stuffed with pillow stuffing (because, unfortunately, a scandal bag won’t suit every need)
DSCN1576

Friendship Bracelets
DSCN1484

Baby Blanket
DSCN1434
(Please note the kitten in the corner)

Curtain Tie – Crocheted with a little bit of scrap yarn
DSCN1431

The Modern Day Pilgrim

Naturally, one of my favorite floats
Naturally, one of my favorite floats

My mouth is watering. Or at least it would be, if I were in America. Bombarded all month long with reminders that Thanksgiving has finally arrived, I would eagerly be awaiting that traditional Thursday morning when Mom and I would cook the turkey in our pajamas while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I would’ve already purchased a bag of marshmallows to coat the top of Nana’s sweet potato pie. The green bean casserole would have been made the night before, and a box of Mallomars would be stashed away, hidden, so we’d have them all for dessert. Some time around noon, after most of the work has been done, my sister would finally roll out of bed and monitor our progress with disheveled hair.

My Thanksgiving was ripe with tradition. Accompanied by a delicious, once-a-year meal and surrounded by friends and family, there’s no wonder why I count it among my favorite holidays.

But over the years, in small doses at a time, Thanksgiving began to change. A divorce cut our guest list in half. Black Friday began earlier and earlier, until it eventually spilled over to Thursday, causing our family (who would not, under any circumstances, wait outside a store at 4am) significant distress. And the Radio City Rockettes were losing their luster.

radio-city-opryland-1
Luster or not, my eyes still tear up when these girls start kicking!

And then one fateful year, I joined the Peace Corps, and all tradition flew out the window. While it’s difficult for me to think about missing Thanksgiving, it’s even more distressing to imagine my family, who must feel as though my departure was like the having the rug swept out from under their feet.

I suppose it makes a Thanksgiving-less November easier to deal with when I consider that my oven will not host a turkey this year. Or that I am not missing out on sweet potato pie.

Still, I feel an overwhelming sadness for them, and a crushing sense of pressure. While on the one hand, I feel honored that my presence carries that much weight at the dinner table, I am afflicted by the knowledge that my choices and decisions have made such an impact. For my family, Thanksgiving has drastically deviated from the norm.

Although tradition has slipped and family unity does not count for much this year, no one is going to be sitting home alone and feeling sorry for themselves, least of all me. This year, we’ll all be venturing our separate ways, but we’ll be in the company of close friends. That definitely counts for something.

My plans include celebrating Thanksgiving with my government-issued friends – who are beginning to feel a little more like family – in the style of a potluck dinner at a cottage on the beach. I doubt we’re going to have a turkey, but there will be a pumpkin pie. I know at least one volunteer is making stuffing, I am responsible for cinnamon poached apples, and of course, the essentials will be present; namely wine.

North+American+Wild+TurkeyIt will be different to celebrate a traditional American holiday in a country that is not my own, without my family, and with friends I only met a few months ago. But I don’t think any of that matters. These friends have been become my crutch, my anchor. Though some of us are at different stages of our service, and all of us come from different backgrounds, we all have one thing in common; we’re Peace Corps Volunteers. We’ve made sacrifices to follow a dream and achieve some good. We knowingly traded our comforts for something unknown and wild. We’ll all be thinking of our families this Thursday, and we’ll all feel a little homesick, but I think it’s safe to say that the choices we’ve made are worth the things we’re giving up. I wouldn’t trade my Peace Corps experience for anything in the world. I am exactly where I want to be at this point in my life. And in the spirit of giving thanks, I can be grateful for just that.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Phenomenon of Perception

Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 4.08.53 PMLast October, when I received my long-awaited invitation from the Peace Corps, I had no idea what to expect. Jamaica. I knew very little about the country, except that it was too close to home to be called an adventure. Regardless, I googled as much as I could about the island, scoured my Welcome Packet for clues and attended PC events to talk to returned volunteers, all in attempt to learn more about what the next two years would hold for me.

Finally, I found a Facebook group. It was created by one of our own, and designed so that Group 84 could connect with one another prior to departure. It was reassuring to know that I was filled with the same sense of wonder as everyone else.

The Facebook group also allowed us to connect with PCV’s already on island. At last, we were able to get answers to some of those burning questions:

What is your life like?
What do you do?
How do you live and work?
What should I pack!?!?

We took their words as gospel, and personally speaking, I idolized them for their insight. After all, these were seasoned volunteers, accustomed to their lives as PCVs, and I was just a newbie.

Months later, in training, I mentioned this to one of them, and he replied, “Nah, you’re just looking at me with freshman goggles. You’ll be where I am in no time.”

Fast-forward a few more months, and a new Facebook group has surfaced. The incoming Group 85, back in America, receiving their invitations, and looking to us for help. Suddenly, we’re the experts! I was a freshman one morning, and a senior by the end of the day. Within a week, I answered questions about packing lists, my daily school schedule, shopping in the market, and church going (or my lack thereof). I also assured one concerned PCT that she can find peanut butter in Jamaica!

Talking to the new group has me thinking about Shadowing – a three-day segment of training where PCT’s visit a currently serving volunteer at site. My days in shadowing were spent in doubt, unsure whether I wanted to stay. My PCV was understanding, and played Devil’s Advocate as she posed questions to help me see things from all angles. Even though my turn to host a PCT is months away, I find myself examining my life in Jamaica and wondering what questions or comments she’ll have. Will my deep bushy lifestyle excite her, or turn her off? How will she feel about my frigid showers? Will she greet it with enthusiasm, or shiver afterward and hope hers are a bit warmer? Will she be ready to dive head first into her service, or will be she testing the waters, like I was?

I’ve come a long way since my own Shadowing experience, and everyday I thank myself for sticking it out and staying in Jamaica. Needless to say, my attitude has dramatically improved! And now that I’ve taken my off freshman goggles, I see my world through a new light. My morning commute to work – which takes about 45 minutes – has allowed me to better integrate. I know exactly which drivers come and go, at what time, and in what order. I pass the same mothers as they walk their little ones to school, and their children, who at first were very shy, now eagerly wave hello. Community members greet me with, “mornin’ teach!” and a few people have gone out of their way to let me know they have respect for me, which, in a small rural community, and for an outsider like me, is a pretty big deal. And let’s not forget that I can finally speak Patwa.

Recognizing these things also makes me think of a topic we discussed at ESC. There are four stages of cultural awareness that each volunteer passes through during their service.

1. unconscious incompetence
2. conscious incompetence
3. conscious competence
4. unconscious competence
.

Simply put, a volunteer might not even realize there is a difference in their behavior, versus that of their local counterparts. Then, they realize the difference, but are not sure how to emulate it. Next, they make small attempts to adapt and fit in, until finally, they are so well integrated, they don’t even recognize the ways in which are one with their community.

When I first arrived in Jamaica, I was at stage one, and understandably so. I was in stage two by ESC, and now I am moving slowly into stage three. I’ve discovered that there are multiple strains of pumpkin and yam, and I have my preference for both, and that I enjoy eating chicken neck over chicken back any day. I’ll declare myself in stage four the day I fail to realize I’ve eaten a chicken foot.

Cultural awareness aside, there are many other ways in which my perspective is changing. Although the last few years have left with me a heightened sense of maturity, I catch myself making small changes in my personal life everyday. Call it growth, if you will. The obvious is a set of new skills; a confident approach when killing cockroaches and $(KGrHqR,!qIFEj6ehwQEBRvjJs,ZO!~~60_35spiders, the ability to French braid my hair, and an acquired resourcefulness in the kitchen. More subtly, I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff. Acceptance and patience are also new friends of mine. You see, from the day I landed in Jamaica, I feel as though I lost a great deal of control in my life. From being unfamiliar with everything around me, to recognizing the ways in which I am different, and stepping far outside my comfort zone, I eventually learned to throw my hands in the air and just go with it. Everything seems to works out in the end.

Dun’ worry. Be happy.

100 Ways To Use A Scandal Bag

IMG_04621What is a scandal bag?
A scandal bag is a simple thing; it’s a plastic bag, much like the bags you would pick up at a grocery store in America. It gets the “scandal” part of its name because the bag is black, which helps ensure some privacy. Since you can’t see what’s in the bag from the outside, people never know what you might be carrying inside, and so, it became known as the scandal bag.

Where can you get them?
Like in America, you can find these plastic bags just about everywhere. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and every shop or store I’ve ever been to will give you one with which to carry out your goods. In America, think of how easy it is to obtain a plastic shopping bag and maintain a growing collection of them; it’s the same thing here.

Why are they important?
Scandal bags are inexpensive (some stores will charge you $5J for one, which is about 5¢ in American currency) and they are easy to use. Scandal bags are also great because there about 100 different ways you can use them. In Jamaica, with limited resources, limited transportation and limited funds, Jamaicans and PCVs alike have come up with some pretty creative ways to use this bag.

How do you use them?
This weekend, I polled volunteers on the island to help me compile a list of non-traditional ways they like to use their scandal bags. Below, I’ve included some of the most creative answers. Though we could only come up with 33 different uses, I’m sure there are plenty more we just haven’t thought of yet.

Arts & Crafts

Amigurumi is a  Japanese crochet trend to small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures. The word is derived from a combination of the Japanese words ami, meaning crocheted or knitted, and nuigurumi, meaning stuffed doll.
Amigurumi is a Japanese crochet trend, used to make small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures. The word is derived from a combination of the Japanese words ami, meaning crocheted or knitted, and nuigurumi, meaning stuffed doll.

1. Stuffing for amigurumi
2. Crochet thread/yarn
3. String for beading
4. Make a kite
5. Fill with sand for a bean bag
6. Football
7. Makeshift rope
8. Ribbon for presents


Dry Bags

9. Keep your shoes dry when walking in the rain
10. Rain hat
11. Back flap for catching dirt while riding your bicycle after the rain
12. Keep your laptop or books dry
13. Plug a leak/sink
14. Rubber gloves
15. Shower cap
16. For wet bathing suits and towels


Food Purposes

17. Attach it to your belt loop while climbing a tree to collect ackee, mango, berries, or coffee beans
18. Lunch bag
19. Cover for steaming rice
20. Store food to keep ants away
21. Does your screw-top bottle or jar leak? Use a scandal bag under the lid to prevent this.
22. Easy-to-clean-up nonstick surface for rolling out dough (for the bakers!)
23. Make-it-yourself colander for pasta


Keeping Clean

Crocheted out of scandal bags, this is an efficient way to store my over-sized scandal bag collection. Another PCV crocheted a purse from her scandal bags!
Crocheted out of scandal bags, this is an efficient way to store my over-sized scandal bag collection. Another PCV crocheted a purse from her scandal bags!

24. The ever popular, trash bag
25. Litter box liner
26. Pre-soak your whites before doing your laundry


On The Go

27. Carry a change of clothes
28. Protect bottles or creams that might explode while travelling
29. Mobile bathroom


Everything Else

30. Seedling bag for planting
31. Other storage purposes
32. Fire kindling (in desperate circumstances only, like this one)
33. Condom

Bowser

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.

Super_Smash_Bros_Brawl_Bowser_01
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