Jacardi

*Note: For safety and security’s sake, my descriptions in this post need to be vague, but also clear enough that my readers can understand. So I’ll be renaming some key places that might otherwise give away too much information. Bear with me.
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Our majestic neighbor looms over us.

My community rests on a hillside with a road that zigzags its way to the top. On your way up from Morant Bay, some great distance behind you, you eventually arrive in my sweet mountaintop town. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you pass the church bearing its name.

As you continue driving up, you eventually pass my workplace, Amazingly Awesome Primary School. But the road doesn’t stop there. Bumping along, you’ll soon arrive at A Most Important Place, where the road wraps around the building sharply, and continues the zigzag upward. A little further ways, and you will reach my house in Sweet Jamaican Home Town.

Like most of the PCVs in Jamaica, I walk to and from work every day. But relatively speaking, compared to most PCVs, my worksite is a fair distance away from my home. And with my transportation situation – which could definitely be improved – trying to catch a taxi could take an over hour. Obviously, this might pose a big hassle for me…

But wait! There’s a shortcut?

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That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Please allow me to introduce you to “Jacardi.” It’s the more common nickname for the all-natural shortcut that allows me to travel from Sweet Jamaican Home Town to Amazingly Awesome Primary School, keeping me off the main road and bypassing A Most Important Place altogether. This route saves me approximately thirty minutes each way and has become my primary source of exercise.

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Almost everyone uses this path, and it’s been in the community for generations. Most days, when I walk, I’m in the company of students. I’ve grown to love the mornings when my ears can pick up the sound of their distant chatter, or catch snippets of a conversation in a language I’m still learning to understand.

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My favorite part of walking, if I ever find myself alone, is to pause in the middle, and just listen to the sounds of nature. It’s a great way to start my day.

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And it’s got a great view!

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The building located right in the middle of the picture is A Most Important Place

 

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Mi A Go Bay

I shift a little in my seat – a wooden bench outside of the shop by the Square – crossing one leg over the other and leaning back into the shade. From inside the shop, the radio plays a reggae version of Adele’s Don’t You Remember, followed by a news brief announcing Tessanne Chin’s advancement in America’s popular reality TV show, The Voice.

“Mawnin’ Miss Teach. Wah gwan?”

“Mi dey ah,” I reply, looking up at a man whose name I can never remember, but recognize as the guy who rides around on his motor-scooter selling eggs. “Mi a jus’ wait ‘pon taxi.”

“Arrite, summpin’ soon come.”

“Yeah mon.” I don’t bother to mention that I’ve already been waiting forty minutes.

It’s Saturday, nearly eleven a.m., and my stomach rumbles. I think about that Jamaican patti I’ve promised myself when I get down to the Bay (Morant Bay), and shift in my seat again.

A dog wanders into my vision, sniffing the ground for scraps before curling up in the shade across the road. A barefoot man carrying bananas on his head slowly makes his way past the shop. A woman with her baby sits down beside me. The cool breeze sweeps in from the valley and offers me a brief reprieve from the heat. Finally, a taxi arrives.

A Honda model from the late 90’s, with a white license plate and ripped seat cushions, the driver reaches over and opens the passenger door from the inside, then behind him to open the backseat door. I allow the mother and her child to sit in the front, so they wont have to small up, and I settle down in the back. A few minutes later, another larger woman joins me in the backseat, then a farmer carrying a machete, the blade wrapped in newspaper.

We start down the road, winding around blind curves before making another stop for a teenager with a school bag. He opens my door and climbs in beside me, forcing the three of us to shift closer and make room. This is what’s known in Jamaica as smalling up, and it’s something I’ve become very accustomed to. Rarely does one travel publically without experiencing this type of close encounter.

With an hour’s car ride ahead of us, I lean back and allow the people on either side of me to absorb the sways and bumps of the vehicle, as we wind around curves, dodging potholes and goats.

While we make our descent from Cedar Valley, I keep my eyes fixed on the passing scenery. We drive through several neighboring communities, past sugar cane fields, cow pastures, and Serge Island Dairy Factory. Meanwhile, the road continually alternates between patchy concrete riddled with potholes, or a sand or dirt path. Though the windows are down, I feel sweat gathering at the base of my hairline, beneath my arms, and between my legs. Just a few more minutes, I think, recognizing my surroundings and smelling the sea air.

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Morant Bay is a flurry of activity. Even before our vehicle stops, we pass men walking around selling hair combs, kitchen knives, fly swatters, bag juice and chips. Taxi men call out their destinations, looking for more passengers to fill their vehicles. “Town! Town!” That’s Kingston. “Town, baby?” I’m asked the moment I exit my car.

“Nuh, me nuh go Town.”

“Yallahs, baby?”

“Nuh Yallahs.”

From the main road, I walk uphill to get into the shopping area of Morant Bay. I pass vendors under canopies and street carts. People shout out to promote their product. I hear calls for movies, maxi dresses, juicy watermelons and pineapples.

The cat-calls begin here too. In Jamaican culture, men often like to woo the women, and as a white female, I’m exceptionally exotic. This is a big adjustment that many of us PCJ ladies find infuriating. After a year of it, most of the remarks I hear fall on deaf ears.

“Pssst! Hey baby, lookin nice, ya?”

I nod to him and keep walking.

“Snowflake, mi can go wid you?”

I ignore that one.

“Wow! Whitey lookin so beautiful today!”

“Psst! Come here!”

“Yaa look so fine, mi wan’ fi be yuh friend.”

Finally, I reach Queen’s Street, which runs through the heart of the Bay. Along the roadside is an NCB bank, the Digicel store, Tastee Patti, Lee’s Books, St. Thomas Parish Library, Scotia Bank ATMs and so much more. Famished, I duck into Tastee and join the long line. Once I’ve sated my hunger, grocery shopping is next on the agenda. Hoping to avoid the hustle-bustle of peddlers and cheesy pick-up lines, I move quickly toward the corner and turn down a side street.

About fifty feet in, past more street vendors and pushcarts, is Joong’s Supermarket. Inside, the store is busy, and despite large ceiling fans on high speed, it’s still only slightly cooler than outside. Picking up a basket, I slip through the turn style and start down the isles. The shelves aren’t too different from what I’m used to back home. While there certainly isn’t as much brand variety, I can find almost all of the same things. I also usually have my choice between a Jamaican brand, and an American one.

I grab some Charmin toilet paper. On my PC budget, it’s easily the most expensive item on my list, but to me, it’s worth it. I also pick up a bag of cat food for Bowser. Then I stroll down the isles collecting various food items. I reach for the veggie chunks, a Jamaican product made mostly from soy and packaged in dehydrated form. They make a great substitute for meatballs in your spaghetti, or a tasty addition to your chicken-flavored Ramen. I also like to use them in my weekly Teriyaki Vegetable Stir-Fry; a meal I’ve proudly learned and perfected during my service. Other items on my shopping list include pasta, milk (in a powdered form, to be mixed with water), tang, wheat crackers, granola bars, and my other cherished splurge: Honey Nut Cheerios. I grab a snack-sized package of Oreos on my way to the cash registers.

ShoppingBagD20110215WSThe last thing I do before the leave the store is pull out my MegaMart bag and transfer my groceries. MegaMart – just so we’re on the same page – is a little like a Costco. It’s located in three major Jamaican cities, but none of them are in St. Thomas. While Group 84 was training in Kingston, we discovered that you can buy a MegaMart reusable shopping bag for $100 (or $1 USD), and that they’re a great way to carry multiple or heavy items more comfortably. Almost every volunteer on island has one, and apparently, so do the Jamaicans! With my MegaMart bag in hand, I blend right in.

“April!”

But I’ve been spotted.

I recognize my friend Warren’s* voice. A Rasta man with shoulder length dreadlocks and a star-spangled wetsuit hurries over to me. He’s holding a spear gun in one hand, and a dozen colorful fish and lobster on a fishing line in the other. Spear fishing is one of the many ways Jamaicans bring sea-life to the markets. I greet him enthusiastically.

About a year ago, when I first got to St. Thomas, Warren approached me to say hello. Like most of the people in the Bay – cat call boys aside – he just wanted to know who I am. After all, I’m not the only volunteer in this parish, and all of us come into the Bay to shop. Wanting to earn some integration points, I took the time to talk to him, and after a few short months, he had become a good friend.

“Warren, mi like your fish.”

“Yeah? The water was so cool today,” he tells me, in Patwa of course. “But I dove too deep and popped my ear.” He shakes his head and blinks his eyes a little. “Anyway, you are looking so nice today. Wey yaa go now?” Where are you going now?

“To the market,” I tell him, gathering my bag and starting back toward Queen’s Street.

“Oh, I’m going there too to drop off these fish. Then I’m going back diving again.”

“Please be careful. You could really hurt yourself if you go too deep.”

“I know! Last week I went too deep and had to stay in bed for three days.”

“Warren!”

He winked at me. “I like that you care. See you around!”

Warren disappears into the crowded market place. Under a mismatched roof of tin and blue tarp, Morant Bay Market is easily the busiest place in the Bay. It’s hot, with rows and rows of tables and carts; merchants selling everything from kitchen utensils, flatware, clothing, shoes, belts, wallets, jewelry, hair accessories, fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables. A maze at times, I wind through the isles, duck under low hanging tarps, wrinkle my nose as I pass the fishery quarter, and make my way to the Southeast corner of the market. There, I step into a ray of sunshine, take a breath of fresh air, then walk under another blue tarp to find Brenda.* Hailing from Cedar Valley, and the mother of one of my students, I always like to buy my vegetables from her.

Brenda’s round face lights up when she sees me. “Miss April! What can I get for you today?”

“My usual please.”

She holds out her hand impatiently. “Give me your list.”

Laughing, I reach into my shoulder bag and produce a small piece of paper. After a year with Brenda, she’s learned by now that I always make a shopping list, and she’s quick to snatch it from my fingers. She glances at it, then with lightning hands, fills a scandal bag with onions, carrots, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and one head of cabbage. “Pen.”

I reluctantly hand over my pen, knowing full well that I won’t be getting it back. She writes down the prices of each item on the back of my shopping list, adds up the total, and I pay her. “I can keep your pen?” she asks me. “Mine all dried up.”

“Every time, Brenda,” I tease.

“Arrite, arrite. Here.” She holds up a sweet potato and drops it in the bag. “Brawta,” she tells me, which is a Jamaican term for freebie.

“Thanks. See you next time.”

Finally, I’m finished. It’s a relatively quick trip today, since I had no plans with other volunteers, no need to visit the ATM, and no bills due for another week. I feel a bead of sweat roll down the crease of my spine and settle in the waistline of my pants. Placing my vegetables in my MegaMart bag, I steel myself for one last trek in the hot sun through the Bay.

“Yallahs, baby? Seaforth?”

“Yuh bags heavy, mi can help you?”

“Hey Sunshine, you can carry me in yuh bag too?”

“Callaloo! Pumpkin! Hey baby, let me sell you some callaloo.”

“Psst! Whitey!”

Cars are honking. I hear a baby crying. Another bead of sweat rolls down the side of my face as I tighten my grip on the handle of my bag and continue along the road and back to the taxi stand. Once I reach, I set my bag down and look around. I see a couple of taxis for my surrounding communities, but nothing for Cedar Valley. Typical. Then I begin looking at the people, and recognize a few from up the mountain. A student from my school smiles at me, then whispers in her mom’s ear and points. I smile politely.

A few minutes later, a mini bus with a faded paint job and a red license plate pulls up; Kevin’s* bus. He gets out of the driver’s seat and opens the sliding door. While we – about ten of us – load into the vehicle, Kevin expertly arranges our packages under our seats and between our legs. More Cedar Valleyians arrive and more bags and people are packed in. I can’t help but marvel as the skillful way Jamaicans can load a vehicle. It’s the same sense of awe I experience when watching my Mom load the dishwasher back at home. Like Tetris, I think.

I’m sticky, and my skin feels grimy. My mouth is dry and my hair is wet with sweat. I’m exhausted, and want nothing more than to jump into a swimming pool. I suppose I’ll have to settle for a cold shower. As the last person – and perhaps one too many – squeezes himself into the bus, the sliding door slams shut and Kevin returns to his seat. The engine protests at first, then sputters and starts. With a jerk, we pull out of the taxi stand and make our way back up to the mountain to Cedar Valley.

* All names have been changed to protect their identities.

Jamaica Day

I could hear the horns halfway through Jacardi (means, shortcut). Children clad in black, green and gold laughed and shouted at each other as they barreled past me down the mountainside. Inwardly, I awarded myself for remembering to buy a Jamaica shirt for the occasion.

The day was rich with excitement. All over the island, children were celebrating their country’s heritage and accomplishments. The school served chicken foot soup and barbequed chicken back and neck. A bulletin board displayed newspaper articles of Jamaican athletes at the Olympics. The compound was a rolling wave of Jamaican colors, playing to a soundtrack of young voices, shouting playfully in a language I still don’t fully understand.

The Marathon

Marathon MapWe stood under a tree on the side of the road, holding light blue tickets made from poster board and a stamp of the school’s seal. “This is the last checkpoint,” Miss explained to me.

The marathon was the highlight of Jamaica Day. Fifty students signed up for it. Shortly after Devotions, they were loaded into two buses and brought to their starting point in Richmond Vale, while several teachers dispersed themselves along the way. The objective: run from Richmond Vale back to Cedar Valley Primary School – a total distance of 3.3 miles.

For a long distance runner, three miles may seem like child’s play, but consider that a U.S. student might be asked to run a mile in his/her P.E. class, then factor in pavement instead of grass, a couple of steep inclines, and children without shoes. That’s the CVPJHS Marathon.

We waited for close to an hour before students made their way toward us. They came charging down the road – barefoot* and shirtless – collecting their colored tickets along the way, encouraged by cheering community members.

They were given ice cream and orange juice upon returning to the school.

* When parents buy shoes for their children, sometimes they have to buy one pair to last two or even three years, so many students prefer to ditch their shoes (especially when running) as soon as they get to school.

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Carrie Russell

“Wait, who is this?”
“Carrie Russell. She brought home two gold medals for Track and Field.”
“And she’s from here?”
“She was a student of mine!”

IMG_1693I thought of the students who just ran the marathon; one of them could be Jamaica’s next biggest athlete. What pride these students must feel, to know that one of their own made it to the top. I wonder if that crossed any of their minds as they ran barefoot on mashed up roads through their poor community.

For me, this was exciting. Here I was, a stranger in a strange land, meeting a local star. More importantly, as an Educational Peace Corps Volunteer, whose primary goal is to “make a difference,” there stood before me living proof that you can do anything you set your mind to. Was this as inspiring to the students as it was to me?

This was not the first time I was meeting an Olympic athlete, but this was the first time I witnessed one return to her roots. She arrived on campus so casually that at first no one paid her any mind. Wearing blue jeans, sneakers, and a blouse, she blended into the crowd and disappeared from my view.

A little later she spoke to us, encouraging students to follow their dreams and never give up. She did not speak of her fame, but of how good it felt to return to where it all began. She thanked her teachers – many of whom are still at the school – and assured us that CVPJHS will always have a special place in her heart.

Soccer! Er… Football!!

Penlyne Castle Primary School joined us in the afternoon for the long-awaited, highly coveted football match. With their school in red, and our school in blue, the students began warming up, and more community members arrived. It would appear that the football match was more exciting than an Olympic athlete!

I didn’t stick around for the soccer football game; it was after 3pm by that time, but I hear CVPJHS kicked some major Penlyne booty.

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So, between running and football, I’m sure there are a couple of stars hidden within our midst. And as far as Jamaica Day goes, I’d like to think a few of students were inspired to try their best and never give up.

For me, they day was stimulating. Even though I sometimes still struggle to understand the language and culture, and I’m often not made aware of big events until the last minute, I felt fully included for the first time since joining the CVPJHS family. Maybe it was the Jamaica shirt. Or maybe I’ve finally been here long enough to have not slipped everyone’s minds. But while I munched on chicken neck, hung out with the students, and witnessed a real-life story of beating the odds, my preconceived notions of a Peace Corps Volunteer came to mind.

Prior to my own experience, I believed the friendly people I saw in pictures with foreign children were important people. I believed they sat on mountains of personal achievements and were now influential ambassadors performing miracles. Surely these volunteers had to have hearts of pure gold – a heart of which I was not worthy.

So I applied on a whim, never believing I’d get in. Then I did, and slowly made the transition from the outside to the inside. Eleven months into this crazy exploit, and I’ve finally come to understand that I am now one of those people from the photos. Only, I am not performing miracles; I’m taking baby steps. I’m not sitting on a mountain of personal achievement, because I am still learning and growing. Anything I’ve done feels small in comparison to what I’d like to do. And I don’t have a heart of pure gold; I just have my heart – a heart that’s made mistakes but still tries to make the right choices. I’m no great, influential ambassador; I’m just me.

Just me, sitting on a bench, surrounded by students, on a little island in the Caribbean, eating chicken. I am completely present. Around me, I see a culture that is different and also the same in so many ways.  All at once, I understand that this is what it feels like to be one of those people in the photos.

Oh look! I’ve got one now too.

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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
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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.