Cedar Valley, and the Language Olympians

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We’ve done it! Training is over! O-V-E-R!!!

I won’t lie – I did a victory dance for a good ten minutes.

The last two weeks of training were the most hectic, but by far the most rewarding. After leaving Ewarton, Education and Environment returned to Kingston for numerous nights of shenanigans. But I won’t divulge too much; what happens at Mayfair stays at Mayfair. But I can tell you about Language Olympics, Site Orientation Week, and the much anticipated Swearing In Ceremony.

On Monday, about two weeks ago, our training session included a series of games designed to test our knowledge and different components of culture. Each sector was asked to select four Olympians to represent the group in an intimidating Q&A session. Environment knew who their Olympians were, but Education somehow missed that memo.

So we randomly threw four people to the wolves, and I was chosen as one of them. Sitting at a table in front of the room, facing our opponents, my fellow Olympian leaned over. “I have no idea what I’m doing up here,” she whispered. “Me neither,” I returned, swallowing a lump of nervousness. We were not prepared. We didn’t study. Education was going to lose.

And then the game began.

Lending a hand at Dunn's River Falls
Lending a hand at Dunn’s River Falls

I really ought to have more confidence in myself, because I retained far more from my language/culture lessons than I’d realized. For every five questions we were asked, I knew the answer to four of them. I amazed myself, and my sector-mates. “How did you remember all that stuff!?” they asked me later. I shrugged and shook my head, still unsure of the answer.

When the Q&A portion ended, the rest of the sectors joined in for relay races and a culturally appropriate bowling tournament. The competition was tight, and the scores were close, but Education won by the skin of our teeth. I received a couple of pats on the back then, and enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame.

The next day, we met our supervisors. For Education, they were the principals of our schools, but I can’t speak for Environment. They came from all over Jamaica, as eager and nervous to meet us as we were to meet them. Peace Corps provided us with a fun icebreaker, and then a smooth transition into discussing our hopes and expectations of each other. Later, we re-congregated for a buffet lunch, and afterward, the trainees took all of their bags and dispersed. It was time to finally go to our sites.

That’s right, folks. I finally have a site! I am located in Cedar Valley, St. Thomas. It is up in the mountains, twelve miles from the tallest peak in Jamaica. The weather up there is beautiful; it’s about ten to fifteen degrees cooler, and the scene is a breathtaking one. My home and host mother are wonderful, and my school and supervisor is just as fantastic. I am one of five volunteers from G84 to join the St. Thomas crowd. My nearest volunteer is from G82, and eight miles downhill. I’ve already been invited to join the St. Thomas PCV’s in their weekly Saturday lunches down in Morant Bay, which is a forty minute ride down the mountain.

During the four days that I spent at site, I had opportunity to meet some of the people in my community, the students and teachers at my school, and get myself acquainted with Morant Bay, which is where I will go to do most of shopping. I met the police officers in Cedar Valley and acquired the names and numbers of a few reliable taxi and bus drivers.

Other things I like about my site:

  • The school doubles as a hurricane shelter
  • internet is strong in my area
  • steep hills provide a great workout
  • my host mom isn’t opposed to me getting a cat!
Catching up on some reading!
Catching up on some reading!

We returned to Mayfair by Saturday afternoon for our last week of training. Some of the questions we’d had for nine weeks were finally answered, and some of the security measures they’d enforced were a little more laxed.

It was nice to have that last week together before we split up again for another three months. Two of our units at the hotel had kitchens installed, so we made trips to the supermarket and bought pasta, pancake mix, and various other delicious foods to cook. We ordered a plethora of pizza and consumed a generous amount of alcohol. One more week until we’re accountable for our actions, right?

And finally, before we knew it, the week was over. Tomorrow, we wake up, put on our formal attire, and proceed to the Ambassador’s residence for our long-awaited Swearing In Ceremony.

We will conclude our training and be sworn-in as the next group of Peace Corps Volunteers. The staff, our training specialists, our supervisors, and members of the US Embassy and Jamaican congress will all be in attendance.

But I’ve save the best part for last.

Each sector was asked to select one person to give a speech during the ceremony. Guess who Education voted for?

This girl right here!

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PC Thug Life
Peace Corps, thug life

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Dunn's River Falls
Dunn’s River Falls
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Hardcore Host Mother

LGSDRK94400_D00112_HRE_1A few nights ago, I walked into the kitchen and turned on the light. In the middle of the floor sat two giant cockroaches, their antennas twitching. I am no stranger to these bugs; in fact, I know them well enough to have valid reason to fear them. Terrified, would be a more appropriate term.

Despite my phobia, a small meep escapes my lips as I ease out of the kitchen and hurry to rap on my host mother’s bedroom door. “There are two giant cockroaches in the kitchen!” I blurt out as soon as she opens it. “Where?” she asks me, reaching for her slippers. “The kitchen!”

My host mother, a short, stout woman, wearing a thin cotton nightgown, shuffles across the living room and into the bright yellow light. “Mi outta di spray,” I hear her mutter to herself. Frightened beyond words, I linger around the corner and poke my head into the kitchen. How, I wonder, does a Jamaican woman deal with a cockroach without Raid?

I soon had my answer.

The roaches had since scattered, and they were now on opposites side of the room. My host mother shuffles over to one and carefully balances herself just long enough to remove her slipper. Wielding it in her hands, she slams it down repeatedly on top of the oversized insect. Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! She stands back to admire her work. “Dat one dead!” Then she moves to the other roach, slamming her slipper down once more. Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! Then she drops her footwear on the floor and slides it back on with a shrug.

I have a newfound respect for this woman.

Cockroaches aside, I am once again in Countdown Mode. Only this time, I am not counting toward a departure, but to a permanent residence. Swearing-In is in twenty-one days!

On a whole, I’m doing much better now than I was the last time I posted. There are no excuses for how I felt, and truth be told, I still feel much of the same, but I’ve been able to put those feelings aside and recognize that they will fade with time. Or they might not, which is okay too.

I can say that I was thrown off by my level of homesickness. I’ve spent countless summers at sleep-away camp and went to an out of state school, yet I never missed home the way I do now. I suppose it’s the cultural adjustment. I also may have scared myself by reading some material PC provides for our families. In it, it discusses how many Returned Volunteers have a harder time adjusting to life at home after service, than they did adjusting to their host country. That was a mistake on my part; there is a reason this material is given to the families and not the volunteers. I worried that I’d committed a grave error by leaving my home, after finally finding happiness, only to return after two years and have to find it all over again. The only consolation is that I am an adventurous soul, and I would not have been satisfied for very long. Perhaps this is for the best.

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Last Saturday, the education sector pooled our money together and rented a bus to take us up to Ocho Rios (referred to from now own as Ochi) to go to Dunn’s River Falls. It’s a private beach, complete with a food stands, local craft tents, a beach, and a waterfall that you can climb up with natural pools at each level to hang out in. I especially enjoyed paying the Jamaican rate to get in. We had to present our Peace Corps IDs, that has the PCHQ address listed, to prove that we are residents of the island. It would have cost us three times as much, otherwise!

(more pictures from DRF to come)

It was a great day, and well worth the money (DRF admission and bus fare). The sun was hot and the water was cool. We stopped in town on the way out to pick up some ice-cream, or pay a visit to Burger King or KFC. But my stop in town was much, more successful, and as far as I’m concerned, much more exciting than any ice-cream, Burger King or KFC. At the supermarket in Ochi, I found Smartfood White Cheddar Cheese Popcorn.

MADE MY WEEK!

On a final note, I’d like to thank my friends who reached out to me during my time of need. I enjoyed hearing from you, and appreciate the lengths you went to ensure I felt loved. It was exactly what I needed to pull me through a difficult week. I’d like to remind everyone that I encourage emails, and even the silliest of sorts is welcomed.

Speaking Honestly

I’m frustrated.

And that’s putting it simply.

I’m frustrated with mosquitoes, with walking long distances in sweltering heat, sweating out my good clothes, and of always feeling dirty and grimy. I haven’t washed my hair in days…

But frustration is a big part of what it’s like to be a volunteer. We’re in a new place, dealing with new situations, and presently, being lectured day in and day out while living out of a suitcase. After being sworn-in, I’ll have a whole new set of frustrations to deal with.

We are reminded repeatedly that Peace Corps service is as much of a challenge as it is a reward. This post isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, and you should be aware that there will probably be more like it in the future. This blog is my outlet; a place for my voice to be heard, and I intend to use it as such. I’m speaking freely here. It is my platform, after all.

My first grievance is with training. They weren’t kidding when they said it will drain you. We spend seven hours a day sitting in our professional clothing (after first walking and sweating in them), listening to lectures, and trying to get a grasp on what it is we’re going to be doing. We receive a broad view, yet every assignment varies in degree. We still have not been placed, and I for one am getting antsy.

DSCN0864Training isn’t terrible – don’t misunderstand – but the days seem to be dragging on. I have questions that still haven’t been answered and I am forced to find within myself another daily dose of patience.

I just want to be placed already! I am tired of living out of a suitcase, having no idea what my next living and working situation will be like. I want control of my diet (my host mom prepares most of my meals), and I want to dictate my own schedule. Right now, we go and do what Peace Corps tells us to. I’m ready for the next stage, and we still have four more weeks to go.

The problem with me is that I have a pessimistic side. I try to keep it at bay, but through my frustration, it’s coming out faster than I can stop it. What if this, and what if that? This past week, I’m afraid I lost sight of what I wanted. Homesickness is setting in, and the temptation to give in became overpowering. With the help of friends and family, I managed to steer myself back on course long enough to commit myself to the end of training. At the moment, it’s hard to see much further than that.

I suppose I miss the conveniences I’m accustomed to. I had internet at my fingertips and a set of car keys in my hands. I exercised regularly, and ate my favorite foods with my favorite people, while watching my favorite TV shows. Do we see a pattern here? I’m still adjusting to this new life. I walk into a supermarket and scan the shelves for something familiar. I long to see a car where the steering wheel is on the left side. I keep two quarters in my wallet, because they’ve become memorabilia.

And I miss my Emma. Oh, how I miss my girl…
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On a more positive note, I had a unique shadowing experience. I travelled out to St. Thomas last week (by myself, via public transit) to shadow a PCV from Group 83 who is like me in many ways. We bonded instantly, sharing a love for arts & crafts (primarily of the string kind), kids, teaching, and The Big Bang Theory. We are the same age and share many other similar interests. Visiting her shed some real light on what the next two years might be like for me. It answered some questions, and raised a few others. More importantly, it gave me a chance to really consider what I am doing here in Jamaica and if it is something I could be happy with. I’m still not a hundred percent sure of the answer, but I suppose that is okay for now.

In the meantime, it would help to hear from my friends back home. I have limited internet, and I find I miss the camaraderie Facebook usually has to offer. Instant messaging and texting have become a thing of the past. I would hate for sparse communication to cause a divide between my closest comrades and me. Always remember that I have email, and still do my best to check it daily. I’d really love to hear from you.

For now, the most logical course of action is to keep my chin up and hope for the best. Four more weeks of training; here we go.

Rural Enough For Me

Sometime back in September, when I was still waiting to hear from Peace Corps, I did a Google search for active PCV blogs, and came across one belonging to a girl scheduled to depart for Sub-Saharan Africa in October. “That b****!” I thought, “She took my spot!” I decided to follow her blog anyway.

During the months that passed, I read about lightning storms, electrical shortages, and water outages. Disheartened (and already aware that I was going to Jamaica), I told my mother that I didn’t think this was going to be experience I wanted it to be. I was adamant that it wouldn’t be enough of a culture shock, and that with electricity, indoor plumbing, and internet, I wasn’t going to challenged. “April,” she told me, “you wouldn’t last a day in Sub-Saharan Africa. Trust me.”

I can see it now – the self-satisfied grin on my mother’s face as I hang my head in defeat and admit that she was right.

DSCN0852I have been in Ewarton, St. Catherine for less than a week, and I’ve already had to wash my face in a basin of water, and perform what is known as “the bucket flush.” My first “bucket shower” wasn’t so bad either. This is area is prone for water lock-offs, and within three days, I was used to it. There are goats that live just outside my window and a rooster that crows off in the distance each morning. To get to training, I walk ten to fifteen minutes downhill.

Ewarton (pronounced you-er-tin), is up in the mountains and about half an hour away from Ocho Rios. The weather here is vastly different from that of Hellshire. It’s significantly cooler, and the hour-long storm that passed through on my first day left a chill in the air that lasted throughout the night. According to the locals, the weather in Jamaica varies depending on where you are on the island. Hellshire is considered one of the hottest parts; the mountains some of the coldest. It’s been reported the volunteers placed in the mountains have had to ask their parents to send them warmer clothes!

I’ll be here for five weeks, completing my HUB-Based Training (HBT). More specifically, I’ll be doing work directly related to my project: Education. During CBT, we learned about the history, culture and language of Jamaica, while merely touching on our sectors. Here, we’ll continue to build on our CBT, but we’ll spend more time discussing the challenges the Jamaican school system faces, and how we as volunteers can do our part. We’ll take field trips to local schools, have some real hands-on learning, and get some Q&A time with other education volunteers already in service. And next week, we’ll each be assigned our own volunteer to shadow! I am so excited to finally get to see how a real volunteer lives and works.

*Note: in case you’ve forgotten from my last post, Education and Environment sectors have split up. Environment is in a different part of the island, doing their own version of HBT.

Now that I am in a new place, I also have a new host family. Except that my situation is a little less of a “family” and a little more of  “a mother.” I live with a sweet woman in her sixties who is very eager to feed me and teach me about Jamaican foods. We have plans to clean the house and cook this Sunday. My room is slighter larger than my last one, and I have own private entrance, with an adjoining door to the rest of the house. I do not have internet at my home.

Which reminds me – INTERNET. Over the last five days, it’s been noted that I am internet junkie. My fellow trainees have spared no expense when teasing me about my love of connectivity. Here is a sample of a conversation I had recently:

“But what if you’re placed in an area where you have to take two taxis just to get to an internet café?”
“Oh my god, I would die.”
“And you thought you wanted Africa?”

I think it may be time to put my foot in my mouth.

Rest assured, dear readers, I will have my internet one way or another. Currently, I have access to internet at my training site, and I plan to bring my laptop daily so I can get my fix. Luckily for me, my house might not have internet installed, but it is available in the area. I can purchase a WiFi card that provides me with twenty-four hours of WiFi at a time. I will save that for the weekends, I think.

In the meantime, here are some other aspects of rural life I am adjusting to:

  • I wear one pair of shoes to walk down to training, and then change into my heels to keep my professional dress code in check.
  • Having limited water allows for creativity when keeping clean. Did you know that using cornstarch in your hair keeps it from looking greasy?
  • Doing laundry by hand is an all-day chore. Fabric softener works wonders for clothes drying on the line.
  • Don’t be alarmed if you meet an animal on Monday, and it’s on your plate by Friday.

And finally, I am improving dramatically on my Patois (sometimes, Patwa). At first, I was challenged because the language is so close to English, that as a grammar nazi, I have a hard time speaking improperly. Saying “mi” instead of “I” is not something I wanted to do. I also struggled because many of the words are so close to English, that my first reaction is just to speak it. For example, ansa. Can you guess what that word is? It’s answer. However, as we continue with our language lessons, I am developing a keen ear for it, and it’s becoming much easier to pick up on. The inclination to speak Patois is much stronger now. I keep thinking to myself, wow, imagine if I had to learn an entirely new alphabet. Better yet, what if I was placed in an area where English wasn’t even an option? Like Africa.DSCN0853

All in all, I’ve come to realize that I have plenty to adjust to already. I still disagree with my mother – I think I would have done just fine in Africa. There would have been a different set of norms to adjust to, but I am flexible, and still convinced I would have managed and found happiness just the same. However, Mom also claimed that Jamaica would be enough of a culture shock, and enough of an experience that it would be what I wanted. Four weeks into training and I am beginning to agree. Jamaica is full of diversity, cultural differences, and still a dramatic shift from my lifestyle back in America. Where I complained that the weather was the same as in Miami, Mom argued that I would not be accustomed to life without air conditioning.

“But Mom, I am still in the same time zone!”
“And you’re still going to feel as though you’re a world away.”

She was right on all accounts. The girl in Africa can keep her electrical shortages and water wells; it turns out Jamaica is rural enough for me.

 

 

Group 84 Is Sunburned

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For all our best intentions, we’re still looking a little more like a collection of freshly steamed lobsters. Never before have you seen a group so haphazardly toasted. No amount of sunscreen has protected us.

Otherwise I’d say we’re having a great time. This past week, we continued our training in Hellshire, as well as making some trips outside of town. We ventured back into Kingston a few time to visit the market, learn some cool Jamaican dance moves, and eat some delicious ice cream.

DSCN0790We also visited Port Royal. You know, like the Port Royal from Pirates of Caribbean. In case you weren’t aware, Port Royal was a real place, located right here in Jamaica. Back during the pirating heydays, it was the seventh largest natural port and known as the wickedest city in the world. But then in 1692, a terrible earthquake shook the land and sent more than 75% of the land under water. What’s left has been preserved and protected by the small town of Port Royal and the country of Jamaica.

We had a chance to tour the land, browse over some recovered artifacts, and watch a short video on Port Royal. Then it was off to Devon House for ice cream!

DSCN0836On Thursday, we went to the market. Picture Canal Street in New York, only larger, louder, and busier. People were set up on blankets and tarps in the street, selling almost anything you could think of. Shoes, clothes, handbags, hats, soap, household items, and food up the wazoo. That was probably the coolest part. You walk into the “food” section of the market and there is vendor after vendor, under a tarp for an overhang, selling coconuts, melons, beans, flour, sugar, limes, almond corn, lychees, and so much more. There were fruits I’d never even heard of!

We had one assignment that day; buy something at the market. I can’t speak for the other trainees, but I was a little overwhelmed by it all. I didn’t know what to buy, or where to turn first. I finally settled on picking up a bar of soap, since I needed one. Another trainee haggled a vendor for a coconut and managed to get a decent sized one for pretty cheap. The man used a massive knife to cut open a hole just large enough to drink from. The water inside was delicious and hydrating. She was satisfied for hours!

We also managed public transportation that day. It was part of our learning experience. We broke off into small groups and went with an LCF on the taxis, the buses and minibuses. What an experience! The roads are bumpy, and there were way too many people crammed into that tiny vehicle. I felt safe with my LCF, but I think when it comes time to do it on my own I’ll be much more nervous the first couple of times.

Anyway, we have a security test on Thursday, and we have to get 100% and we have Patois lessons all week. Friday is Good Friday, and so we get the day off (hallelujah!), and then on Sunday we move from Hellshire to our HUBs for HBT. There, I’ll be assigned to a new host family and I’ll be staying with that one for next five weeks. Group 84 will split up for the first time since our arrival. Education will be in one town; Environment will be in another.

And so the training continues.

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This Is Jamaica

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The Mission: Get everything from the table into these four bags.

Phew! I’m glad that’s over with. Or is it?

I may have cleared customs and I may have stayed within my weight limit, but this is only the beginning. For the next 9 ½ weeks, I’ll be living out of my suitcase. You see, I’m not a volunteer just yet. I’m only a Trainee.

Before I can be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), I have to complete my Pre-Service Training (PST). During the next 9 ½ weeks, I’ll live with two different host families, in three different towns, and learn/train in five different categories: Language, Cross Cultural, Health, Safety, and Practical Job Training.

But before I go on, let me introduce us properly. We are Group 84, comprised of two sectors, Education and Environment. I am one of thirty people invited to serve in Jamaica. The Peace Corps has been with Jamaica since its initiation in 1962, and there are presently 80 volunteers already in service. Group 84 is, naturally, the eighty-fourth group of volunteers to offer their experience, manpower, and dedication to this tiny, but beautiful island. Together, we bring to the table a collection of unique skills and knowledge, which will aid us in our task to promote world peace and friendship.

I love my group. We range in age from early twenties to late sixties, and we hail from as far as Alaska and Hawaii. Everyone is incredible. Because we are a part of Peace Corps, we all share similar views in terms of friendship and acceptance, recognizing that we will rely on each other to get through the hardships presented during the next two years. We’re a family; we will all experience ups and downs that come from being a volunteer. There is an unspoken agreement that in order to serve effectively, we need each other for support.

Group 84, first arriving in Jamaica
Group 84, first arriving in Jamaica

When we first arrived in Jamaica, we were immediately ushered to the PC Headquarters in Kingston, where we were greeted by the PCJ staff and given a Welcome Orientation. We completed another set of medical forms, collected our cell phones, and dropped off our passports, and picked a Welcome Binder. It’s huge, black binder with a ton of information we’ll use through-out our training. Then, it was off to the Mayfair Hotel.

By Friday, we were in Hellshire, St. Catherine. We’ve been assigned host families for the next two weeks while we complete our Community Based Training. My family is great. It’s a mother and a daughter, and staying with them is a girl about my age, and a young boy of ten. They are generous, laid back, and choose not to go to church. In my home, I have a hot shower and Internet. Did I luck out or what?

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Dipping our feet at the Mayfair Hotel in Kingston

Overall, there is still a lot to adjust to. I’m trying all sorts of new foods, and enjoying most of it. My host family has accommodated my inability to handle spicy foods. Meanwhile, I am busy learning the language (Patois) while at the same time, trying to understand it when my host mom speaks it to me. Currency is another adjustment that needs to be made, as well as maintaining a curfew as not to put myself in unnecessary danger.

But I’m handling it all. Through my discomfort (for lack of a better word), I experience feelings of homesickness and separation anxiety from my friends, family, and iPhone. I’m trying not to think about the fact that my car will be sold…

Meanwhile, I continue to remind myself that this is what I wanted. A culture shock. A new and somewhat frightening experience. A chance to rise above my spoiled, American lifestyle and embrace something so much bigger than me. Presently, I (or we) am at the bottom of a steep mountain, looking to the peak and wondering how on earth I’ll get there. One step at a time. And in the company of my fellow Trainees.

In Jamaica, fish is eaten whole. I loved it!
In Jamaica, fish is eaten whole. I loved it!
Mission Accomplished!
Mission Accomplished!