Sunday, December 16, 2012

Weathering the Storms

"She stood in the storm, 
and when the wind did not blow her way, 
she adjusted her sails."

- Elizabeth Edwards

I'm attempting to document an authentic Peace Corps experience, authentic life serving in Jamaica, and authentic humanity. However, because I am writing as an employee of the American Government and because I have to consider our safety as foreigners, I cannot share every last thought and event with you. Please bear this in mind as you read this post.

morning run in Negril, Westmoreland

I said goodbye to Rosend on Monday past. A few things have been eating away at my mental stability over the past few months. After spending a splendidly calm and introspective weekend with my Safety & Security Coordinator's family, I called my Program Manager on Monday morning to gain insight on perspective. I wanted to know if the things I have been wrestling with are unique to me or something that most PCVs struggle with here in Ja. Turns out that they are unique.

My more-than-supportive PM gave me exactly 5 hours to gather everything and inform the appropriate parties that I would not be returning to site. I've been marinating my thoughts in the option of a site change for weeks now. But I've been holding onto one thing: relationships. Relationships with the children in my yard and relationships with my incredible site mates. Unfortunately, the cons eventually outweighed the pros.

Thus, I have to move on, to a new place on the Jam Rock.

For now, this means living out of suitcases (again). It means starting all over (again) in a new place. But it also means the opportunity for growth in a different way than I could have predicted. And it means continuing to trust in that which I cannot see or explain.

I'm adjusting my sails and begging the wind to continue blowing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On the Other Side

So many times I sit down to type a little something, attempting to construct my overflowing mind into sensible, entertaining, and thought-provoking words. Being articulate and interesting is more difficult than I like wish it was. I visit other blogs and wish I could captivate my audience as they do. I see creativity and wish I were more original in my approach. I think I have lots of interesting things to tell the other side of the world, but others just do it so well already.

Today is one of those days. My heart is brimming with emotions and a desire to chat about my latest musings with you. I want to have a conversation about life with you. I want to share with you. I want to understand how you relate. So here's what's on my mind today:

Struggle for survival. I'm using this both figuratively and realistically.  Crime rises as the holidays approach. Our area is still struggling to recover from the hurricane and continues to flood as the rainy season persists. The struggle to survive is just as much mental as it is physical. How we feel has a huge effect on what we think, and visa-versa. Everyone seems to be in an apathetic funk. I'm having a hard time trying to be an effective change agent. We are taking each day as it comes, one little step at a time. Anything more may just be too much.

Perception is not always reality. I attended a well-facilitated seminar last weekend about understanding cultural boundaries. On one poster we wrote things that others stereotype us personally about. On another poster we wrote things that we stereotype Jamaicans about. It was a very interesting time thinking through cultural stereotypes and norms, talking about right from wrong and who decides why. Maybe I'll work on writing about this in more detail later.

Judging others. Throughout my life--and especially in the recent past--friends have told me that when they first met me, they were afraid of being judged. This came as a surprise at first, but I soon realized why. I have a distinct (and somewhat predictable) set of morals that every last person does not share. This is not a bad thing. But those who do not share them often think that I will judge them accordingly. Lies. Thinking that I will judge you is, in fact, you judging me. This ties into stereotypes and perceptions we hold of one another. I guess I'm learning to approach it all in a different way.

Complaining. Complaining is mostly a selfish action. I'm sure we can think of good things to complain about (fairness, health, and so forth). However, living in a spirit of complaint is toxic. It's toxic to our own attitudes and perceptions, and it's toxic to those that we complain to and with. Upon being given a second chance to continue PC service, I set the goal to limit complaining. I have failed. The opposite of complaining is thanksgiving. Thankfully, we are given second and third and fourth chances.

"To Him who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask for or imagine...."

Lord, save me from myself.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A String of Thanks

An email from a friend this morning reminded me that true thankfulness will cause us to stop looking at our own miseries and turn our eyes to the grace we have been given.

Thus, my 2012 thankful list (in no particular order):

I'm thankful for being an American citizen, particularly in the month of November. We have a cultural reason to stop once a year and really think through what we're thankful for.

I'm thankful for my family. Family is usually at the top of most thankful lists, which does not necessarily make it unique. But my family is. My parents are the most generous and thoughtful people I know, and I'm thankful that they take the time to invest in others (particularly, their grand/daughters)!

I'm thankful for electricity. Yet another modern amenity that we tend to take for granted. While living without it on a regular basis (life in PC Africa) simplifies life, having a fan and source to charge my computer by is a true blessing in PC Jamaica.

I'm thankful for relationships. Before you jump to conclusions, I mean that I'm thankful for friendships. Life has been rather transitional since leaving high school, and I have met incredible people along the way. Though I cannot keep strong ties with every last person, I'm thankful for the opportunity to call many of you "friend."

I'm thankful for hope. As a Christian, my hope is sure. My hope is finished. Because of this hope, my circumstances--the ones I cannot control, the ones that I cannot explain, the ones I cannot fix--are bearable. There is more to life than circumstances.

Finally, I'm thankful for health. I'm thankful to be alive, in a functioning body made to heal itself in an incredible way.

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, GIVE THANKS in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. "  - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hello, world. Please excuse the prolonged absence. 

I've been busy. (Yes, it's possible sometimes.)

Busy making history.
I was the first female to win a race on the first BMX race track
in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Busy watching sea turtle releases on St. Mary's north coast.

Busy learning about raising bees with site mate.

Busy helping with a Marlin Tournament in St. Mary.
And gawking at the winning marlin for the day at 340 pounds.

Busy hiking the tallest mountain in the Caribbean,
Blue Mountain Peak.

 As you can see, it was the coldest I've ever been in Jamaica.
Refreshing, really.

 We woke up at 2:00 in the morning, hoping to catch the sunrise from the top.
While the sun beat us, it was still a spectacular view, and worth waking early.

 At the top?
A giant jungle-gym, which provided for an even better view.

 And I've been busy recovering from Hurricane Sandy.

My current (electricity) was out for over a week.
A handful of volunteers within miles of me are still without.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not like camping.
Because when you camp, you camp near a usable water source.
And you take vacation from work.

Words cannot describe and pictures do not do justice to explain the experience.
This is the flooded field across the highway from me, as it was happening.

 St. Mary (me), Portland, and St. Thomas suffered the most damage.
While a handful of families in my community lost all they had,
we were more fortunate than our surrounding communities.

 Despite the challenges (and mine are relatively few compared to volunteers around me),
I am thankful for this experience.
I have a much better understanding and new compassion
for the development challenges this nation and it's people face.

Friday, September 7, 2012

525,600 Minutes

How do you measure a year?
One year ago I became a sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteer. I swore before God, man, and my colleagues that I would do all that was within my power to represent my country well and serve the people of The Gambia. I packed my suitcases for the last in-country move and rode four hours up the dirt road to my new home. I said a tearful yet excited goodbye to the 12 other teammates who had grown to be as family. I said hello to a new family, a new village, and new site mates. I made a “thankful” list to calm my emotions. 

So how do I measure this past year? In daylights, in laughter, in cups of coffee? I will measure this year by how the circumstances changed me.
What I value has changed. I have never been a terribly materialistic person, though I won’t deny that I enjoy nice things as much as the next person. However, the circumstances of (1) being an entire world away from those I love most as well as (2) all that is familiar only made my desire for them stronger. ‘Tis absence that made this heart grow fonder. Recently, I’ve been having rather significant conversations with a local about why I would leave a comfortable life, a good job, and free country to live at poverty level in the blasted heat of Jamaica. While there is more than one motivation, the underlying reality is clear: because of the ability to meet new people and opportunity to impact each other’s lives. A year later, I write with confidence that the things I value most aren’t things…they’re people.

My definition of “friend” has changed. In our social media-induced approach to relationships, a “friend” ranges from someone you met briefly, a friend of a friend (literally, someone you haven’t ever met), or someone as close as your spouse. As I left my gaggle of friends in California to begin life in another land, I was very surprised at those who made effort to show their support. I cannot judge, for I will freely admit my own failure to be a good friend to those whom I have seen off to faraway lands. (Many deep apologies to those of you who know who you are.) This past year I have been overwhelmed by incredible people I have met, and the real friends I have made. In Peace Corps we joke about our colleagues being our “government-issued friends,” but reality is that this is the start of lifelong relationships. Words cannot scratch the surface of the impact the Haidous family, my Peace Corps Africa doctors, the few at PC Washington, and my new church family in Folsom have had. Not only did the circumstances of the past year provide for new friends, but it also redefined my friendships with two friends from childhood. My new definition of a friend is exactly as King Solomon wrote: one who sticks closer than a brother. (And I happen to have very strong ties with my sisters.)

The things I find contentment in have changed. As a young adult living in a posh suburb of Los Angeles, California, contentment was hard to come by. I constantly felt the need to be doing something. Having a variety of skills and abilities wasn’t enough; I wanted to master everything I tried my hand at, and I wanted to try something new every week. Sitting and staring at the sun set over the ocean was the closest I came to contentment. Contentment in Africa became sitting in the shade of my private, 10’x15’ back yard reading a trashy novel. Contentment as a medical evacuee became having an Internet connection. Contentment in Jamaica has become sitting under the Ackee tree and chatting with the neighbors as they do their wash. Over the past year, I have become more content in the small things.


I recently listened to a podcast in which a man likened uprooting a tree for transplant to that of uprooting a person from their life. He said, “transplanting trees and transplanting people causes a shock to the system and delays growth for a season. But they’ll both recover in time. Growth happens slowly and steadily as we set down in one place, as we dig in.” I couldn’t help but relate to this analogy, knowing that we do recover in time. Though I have felt a great shock to my system this past year, I ultimately trust the Master gardener.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Funny Conversations

Peace Corps is just as much—if not more—about a cultural exchange as it is about sustainable projects. Naturally, Jamaicans are just as curious about where I come from as I am about their culture and community history. Two separate, recent, cultural exchange conversations stand out to me as particularly humorous:

Situation 1
I had just met one of my student’s older sisters, C. She’s in high school, about 15 years old. She’s a typical high school student who has little to no interest in studies. I know she comes from a difficult home situation, so I pay special, positive attention to her whenever I see her around.
One of the first questions she asked me, while touching my arm:
C: Di sun a burn you.
Me: Yes, the sun makes me darker.
C: If I go to your country, will my skin turn your color?
Me: (rather dramatic) No, sir! God made you this beautiful color and He made me this color.
C: Oh.
I realized moments later that she had asked the question in all that is genuine curiosity. I was just thankful that I hadn’t put my foot in my mouth and had instilled that her dark skin truly is beautiful. It still might be one of my favorite questions to date, though.

Situation 2
The locals in my community—as well as regular passer by’s (taxi drivers)—know me as the white girl who runs. Because I’m a white girl, my route is very restricted to a 3-mile out-and-back. Thus, I look forward to Sunday mornings when a host cousin runs with me and we can take the road to the beach. One particular morning we ran a little further and waded in the water before turning back around. Part of our conversation on the run back:
Me: “I’m still surprised at how warm the ocean is here.”
Oochi: “What do you mean?”
Me: “I’m so used to the ocean being freezing cold, because that’s how it is all year long where I’m from.”
Oochi: “Yeah man, this is Jamaica. Everything is hot here.”

view of the beach to which we run
One of the benefits most PCVs enjoy in their respective country of service is called a closed user [cell phone] group. This means that we can call and text message each other’s cell phones for free. It’s literally a lifeline. There is a poor volunteer whose wife left us with a severed Achilles tendon back in March. She finally has a date to come back in early September (woo hoo!). In the meantime, we do our best to make sure he has the support he needs. He and I exchange daily text messages about how the day is going, and he leaves me laughing out loud every time. The following exchanges are with this individual.
Those of you who have lived in any sort of developing country know that meetings never start on time. And generally speaking, you can bet it’ll start at least half an hour to an hour late. [In some extreme cases, it just never happens at all.] The other night I was a few minutes late for the start of Bible study at church. I text messaged another volunteer:
Me: Of course the first time I’m late for something, they’ve actually started on time.
TC: Just walk in like you own it. Ha ha.

This same volunteer is helping with a summer camp at his wife’s work site. I was supposed to go help as well, but a sprained ankle landed me a week of staying at home. The following has to do with how camp is going:
TC (yesterday): I’m in the grocery store because I’m out of food at home, and somehow I end up buying a loaf of bread, two boxes of crayons, and a coloring book.
TC (today): Absolute madhouse.
Me: How many are there? All ages?
TC: More kids and we are crammed inside a church. About 50 kids ranging from 3 years old to 13. I have about 12 little ones to myself. It’s like herding cats.
Such is the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. We buy children supplies over food for ourselves, and liken working with them to herding the feline species.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Sorry it's been over a month and this is all I have to show you for now.

I had never heard of breadfruit before arriving in Jamaica; however, my father told me that it has an interesting place in the history of West Indian slave trading. Go figure.

The tree itself is not native to Jamaica, but was carried here from Africa. There are a few different varieties, some of which grow in Florida. Almost all of the varieties have to be cooked before they're edible. My favorite way to eat it is roasted. The fruit is loaded with nutrients and has been claimed to be the solution to hunger in places such as Africa.

The fruit itself is light, spongy, dry, and fibrous when roasted. It goes well as a side to almost anything. Yesterday I had it with curry chicken and pok choi. I tried it once with peanut butter, but it was way too dry to be palatable. Jamaicans have done amazing things with breadfruit, including making a flour from it. There was even a breadfruit festival in St. Mary a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend. 

game: how many breadfruits can you spy?
The following are a series of pictures in which my training host mother roasted breadfruit. 
Without further adieu:
fruit on the tree
ripe breadfruit, ready to face it's doom
making ready to set the fire
Mrs. Collins preparing the fire
don't tell the environment sector we're using gasoline
and on she goes!

must rotate about every 20 minutes

directions: roast the living daylights out of it

finally done roasting

don't eat the peel or the pit, but enjoy the rest!

Friday, June 29, 2012

May and June

It is difficult to know how and what to communicate “life updates” effectively with you. I have come to realize that being a Peace Corps Volunteer is almost like living a double life. In one life we live in work mode, dutifully doing what we can to fulfill the Peace Corps’ 3 goals and be a positive influence in our working community. In the other life, we live in sanity survival mode. We have days spent locking ourselves inside and weekends traveling away from site. The two lives meet somewhere in the middle, occasionally one blending into the other. As I have been at site only for six weeks now, most of what I want to write to you about falls in the sanity survival mode life.

Jamaica continues to surprise me. At first I did not sense much of a culture shock, mainly because I am guaranteed English wherever I go, and Jamaica is so close to the States that some of the culture bleeds over. Most Jamaicans have traveled abroad or have family abroad. However, I have recently come to realize that I have turned a blind eye to culture shock, and both of my Peace Corps lives have been easier to endure since accepting the reality of it. The place I experience the most culture shock is in my work life. The school system is very different here, aside from the basics (teachers, students, classrooms). More on that later.

grade 4 & grade 6

my admirable counterpart playing "Red Light, Green Light" with grades 2-6

For now I go to school only Monday through Thursday. On Fridays I typically go into my parish’s capital to use the Internet at the library, say hi to the ocean, and run errands.

view from the library

THE parish church

I spend most Saturdays with other volunteers who live relatively close to me.  Jamaica has an endless amount of sites to see and things to do. Many locally owned attractions offer Peace Corps Volunteers discounts, local prices (as opposed to tourist prices), and a friendly smile. For this, we are ever thankful.

Sunday barbeque with one of our PCJ staff

Playing in the river in Portland, near base of the Blue Mountains

chilling in Oraccabessa
walking around Portland

As you might imagine, we create strong friendships with certain individuals in our training groups. Most Peace Corps Volunteers (worldwide) naturally end their service as best friends with the volunteers closest to them at site. However, we each have a few friendships from training that are impossible to move on from.

Jedd & Michelle

Cory & I both successfully completed 2 PC trainings. He actually completed a full term, too.

my PCJ "parents," Mike & Pat

I do hope the above helps you relate better to this portion of my service. As an Education volunteer, there is not a lot on the summer calendar. I will be helping out with a summer camp at another volunteer’s site across the island, and perhaps one at my site-mate’s school. The school year starts over again on the first Monday in September.

Other notes:

I have found exercise critical to my mental health and am working toward the goal of a half-marathon in December. My host cousin runs with me on the weekends, which allows for a change in scenery (as there is only one route for me to go safely by myself). 

Though I still find rice primarily revolting, I have been consuming it in small quantities. My host mother is of Indian descent and cooks the most delicious curry and other traditional Indian dishes. Of course they are all served with rice. But don’t expect me to come asking for it.

My host family continues to be a blessing. They celebrated my birthday with curry chicken and cake. Everyone came over for the evening and we ended the night by playing dominoes.

4 of 5 of my host nieces/nephews

the family, minus 1 niece

they take very good care of me :)

Friday, June 8, 2012

I find myself with unplanned free internet time and a guilty conscience about not posting something for the few and faithful followers to read. Here's some key facts to hold you over until next time (aka, a more planned post):

- June 14 marks three complete months in country/on island.

- While my school has about 125-130 students registered, only about 70-80 attend on a regular basis. Do not ask me "Why?"...yet.

- The following community organizations exist in my community: Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Church of God, Quaker Church, and a Farmer's Group.

- In addition to numeracy and literacy intervention, I hope to help start a school garden and a student-of-the-month program with the new school year.

- I will be spending two weeks in another parish in July assisting two other volunteers who are putting on a summer camp for primary school children. Inna di bush. Inna di heat!

- The days continue to be long, but the months really do fly by.

Friday, May 18, 2012

More than Thankful

I have been in Jamaica for almost 10 weeks now and have successfully completed Pre-Service Training with a group of 33 other volunteers. For this, I am more than thankful. This phase of service comes to a close this morning with a (rather anti-climactic) swearing-in ceremony. I will be off to my permanent site just an hour or two later and my first day of school is on Monday.

Many people wonder how this training has compared to my previous experience. The short answer is that comparing the two is similar to comparing apples to oranges. They're both fruit. They're both training. They both have a peel and seeds. There are PC mandated sessions for each training worldwide. Two major differences stand out to me this time: (1) I'm not under the influence of drugs, which had completely changed my perspective and attitude, and (2) I was able to--more or less--expect what was to come. The combination of these two realities proved for a rather smooth 10 weeks.

Highlights of training:
- living with two different Jamaican host families proved to me the diversity of personalities amongst Jamaicans.
- spending 5 weeks with only my Education sector for sector-specific training resulted in closer relationships.
- climbing Dunn's River Falls and playing the "tourist" in Ocho Rios (north coast) for a weekend.
- meeting new volunteers and continuing to build relationships amongst my co-workers here. There are some really incredible people to know in this context.

Philippians 4:13 & 14 is on my heart this morning:

"Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Site Placement

I'm not normally one to jump on the bandwagon, but in the interest of popular demand, I'm caving this time. This afternoon we found out our site placement (ideally) for the next two years. You may recall that my last site was Dongoro Ba, Lower River Region, The Gambia, West Africa. It was four hours up country down the South Bank Road (unpaved). My favorite things about that site were: (1) it was on the main road, and (2) I had 2 amazing site mates, Meghan and Catherine. It was only an added bonus that I was the village's fourth volunteer in the past 15 years.

My new site is: Rosend, St. Mary, Jamaica, West Indies. Go ahead Gambia volunteers. Call it as it is: Beach Corps. I will be working in a small school in a neighboring town. What I'm looking forward to most: being close to another awesome volunteer. A supervisor who's been said to be excellent. Finally, almost a year later, beginning my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

More to come...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pon di Road - Walking to Class in Pictures

Leaving my house, about 100 yards off the main road at about 7:30am. Class starts at 8am.

Picking up Michelle, who lives across the street

A shop on the corner. It's usually open in the afternoons. Text message Brandi: "coming :)".

Approaching Brandi's house

It's a daily battle to keep the dogs inside. Usually Rex (r) escapes and follows us the whole way.

I highly doubt this is followed.

This was empty our first two weeks here. Now it is noisy and smelly.

Michelle and Brandi passing a local hang out and shops.

The local high school: Ewarton High School

Just keep walking, just keep walking...

We can see the community center (training site), but still have 15 min to walk to get to the bottom of the hill

Abandoned, overgrown buildings are not a rare sight. Some look pretty enchanted.

Local bar. Not open at 7:45am.

Someone has been busy!

Sweet Impression is a local DJing service. Approaching the steepest part of the hill.

Mike & Pat have joined us.

The busiest part: the taxi park at the bottom of the hill.

And stray dogs. Everywhere.

Sign at entrance of Ewarton Community Center. That's right: It's about winning.

Morning traffic headed from Linstead to Ocho Rios

Bus stop

Ticket booth just at the entrance of the CC. They asked for their picture to be taken. Ok.

And we arrive: 7:55am.

Our trainer did an excellent job making a bland room into a classroom.

Pretty anti-climactic, but an accurate glimpse as to where I've spent most waking hours the past 5 weeks.