Thursday, December 19, 2013

Blog Slacking

You called me out. 
I'm a blog slacker.
In attempt to redeem myself, the past few months through pictures:

The rainy season came a bit late this year.

Who can resist this face?!
Playing around while cousin fixes his bicycle so we can go for a ride through the bush. 

The beginning of our keyhole garden and all my eager little helpers!

photograph by Lacy Szuwalski

Playing a syllable game to reinforce reading readiness with a grade 1 little girl.

Well, hello there, goofy smile.
Much to her denial, Lora is always the target of photography at big events in Jamaica.
I was caught with her at a day of 20/20 cricket matches.
For those of you who don't understand the game of cricket so much, check out this article for a hilarious explanation.

Care package crafts compliments of sister Sarah! 
This cousin duo make up some of my best friends in community.

The Hudson Gardens in Littleton, CO
photograph by [tba]

Second sister to get hitched in October! A beautiful bride, beautiful wedding, beautiful day.
Many of my students guess me as the one furthest right.

In November my former teammate, Lacy, brought a friend to come visit.
One of their visit highlights: Dolphin Cove, compliments of Uncle Stafford & Aunty Marilyn.
They swam with the dolphins, had Jerk, we all swam with the [nurse] sharks, and went on a boat ride to see the falls.

Our primary school's second annual Christmas carol service. 
Yes, I voluntarily took the role of crafty decorator.

Up next: family Christmas traditions.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Denbigh 2013

Denbigh, Clarendon, is home to Jamaica's annual Denbigh agriculture show. Last year I spent Jamaica's 50th Independence Day there. That monumental day coupled with Bolt's recent Olympic achievements led to quite the cultural experience. I remember calling another volunteer who was on site, trying to locate each other in the crowds. "I'm wearing green and yellow," I said. "Oh, wait. Everyone is wearing green and yellow."

This year, about 15 PCVs lead by a fearless Programming and Training Specialist partnered with Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement to run a children's booth inside of their Green Village. Following are pictures and a little article I wrote following the 3-day extravaganza:

Peace Corps’
Children’s Village Reaches the Masses

Across the world, Peace Corps Volunteers are known for their ability to make something out of nothing, for combining ingenuity with frugality to accomplish great things. PCJ’s Green Initiative Programming and Training Specialist, AS, relied on this trait when Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement officials asked her to rally the troops for their Green Village inside of Jamaica’s annual Denbigh agriculture show only weeks before the national event.

JOAM has focused on promoting local, organic farming especially among rural farmers since 2001. At Denbigh, their booth featured organic crop farming, organic apiaries, presentations and discussions about organic farming in Jamaica, and Peace Corps’ Children’s Village. Volunteers from all sectors came together to create a purposeful, educational, and interactive walk through the village.

Starting with Green Initiative volunteers AB, AF, AG, and KK's composting table, children had the opportunity to touch, smell, and see actual compost in three different stages. Children then read and sequenced a poem about the lifecycle of Barry the Banana going from just “one of the bunch” to providing key nutrients on a garden floor.

Moving right along to the enviorcy table, children heard a basic rendition of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. “It was just really cool to be a part of helping both children and adults engage in informal activities and discussions about the environment, and I especially loved being able to use a children’s book to do so. Having parents ask to play the kid games (like Pin the Moustache on the Lorax) was a highlight,” says Education group 83’s BF.

What looked like a piece of trash hanging from trees really led children to read cartoon strips of what happens to a plastic bottle. Green Initiative volunteer, JS (group 84), illustrated what happens to a plastic bottle under four common choices: recycling, burning, dashing it on the ground, or throwing it in a trash receptacle. Once children made a choice, they followed a string to the corresponding cartoon. Made clear through J's creative drawings, recycling is the best way to dispose of plastic waste.

A Children’s Village wouldn’t be complete without the excitement of sweeties. Children had the opportunity to win such a prize after completing the JOAM Green Village scavenger hunt PO (83, Green Initiative) created. “A boy around 13 that struggled to read came back to the scavenger hunt station about 9 or 10 times asking for help with the instructions and ultimately completed all six answers correctly. Perseverance and a willingness to ask for help!” was one of P’s most memorable moments of the three-day adventure.

M (83, Youth as Promise) and P’ (84, Green Initiative) craft table clearly won the popularity contest. As if displaying creative ways to reuse typical packaging wasn’t enough, they gave any willing child the opportunity to fashion their own bling from plastic bottles, spare yarn, paper, and plastic bags as a part of the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle component of the village. Imagine the fun of playing with the thought that M and P may have even influenced future designers and entrepreneurs. A late-add face-painting station brought joy to many children’s faces (and arms) as well.

Though the days were long and hot, these 14 Peace Corps Volunteers put their best efforts forward in educating Denbigh participants about the value of our earth and the effects of caring for it. Countless children, teens, and adults came through our corner of the village over the three days.

A special thanks to those not previously mentioned: Green Initiative volunteers LF (83), ER (84), JM (83), and MK (83, Youth as Promise) and KW (83, Education) for their efforts and participation. We would not have been able to pull this event off without the generous hospitality of Uncle and Aunty and their nephew. Lastly, thank you A for having a vision to partner with JOAM to promote world peace through friendship. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Continually Changing Perspective

"We long for the security of familiarity when things are tough--
ordinary life to return to, 
relief from the situation we are in. 
When trials stretch out over time, we are also stretched."

I forget the book, article, or perhaps personal letter I hastily scribbled the above quote from. Currently stuck on my fridge, I've mulled over it time and again.

When trials stretch out over time, we are also stretched.

Isn't this what I longed for in joining Peace Corps? To leave the familiarity and comforts my middle-class American lifestyle offered? To make new friends and learn from a myriad of like-minded people? To gain a perspective on life, love, and worldview that living only outside of myself can offer?

Over halfway through service and, more or less, on the downward slope, many volunteers struggle with keeping a positive perspective. We can taste the prize at the end of the long, grueling journey: a return flight to ordinary life in America. Relief from a the hardships of poverty and challenges of living in a cultural norm so different from the one programmed in us from birth. We know that a road filled with potholes, bumps, and slides along the way still looms ahead. We, for the most part, have lost the bright-eyed perspective and newness of the community and culture we've been submerged in.

"Hey, whitey" rouses a response I wouldn't normally be proud of.
The screaming mother across the road is not exactly a pleasant good morning.
3,948 dead cockroaches later, I still dry heave in battle with them (no matter how clean my house is!).

The biggest challenge I personally face as a female PCV in Jamaica is the unwanted attention.

I was warned before arriving. I have had continuos, helpful training in how to avoid, ignore, or dissipate unwelcome comments. I have the undying support from our post's staff.

And the longer I'm here, the more I learn that it's not so much a personal thing as it is a cultural thing.

Yes, we knew from the start that Jamaican men are "fast" and "aggressive." I've never had so many men be so descriptive and detailed about exactly what they like about me and what they want to do with me. Sometimes it's the fact that they don't even know me more than the graphic words themselves that get to me the most. I have never felt the reality of being outwardly different as I have here in Jamaica.

Generally speaking, I have resorted to using culturally appropriate responses, oftentimes ignoring most unwanted and what I think as unnecessary attention.

Until recently.

Today I took a new volunteer to a nearby gem of a farmer's market. Knowing that we'd have to meet up in route, I tried to think of the best and easiest place to find her. Meeting by the bus park made the most sense, but it also meant no escape from attention. In fact, I was practically inviting it by standing on the corner of the busiest market day. Thinking ahead is half the strategy. I found a place to wait in the shade, and I intentionally stood beside a couple of older women vending imported goods at the Friday night market. I saw the two young(er) men right in front of them. I was crossing my fingers that the women would provide enough of a safety net for them to leave me alone.

The comments and questions started immediately. I greeted them with the appropriate cultural greetings, knowing I would probably be cussed out if I merely ignored them. They proceeded with what I wholeheartedly expected: "I like your shape. I like your style. Yuh fit. Yuh sport? Yuh beautiful, baby. How I can get with yuh?" I decided to be polite and answer as ambiguously as possible, letting them know I'm local and merely waiting in the shade until my friend arrived.

After imparting that knowledge with no avail, I played the husband card. "Suppose my husband comes and sees you?" I posed to the two of them. "Mi a vendor! He a see mi sell yuh tings." Surprisingly, these ones had respect for the fact that I had a husband. And I had answers to all their questions.

"Show mi yuh hand dem." (Meaning, Where is your ring?)
"I don't wear a wedding ring because I don't want anyone to thief it."

"Yuh husband a bredren?" (Meaning, Is he black/Jamaican?)
"No, we married in the states."

"Give me yuh eye glass. Mi waan see yuh baby doll eye dem." (Meaning, take off your sunglasses. I want to see your eyes.)
"True, the sun hurts them."

"Yuh tell lie pon mi. Yuh know dat 'husband' is like di cross to di vampire." (Meaning, You're lying. You're just telling us you have a husband to get us off your back."

Then my assumed allies, the women friends I nonverbally adopted, burst out laughing. When they laughed, I knew not to take the situation personally. Or offensively.

Jamaican men (at least in the more rural areas, and in my experiences) are generally, merely different. They say it how they think it is. They know what they want. They don't beat around the bush. They don't flirt or drop hints. They act (verbally) on their impulses.

And I think I've come to the living realization that it's okay.

That's what I encountered today. It's okay for them to tell me that they think I'm beautiful. Or that they are jealous of my husband. Or that they want a girl like me. It's how this culture functions. It's different from what I know and what I'm comfortable with. But isn't that part of the experience? Didn't I join PC--in part--to grow and to be stretched?

I will also take 2 seconds to express that there are, unfortunately, many circumstances in which too much information is shared. I have been victim of and have witnessed other women suffer graphic and inappropriate comments. That is not okay, no matter whose culture we're talking.

This is just one way in which my perspective is continually changing. For the better.

The end of the quote is:
"Hang in there--endure."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Happy Birthdays!

Today is America's 237th birthday.

Today is my mama's 54th birthday. MY mama.

(If I had access to precious pictures from growing up, I would post them. Alas, I digress)

My mama is an American. Born overseas. And for the first time since birth, she's celebrating her birthday in the land of her birth: Germany.

The more I grow up, the more I realize how many characteristics I have taken on from my mama. In no particular order, these are 5 life lessons I have learned from her:

5. A penny saved is a penny earned. Both of my parents are frugal and wise with their money. But it was my mom who always said, "Even $1.50 will buy you a soda at Target," or something along those perspectives when we were comparing minuscule price comparisons.

4. Silly is hilarious. My father actually happens to be the family clown, always coming back with witty or appropriately sarcastic comments. He can convince just about anyone of the most ridiculous things. (One time he convinced my 6th grade class that licking envelopes kills brain cells. Thus, 30-odd 5th & 6th graders ensued to lick their fingers, then the envelope for about 5 minutes. Except for my sister and me. We knew better.) But my mom has the most silly sayings that are stinkin' hilarious when I find myself saying them! One of my favorites is when we get in the car from being out, and as she turns the key in the engine, she declares, "Home, James!" Or when a car is revving up a steep incline she yells, "Go, squirrels, go!" Oh, and when she's calling someone who is just spacing out, she says, "Earth to Kate...!" Oh, my.

3. Make much use of your hands. Neither of my parents are idlers, and my mama did well to teach her "dainty daughters" how to use their hands to bless others. Many a day we spent around the crafting table making silly things from clay, melting plastics, paint, fabric, and whatever else was the latest craft fad. We baked incessantly on rainy days, taking turns to measure and pour ingredients, then fighting over who got to lick the bowl and beaters. Not only did she teach us to make very practical use of our hands, but she taught us how to do it in a way that blesses others. Sewing. Baking. Cooking. Giving it to others. Life skills, people.

2. Be a problem solver. This one stands out more since I've lived overseas. Rather than give answers to things all the time, my mom (even still) asks questions to get others to the answer. It's amazing how many people in my adult life are not able to think for themselves. It's also amazing how I watch children make the same dumb decisions over and over, simply because they're told not to do something rather than realizing why they should not do it.

1. Compassion is one of the best gifts you can give. My mom is a nurse. She says that since she was a little girl, she's known that she wanted to be a nurse. Having been in the field for longer than I've been alive, she's a darn good nurse. We still call her for opinion on ailments. (When I was mysteriously sick in Africa, she would email a couple times a day asking the doctors what they thought about so-and-so or so-and-so.) She has literally saved lives with her medical knowledge. The day I realized what my mom actually does in her nursing job was the day that I knew she is driven from a heart of compassion. She loves people, and she loves caring for them. The ugly, the smelly, and the disgusting that most of us can't stomach. She sees people for who they are on the inside and loves that above anything else. 

Mom, you have set an example that I and my sisters will follow for life. Happiest of birthdays to you!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

My First Movie

Hellooooooo developed world.

Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, and since I have high-speed internet for the week, I'll save the more thought-provoking posts for the rest of the month when school is out and I have loads of time. (Joking, it's actually going to be busier once school's out!)

1. I'm at the end of our mid-service conference right now, and this video is the outcome of training in the first half of it. (HUGE accomplishment if you are aware of my techie dumbness.) Technically, it's not a video. It's a digital story. Whoa. Ideally, we'd like to be able to share this video on a community basis as an encouragement for parents to be involved in their child's education at home.


2. Among other things, one of my favorite community activities is to rope neighbor children into informal learning environments. Recently, this sibling pair (ages 6 and 4) helped me build a fully-functioning solar oven. Yes, I let a 4-year-old spray paint. And it went well!

We baked muffin bread in it. Twice.

3. I had my first (and second) visitor! My oldest friend came to visit for a whole 10 days, and it was complete bliss! In her first overseas trip she got off the plane (of at least 13-17 hours of international travel) and hopped right onto public transportation for another 2-3 hours. Not many people can do that. We enjoyed time with volunteers as well as time at my school and in my community. It has been a real blessing to have someone from home know exactly what life is like here.

4. My little corner of a classroom continues to be a safe haven and learning center for the students who enter. Not that any teacher ever has any favorites, but working with my at-level and above-level students is definitely a highlight of each week (every other day, in fact). We just finished reading The BFG by Roald Dahl (many thanks to dad for the set of novels!). In a culminating activity, the students made Fandango-style puppets of the main characters and acted out a short show to their classmates. Having this group has provided a tremendous opportunity for me to model to the other teachers new and creative ways to promote literacy through nontraditional methods.

5. I celebrated another birthday. Birthdays aren't necessarily big productions in my family, but they are certainly very special, important days. This isn't the first one I've celebrated away from "home," but it has never been easy to do so. Most people would think that having a cavity filled and sitting in a 3-hour meeting would be the last things they want to do on their birthday, but it meant seeing other volunteers and not being lonely in this case! Our thoughtful in-country staff surprised our meeting with celebratory cupcakes, and the family I spent the night with surprised me again with a birthday cake. It was truly meaningful, and I felt very loved.

6. I got a bicycle. After 13 months, 2 approval forms, and almost a month of looking for "just the right one," I finally got it. A special thank you to it's sponsors: you know who you are. What I didn't realize is how instrumental it has been to even further my community integration. Since it came in a box, I needed tools to assemble a few parts and tighten the rest.

A student and his neighbor walked about 15 minutes on Sunday to help me out.
I paid them in thank-you's, cold water, and cake.

And a chance to test ride. 
According to them, it's a sick bike. Like, way cool.

The next day I went riding with another neighbor boy up the hill even further to the edge that overlooks the north coast. Not only was the view breathtaking, but there's a tourist attraction with a swimming pool at the top! I met the caretaker, and was assured multiple times that I'm welcome back whenever and with whoever I want. To say that this new discovery could be life-changing would be an understatement. We'll see what August holds...I could be MIA as I'm cruising around on a bicycle and swimming laps and teaching swimming lessons in the neighborhood pool.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Reliving a Dream

All of us have "What if...?" thoughts dancing their way through our minds as life carries us in directions we never planned or expected.

After only two seasons of water polo, my amateur coaches turned me into a fairly decent athlete. Winning MVP both years I played in high school, I looked forward to turning up the competition for scouts and the potential of being able to play in college. A shoulder injury at the lake one summer put me out for a season and on the wait list for surgery. No one expected me to recover as well or as quickly as I did. While I went on to practice with the college level, I sacrificed my chance to play anymore in high school to the opportunity to graduate early. The "what if's..." have crossed my mind from time to time. What if I had not gone through surgery? What if I pushed harder to train more post-surgery? What if I had gone to a college with an aquatics program? I enjoyed a good few years of water polo in my life, coached a bit toward the end of college, and realized that--due to unpopularity--it was not something I would meet again in my future.

Until I moved to Jamaica.

Never in 1,000,000 years did I ever believe that I would be able to participate in water polo as I once had, let alone while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Another PC volunteer put me in contact with the Jamaica National Water Polo Team, and I've been able to hang with them a few times now! (I call them my First-World Kingston Friends to other PCVs.)

The National Pool
Swimmers warming up for the 4-day annual CARIFTA competition involving 14 countries in the English-speaking Caribbean. This was my view from the water polo stats desk.

Jamaica's U18 boys team and coaches.  Last year, T&T beat them by more than 30 shots.

This year, Jamaica  took the gold, beating Trinidad & Tobago by 1 shot in overtime.

Man, was it a celebration!

They are a completely welcoming group of people, and all the coaches are about my age. The parents are wonderful and appreciate my efforts and willingness to help.

We'll see how life leads, but I hope to be able to help with Jamaica Water Polo for the next year or so!

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Clearly, I've been slacking on the weekly photography challenge.
I have no excuse.
However, I will continue posting pictures according to theme.
They'll just be on my time frame from now on.

The current theme is: messes

The day before Easter Break, this grade 5/6 classroom was a mess!
The children basically spent the half day playing games.

I know these aren't not the clearest pictures, but they're both the inside of taxis that I regularly take.
The taxi's that run on my route are in such disrepair that you just hang on tight and pray they'll make it safely up or down the hill!

Yes, that's a piece of watering hose as a make-shift door handle.

My kitchen was a royal mess this morning.
My landlord's neighbor has been bringing me produce, and I now have tons of pumpkin 
(which I definitely won't complain about). I boiled and pureed a bunch of it to freeze this morning.

I personally am not a very messy person. I like my things organized and in their place. But when life gets busy, messes tend to pop up more frequently.

And finally, I've been kind of a mess recently. You can barely now see the bruises on my right foot from hitting rocks while jumping at Blue Hole. On the right, you see the end stages of my 3rd skinned knee in Jamaica. Fortunately, our amazing bodies were designed to heal themselves in circumstances like these. Hopefully no more messy Kate for a while!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Black & White

Jamaicans--and many other developing countries I've lived in--call it as it is. I'm white. The typical Jamaican is black. One time I was trying to describe a Jamaican to my Jamaican host mother. Her trying to help me was, "Ohhhh, that one tall black man." I laughed out loud and exclaimed, "They're all black!" I was too new to understand, be able to see, and appreciate the different shades of black.

When I first read this week's photograph challenge, I thought that I  might change pictures into black and white tones. But then I realized that black and white are natural colors in this beautiful world we call our present home.

This week's challenge: black & white

I made a keyboard for our computer room from Styrofoam egg cartons.
Recycled + purposeful = double win.

White me with 5 of my black students.
I teach all of them in different pull-out groups.
This was after they had just run about 1 mile with me.

It's breadfruit season again! Roasted breadfruit is my favorite.
How do you know when it's done roasting? 
When it's only black & white.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I don't know how or where to begin this post. I don't know whether to be cynical, angry, funny (laughing so I don't cry), compassionate, or just plain sad at the situation. Realistically, I am feeling all of these.

My school received a shipment of TOMS Shoes this week. For those of you unfamiliar with their mission, please click on the link to read about it.

For those of you who sport the canvas flats in efforts to aid those "less fortunate" than you, read carefully and consider both sides of this story.

For those of you cautious about international aid, please offer more insight.

I read this article a few weeks ago, and it only validated my current thoughts on international aid.

There are definitely children in my school who probably need new school shoes and genuinely cannot afford it. Shoes are a necessary wardrobe piece in Jamaica (unlike some parts of other developing nations). Fortunately, I have a principal who is able to determine which students are the most needy, and she also understands the value of aid. She has done well to distribute the donated shoes appropriately.

Unfortunately, many of the shoes donated were missing the other half of the pair. I cannot blame TOMS for the failure, assuming that they did not donate only half-pairs. I really wonder what the missing parts of the story are. I wonder if losing the other halves were genuine accidents. I wonder what we're going to do with only the right or only the left shoe of multiple pairs. I wonder what the children think as they either receive a complete pair with joy or look longingly at an incomplete pair.

I do not think international aid is bad. I have seen it do good, and it can do good. But I do think that if it's not done carefully and intentionally--with a healthy dose of accountability--it's a slippery slope to a big mess.

I beg you to think more carefully of your international aid contributions, whether you're aiding directly or indirectly.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Esthetics Complex

This (past) week's challenge was:
what you wore

Since I'm not a fan of taking pictures of myself, I tried to get a little creative with the photographs. 

Some of them appear a little "off" (I prefer funky) because I'm still playing around with my different camera settings.

 I've become really good ay braiding my hair.
Thank you, Peace Corps.
Recently I've been sporting the upside-down french braid, topped with care package flower.

 Since our school has recently entered a Most Beautiful School contest, I've been crafting
using reusable materials with some students. This week I made paper machete bracelets.
Here you see the unpainted product.

At the district track meet, sporting our Beecher Town Primary team colors.

 I finally live in a place cool enough to wear my birthday scarf from Sam!

 And finally, a favorite, Wal-Mart necklace my mom sent me when I was serving in West Africa.
I always get comments on it. And it makes me think of my mom and my West African teammates.

There was one day I wish I had a picture of, but couldn't figure out an appropriate angle. 
I was wearing my rain coat over my swimsuit. No joke.
I was going to Blue Hole with some friends, but it was raining.
Unfortunately, only the rain coat got any use that day.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Week 4 in the photography challenge is:
from a low angle

(1) a view or vista
(2) a mental view or outlook

A few of the following photographs I snapped for documentation purposes and then shot with this week's theme in mind. As I sifted through them later, I realized how much a difference perspective makes in one's view of the situation. 

My kind site mate recited the word perspective on a daily basis post-hurricane Sandy. Her community was completely thrashed and it was as if there was little to no hope for the future. When making my own decision to site change, I was very intentional in asking other volunteers and staff for their perspective.

On a particular adventure to a PC favorite secret swimming hole, one volunteer happened to lose a J$1000 bill (a little more than $10 US). Upset with herself, another volunteer's comment completely changed her perspective when he said, "But think of the joy on the child's face when s/he finds that $1000." True, J$1000 is no cheap loss for the volunteer. But in perspective, we can afford to lose that amount every once in a while. And it will be a tremendous blessing to whoever finds it off the beaten path.

With this, I encourage you. Take a moment to look at life's situations through a different perspective not only visually, but critically and spiritually as well.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"You just have to laugh...

... because you'll cry if you don't."
- fellow PCJ volunteers

One of the aspects I love about how my (higher) education coincides with my Peace Corps life lies in the aspect of incarnational living. The hours I spent reading stories and conducting case studies regarding cultural integration and needs assessment not only paid off during my semester abroad in Papua New Guinea, but continue to be a helpful tool I use in Peace Corps Africa/Jamaica. Though the motives of missions and the motives of capacity building are vastly different, the everyday living-among-the-locals life application is the same.

Ask any missionary or international aid worker (or even international tourist) for the best tool to carry into service. 

Go ahead. Come back and compare your answers. They probably replied with: flexibility.

Each time I thought I finally conquered being flexible, I am tested again.

Here's the most recent test:

My community, including the school, collects rain water for everyday use. Though we've been experiencing lots of rain recently, the school's storage tank needed to be filled. My faithful principal has been begging this water truck or that water truck to come fill it.

One finally came today. During classes, of course. And parked itself right outside of my classroom. I soon realized that there was no way I could out-talk the pump, or that my students would be able to focus.


So what did we do instead, you ask?

Had a photo shoot (complete with arm wrestling breaks).