The Last Day

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Three weeks ago I sat in my back yard reading The Power of Now as the sun began to sink behind the mountains. Buddy was blissfully asleep on my lap with four legs askew, Stella was swirling around my ankles meowing hopefully for another serve of fish. The two had reached an uneasy alliance, only occasionally broken when Buddy mistakenly assumed she would make a good play mate and Stella gave him a hiss and a swipe to remind him she is far to classy for his silly puppy games.

I remember wondering – quite against the book’s good counsel – what would become of us all, this little rag tag Jamaican family of mine? Would Buddy become starved and ferocious like all the other Jamaican dogs? And what of my beautiful Stelly Welly? My constant companion throughout this whole journey, one whose trust I had to earn carefully, who would soon have to protect and care for a litter of tiny helpless kittens all on her own? What about Tigger and Ninja, the other crazy cats? Would they too return to their neglected, distrusting former selves? And what would become of me? Once I returned home, would I have a clearer picture of what this had all been leading to, how it had changed me and what would come next?

But I knew even as I asked myself the questions that there were no quick and easy answers. If Jamaica has taught me anything at all it is that we cannot predict or control the next moment, let alone the next week or year of our lives. Before I left Australia, I felt like I was looking into an immense abyss of unknown ahead. That feeling has never really gone away, and nor should it – we are all constantly standing on the edge of that dark unknown, however much we like to convince ourselves otherwise. I had no power to make sure these animals were fed or protected or loved. I also could not possibly know for certain what the future held for myself. All I was sure of was that we were all on our own from here on in.

Fast forward to today, my very last day in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. And it comes with a truckload of mixed emotions. Relief is the biggest. However, there is also happiness: my Mum is here to experience a slice of this crazy experience with me. Excitement and gratitude that I will soon be travelling to Cuba and the Cayman Islands and Mexico. Pride in myself for all I have learned and achieved here. Sadness each time I say goodbye to one of the children and they ask me to please stay, please pack them in my suitcase, and when will I be coming back? Frustration that there is no one to carry on the work that I started, that the literacy program I created which saw 24 children go up a whole grade level in their reading skills in six months will most likely sit and gather dust now. Fear of that endless unknowable abyss called the future. Eagerness for all the joyful reunions with friends and family back home. Apprehension about returning to the first world when so much of the third world has become second nature to me.

So, in the face of this whirlwind going on inside me I will do what I have done for the past six months: I will keep calm and carry on. I will not seek certainty, because life without uncertainty it doesn’t exist. I will not strive to be fearless, because life without fear doesn’t exist. I will allow the unanswerable questions to sit with me as I pack my bags, say my goodbyes and make one last bumpy journey down through the windy mountain roads to Kingston. And as I get on that plane, I will remember that feeling every possible emotion all at once is probably a very good sign that I am living the width of life. And wasn’t that, after all, the whole point?

10 Moments in Jamaica I Will Never Forget

1. The Happiest Moment: Finding my beautiful baby Buddy (or, more accurately, him finding me) and the sense of amazement each time I peered into the bath and saw his tiny self quietly sleeping there.

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2. The Saddest Moment: the last moments of Buddy’s life as he lay whimpering in my lap, lifting his little head every now and then to look into my eyes. I will always wonder what he was trying to say.

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3. The Strangest Moment: the day after Buddy died, as I was walking home from school and this little guy raced out of the bushes and did the whole-body wiggle, showering my legs with licks as I patted him. What strange forces of the universe conspired to ensure Buddy’s brother crossed paths with me at that exact time and place?

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4. The Bad First-Impression Moment: when I met a little kitten I would come to know as Stella. She was deeply distrusting of people, scampering away if you tried to pat her and so starved she bit my leg. Now she happily rubs against my legs purring and turns her nose up at anything that isn’t fish or meat. In fact, lately she is so fat I wonder if she is about to have kittens of her own.

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5. The Proudest Moment: When Johneil read the word “and”. Seemingly a fairly insignificant thing, but for him – who had never read a single word – and me – who had been working with him for three months – it was an absolute triumph.

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6. The Most Helpless Moment: Sitting in the doctor’s office with Freddie, a muscular nineteen-year-old boy, wishing away his shame and fear as he tremblingly told her about the seizures he suffered in silence because his family said they were the devil inside him.

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7. The Most Grateful Moment: Seeing the most beautiful beach in Jamaica (Frenchman’s Cove, hands down) and for the first time feeling ridiculously lucky to be exactly where I was.

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8. The Most Speechless Moment: My stomach lurching and my mind clouding over as a first-grade girl casually informed me her friend would not be at school for a while because she had a broken hand after a beating from her mother.

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9. The Most Moving Moment: Miss Rose taking my hand and leading me up to the alter during the last hymn at my very last Jamaican church service, and all our strong, unified voices singing together: “My strength renew, my home restore, Lord, I’m coming home.” I’m not a particularly religious person, but in that moment my whole body felt on fire with a connection to something far bigger than myself.

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10. The Most Spectacular Moment: wispy clouds curling around the full moon, and then both clouds and moon disappearing to make way for the sun at Blue Mountain Peak.

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Jamaican Kids Say The Darndest Things

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~ When ya gonna take off your colour?
~ I can’t take it off.
~ But you’re in Jamaica now!

Girl: You got a real good shape and your hips sway real good when you is walking.
Me: Ummm, okay, thanks.

I have someting real important to tell ya: mermaids is real. I sawed it with me eyes, on the computer. But me don’t tink they are in Jamaica, or maybe they just real good at hiding when me go to the beach.

* So, ya live in a mansion full of computers in America?
~ Nope.
* Your mother and father do?
~ Nope.
* Ya know someone that has a mansion?
~ Nope.
* (Looking very sceptical) Is ya even from America?
~ Nope.
* Ohhh. Well, in America all de people have mansions full of computers, so dat’s where I’m going. You a come my mansion and use one computer if ya want.

Boy: Miss, he keeps licking me!
Me: That’s gross, why is he licking you?
Boy: Not with his tongue, Miss.
Me: What! Then what is he licking you with??
Boy: His hand, Miss. Like this. (Slaps other boy.)
Other boy: Miss, he keeps licking me!

* Miss, you will be our teacher every day?
~ No, just today…
* You’re too busy?
~ Well, yes, and also you already have a teacher, she’s just sick today.
* She can be sick forever?

My Jamaica by Numbers

153 days

At least 153 cups of coffee

One broken (overused?) coffee machine

Thousands upon thousands of bananas

Thirty-three (carefully rationed) power bars

One heavenly handful of honeycomb straight from the beehive

Twenty-eight cups of chai tea

Five Jamaican cooking lessons

150 probiotic tablets

Six rolls of deodorant

316 baby wipes

Four cans of dry shampoo

Eleven books

172 crossword puzzles

Fourteen TV shows

Three days without water

Eight days without electricity

One night without gas to cook (and one fire hastily built in the backyard using cardboard and notepaper)

Sixty-eight hikes up the mountain

10 straight hours of hiking through the night to see…

One sunrise at the Blue Mountain Peak

Three randomly acquired cats (Stella will always be number one)

One lost puppy found and loved

Eight little seeds that actually sprouted

Twenty-four beautiful children eager to learn to read

One crazy, intense, unpredictable life-changing adventure

The Saddest Day

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I have had many sad days over the last six months. Days of intense loneliness like I have never experienced in my life, days of feeling heartbroken and helpless about children’s dire life circumstances, days of feeling despised, degraded and fearful. But today is the saddest day. My beautiful little puppy, my ray of sunshine in amongst so many dark clouds, passed away in my arms this morning. He had been sick for four days – he had eaten something or caught a bug, could not eat or drink and eventually couldn’t move except to vomit up blood. All I could do was wish his pain away and hope that it would pass quickly, one way or another.

Buddy was the best dog ever. Obviously, he was the cutest dog. I mean, just look at him. But he was also a good dog – without any training at all he immediately came when I called him, followed at my heels wherever I went (even up epic mountains with his tiny “lickle” legs) and stopped still behind me when there was a car or motorcycle passing by. He was also a brilliant judge of character; he instantly loved all my favourite people while growling his scariest baby dog growl at the super sleazy men. He was gentle and playful with the children. He was the perfect blend of courageous explorer and cuddly friend, always equally enthusiastic about an outdoor adventure or curling up on my lap. He did the ecstatic whole-body-wiggle and showered my toes with kisses every time he saw me, even if I’ve only been away for ten minutes. Until the last few days when all he could manage was a tiny wag of his tail, and then today when he could not move at all.

I had been preparing myself all along that he was not mine to keep, that all too soon I would have to say a forever-goodbye. I knew I had only a couple of months to ‘love bomb’ him with a lifetime’s worth of nurturing, cuddles, nourishing food, and friendship. He was a Jamaican dog; this was his home; where he was meant to be. I knew we were lucky we found each other, if only for a while. He had already been through much trauma in his little life, losing his mother and being all on his own. He was so strong and resilient. Locals told me once I left Buddy would become just like any other dog around here; all skin and bone and savagery. It seemed undeniable when I saw the house he was meant to go to – the concrete slab where their other dog was chained up, painfully thin and barking ferociously at anyone that walked by. I could not allow myself to imagine Buddy there, could not fathom him losing his curiosity; his openness; his joy. I had to believe that maybe if I gave him enough love now he would remember what it is to be protected and cared for, and his spirit would remain unbroken.

And now it will. Perhaps he was never meant to make it. He will not have to ever live without love. His short life was filled to the brim with it. Scratches behind the ears the way he liked, belly rubs that sent him straight into blissful sleep. Adventures with me to the river or the schools, splashing through streams and scrambling over rocks and feeling the lush grass under his paws.

The tough new Jamaican Cat is not a big crier (Say what now? Yep, strange but true.) But as Buddy gave one last whimper and fell still my tears fell down on his little body like rain. I cried for myself at the injustice of him being taken from me, the one piece of happiness Jamaica had given me. And I cried for him; for the pain he had suffered and the beautiful spirit that had not had a chance to live a full life. I lifted his limp little body back onto his pillow, half the stuffing torn out as a stark reminder of when he was full of energy and mischief. Then came those long surreal moments when every sound and object seems simultaneously clearer and further away. Time disappeared and for several slow heartbeats it seemed like it was not possible to go on without him.

And then something I read in Ashley Judd’s memoir All That Is Bitter And Sweet (an incredibly inspiring book) about how she coped with losing a beloved pet came back to me:

I called Tennie in the depths of my pain, and when I was able to calm down a bit she asked me,’What is the lesson Percy came to teach you?’ The answer, clearly, is unconditional love… Totally, beautifully, unflinchingly focused on that one person.

Of course, Buddy came to teach me the same thing. We have both given and received total, beautiful, unflinching unconditional love to and from one another, when we each needed it most. I wish I was able to call my own Tennie, wish I had a friend to sit with me in this pain, but as with all the heartbreaking things I have experienced here I know I must bear this on my own. There is injustice in that too, but also acceptance. There is justice in a beautiful puppy living just long enough to soak up a lifetime of love. Perhaps Buddy did not live the true length of his life, but he certainly lived the width of it. My heart will hurt for a long time knowing this sweet little creature is no longer on this earth, but he is one boy I will never ever regret giving my whole heart to.

Top 5 (Repeatable) Jamaican Pick-Up Lines

1. “Taxi? Boyfriend?”

2. “If you don’t marry me, how else will I live in America?”

3. “You need to have many children and you must do it quickly because you are running out of time. I can help you.”

4. (Singing) “All I want for Christmas is youuuu, white ladyyy!”

5. “You think I tell all white ladies they are beautiful?” “Probably.” “No, no, no. If I see an ugly white lady I don’t say she is beautiful – I only say I want to marry her. I always tell the truth, that’s why we should be together.”

The List of Reasons Why I Am Here: Revisited

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During my first few overwhelming weeks in Jamaica, I was constantly fighting the urge to jump on the soonest plane out of here. So I wrote a list of reasons why I came here in the first place. Five months on, and with only a few weeks left of this crazy journey, that feeling has never gone away. But looking back, how do the reasons that brought me here hold up?

1. My instincts have never lead me astray
The jury is out on this one. I once had a navman that would emphatically tell me to take a sharp left hand turn when I was in the middle of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or go the wrong way down a one-way street. I have spent much of my time here thinking my instincts were about as helpful as that malfunctioning little tom-tom, dragging me into the most challenging situation of my life and then giving me the constant uneasy feeling that I was completely lost. But as always my internal little Pollyanna believes my instincts had must have had good reasons for bringing me here and they will reveal themselves in time.

2. Letting go of first world problems.
Definitely. I know that without a doubt one of the hardest parts of coming home will be sympathising with problems that are just … not really problems at all.

3. Using my powers for good.
Boom. This has been the only part of this experience that felt instantly right. I have truly loved (almost) every minute spent teaching, and it has reinforced that children should always be a part of my life, no matter where I am in the world.

4. I am all I need.
Wrong. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, I have become far stronger and more self-reliant than I even thought possible. But this experience has taught me that no one is, or should ever strive to be, an island. I have learned the hard way that human connection is the most important part of life. Having mutual support and understanding, open conversations, laughter, shared experiences and a “safe place to fall” are absolutely essential to happiness. I will never again take any of these things for granted.

5. Expanding my perception of this wonderful world.
Of course. I have certainly seen some amazing places and experienced some incredible things. I can’t say I have been “immersed” in a different culture as such, because although I have tried to embrace the different way of life, I have always been acutely aware that I am an outsider – and often an unwanted intruder. Still, my mind has undoubtedly expanded in ways it never would have had I stayed at home.

6. You can call me Cucumber.
Well and truly achieved. Almost everything I see and hear is confronting or confusing in some way. A taxi driver swigs straight rum at 8am as he hurtles around clifftop roads. A terrified child is beaten by their teacher for getting an answer wrong. If I was to get flustered at every strange or scary situation, I would be in a constant fluster. Much easier to get flustered at nothing at all and just roll with the crazy punches.

7. An attitude of gratitude.
I have never been more thankful for all incredible the blessings in my life. The small things – washing machines; real coffee; good music; delicious food. As well as the big – my endlessly supportive and loving friends and family; my home country that is relatively safe and full of opportunities.

8. Getting back to basics.
Check and check. Sure, I daydream about washing my hair in a warm shower and having long brunches with several Campos cappuccinos and I spend way, way too long considering which colour of Converse sneakers I will buy when I touch down in LA. But I know I can do perfectly well without any of these things. I love the serenity of bathing in the river, the freedom of never looking in the mirror and the ease of wearing whatever clothes are clean. I love having no deadlines, no real schedule, and no compulsive need to constantly check Facebook and Gmail.

9. A life without ground-hog days.
You can say that again. Nothing ever goes to plan here (if there even is a plan), and there is never, ever a dull moment. A lost puppy wanders into your yard. A group of children arrive on your doorstep to shelter from the torrential rain. The electricity goes out. The bus breaks down. The cat gets trapped in your house when you go away for the weekend and leaves many surprises for your return… Maybe its not always the good kind of exciting, but if you’re going to live the “width” of your life you can’t pick and choose what excitement gets thrown your way. You can only be thankful you’re not living a life of total comfort, complete safety and utter boredom.

10. International BFFs.
I have met some truly lovely people on this journey, who have showed me so much kindness and warmth. Smiley Sunny who provides me with an endless supply of exquisite fruit; Miss Rose who brings slices of cake and green bananas; Rasta Brother George who gives me bags brimming with plantains and freshly picked spearmint leaves for tea. The always-entertaining neighbours who come by to play Uno or practice their latest dance move or magic trick. The beautiful Dryland Tourist who has provided answers to my endless Jamaica questions and lots of laughs and girl talk over jerk chicken or Devon House ice cream. The dedicated, passionate teachers who tell me they can see how the children are improving after my lessons and they are so thankful I am here. I am thankful they are here, and will continue to be here for the children long after I’m gone.

Doing the One Drop Like a Whitey (And Other Random Skills Jamaica Has Given Me)

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Destroying wasps nests

Cooking green bananas, callaloo, plantains and ackee

Sleeping through blaring reggae or dance hall music so loud it rattles the windows

Knowing when a goat is about to charge and how to walk past it without serious injury

Sorting and storing rubbish so that it does not get strewn around the garden by mongeese

Prioritising when there is only enough water to either: a) wash the dishes b) flush the toilet c) have a drink d) shower

Understanding basic Patwai (and occasionally managing to convince people I understand a lot more than I actually do)

Responding effectively to every second male who has a long list of reasons why I must either sleep with or marry him

Knowing there is a significant difference between “whitey” and “browney” and feeling ridiculously accomplished when I suddenly graduate to the “next level”

Dancing the one-drop and the wind and thinking I look just like this:

When I actually probably look more like this:

Lessons in Compassion from a Rasta

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“Life is full of good, bad and ugly,” said the Rasta, making a sweeping hand gesture out to the idyllic beach scene in front of us, in which I could see nothing bad or ugly besides a few lobster red tourists who had been in the sun too long. “You just have to keep your mind on the good, and love the bad and the ugly even if they don’t love you back.” I bought a string bracelet from him with the Rastafarian colours of red green and yellow spelling out the words ‘One Love’. Such a Jamaican cliché, but something I have not often felt connected to in my time here. As he tied the bracelet around my wrist I thought about how much I had been wishing for more understanding, respect and compassion, but in the face of the bad and ugly experiences, how much of those things was I giving?

I have no understanding for the grown woman who kicks and throws stones at a dog who has just had puppies. I have zero respect the teacher who beats a terrified child with a belt for getting too many answers wrong. I have completely lost compassion for the man on the street who follows me home yelling that he wants to have sex with me because I am white. I want nothing to do with them. I want to close my eyes to it all and retreat into my own head to dwell in how wrong and unfair their behaviour is.

It is all too easy to forget that every single one of us is fighting a hard battle. And as that fortune-cookie of endless wisdom Gandalf the Grey Wizard said: the hardest battles are always those fought within. Other people’s battles may not be obvious at first glance, or they may not seem battle-worthy. But you can be sure that we are all battling nonetheless. Sometimes our own battle seems so immense; so insurmountable; so unjust. It can feel like there is no space left in our minds or our hearts for anyone else’s struggle, especially when no one is making any space for ours. But every battle is difficult, and it is never deserved. We have all been hurt, rejected, knocked down by life in different ways. Those that show the least compassion are the ones who most need it themselves. Perhaps each struggle is the disguised opportunity we need to learn and grow, or perhaps it’s just part of the random and harsh reality of life. Either way, we let our internal battles divide us because we forget how deeply they connect us.

A beautiful friend of mine once told me the way she tries to hold compassion for everyone she meets is to imagine we are all walking around with a painful wound under our clothes. And trying to hide or protect that wound impacts everything we say and do. I consider again the woman kicking the dog, the teacher beating the child and the man chasing me. I wonder what they themselves have experienced in their own lives and what wounds may have been left behind. It seems very likely that their struggles, their hidden wounds, are far greater, far deeper than mine.

I think of a conversation I read about between the Dalai Lama and a man who was tortured by the Chinese for many years. The Dalai Lama asks him if he was ever afraid. The man tells him, “Yes, I was afraid I would lose compassion for the Chinese.” How can anyone hold on to such a staggering amount of compassion when he was given none at all? The answer is so immediate, so unwavering, so simple, and of course its not a revelation but simply a remembrance: creating a more compassionate world has nothing to do with what you intend to get, and everything to do with what you intend to give.