“There is a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. A much more interesting, kind, adventurous and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life … we must realise that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is.” ~ Pema Chödrön
My first night in Hagley Gap, the mountains seemed incredibly quiet and still compared to the rush of Kingston (and Sydney). But now that I’ve been here for a month (surely its been longer?) I realise there is pretty much constant noise echoing around, often loud enough to prevent sleep or even talking on the phone.
There are surround-sound roosters announcing dawn (and one that announces 3am, just to keep things interesting). The wings of the tiny hummingbirds whirring and brown vireos tweeting. The goats constantly bleating, especially after the rain when they complain loudly about being cold and wet. Several days a week there are the shouts and screams of sermons and ‘healing’ at one of the churches, and the singing of out-of-tune hymns being broadcast to the entire neighbourhood through an epic microphone.
The drone of a motorcycle and the rumble of a car over the uneven dirt road (locals call it a road but to me it’s a dirt track that happens to be used as a road). And with any kind of vehicle comes a lot of horn honking. Here you don’t just honk when someone cuts you off. You also honk to tell someone you’re coming around a sharp corner, you honk to tell someone you want to overtake them, you honk to say “thankyou” and most importantly you honk when you see someone just to say “hello”. It is still a little baffling to hear people complaining about not being beeped at: “He didn’t even honk me, man! That is just rudeness.”
A sound that often makes me smile as I climb the mountain up to the schools or walk down to the water, is the music. It is also my least favourite sound on weeknights as the music blares on into the early morning. I’m learning that if there is a party going on anywhere in the village you may as well go to it because sleep is not an option. There are three main types of music to be heard in the Gap – gospel, dance hall and of course, reggae – and they are a constant wherever you go. Although occasionally the locals do mix it up. On one very happy occasion I heard a mash-ups of 80s and 90s ballads: Celine, Mariah, Whitney… Generally each song is played for around thirty seconds, “Jamaica-style”. It blares out from houses, churches, cars, mobile phones, laptops, or is simply sung with enthusiasm as people bathe or wash their car or cook or lead their donkey up the mountain. Generally one house or shop blares their choice of music for a few hours, while everyone in the Gap grooves along, and then someone else has a turn. It’s like a continuous house party spanning the entire village. Music is life here, and even if it comes with regular sleep-depravation, it’s a philosophy I’m totally on board with.
And underneath it all is the steady rush of the river, sustaining not just the village but several others beyond. It is always there but in order to hear it you must wait for those rare quiet moments when all the music and the motorbikes and the animals and the preaching subsides, and the sound of the water surges up to greet you like a long lost friend.
In the months before I left Sydney my mind was flooded with impossibly big and mostly unanswerable questions. My instincts knew I was making the right decision, but as always my logic offered endless reasons to feel doubt and fear. Someone told me that once I got to Jamaica, it would all be a distant memory. Because I’d be having so much fun, obviously.
A small part of me really wanted to believe it. I could picture myself frolicking the Caribbean sea, drinking a coconut cocktail, sun-kissed and perhaps even a few kilos lighter, without a care in the world, simply because I was in Jamaica. And the Van She song would be playing in the background: There’s a place we can go to make it all disappear/Jamaica…
It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that a geographical change will provide instant happiness. That simply changing place allows us to reinvent ourselves and effortlessly discard the parts that we don’t like. The questions, fears, weaknesses and failings. But even while imagining my blissfully happy frolicking self, I was able to recognise this person’s suggestion for what it was: a complete delusion. For starters, I did not come here for a relaxing holiday, or a crazy Contiki experience. And I certainly didn’t come here to escape myself. In fact, quite the opposite: I came here knowing that I would be shining a huge spotlight on every aspect of who I am. That there were absolutely no guarantees of what I would experience or what would be lost or gained.
There is a lot of fun in my new Jamaican life. A lot of kindness, beauty, laughter, learning and constant mind-expansion. There are many times when I am so consumed by the newness and the wonder of it all that there is no room to think about anything but the here and now. But there are also many “What am I doing here?” moments. Many moments of anxiety and fear and doubt. Far from being an escape, when you are completely by yourself in a strange new place your fears and flaws seem bigger than ever. They suddenly come with surround sound. And 3D glasses.
But luckily this also holds for the positive aspects of yourself. Your own strengths, talents, certainties and joys go wherever you go, too. And if you let them, they will always trump your worries and fears. So, in those times that I am struggling, I know where to find little pockets happiness that exist no matter where in the world I am: teaching a child something new; encouraging a friend to value themselves as much as I do; writing from the heart; dancing like nobody is watching. This last one is a little tricky, because when you’re the only white girl in the village and you start dancing, you can bet that every single person in the village is watching. But they tell me somewhat incredulously that I don’t do the “roly poly” like most white people, I actually dance “alright”. What can I say, it’s a strength.
I wake with the sun as it peeks over the mountains and into my window just as the roosters began to crow. Morning yoga gazing out over the village, next to the peculiar mongoose foraging in the garden. A breakfast of fried plantains and cornmeal porridge as I listen to some Stone Love (smooth old school reggae music) passed on by a new music-loving friend. A cup of freshly brewed Blue Mountain coffee mixed with honey from beekeeper George, a smiling rasta who has so much to say though I can’t yet understand a word.
A two-hour hike up the mountain to the schools, so impossibly steep that I must lean forward until my nose is almost touching the ground and stop every hundred metres to seek shade and catch my breath. Saying hello to every single person I see as I walk along the road because I hope to gently break down the silent walls between me and these people I have yet to know. The heat is so intense that when I finally reach the top of the mountain I look and feel like I just stepped into a shower fully clothed. A young local man tells me I am the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. I laugh and tell him he must not have seen that many girls.
I grab a coconut water and spiced bun – a very dry and relatively unenjoyable Jamaican bread snack – from a tiny shop and remind myself to pack my own lunch tomorrow. As I enter the school some of the children are giggling and peeking out from behind doors, some racing over to touch my skin and hair (“Whitey! Whitey!”), some waving hands and offering dazzling smiles, some politely enquiring where I am from and how I am enjoying Jamaica so far. We sit in a small classroom and I help them with homework, praising and scolding, correcting and encouraging. I feel intense pride when they successfully sound out a difficult word or comprehend the sentence they have just read aloud.
One of the girls doesn’t want to let go of my hand at the school gates. I tell her I’ll be back soon. She asks where I’m going and without really thinking about it I reply: “Home”. I realise that I can’t even remember when started I thinking of it as something more than “the volunteer house”.
A ute full of coffee farmers stops for me and I climb on the back for a very bumpy ride back down the mountain. I jump off at the square, buy a bundle of ginep (small green fruits similar to lychees) and meander down to my little blue home. On the doorstep sits a beautiful gift from a faraway friend. I sit on my front porch eating ginep and reading my message in a bottle. Then down to the river to bathe, stepping over smooth stones before plunging into the chilly water and leaning back to take in the soft blue sky encased in dark luscious green. I return home as the sun slips below the mountains.
I prepare some pumpkin, chicken and callaloo for dinner. Stella lingers at the back door, still unwilling to come inside although she obviously wants to. I place a piece of chicken on a small plate just inside the door and return to my cooking. Out of the corner of my eye I see her slowly moving inside, keeping her eyes fixed on me, her whole body rigid and ready to run. When I make no movement she hesitantly starts eating. Soon she visibly relaxes, her shoulders settle and she begins to purr. I smile a triumphant smile.
A teenager from down the road appears, hovering by the front gate just as wary and uncertain as Stella. He is high school age but dropped out long ago. I ask if he would like help with his reading and he nods. We sit together and slowly make our way through the first chapter of The Swiss Family Robinson. As he is leaving he tells me he was afraid to ask for help, that he is ashamed of not being able to read very well. He thanks me for helping him, and says he would like to come back again tomorrow. My heart swells.
Later some of my new friends come by. We walk up to the square together and sit in the local “bar” drinking rum as they teach me how to play dominoes. One of the regulars tells me from inside a cloud of cigarette smoke that he and I must get married tomorrow – I tell him I’m pretty busy tomorrow. Then we stand out under the moon which is far brighter than the flickering street lights and look at a map of Jamaica painted on the wall of the square. I try to remember a time when life was different but it already feels as if I have been here forever. The day has been full of extraordinary moments that are somehow becoming ordinary, in the best possible way. The last few weeks have been difficult in so many different ways. I too have been hovering on the outside – of this country, of this community, of this new life and my new identity – but today I see that without realising I am taking my first steps in. And I feel nothing but happy.
Miss Rose appears in my back garden where I am reading in the Sunday morning sunshine, Stella curled up beneath my chair. There is a narrow and steep path leading from Rose’s house to mine, which I have yet to tackle while she easily navigates it almost every day despite being a grandmother.
“Come, I have something to show you!” She announces, going into the kitchen. I follow her and watch as she takes out onion, green pepper, hot pepper, tomato, jerk spices, salted fish and a bowl full of ackee. “Me gonna cook ackee and salt fish for you proper. When you in Jamaica, you must eat the Jamaican food.”
I had been under the impression that jerk chicken was Jamaica’s national dish, but apparently I was mistaken. I am told in no uncertain terms that it is in fact ackee and salt fish, which I have yet to try. The salt fish is dried, salted cod and ackee is a small fruit that is left on the tree until the outer shell turns bright red and opens out to reveal a round black seed. Then it is picked, peeled, de-seeded and boiled. If you ask me each fruit resembles a tiny brain, and has a similar texture, but it tastes surprisingly good – a little like fried potatoes.
Miss Rose cooks up all the ingredients, then produces a slice of bread fruit to be eaten with it, which is similar to a yam or very dense potato. “There, breakfast!”
Stella hovers at the door, smelling the salt fish no doubt. Rose waits expectantly for me to try the first bite, “Well?”
“It’s delicious.” And it is.
She nods knowingly, “Of course.” Then she waves her hand, “Alright, now I be leaving you. More cooking another day.”
“Thankyou, Miss Rose!” She disappears back down the hill and Stella rubs herself hopefully against my leg as I eat, but I’m not sharing today.
Stella doesn’t have much groove, which is very rare for a Jamaican. I think its mostly due to malnutrition. But she has gotten rid of the mice at the house and she will eat almost any food scraps (handy when you have to burn all your rubbish).
We didn’t have the best start to a friendship. The first day I was here she bit me, for no apparent reason at all except perhaps that she had never tasted a white girl before. Luckily it didn’t draw blood but even so I couldn’t help but wish I had bothered to get those extra shots recommended by the travel vaccination doctor. I scolded her so harshly that she disappeared for a few days.
When she reappeared, all skin and bone, I took pity on her and fed her some chicken. She has returned each morning since and I offer a biscuit or some leftovers. Then yesterday when I was hanging out the washing she came and rubbed her face very gently against my legs. I very slowly bent down and reached out to stroke her head. She flinched a little but allowed me to pat her for a few moments before scampering off into the pumpkin patch. I had to smile. I think we are slowly starting to trust each other. I’ve never been a cat person but now that I am by myself at the house it would be nice to have a little companion.
Most things seem to happen very slowly in the mountains of Jamaica. In my previous life things like washing the dishes or cooking a meal could have been completed as quickly and easily as pushing a button. But here they take time and effort. They require care, attention, and usually the help of others, as even the most mundane of tasks is complicated for a newcomer like me. Take washing your clothes. Carrying your clothes to the river, attempting to converse with friendly neighbours along the way, finding out the best place wash, learning how the local women get out stains through a combination of broken English and charades. Then washing each item by hand, loading up your bucket, walking back home up the hill, hanging out the clothes, bringing the clothes in when it rains, hanging them up again inside… It can take half a day to complete the whole process.
Other things happen ridiculously quickly. Like the speed at which you can be completely saturated by rain when just a few moments ago it was clear blue sky. Sometimes your only real warning is the sound of the rain pattering on trees further up the mountain, which gives you approximately two minutes to run to shelter. And the ridiculous speed at which word spreads on the local gossip grapevine. It seems that whatever you do, whoever you talk to, the entire village will know about it in an hour or two, even if no one seemed to be around at the time.
Another thing which has happened far more quickly than I imagined was members of the community taking me under their wing. I have been warmly invited to attend the church social night, the Sunday football, over to someone’s house to try ackee and salt fish, been given a cooking lesson on how to prepare traditional Jamaican food (see below), and challenged to a completely baffling game of cards. I have been escorted home in the dark, been given more bananas than I could possibly eat and offered umbrellas when caught in the rain. But my favourite welcome was after a crazy dancing game when one of the little girls rubbed my arm and said, “When ya gonna take off your colour?” She then pointed to her own arm, “Ya need to look like this cause ya Jamaican now!”