Oh Happy Day

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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. 

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