Jamaica, I Love You

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Let’s be totally honest. We got off to a bit of a rocky start. Of course you were ridiculously good looking and you were exciting and exotic and full of life. I knew we could have fun together and we could learn so much from one another. The main problem has always been that I just can’t read you. I never really feel totally safe or comfortable with you. You are so unpredictable, so different, and for a while I was starting to think maybe we were just no good for each other at all.

But then you showed me another side to yourself. It was softer, calmer, and somehow reminded me of home. After weeks of living in the bubble of my little mountain home, I found my way to your beaches and something between us instantly shifted. I felt myself breathe deeply for the first time in weeks. With the relative anonymity of a city (relative because my skin will make me stand out no matter where I go here) I felt like I could be myself without worrying about judgements or expectations. Meeting up with fellow travellers I started to remember why I came here in the first place as we shared stories of adventure, wanderlust and the white picket fenced rat-race we left behind. And as I stepped into your warm turquoise ocean and there was only one thought in my mind: I think I’m in love.

And I realised that I have probably been falling in love all along without even realising it. There are so many reasons to love you, Jamaica. I love you for your children, with their wide smiles as bright as sunshine. I love you for your music, pulsating through the air as strong as a heartbeat. I love you for your colours: the green so lush you could dive right into it; the vibrant bursts of tropical flowers in red, purple and yellow; the ocean proudly displaying every splendid shade of blue. I love you for your passionate and proud people; their ability to flip from a heated argument to outbursts of laugher and back again in the blink of an eye. I love you for your endless warmth and the sound of your intense rain crashing onto tin rooves. I love you for your heavenly-sweet pineapple; your buttery Festival dumplings; your juicy jerk chicken; your Blue Mountain coffee smooth as velvet.

We both know this will never be a long-term thing. It’s nothing personal, Jamaica, but Sydney will always be home to me. I hear her familiar voice calling me a little louder each day I am away. But I plan to enjoy this while it lasts, and despite our many differences you are giving me so much to love.

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What They Don’t Tell You About Volunteering Abroad

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1. You are, and always will be, an outsider
No matter how long you spend in a community or how well you think you have integrated, you will always be an “outsider”. It is simply not possible to truly understand all the intricate details of another culture, the hows, the whats, the whys. But the inescapable “us and them” dynamic is part of what makes the experience so powerful. A little like astronauts visiting the moon and looking back at the earth, being immersed in a community so vastly different to your own provides the unique opportunity to see yourself and your own culture from a surprising new perspective.

2. You will not do the work you signed up for
The work that is actually done on the ground will undoubtedly be vastly different to the neat little position description you read all those months ago. Perhaps you will do the job you expected along with many, many more unforeseeable challenges and responsibilities piled on top. Or maybe you will find that the job you were initially assigned for is completely redundant, unachievable or unwanted. Usually you will find that order, logic and structure must be cast aside if you want to make a genuine difference to a real need.

3. You will be lonely
Loneliness, for some unknown reason, is a little like a contagious disease – no one talks about it and no one wants to admit when they have it. But it is almost inevitable when you walk away from everyone that you love and are loved by and into a place where nobody knows your name. You cannot rely on family and friends like you did before, to offer hugs, advice, ice cream, or whatever it was that once gave you comfort and contentment. Although you will make new friends, you cannot instantly re-create the deep, trusting relationships you have with people back home. But you will learn to sit with the loneliness, to realise you don’t have to run from it, hide from it or suppress it. And there is immense power in that realisation.

4. You will experience first-world guilt
Even though you are volunteering, earning little to no money and living in the same basic conditions as the locals, you will be perceived by most as an incredibly wealthy person. And comparatively, you are. You will most likely be disturbed by some of the day-to-day sights, sounds, smells of poverty. You will also find yourself lost in a murky moral grey area, constantly faced with dilemmas about obligations, expectations, privileges and generosity. There are no easy answers to any of it, but one thing you will know for sure is how lucky you are to have been born in a part of the world with opportunities and resources and safety and clean drinkable water straight out of the tap. And the dark sense of guilt is necessary in order to feel the lightness of overwhelming gratitude that follows it.

Sassy Miss Tabby

There is really only one word to describe Tabby: sassy. She tells it like it is. She has no patience for … well, anything really. She is constantly bossing all the other children around, scolding them and correcting them. During my homework help class she is always the first to thrust her notebook under my nose and cry, “Miss! Miss! Miss! I need help first!” Even though each and every class I tell everyone I will start with the youngest children first. She doesn’t walk anywhere but skips or dances or runs. Tabby’s signature stance is both hands on hips, rolling her eyes at the world.

She is also incredibly generous. Each afternoon as we make our way down the mountain towards our homes (Tabby careening along with her feet hardly touching the ground, me carefully placing each step) she shares her grapefruit or her guinep and scales the branches of a guava tree when I tell her I’ve never eaten it before. We sing Adele songs together, or sometimes a hymn (now that I’m a regular church goer I know many off by heart.) She makes me laugh a lot and she is very protective. She warns me which goats buck and which dogs bite (very helpful information to have.) She shouts at her friend when she spits near me, telling her that is bad manners in front of Miss.

Tabby finds reading very difficult. Although she is in Grade 5 she struggles to sound out even basic words and cannot comprehend anything she has read aloud. When we reach her home I see her mother and aunt asleep on the front porch, just as they were when I passed several hours before. I remember the school principal telling me that most children do not have parents who are willing or able to help them with their homework, which is why we hold After School classes. Many of the family members are illiterate themselves, and often unemployed with very little to do all day.

Tabby calls out to me as she goes inside, “When will you come again?” I tell her not tomorrow but the next day. She lingers in the doorway, watching me walk away. One of the ladies startles awake and yells something at Tabby, who wordlessly begins filling a large tub with water. I wonder what the future holds for this young girl, and so many other children like her, when being literate and employed is such a rarity here. I wonder what kind of difference I can possibly make in twelve months; if there is something bigger I could be doing than helping individual children to read. Then I think perhaps that is one of the biggest things you could ever possibly do. Still, I walk the rest of the way home with a heavy heart.

The List (10 Very Good Reasons Why I Am Here)

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1. Expanding my perception of this wonderful world. I want to fully immerse myself in a completely different culture. The language, the music, the sense of humour, the customs that seem incomprehensible, and the food (except chicken feet, I draw a big line there).

2. My instincts have never lead me astray. They were doing the can-can at the idea of volunteering in Jamaica, and I trust they were leading me to something important, even if there are many baffling twists and turns along the way.

3. Using my powers for good. There is an incredible sense of fulfilment that comes from using your skills to positively support and empower those who face far bigger challenges than ourselves.

4. Letting go of first world problems. I want to know first-hand what it is like to live without clean, running water. No instant Google/Facebook/Gmal access. No shopping centres. No perfectly sealed roads. No reliable, safe public transport going anywhere you want any time of day or night.

5. I am all I need. Although I have unwavering support and love and encouragement from so many beautiful people in other parts of the world, I am ultimately completely on my own here and the more self-reliant I become, the more positive the experience will be.

6. You can call me Cucumber. It is fairly likely that after this experience, I will be cool, calm and collected in any new and challenging situation. That’s gotta be a plus!

7. An attitude of gratitude. After just one month here I know I will forever be grateful for showers, dark chocolate, hugs from those I love, flushing toilets, takeaway food (especially Thai and sushi!), a perfectly made Campos cappuccino, and so much more. I can only imagine what things I will be grateful for after eleven more months.

8. Getting back to basics. I am experiencing a slower, simpler life here. I cannot imagine ever again going back to a nine to five job, a big city where no one says hello or wearing makeup every single day.

9. International BFFs. I am meeting the most kind-hearted, joyful, passionate, hilarious friends. And had I stayed at home I would never have had the privilege to know them.

10. A life without ground-hog days. Each and every day here is different, surprising, filled to the absolute brim with memorable moments. How could I possibly prefer the dull blur of a year lived in comfort and familiarity?

Those ‘What Am I Doing Here?’ Moments

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Usually they only last for a few seconds. A situation catches me so off guard that for a moment all I want to do is get on the first plane home to be in a place where things are comfortable and familiar and life makes sense. And then the moment passes and is replaced with a quiet certainty that I am exactly where I am meant to be. But recently I had a day when the moment stretched on to an hour and then a morning until eventually the whole day was taken up with one broken-record thought: “What am I doing here?”

As with most bad days, it started with a wardrobe issue. It was washing day and I was down to just one clean pair of shorts. The kind of shorts that I would wear every day during Australian summer, but that I only ever wear around the house here for fear that people will judge me because they are… well, short. But on this day I had little choice, so I headed down to the river in my short shorts and hoped most people weren’t up and about yet. Of course there were people congregated on every corner, and each time I tried for a polite good morning they simply looked me up and down and said nothing.

While I was washing several people gathered around as they usually do, laughing that “Whitey is washing” and telling me I was doing it all wrong. I didn’t particularly want to wash my underwear infront of them, but again it seemed I had little choice. As I was lifting my clean washing into the bucket I dropped half of it onto the ground. This caused a huge outburst of laughter. I sighed and began washing again.

After I was finally done I was sweltering hot and in need of a few peaceful moments to myself so I went further up the river for a quick swim/bath. I sensed several people watching me and tried my best to pretend they were not there. As I climbed out a lady scolded me harshly, asking didn’t I even see that people are trying to collect water to drink downstream? No, I honestly didn’t. I apologised, feeling incredibly rude and ignorant.

On the way home someone called out, “Hey, American! American!” I didn’t bother to correct him. He asked if I was the new volunteer. I told him yes. He said he had to be honest – volunteers hardly ever make any difference here. They cannot ever really understand the community, they just come for their own reasons and leave without doing any real good. I wasn’t sure how to respond, except to apologise again and feel like I was saying sorry simply for being here.

I reached my house and saw I had a visitor waiting. He told me for the fifth time that week that he can see into my soul and we were meant to be together. The first four times it was amusing, but on this day my patience was starting to wear seriously thin. Eventually he left, telling me he would buy me my favourite kind of chocolate (I suppose the inside of my soul contained that information) and come back.

As I started to clean the house two young boys appeared in my kitchen, startling me. Did they even knock on the front door? “Give us honey.” Pardon? “Give us honey.” Taking a deep breath, I asked them to at least ask nicely, but got nothing beyond blank stares. I gave them the honey. An hour later they returned with several friends who demanded honey also. I told them no, I’m sorry, but I just can’t give everyone honey or there will be none left. “You can buy more. You have much money.” I felt taken advantage of and guilty at the same time.

Later some friends came over. They asked if I was scared to live by myself when everyone knows where I live and that I’m alone. I answered honestly: yes. They told me it should be fine, but do I know any self-defence? Unfortunately they weren’t joking. Then they tell me I shouldn’t worry about the homeless man that sleeps in my garden, except don’t leave any belongings outside because he will probably steal them. And since it was going to rain that night he would probably sleep on my porch. Seeing the look on my face they tried to reassure me: Really, don’t worry, he is mostly harmless. All I could think to say was: I wish I had a dog. They told me you have to be careful if you have a dog here because if it gets out of your yard someone will poison it or worse. I did not dare ask what “worse” might mean.

They left and I immediately shut and locked the door. I stood alone in my kitchen staring at the perfectly ripe avocado I was saving for breakfast tomorrow, now half-eaten by what I could only assume was a rat. I wanted nothing more than to pick up the phone and hear a friendly voice on the other end of the line. But I cannot make international calls from my phone.

I told myself to snap out of the ridiculous pity party already. I washed the dishes, threw out the avocado and decided to watch a movie on my laptop. Something happy. With the volume turned up loud so my stomach didn’t lurch at every little noise outside (or in).

Rain started thundering on tin the roof and the power cut out. My laptop had no battery left. I briefly thought about lighting some candles, but instead gave up and crawled into bed. I stared into the complete blackness as the rain passed and was replaced with the howling wind, the creaks of the house and the possibility of a mostly harmless man creeping around my porch.

I reminded myself that what I was feeling was actually one of the biggest reasons I came here. I had always known there were going to be times I would feel afraid; lonely; tested; overwhelmed; lost. I wanted to learn to face those feelings and move unflinchingly through them to something brighter and stronger.

I resolved that tomorrow I would write a whole list of reasons why I am here. And I’d make it good.

Sink or Swim

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“What does it mean?”

We are playing a ‘guess the phrase’ game, an amusingly complicated undertaking considering I am Australian, he is Jamaican and the game is American.

“It means… Someone gets thrown in the deep end of a pool and they will either sink or swim.”

His eyes widen, “Whaaaat?”

I try again: “It’s not literal … I mean, it’s a metaphor.” His confused expression deepens. “Like, they are saying being put in a totally new situation is sort of like being thrown into a pool and where you will either do really well and swim or really badly and sink.”

As I explain I realise it is a pretty perfect description of my own current situation. I feel like I am constantly having to prove myself in so many different ways. For the most part I think I am slowly becoming accepted and respected by the community. Still, sometimes it’s very hard to know if I am sinking or swimming. Take my “job” here, which is fairly vague except that I am meant to support education.

First, having never taught primary students before I am thrown in with a bunch of children from Grades 3 and 4 for a literacy class. I have no idea what level each of them are at or what they have already been taught. Sink.

I somehow manage to fly by the seat of my pants, grabbing various flash cards, scrabble letters, books and posters and making up activities as I go along. If they get it too quickly, I just make it harder. Swim.

Then I am asked to lead a visual arts class with Grade 6, with no further instruction. Say what now? The walls between classrooms are so thin and the other classes so rambunctious that is mostly impossible to hear myself or the children speak. Sink.

I start talking, loudly, and trust that something will come to me as I speak. It does. They fully embrace the activity, producing beautiful artworks and even more beautiful smiles. Swim.

Then it reading with Grade 5 – they are loud, hyperactive and rowdy. They are used to teachers yelling and physically punishing them. I will not partake in either of these methods and they know it and take full advantage. Sink.

I use the only weapons available to me, the ones that have always hit the target with preschool kids: positive reinforcement, respect and fun. I lavish praise and attention on children who are listening and participating. I calmly tell the children who are not that they will have to go back to their regular class and miss out on the games I have planned. It works a treat. Swim.

Many of the older children struggle so much with reading that they cannot even recognise words such as “and” or “the”. I feel overwhelmed by how far behind they are for their age. Children from all grades indicate issues such as dyslexia, ADD, colour blindness, the list goes on and on – but there is no way to get them diagnosed and I have no idea how to help them effectively. Sink.

With the other teachers the children must sit at their desk and listen for hours on end. I purposely make my classes practical and interactive. The other teachers make it clear they disapprove of this move away from the traditional way of teaching. Sink.

At the end of my lessons the children always want to stay longer, and beg to do more “games”. They ask when I will be coming back and can they please be chosen to be in my class again? Swim.

Then I am asked to take Grade 6 for maths class. Huh? Maths?! Uh-uh. No way. Seriously, am I being Punk’d or what? This isn’t going to be sinking, this is going to be all out drowning, swallowing lungfuls of air and never to be seen again.

The bell rings. Swim, swim, swim!