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.

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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.

All I Want For Christmas

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As soon as I saw him I knew I was in trouble. Because as soon as I saw him I loved him. I had wished for this exact moment ever since my first night alone in the eerily quiet volunteer house. I had literally dreamt of him. I had even had conversations with people about how happy he would make me. I heard him calling the night before I met him, but thought I must be imagining it because I wanted it so much. And then the next morning, my wish came true. I was sitting in my garden feeling woefully homesick when he appeared, terrified, defenceless and completely alone. Instantly he stole my heart and all I wanted to do was nurture and care for and protect him. I knew that like me, he would not receive a warm welcome from many locals – whether it be the dog-hating neighbours who would poison him or the feral cats and mongeese that would literally eat him for dinner.

In those first few hours the only thing that would calm him was snuggling up in my lap. So I sat with him, knowing full well I would be bitten by fleas and most likely peed on but willing to give him whatever he wanted to feel safe. He needed me for reassurance, comfort, food, survival. But I needed him too, in order to rediscover the kind, soft, giving side of myself I was secretly starting to think may have disappeared forever.

For the first time since arriving here, I knew I could give freely and he would take only what he needed – nothing more, nothing less – and give endless joy and love in return. As I dote on him, come to his whimpering call, play games with him, clean up his many messes, feed him constantly and cradle him to sleep, I realise I would do anything for this little creature. I know that sooner or later “anything” will include letting him go, giving him to a Jamaican family and saying goodbye forever rather than putting him through the trauma of Australian quarantine.

But for now I am simply overwhelmingly grateful that fate or luck or pure random chance conspired to allow Buddy to wander into my backyard. I called him Buddy after my favourite Christmas movie, Elf – because this little puppy is a little ray of sunshine in this big, wild world and he is the ultimate proof that Christmas wishes definitely do come true.

She’s transforming her fear into dance

Joyous Woman! with Sukhvinder Sircar

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Fear does not define her limits anymore. It is no longer the place where her journey ends. This is not  where her river dries up and the sun never shines.

She is re-defining fear as the edge of the diving board to jump off from, as the starting point to great journeys. Every fear is becoming a calling,. Every contraction is the beginning of a new expansion, a thrill of the unknown.

She has come to sit in a safe space inside herself ~ finally. She’s connecting to her relaxed Shakti that rests in her womb temple. From here she can go anywhere, do anything. Her fear becomes her dare.

The spirit of adventure is awakening in her heart. She’s willing to go to all those places she has only stood on the edge of, till now. All unfinished journeys are on their way to completion. All incomplete songs will…

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Stelly Welly

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When I first met Stella she was deathly thin and painfully timid. She was so hungry she ate stale bread and tried to bite my leg. If I moved suddenly she would disappear in a blur of black fur into the pumpkin patch and would not be seen again until the next day.

I am not a cat person (ironically enough). I could never really understand how anyone could get attached to a cat when they are so aloof, so self-involved and so instinctively wild. I vividly remember the sight of my backyard strewn with the fur and blood of my beautiful pet rabbit as a child and the horror of realising my ever-curious little pet bird had flown to its death at the paws of the neighbour’s fat tabby. Cat’s were off the Christmas list forever after.

But somehow Stella would change all that. After a less-than-ideal first meeting, I nevertheless began to feed her every day. She would hide under a pumpkin leaf as I placed a little fish or biscuit on the ground and would only come out once I had retreated out of sight. As mice took over my kitchen, I gradually began moving her food closer and closer to the house until Stella was gingerly stepping inside to scoff her fill and race away again. She did absolutely nothing to help the mouse situation (the only solution to that was traps and OCD cleaning) but she began to feel comfortable coming inside, rubbing against my legs, sleeping on the kitchen floor. Eventually she allowed me to scratch her behind the ears and she began to stay with me long after I had fed her, curling up underneath my chair with a gentle little purr.

Stella slowly gained weight, trust and confidence. In the beginning I had to shoo away the other cats in order for her to get any food – now I proudly watch as she stands up for herself with a hiss or a swift head-butt, letting them know she is number one at this house.

She has been my constant companion for this whole crazy journey. In those moments of overwhelming loneliness, when I had no one to talk to, Stella was there quietly sitting by my side. In the times of happiness, when I would dance around the kitchen, she would swirl around my legs as if she was dancing too.

And so, despite myself, I have grown to love her. I look forward to seeing her bright green eyes when I wake up and listen out for her hopeful little meow when I get home after a long day teaching. She is no longer just Stella, she is my little ‘Stelly Welly’, my furry friend, and I’m so thankful we learned to trust one another because I can’t imagine my roller coaster of a Jamaican life without her in it.

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Three Simple Reasons Why This Will Not Be a Year of Jamaica

“Excuse me, I said good morning. I’m a human being, you know!”

It was in the moment immediately after these words had left my mouth, as the woman stared at me like I was a pink turtle doing a tap dance (and still did not return my greeting), that I realised three things:

1. It is not normal to feel the need to remind a perfect stranger (or yourself) of your humanity
2. The effect my current environment is having on my mental state is not positive
3. I need to go home

Obviously thoughts like this don’t just appear out of nowhere. This was the last in a long line of interactions that left me feeling less than positive. Each day brings an experience of being hissed at, spat at, shouted at, hit on, chased, ignored completely and sometimes all of the above. I cannot pretend to know what prompts these responses – all I know is how it made me feel each and every time: unwelcome, unsafe, frustrated and totally disheartened. I have been trying to ignore all these feelings because I was so sure they were temporary. Yes, okay, I have wanted to go home pretty much ever since I arrived, but surely that’s normal when faced with living all alone in a country and a culture so vastly different to my own, with bucket baths and mongeese (mongooses?) and not a washing machine or television or microwave in sight. Time and patience makes everything better, right? It didn’t really occur to me that staying would be – could be – detrimental. I was sure that if I just looked hard enough at the silver linings and the hidden lessons, if I just completely trusted that my instincts brought me here for good reason and I truly appreciated the natural beauty, the kids, the people that showed me kindness and care, then things could only get better.

Instead, I angrily tell strangers that I am a person (Flight of the Concords style) and have a recurring dream about landing in Sydney airport, falling to my knees and kissing the hot dirty tarmac. If that is the state of things after four months of keeping calm and carrying on, it seems going home is no longer simply a want but a need. I don’t know exactly when I will go yet, only that it will not be a Year of Jamaica, and I have to be okay with that. Maybe the lesson in all of this is simply how incredibly lucky I am to have such a beautiful and safe home to go back to, with all the love and opportunities and hot showers a girl could ask for.

The hardest part is thinking of the children I have gladly spent most of my days with, who have provided the brightest sparks in this whole experience… Energetic little Andre and his epic smile after reading his very first sentence. Sweet Xavier and the way he quietly says “Thankyou, Miss” each and every time we finish a book. Cheeky Chevoy and how I can never ever stay cross with him for one look at his face sends us both into fits of giggles. Precocious Jordy who always begged to be the first to read with me but isn’t at school these days after a beating from her mother left her with a broken hand. Gorgeous Shandece who loves stories about other countries because one day she hopes to get on a plane and see the whole world. My heart hurts to think of leaving them, of what is in store for them beyond the schoolyard if they cannot read and write.

But as I feel myself fading, my own cup slowly emptying, I know that no amount of my time and energy will save them from the harsh realities of this life. I can only hope that some of them are able to hold on to that spark of belief I saw ignited in each one of them as we sat side by side in noisy, dusty classrooms with sporadic electricity reading Green Eggs and Ham and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Belief in the joy of books and most importantly, belief in themselves.