12 May Why Peace Corps Jamaica Is Not What You’d Expect
The following letter was written by a friend of ours in Peace Corps who is wrapping up her volunteer service in Jamaica this month. Her reflections on living and working abroad for two years, with the joys and challenges of the culture, ring very true to us. We think you’ll be inspired, enlightened, and touched by what she had to say to her friends and family back home:
“It is possible that when we travel deep enough, we always encounter an element of sadness, for full awareness of our own ephemerality and the passage of time. But it is only in that knowledge-not in its denial-that things gain their true dimensions and we begin to feel the simplicity of being alive. It is only that knowledge that is large enough to cradle a tenderness for everything that is always to be lost-a tenderness for each of our moments, for others and for the world…”
-Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation
Two years ago, when I first set foot in Jamaica, I often had visions of myself coming close to the finish line of my Peace Corps service. I had a clear picture of myself as Rocky, reaching the top of the endless stair case, sweaty and broken, but with my hands held over my head panting “I…..did it……”
Strangely as I near this finish line, I don’t feel this way at all. People have been asking me lately, “Are you excited to be finished soon?” and the short answer to that is yes! Emphatically, yes. I am excited for air conditioning, salmon, endless internet, wine on the regular and most of all being back in the presence of my family and friends. But the feelings I have right now are much more layered and complex than I ever could have imagined. Excited is probably 5th on the list of my emotions pushed below the surface.
My Peace Corps experience was not what I had envisioned and not what most Americans picture either. I did not have to walk 5 miles every day to bring water back to my village. I did not have to speak three languages to communicate with locals. I did not get giardia, or have to worry about rhinoceros vipers or sleep on a dirt floor. Jamaica was hard, but not at all in the way that I imagined.
Being on a small tourist island, we as volunteers (especially for me being so close to Negril and Montego Bay) often had access to some luxuries. It was not uncommon for me to be invited to a nice dinner at a private villa, or to crash someone’s vacation for an evening. While these luxuries were sometimes wonderful and provided a much needed respite from the harsh Jamaican life I lived on a daily basis, it was also a bit jarring and disconcerting bouncing in between the two worlds. After all, we as volunteers are supposed to be living at the same poverty level as our community members. My deeply Catholic upbringing coupled with the “Posh Corps” life cast a rain cloud of guilt that followed me around for much of my service.
But then at times the pendulum would swing the other way, and I’d be forced to recognize that what I was doing was certainly not easy. Being one of the only white females living in a parish capitol, I was subject to a fair amount of harassment on a daily basis. I heard and saw some disgusting things from men. Not to mention the struggles that comes with every volunteer living in a developing country. Lack of community involvement, unreliable transportation, isolation, perpetual tardiness from everyone plagued me to the point where taking a step out my front door required me to muster up more energy than I ever knew I had.
Alas, all these troubles and inconveniences seemed to fade into background noise at a certain point in my service. Somewhere in the middle of my second year I hit my stride. The community garden project took off! I was finally able to understand my taxi driver! I found myself laughing all the time with my co-workers and kids. I got to admit, I worked my ass off for Jamaica, but Jamaica paid me back in full.
Just last week, I went to visit a friend’s garden. This young man has become an integral part of the community garden project at our community center; he is in at least 3 days a week watering, planting, weeding and mulching. On Earth Day his efforts were paid off when he won first place and $15,000 JA (roughly $150) in the community garden competition. When I visited his house he showed me all the callaloo he was growing, and talked about how he can’t walk out his front door without everyone on his block calling after him to sell some callaloo. He also told me that all this was happening because of me and what I’ve taught him about gardening. That was maybe my proudest moment as a Peace Corps volunteer.
I’ve grown in leaps and bounds over the past two years. I used to be someone who needed to be directed with work, I craved structure. While I love my supervisor to death, he certainly was not one who liked to micro-manage, and it was up to me to make up my schedule for the week, to set goals and make sure I followed certain steps to attain them. I am more organized, driven, creative and confident thanks to the work I have been given.
Within these 2 years I ran my first marathon, created a community garden, shook hands with the president of the United States, hiked the Blue Mountains, taught over 50 students how to become literate, and met some of the most incredible people from all walks of life. Above all else right now I am feeling sad to say goodbye to this period of time in my life. Not just to the people I’ve met, but to the person I was here. I hope that she stays with me as I transition into this next phase of life.
Change is never easy and I have heard “nuff” about how hard the readjustment back to living in the states can be. 6 months ago I thought I knew the situation I’d be walking back into after PC, and now it is all just one big question mark. This is both terrifying and exhilarating all at once. But great things never came from comfort zones.
Saying goodbye is hard because it is important. This last week and a half in Jamaica I am going to try my best to give thanks to the people who helped define my service, who challenged me and celebrated me, who became more than my family. The community center is throwing me a big going away party this Friday and the goodbyes are only getting harder as the time gets shorter.
I can only hope that I made a small mark on this island that has left a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve learned to take time, to say “no problem mon” because, really, it is a good life and there aren’t many problems that can’t be fixed with a good attitude.
I’ve also learned to “give tanks.” I’m thankful to my family and my friends who have been there through the extremely difficult and low points. I’m thankful for the Jamaicans I’ve met who have humoured, frustrated and enlightened me. I’m thankful for my Peace Corps family who are the only ones who can fully understand what I’ve gone through here. And most of all I give God thanks, for keeping me safe, happy and healthy during these defining 2 years of my life.
Thanks to you too, for being with me on this journey.
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