Thursday, June 10, 2010

Two Short Stories

I seem to be in the writing mood of late, so I figured I’d share two short stories. The first story is a humorous story.

One of the main reasons I was moved to Bellevue was to help with the water system that was constructed in the past few years. Whether or not I’ve actually accomplished anything with the water system is debatable, but I’ve tried. One of my attempts has been to establish regular water testing to make sure it is safe to drink. To this end, I have been working with the water quality person at the Ministry of Health in Port Antonio. Now that it is getting to be the last few months of my service and I really need to start “working myself out of a job,” I figured it would be a good time to set a meeting between the water quality person and some people from my community who help with the water testing. I want to see if my community members can do the testing on their own during my last few months.

The meeting was scheduled for a weekday morning when I wasn’t too busy with other work, so I figured that I’d ride my bike there and carry a change of clothes so I wouldn’t show up all sweaty and covered in mud. I woke up early and hoped on my bike before it got too hot. I reached down to Porti in plenty of time to clean up and change when I noticed my first problem of the morning; I forgot to pack a belt. My first thought was “No big deal;” after all, my jeans aren’t too loose… Well, turns out they are. I guess I really did loose those 15 pounds since being here. I noticed this when I walked halfway across town to grab a cup of coffee before the meeting and ended up having to hold my pants up by the belt loops while I was walking.

While I was sitting there drinking my coffee, I pondered two options: 1) buy a new belt 2) make my own belt. I had to reject the first option because I recently spent all my money on a community project and had a few weeks before my next stipend. Ok, so option 2 - how to make my own belt. As I was trying to concentrate, I looked down at my feet and realized that I could just use one of the shoes laces from my sneakers! Brilliant! Problem solved! After all, its not like I had to tuck my shirt in and someone would see that I had a shoelace holding up my jeans.

As I walked over to the office for the meeting, I was feeling proud of myself for finding such a quick and easy solution. When I got to the office, I few minutes early so I sat under a tree to wait. While I waited, looked down to my feet and realized something. My shoes were mud stained, had holes in them and one was hanging half way with no lace. Moving up, my jeans were trimmed off at the bottoms, there are stains a rip is starting to form in the thigh, and these are my “good” jeans. Moving up further, my shirt was starting to shred with holes starting to form and I saw a big stain on the sleeve I apparently missed over the weekend doing my wash. I’ve never claimed to be overly concerned about my appearance, but this is a bit much. Two years in Peace Corps has finally taken its toll.

Now for story two, a story of inspiration.

For anyone who has been to Jamaica and experienced the pleasures of public transportation, they can tell you all about the comforts of “smalling up,” the smooth rhythms of dancehall being played at maximum volume, and the sweet smell of people sweating all over you. Well, the taxis in my community are a daily adventure that includes doors falling off, cars overheating, dodging police, running out of gas, and so on. Each taxi has its own unique quirks that make it an adventure every time. One of my favorites is Jackie’s van. (A van in Jamaica is a pick-up.) Jackie’s van is a small Nisan truck with the bed being about six or seven feet long and about four feet wide. Jackie runs a moving business in Porti but he is usually the last person from Bellevue to leave Porti at night, and so he usually takes any stragglers who missed the other taxis. Now, according to PC policy, I always try take regular taxis unless there is an extreme circumstance...

I was running a bit late and Jackie told me he would be leaving around 6. At 5:55 I walked up to his van to see more people standing around then I could count on my fingers and toes (and yes, I still have all of them.) My previous record on a trip with Jackie was in the high teens set a few months ago. Would this be a record-breaking trip? When we finally loaded up, some of the older guys couldn’t fit and were left to find family or friends to stay with for the night. I settled into my seat, wedged among my community members, partly upset we couldn’t set a new record. However, shortly after leaving Porti, we stopped at a primary school a few miles up the valley to pick up some students who were still waiting. Record broken, and then some! To make room, and to anchor themselves in a little better, everyone sitting around the edge of the truck bed had to put someone on their lap.

At one point going up into the valley, a taxi pulled up behind us and was amazed by the site of a small van overflowing with people and what appeared to be a white person wedged in with them. They started blowing the horn and screamed out, “How unu do the white man so?” Before I had a chance to say anything, someone in the truck with me shouted back, “Him fi wi family!” There were a few murmurs of agreement and then the conversation went back to whatever it was before. After that, all I could do was smile (and wonder why the person on my lap seemed to be gaining weight every time we hit a bump). Even with all the failures and frustrations I’ve had, maybe I accomplished something after all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Recent Happenings in Bellevue

Most of my posts up to now have been about things that have happened. I will continue with that for this post, since it has been a long time since I’ve written a post and plenty of things have happened in that time, but I want to start off with a few thoughts first. The reason for the change is the fact that many of the things that have happened in the past few months have given me cause to start thinking about different things.

I don’t claim to be a very introspective person. When I have a problem or an issue, it doesn’t usually take more then a few minutes to think things through and figure out what it is I want to do. I’m not sure if this is the right way to do things, but it has gotten me through for the past 27 (soon 28) years. However, here it has taken a little more time to think through a few different things.

So here are the few thoughts I want to share before I tell you more about my past few months:

1 – My life here in Jamaica has been pretty stressful, mostly from pressure I put on myself. I think it comes from a feeling I have that it is always more important to please other people before I please myself. It doesn’t matter how busy I already am, I always feel that I can squeeze in a little more time to help someone. And being here where my job is to help people in my community, it just gives me the excuse to try to work that much harder. The problem is, in a community of about 600 people, once people start getting comfortable with me and feel secure in asking me for help, the pressure I put on myself quickly turns from a small stream of work to overwhelming torrent. Two things I’ve learned from this: 1) I’ve learned how to spot the people that are just using me because they have nothing better to do and the ones who really need help and 2) sometimes its more important for me to take time for myself. I’ve learned that if I’m not having fun, I’m not doing a good job. Having fun means that sometimes I can say no to helping someone if I already have something to do, it means that I’m allowed to take it easy on a Wednesday if I’m really feeling stressed from working all weekend, and it means that getting away from my site on occasion is necessary to keep sane.

2 – There are some people that are just not worth trying to help. This point took a bit of time for me to wrap my head around and might surprise a few people, especially when I get into my reasoning for it, but it is the truth and it has really helped me.

In the past few months, I’ve committed a lot of time and effort to helping at the primary school in my community. If you’ve never seen a rural Jamaican school, it is something entirely different then an American school. What I consider common respect for teachers is virtually non-existent in most students. Rules with walking in and out of class, talking in class and non-school people on the school premises are, well, not there.

I’ve spent a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to help Grades 4 through 6 with subjects like literacy and computers. At first, I thought it was because they either didn’t trust me, didn’t understand me, or where really trying but just needed a little extra help. What I found out was that there comes a point when I put out the effort and it was up to them to respond. I noticed that the disrespect not only continued, but escalated. I had to quit…on 10 and 12 year olds... It’s hard to come to grips with quitting on a 10 or 12 year old kid, but I’ve realized that 10 or 12 is old enough to understand consequences. Maybe not understand life long consequences, but at least understand the consequence that if you don’t show respect, you won’t get respect. To understand that if you don’t study, you will fail. To understand that if you fail, you won’t move on. At least there are a few that are willing to work, and I have just put my efforts into them.

3 – The underlying cause for some issues are not always apparent, and efforts to correct the issue won’t do much if they don’t address the cause. There are a number of issues that I’ve come across here that just mystify me as to how people don’t recognize them and take action to correct them. I had a big long thing typed out for this section that I decided to just delete and make as simple as possible. (Though if you want to have a few drinks and talk about it, there are things I can talk about for hours.) I have seen problems with people trusting their own family members, young men and women unwilling to work or even learn a skill when it is offered to them, kids responding to anything but physical punishment, kids dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, etc. These are all problems that we have in abundance in America without a doubt, but I’ve never seen them so common and accepted as I have here.

In the end, what I’ve come to understand is a lot comes down to issues with families dynamics. Raising kids in families where there are not consistent parent figures is more damaging then any kind of physical injury. And the fact is, to find a traditional nuclear family in Jamaica, especially rural Jamaica, is the exception. I have come to appreciate the opportunity I had to grow up in a solid, cohesive family. Sure we had our issues (my siblings and I are still notorious for arguing and fighting with each other), but we were raised together and we’ll stay together.

4 – Give thanks and praise for what you have. This is something I learn a new appreciation for every day. When I see life here, I see all the advantages I have had that allowed me to achieve what I have. But at the same time, when I hear people here talk about how hard life is, I see that they don’t often appreciate advantages that they have. True, the road is horrible, but at least there is a road. True the electricity goes in and out a lot, but there is electricity. True the piped water is not always reliable, but there is piped water, and when there isn’t, there are clean springs within a 10-minute walk. True the farmers are struggling to make money, but their families are not struggling to find food to eat (at the moment there is more fruit on the trees then can possibly be eaten). Life is certainly not easy, but it is not that hard.

Alright, enough of my random thoughts, here is what has been going on in my life in the past few months. As I said previously, I have started spending a lot more time then I used to at the school. I have pretty much worked out a consistent schedule of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday at the school and occasional Fridays. Each day I have my scheduled time working with the basic school kids on Phonics and Grades 1 through 3 on literacy, math and computer skills (drawing in Paint and typing simple sentences). When I’m not with the kids, I’m either organizing the library or doing random things for the teachers like making posters, looking up information and typing up tests. Here is a picture of me and one of the basic school teachers working with the kids on Phonics:

I have a video of them trying to learn the letter “Y” sound that is pretty funny and I’ll see if I can load it later.

One other thing I’ve done at the school is help the principal with a mural on the school wall. For a while she had talked to me about the idea of painting a mural with “Welcome to Bellevue Primary School” with the school motto “Together We Light The Way Forward” and a symbol (hands cupping a flame). Finally, one Monday morning when I was busy on a poster or something, she came to me and told me that she bought the paint and talked to some guys in the community to come and help, they’d be here in a few minutes. Gee, glad I knew so that I could make sure everything was ready.

In the end, everything worked out pretty well. It took about 3 or 4 days to do the initial mural, with about 4 of the young guys in the community who don’t work and spend most of their days on the road walking up and down helping me paint. Here are a few pictures of the work in progress:
Work just starting

The guys starting to find their stride

Finishing up the work

What it looks like in the end

Things turned out pretty well and I even impressed myself with how it looked in the end. Not to mention the guys learned a bit about painting in terms of making your own stencils and how to transfer a small drawing on a paper to a larger drawing on the wall using a grid. The principal was so impressed she commissioned me to paint the national symbols on the wall as well. They turned out pretty well too. Their still a work in progress though.

My other main work success is starting a farmers group and building two produce storage sheds in the community. This is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I got here last summer. There was a concrete platform on the side of the road up near the school that used to be a small shed used by the farmers to box banana a few years ago before the banana export market was shut down. The shed was destroyed during a storm and never rebuilt since it was a community structure and no group existed to take care of it. After about 6 months of waiting for the Minister of Parliament to give money to build it, I got tired. I was running one morning when I got the idea to try to get money through a SPA grant.

SPA is the Small Projects Assistance grant that is given by USAID through Peace Corps Volunteers. The limit on the money that we have is US $3,000. When I started looking into the project around December, I found that with that money, I could afford to build two sheds that are about 10ft wide x 16 feet long, built with wood and a zinc roof. I applied for the money in February and finally got the money at the end of April. So, now $3,000 of your tax money, plus a bit me for a few extra unseen costs, is in Bellevue, being used as farm produce storage sheds. These sheds have shelves to get things up and off the ground, tubs to wash the produce in, locks to keep the kids out at night, and proper construction with bolts and hurricane straps to hopefully keep the thing standing for a few years. Here are a few pictures:

Yeah - the guy is standing on a concrete block on standing on its end using a circular saw...real safe, but got the job done

We added a message board to the front - why not use some empty space

An idea I got watching a red stripe commercial - turned out pretty good

Besides that, I’ve been busy with other things like computer training classes, helping high school and college kids with their homework, working on the water system, and a few other things not worth mentioning.

One very fun thing was that about 3 weeks ago my parents finally came for a visit. They came for about a week and it was great. I was in pretty desperate need of a break from work up in Bellevue and it was good to be able to show my parents around a bit. My parents were troopers getting on public transportation with no big complaints. We spent most of the time in Port Antonio, going to a few beaches and having some good dinners. We spent one night with my host family in Bellevue which was a lot of fun, playing interpreter because my parents were having trouble understanding my host family and my host family was having trouble understanding my parents. But the food was excellent and everyone really enjoyed meeting each other. The last day they were here we went to Kingston to see the Peace Corps office and for some shopping. All in all, it was a great time and not nearly as stressful as I’ve heard other volunteers say it is hosting family.
A view from our guest house looking over one of the bays in Port Antonio
My parents having a drink with my host family after dinner

Now things are winding down for me. I have my COS (Close of Service) conference in little over a week, school finishes in early July, and most of my work is finished here. I’m looking forward to really taking it easy in July and August before I leave, learning to enjoy the rural Jamaican experience without the pressure of trying to get things done. I’ll still be attending community meetings and helping where I can, but my goal is to work myself out of my job and have community members pick up the work. We’ll see how much that actually happens.

In recent news – I don’t know if anyone back home has heard much about what is going on down here with all this Dudus Extradition case going on. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say on the matter – all I will say is it is pretty sad that a man is hiding behind innocent men, women and children to prevent being extradited. Too many people have died already. I just hope that things finish soon and we can start moving around without trouble again.

Anyways, it’s on to the next step after I’m finished here in Jamaica, which I have already sorted out, and a few people know about, but not many. But that is a whole other post unto itself. Look for that one in the next week or two.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hike To Nanny Town

Ever since moving to Bellevue at the beginning of last summer, I’ve wanted to make a trip to a place called Nanny Town Camp Site, though I’ve always been too busy with other things. The hike is usually a 3 day trip, or, if you’re stupid and in a rush like me, 2 days. If it wasn’t school it was, it was night classes, JSIF trips or PC meetings that had always kept me busy. Finally, during the last half of December, everything shut down and I decided that it was now or never. I had spoken to a community member who hunts wild hog in that area and is a trained guide about the trip and he agreed to take me back there. Unfortunately, he got a busy during the holidays and pushed the trip back until the 1st week in January, right when school was starting back up. Knowing that I wasn’t going to get another chance for a while, I decided to go for it, and I’m glad I did.

First off, a little background about the location and my guide. Nanny Town is an important historic location that helped the Windward Maroons hide from and defend against the British who tried to overtake and enslave them. From my understanding, Nanny Town was eventually abandoned for another location a few miles to the west, near current day Charlestown, where the Maroon’s eventually signed their treaty with the British. However there is still a lot of history from Nanny Town and some ruins to see. Nanny Town is located far back in the Blue Mountains, at the base of some very steep sloped mountains.

As I said earlier, my guide is a man who hunts wild hog back in that area whose name is Ulie (my best approximation of the spelling for his yard name). Ulie grew up in the town of Coopers Hill, which is further down the Rio Grande Valley, nearer to Port Antonio, but just as rural as Bellevue. Ulie’s father was a park ranger for the Blue and John Crow State Forrest, constantly hiking through the bush to monitor for people illegally cutting down trees, burning areas and growing marijuana. In that way, Ulie grew up living in the bush and learning where all the trails lead. Back in the 80’s Ulie helped out with a professor from UWI who was doing summer research trips to Nanny Town with students to do 2 month long archeological digs, so he has spent a fair amount of time in the area. Below is a picture of Ulie during one of our small stream crossings – I tried to get a better picture of the small water falls in the back, but that didn’t work out.

So, Ulie and I had set to meet up on the road in Bellevue where the trail leads off into the bush at 7 on a Monday morning. After a quick breakfast of crackers and water and packing a bag that included a clean shirt and underwear, a toothbrush, some crackers and water and a camera, I managed to lock my shoes in my room while rushing out the door. Yes, I realize the only two things I actually needed that I didn’t bring were a knife and lighter, but Ulie said he was bringing these things and I knew me having a knife while stumbling through the bush would only lead to trouble. Either way, I got to the meeting spot a few minutes late and Ulie was waiting for me (what an un-Bellevue surprise that was).

With a simple, “Ready?” “Yup” we were off. Almost immediately we turned off the trail I’m used to and started heading north and west instead of north and east. Shortly after starting, Ulie cut me a walking stick, or, as I called it, my bostaff. I have made skills with a bostaff as you will soon see. After about a ½ hour of easy hiking, we made our way down to the Guava River, which I attempted to cross by jumping across stones and promptly had my first of many falls. From there on, I decided to just walk across the river bottoms. What difference did it really make if my shoes were wet if, after a ½ hour of walking through the bush and brushing up against trees and bushes, my clothes were already soaking wet?

After an hour we reached an area where an old abandoned community used to be. All that was left was a bunch of flat grassy areas with decorative plants and flowers around them and rusted out old 2” cast iron water lines. Ulie didn’t know the name of the abandoned district, but he did know all about the old water system that used to feed this abandoned community, another abandoned community called Johns Hall and Bellevue. It was a bit weird walking an hour from any road accessible by vehicle and seeing this and I can’t imagine how hard it must to live here – imagine going to town for groceries. I guess they were a bit more self-sufficient back then. Here is a picture of some of the views from this area:

About an hour after passing this area, we came down to another river crossing and then to an area where someone raises cows in the bush. This was really annoying for two reasons. First, the cows tear up the trail pretty bad, making it a big muddy, slippery mess. Second, the cows attract tons of tics that then get all over me. Good thing Jamaica doesn’t have lime’s disease. After passing the cows, we started our hour and a half accent up the side of a steep mountain where this time the trail was torn up by wild hog instead of cows. At least the hogs don’t have ticks like the cows. This was actually one of the easy parts of the hike for me because hiking up hill mostly requires being fit, not much technical abilities or good hiking boots.

After finally reaching the top, a place Ulie referred to as Gun Barrel, no story behind the name, we sat down for a short rest, a drink of water and some crackers. At this point Ulie also did something interesting. He took a small bottle of white rum and poured a little on the ground, then took some in his mouth and sprayed it around in the air and then muttered some words just saying we were passing through and asked for a good hike. He said this was an old tradition he learned from his father when passing through some areas to let the spirits know what was going on and keep them happy. I always see Jamaican men pouring the first sip of a beer or other drink on the ground, but the spraying and the mutterings was a first. I was certainly in support of making the spirits happy, especially with how the hike was about to go for me. Below is a section of trail near Gun Barrel – see if you can find the trail.

After leaving Gun Barrel, Ulie said there were no more big hills, which turned out to be like a Jamaican telling you something is around the corner when it is about 3 miles away. Yes, there were no more hour and a half climbs, but there were plenty of ups and downs on the steep gullies and lose dirt and slippery mud. Also, there were plenty of wild hogs along the way that used the trails as their own playground, digging everything up and making a complete mess of the area. At some points there were some almost vertical mountain sides with loose dirt and gravel where the trail was no more than an inch wide. My first major non-river fall was in one of these areas where I slipped and fell on my back side, sliding about 10 feet down the side of the gully before getting caught up in some small trees. Unfortunately my walking stick went a bit further down – bostaff #1 gone. I told you I have skills.

I crawled back up to the trail and Ulie cut me another stick. After a few more hours of rough hiking and a few minor falls, we came down to the Stoney River which is where Base Camp was. This was great for me because the trail really was flat finally and all I had to deal with were river crossings, which I managed not to fall on. A few hundred yards before reaching base camp, we came across a really cool looking small falls seen below.

The falls was only about 3 feet or so, but the water at the bottom had an amazing bright blue color and the random red flowers on the opposite bank were really cool looking.

Finally, after about 6 ½ hours of walking, we reached base camp:

As I said earlier, Ulie and his brother and friends come back here every few weeks to hunt, so they keep up this camp with pots and pans and bedding, which made it a much easier hike then having to haul tents and sleeping bags. After reaching, Ulie got right to work, doing his rum ceremony, making a fire and getting some clean water while me, being the useful person I am, went down to the river to take a look around, swim around a little and take pictures. Granted, when I offered to help, Ulie never accepted. The river was nice and cool and had some cool small falls near the camp.

Ulie heated up some really tasty Sunday-Mondays (left over rice and peas from Sunday) that he had carried with him and some tined Mackerel for a late lunch. We spent the rest of the afternoon / evening hanging out in the camp around the fire and eventually made festivals for dinner. According to Ulie, they needed more sugar and corn meal, but I was just happy to be having festivals for the first time in about 9 months, especially out in the middle of the bush. Since there wasn’t much else to do, it was an early night to bed around 7:30 on the very comfortable (….) bed.

Though I really have nothing to complain about since I didn’t have to build it myself, I didn’t have to carry a sleeping bag with me, and we kept dry from the pouring rain all night.

It was an early start to the next morning, getting up a little after 6 to try to get started walking by 7. Unfortunately it took a little longer then planned to get the breakfast of boiled dumplings and tined corned beef ready.

We finally hit the trail a little after 8 and we had a long day ahead of us. It would be and 1½ hours to Nanny Town and then trying to make it all the way back the Bellevue before dark. Our hike to Nanny Town was pretty uneventful, taking the River Road, crossing back and forth along the Stoney River most of the way. The last 20 minutes where a bit interesting when we had to basically hike down the side of the mountain on a “trail” that, in reality Ulie had cut for himself since it had been about 8 months since the last person had passed this way and it had all grown over.

Finally we made it down to Nanny Town, and it was pretty obvious why they had chosen this location. They were protected on three sides by very steep mountains and could know well in advance when anyone was coming their way. There were three really cool things about Nanny Town.

1 – there was a 4 sided stone enclosure that is the only remaining structure in the area. Here is a picture of Ulie bushing it out.

2 – There were two carved stone monument type things, the first Ulie said was done by the British soldiers after the camp had been abandoned by the Maroons and the second done obviously a bit more recently:

3 – There was an orange tree that had some delicious ripe oranges! I had 3 while at the camp and brought about 8 home with me! (Can you tell which one I liked the most?)

After about 45 minutes here and realizing that doing anything more would mean spending another night and missing my ultimately useless meetings in Porti the next day (a year and a half and I still haven’t realized that 75% of my meetings are useless…but there is always that chance…). So now it was a race to get back to Bellevue before dark. We left Nanny Town around 10:30 and Ulie decided to take the Mountain Road back to Base Camp, which was longer and harder then the River Road. Some how I managed to hold it together and made this portion of the hike without problem. Even after leaving from Base Camp and hiking the few hours it took to get to Gun Barrel I managed to do much better then I had the previous day, even though we had to hike through 2 hours of rain. The biggest problem was that we some how managed to find a lot of trees with maka, or what we would call prickers, then we did the first day, leading to a good number of cuts on my hands.

It wasn’t until after we passed Gun Barrel that the fun really began. I had learned through my experience with our water system that uphill is easy for me, downhill is my nemesis, and I finally figured out why: my hiking shoes are just that, soft soled hiking shoes, not hard soled boots like the water boots all the farmers wear. These are crucial, especially when walking down the side of a mountain where the trail is complete mud from the wild hogs and recent rain. So here we are, coming down the mountain, with Ulie in front, constantly talking about all the wild hog tracks he sees and wishing he had brought his dogs or some rope for a trap and me coming crashing behind him, using my mad skills with two feet and a bostaff to fall into trees and bushes the whole way down. On the way, I managed to lose my second bostaff, which Ulie quickly replaced, and managed not to break any bones, just completely lose my pride.

It literally felt half the time that I was skiing down hill trying to turn this way and that way, grabbing onto trees and bushes to slow down and change direction. At one particularly scary moment I had the feeling I was on the bunny slope learning the wedge again, and was very scared I was about to do a face plant into a very steep gully. At another particularly painful moment at the bottom of the mountain, a maka managed to dig into my ear and spin my head all the way around, almost making me lose my balance and fall yet again. That was the one time that Ulie heard some very American curses during the trip.

Once we reached the bottom, then it really turned into a foot race to reach Bellevue before dark. There were a few more falls in the last hour of the hike, but nothing like during the decent from Gun Barrel, and they were mostly because the trail was getting very dark under the dense vegetation with the setting sun. Ulie was gracious enough to give me a few minutes to try to clean up a little in the Guava River before the home stretch to Bellevue so it didn’t look like I had fallen quite so many times. By some miracle, we reached the Bellevue Road just as the sun set, and I had time, and just enough battery left in my camera, to take one last picture:

Walking down to my yard in the dark a little after 6, it started raining again, but I was still decently warm from the hike. As soon as I got back, my host family came out saying they were afraid I was lost in the bush somewhere and were getting ready to set out looking for me (apparently I didn’t make it clear enough that the original plan was for a 3 day hike). I was just thankful they had a plate of food for me! After cleaning up a bit, I finally started taking care of the ticks, trying to pick them off and squish them between my finger nails that are a bit too short. When my host sister and brother saw my futile efforts, they offered help and then spent the next half hour combing my arms, legs and back for ticks to kill. There’s nothing like a little communal grooming. (Does that count as an integration activity?)

Now a few days after the fact, the only physical effects are a few scratches on my arms and legs, some annoying bug bites, and some toe issues (I hope I don’t lose the nails on my big toes….). Otherwise, it was a lot of fun and I would recommend it to anyone who is up for a rough hike, just buy a proper pair of boots first!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

It (was) Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

I know I'm posting this a little late, but I haven't been down from the Bellevue for a while. Either way, I stayed in Jamaica for my second Christmas, this time spending it with my host family in Bellevue. It was quite a different experience from last year when I spent it with other volunteers.

First off, in the weeks before Christmas here, most families do a thorough house cleaning similar to a Spring Cleaning back home. This was a pretty big thing at my house this year since a lot of construction has taken place and two of the rooms were not really furnished as yet. So, after two days of painting and scrubbing, my family put down linoleum, carpet and moved in a bunch of furniture along with cleaning out and re-arranging all the furniture in each of the other rooms of the house. Now we officially have a living room and each person has their own bedroom.

About 2 days before Christmas is when the real preparations began. My host father raises chickens throughout the year, and Christmas is a time when everyone places orders. In addition, his brother and sister down in Port Antonio bought a goat from a neighbor and asked my host father to butcher it and send it down. Of course, this all means that my host brothers have a lot of work to do. Since school was out and I didn't have a lot going on, I offered my help since they had to kill a goat and 27 chickens all in one day (while it was raining). While Rick and I were sharpening the knives and bringing the goat around back, Rick asked if I wanted to kill the goat. I was a bit hesitant, but then again, it's just a goat, not a cow or something big that could do any damage, and if I'm not willing to kill it, I shouldn't be willing to eat it. So, I said, "What the hell, there is a first for everything."

This is me "Grabbing the Goat by the horns" and taking care of business. The picture doesn't show it, but we are on the side of a gully, in the rain and mud and I almost slipped and cut my own throat, but all turned out well, except for the goat of course. Before I killed him, I thanked the goat, saying "Thanks Mr. Goat for making such a good soup and tasting so good with curry." I thought it was appropriate. I can't say it was the best job, but it worked, and thanks to Rick for helping and butchering him after we were done.

After we finished with the goat, it was time to take care of the chickens. I'm not real fast at plucking the chickens, so it was my job to chase them around the coup, put them upside-down in the baskets and cut off their heads. At least I'm good enough now so that I don't get blood all over my clothes like the first time I tired a few months ago. By the end we had Rick, Tallest, Sammy and myself working on the chickens with occasional help from Lebert (mostly giving us rum to try to warm up - it was pretty cold with the rain). It was a long day of cutting, plucking and bagging, but at least it made for some tasty meals.

Next up was Grand Market on Christmas Eve. Grand Market is a day and night affair where the shops all stay open until 11 or midnight on Christmas Eve and have pretty good deals and people are out on the streets walking and partying. Josh (another PCV) took a bunch of pictures, so check those to see what it was like. It is pretty amazing to see so many people out on the road - certainly not something you see every day. I came down with my host family around 6 PM, met up with Josh, Jesse and Molly in Port Antonio and brought them back up to Bellevue around 1 or 2 AM.

Next was Christmas Day - a relaxing day where most people just hand around their yards, eating, drinking and occasionally going to see other friends and family at their yards. After waking up and having breakfast, I took Josh, Jesse and Molly for a bit of a walk around showing them the sites around Bellevue. Here is a picture of me on my roof showing them some of the sites.
Also - here is a cool picture of my host families house from the top of the hill coming down that Josh took:
(Josh really can take some crazy pictures)

We also had Tallest and his baby mother (yes - that is a technical term here) come by the house for a while with Tallest's little sister Samoya. We took a few family pictures that I printed out and gave to Lebert for his birthday on January 1st. Here is one of them:

From left to right it is Lebert, his son Sammy, Omar, Julie, Rick and Tallest (cousins of the family but I pretty much consider them brothers), Tallests baby mother Rochelle with their baby Rihanaa, Samoya in front and then me.

The rest of the week between Christmas and New Years was pretty low key. A few community parties at night, some grave cleanings during the day (which is a party in itself) and a lot of time to relax and read. I think I've read about 4 books in two weeks. New Years was another small community party and then January 1st was Lebert's birthday, which had a bunch of people stopping by to give him well wishes and have a few drinks. I gave him the picture in a frame and a bottle of whiskey - he seemed to enjoy it. I know I certainly enjoyed a small break from the rum.

That was about it - now it's time to get started into a new year and get some work done. I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays and have a healthy and prosperous new year and new decade!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Jamaican Opera Story

Public transportation in Jamaica is an interesting beast. Normally, it is hot, crowded, loud and fairly dangerous. I swear listening to Celine Dion at full blast while sitting in 100 degree heat smalled up to the point where it feels like your ribs are going to break is a form of torture. But, since we are only allowed bicycles, we have to depend on public to get any significant distance. While I have experienced much crazier happenings on busses and in taxis before, I thought this one was fairly amusing and I haven't stopped laughing about it.

Yesterday I was on a bus from Kingston coming back to Port Antonio, reading my book and minding my own business in relative comfort (as comfortable as you can be when you're sharing one seat with another man) when I finally realized what was playing on the radio. No, it wasn't the Dancehall, Reggae or Hip Hop, and it wasn't the Celine Dion or random Country song that comes on, it was OPERA! After a long day of traveling 5 1/2 hours to get to Kingston for about 2 hours worth of meetings to be told that everyone will taking off from now until after the new year (which I already knew), listening to a few minutes of opera music on a bus hurtling around corners and narrowly missing other vehicles on the Junction Road really made my day. The best part was the Jamaican guy next to me humming along to the music. After the opera song was over, it went back to dancehall (I think it was "Ride it like a 10 speed bicycle" - a pretty hilarious song), but it was a few moments of Zen.

That's about it for now. I'll try to come up with a better post before Christmas to update everyone on my recent happenings with my trip home and what's going on now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blame it on the Rain

For those looking at this in facebook, I'll upload the pictures seperately.
Over the past few months, I’ve started to understand how hard life can be without easy access to water. Bellevue is supposed to get an average of over 200 inches of rain each year, but for the past three months, we have hardly had more than an inch. There are some springs in the community that have dried up for the first time that most of the old timers can remember. The community started having problems with our water supply in the beginning of the summer and the last time we had water in our pipes was some time in early August. Ever since then, my host family has been depending on the water in our two 400 gallon tanks, which lasted a whole week thanks to the guys mixing cement for the ongoing construction at the house, and carrying water from the spring.

Here is a pictuer of the spring to the left. Its not the best, but it is dark and my camera is not the best. I do have to admit that it hasn’t been too tough for me mostly because of the preferential treatment my host family shows me. They never ask me to carry water up from the spring, I just try to when ever I can because I feel that I should try to pull my weight as much as possible. I especially felt that it was my responsibility to carry water when it came to needing water for my garden. After a few weeks of dry weather, I noticed that my tomato plants were starting to die so I tried to make at least one trip with a 5 gallon water jug to carry them. The spring nearest to our house is less then a ¼ mile away, which is really close compared to some people, but the only problem that the spring is a ¼ mile down the side of the mountain. That means that when I carry the water, it’s a ¼ mile up a steep hill. Oh well, like I said, it could be a lot longer.

After the water in our tanks ran out, I have to admit that I went a week with, let’s just say, infrequent bathing. I finally got over myself and decided that bathing at the spring can’t be that bad, hell, I’ve been bathing outside under a standpipe for the past 4 months anyway, how bad can walking down to the spring really be. It was actually kind of nice, the spring is back into the bush a little so it is even more private then the standpipe in my host family’s yard. I was getting used to bathing down there and everything was going fine when I also decided that 3 weeks was long enough and I really had to do some wash. I mentioned it to my host sister who happened to be talking on the phone with my host mother who is on a work program in America. Next thing I know I’m on the phone with my host mother, who I still haven’t met face to face, getting yelled at that “You shouldn’t be going to the spring at all! You should get someone to carry water for you! Bla bla bla.” All I could do was just say “Yes mam” and wait for the verbal assault to be over. When I woke up the next morning around 7 to go down to the spring, my host brother Rick was coming down from his last trip to catch water, filling two 50 gallon drums for the “family to use.” I can’t say I was disappointed that I didn’t have to do my wash at the spring, but the special treatment is a bit annoying at times. Would it really have been that hard for Rick to let me help him carry some water?

This was going to be the end of my story dealing with the water until about 3 days ago when rainy season finally started. The two pictures to the left shows clouds coming over the John Crown Mountains into the Rio Grande Valley with my house in the bottom of the pictures (its gong to rain soon...) It is pretty amazing, after 3 months of pure sun shine with hardly any clouds and maybe an inch of rain, it has been pure clouds and rain for the past 3 days with maybe 4 inches of rain or more. Now that we have enough water, we’re having problems with the light. It has been on and off since it started raining, luckily today the light came back on this afternoon and has stayed on since. I guess we’re now settling in for the official “Rainy Season” and I’ll finally experience what it is like to live in a place that gets over 200 inches of rain. I’m sure I’ll be singing “Rain, rain, go away” soon enough.

In other news, besides the occasional annoyance of special treatment by my host family, everything is going really well with them. Everyone is healthy and happy, which is a good thing. I’ve finally started to get brave enough to try some recipes from home with my host family. My first attempt was with pancakes, using a recipe from the PC Jamaica cookbook making the batter from scratch. I started with this one because it is pretty simple and Jamaicans have a lot of flour recipes already, so I figured it would fit well. It went ok, except I don’t have actual measuring utensils at my host families house, so it was all estimation and I didn’t add enough baking powder, so they were too flat and doughy. My host family seemed to still enjoy them enough and even have cooked them on their own a few times since then. My second attempt was making spaghetti. I was unsure on this one because Jamaicans don’t eat a lot of beef or meet without bones and they don’t eat a lot of stuff in tomato sauce. To my surprise, it went very well, and the 2 lbs. of beef along with a bunch of vegetables and 2 lb of pasta was completely finished off by the end of the night. Looks like I’ll have to start that one again. My next try will be with pizza, which will be this weekend. Again, I’m a little weary because Jamaicans don’t eat a lot of cheese, especially mozzarella, so we’ll see how it goes. As you can see, I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian food lately…..all I want is a big plate of beefy, cheesy, tomatoy goodness.

Enough about food before I drool all over my keyboard. School (the picture to the left) has started up and Omar, my 5 year old host brother, has started Grade 1. He is pretty much a terror, but our school has a really good Grade 1 teacher who is able to manage him and the rest of the class pretty well. The problem for me is when I’m left alone with them, or any other class for that matter. I remember not taking substitute teachers too seriously when I was in school, but completely disregarding them and running around beating each other up is another thing entirely. Today, the Grade 1 teacher had to leave early because the principal wanted her to attend a training seminar, so she asked me to read a story to the class and do some exercises with them. As soon as she got in the taxi and drove off, the kids ran to the door to see her go, then turned to each other and literally started beating on each other. I did what I could and got 2 or 3 of them to concentrate on their work, but the others only wanted me to chase them around or hide under desks, so I tried to ignore them and work with the ones that were responding to me. Finally one of their mothers who works in the canteen came in and whipped the rest of them into shape (amazing how it really is a motherly figure they all respond to). After that, the principal just put the Grade 1 in the same class with Grades 2 & 3, which made them start to cry because the Grade 2 kids can beat them up and the Grade 2 & 3 teacher uses the belt to keep order in her classroom.

Instead of reading to the Grade 1 class, I ended up taking the Grade 6 to the library and getting them started on checking out books. Its amazing, a few weeks ago we had a group from the National Library Service come up and help revamp our school library, taking it from an unorganized closet with books in it to an actual library with fiction, non-fiction, reference and West Indian sections and posters and other colorful signs (See two pictures to the left). I’m even working on an alphabet chart with Winney the Poo and Dora the Explorer on it (the picture to the lft). I knew all that copying of cartoons from magazines when I was a kid would come in handy some day. I’ve even been commissioned by some of the teachers to do some more drawings for their classrooms. Not exactly saving the world, but at least it might brighten a wall in a classroom and help a kid actually pay attention to a lesson, lord knows that is hard enough as it is.

That is about it for anything I consider interested. The water system in my community is an ongoing project. Hopefully I’ll have something to report next month if we get some grant money to hook up a better spring onto the system. Yeay, hauling concrete, sand and metal pipes 2½ miles back into the bush! Can’t wait! Anyways, like I said, that is about it for now. Below are just some random pictures.

The ongoing construction at my yard. They will soon take down what remains of the board house to build 3 additional rooms on this side.

Our new puppy out our yard, his name is Zeekes. He's fun except for when I wake up at 5 to run and he attacks my shoes while I'm trying to tie them.

Sammy, my host brother, holding his nephew, Omar, also my host brother

Julie, my host sister and Omar's mother. I usually just call her my host mother since she does all the cooking and treats me like a son, even though I'm older then her.

A view from the Bellevue School looking down towards Port Antonio. Its 6 AM and you can still see the couds in the valley from last nights rain.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Life in Bellevue

I apologize ahead of time - these pictures loaded in the wrong order - I'll have to work on that for next time.

This is the next spring that runs better during the dry season. We are going to try to make a small dam and run about 400 m of pipe to connect to the existing system. Hopefully this will happen some time in the next year.

This is the dam used for our community water system. It works well, except that during the summer when it doesn’t rain often, the spring runs low and doesn’t flow enough to fill the middle chamber where the outlet pipe is.

This is my 5 year old host brother, Omar. It is almost impossible to get a picture of him standing still because he is always running around getting himself into trouble somewhere.

This is the view from the side of my house (a window for my room is in the back left of the pictures). You can see the Valley between the John Crow and Blue Mountains where the communities of Ginger House, Comfort Castle and Millbank are. You can see all the weather coming this way when the clouds spill over the top of the John Crow Mountains and head our way.

This is the front of my host family’s house. As with most houses, it’s a construction in progress. They are currently taking down the old board house and putting up block and steel, one room at a time.

This is the view from the front of my host family’s house. You can see the coffee trees in the foreground and a few banana trees that my host father has and again you can see the Rio Grande and the Caribbean Sea in the distance. I get to see this every day, which is pretty sweet (also the reason Bellevue has it’s name).

View from “Look Out” about ½ the way between Bellevue and the dam for the water system. My house is the one in the middle of the picture, the school I teach at is the big roof to the left of it. The river is the Rio Grande and in the distance you can see part of the Port Antonio Harbor and the Caribbean Sea.

Tuesday, July 20, 2009

So far, life in Bellevue is going well. When I first got here, school was still in session, so I was teaching a few days a week and spent the other days helping out with maintenance of the water system. Since the end of June, I’ve kept busy most days with the water system and also trying to coordinate with some Ministry of Health persons in Port Antonio to get a few various projects running up here in Bellevue. Due to the really bad road conditions, the MOH does not have a strong presence in the community. The closest operational health clinic is only about 10 miles away in Fellowship, which is the first community in the Valley up from Port Antonio. Unfortunately this 10 miles takes over 45 minutes to drive due to the condition of the road, and this is only once you catch a taxi, which can take 2 or 3 hours.

Since the beginning of July, I have started a computer training class for interested community members on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It’s run out of the school library, where we have two working computers that I am able to teach 4 students at a time. We don’t have a blackboard in the library so, with advice from another volunteer, I was able to jerry-rig a white board with some cardboard, white paper, paperclips and plastic report covers that I duct tape to the wall during class. It works great! Hopefully I’ll get a picture of it for next time. My students are mostly female and range in age from teenagers to probably mid thirties. I look forward to continuing this through the rest of the summer and then holding it another 1 or 2 times in the next year before I leave.

Part of my time recently has also been spent working on the community water system. The system took about 6 years to build with the help of a few former volunteers and has been actually running since about November or December last year. Unfortunately, after all the work that went into building the system, there was no strong, organized group running it in a transparent manor. So far, we have organized a new Water Committee, brought new persons into the system, started holding regular meetings and started to set rules and regulations. It’s a long process and will take more then the remaining year that I have, but I am hopeful that things will work out. Just today we had a Community Work Day where 8 males and 5 females went up to the water lines to clear the bush that has overgrown the pipes. I wish I had some pictures of the work we did, cutting incredibly thick vegetation on steep slopes where there are 200 feet drops to the valley below. All total, we cleared about a mile of bush, which is pretty good. I think I showed some of the guys that I can manage a machete and walking along some rough areas. My hands and arms are all scratched up and I think I lost about 10 pounds from sweating, but I enjoyed the day.

Besides all the day-to-day activities, the summer time is a great place here. The best part is that everything is coming ripe now. Mangoes are all over the place, bread fruit and ackee are starting to come in, avocado will soon be in season. There are occasional jack fruits still on the trees. My host father hasn’t been able to sell all of his banana in the market so we are getting a lot of ripe banana. The vegetable garden I started with my host family is doing well and soon we will have all the carrots, callaloo, pumpkin and corn that we can eat. We also have okra, scotch bonnet pepper, sweet pepper, lettuce and tomato that are starting to do well. Unfortunately the bugs are attacking the tomato so I have to sort something out with that. The past two Saturdays I’ve had the chance to go to Port Antonio to hang out with some volunteers at some of the beaches around Port Antonio, which is a welcome break from the summer heat.

That is about it for now. I’m planning a trip home towards the end of October till mid November (I probably won’t be home for Thanksgiving). Hope to see some people then.