Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Peacin' out Peace Corps

My two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer is up and as of May 23, 2014 I transition to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a title I proudly wear. I can’t pretend I’m not a little sad, and I can’t pretend I’m not a little relieved. I like change, and I have been ready for it for a while.

It’s a little sad saying goodbye, as it is and should be whenever it’s a good long term/permanent goodbye. Tuesday I had my last day at the school and was bombarded with tight hugs from teachers, staff and children – with the younger children asking when I’d return. Today my 15 year old host sister (of just these past 6 months after I left my first home) reminisced of the good times she’ll remember- like when we celebrated our birthdays together with cake. In my eagerness to pack up and jet off to my next adventure I need to remember to slow down and respect their goodbyes, because this isn’t just my goodbye but theirs too. I came in this ready for 2 years of culture shock, strange foods, challenges and the unexpected, but to a lot in my rural community I came out of nowhere and they embraced me quickly. I am wholly grateful to Cascade and all the people that have become friends and family to me there and I will never forget them as I know many of them will never forget me.

I am incredibly grateful for Peace Corps, PCJ staff and especially PCV friends who have endured and enjoyed life on Jamrock alongside me. You’re all pretty fucking amazing people that have done, are doing and will do great things (PC must attract awesomeness). To all you who are thinking of, beginning, or in the middle of your service, I’d like to pass on my mantra from the past 2 years; “this isn’t permanent.” Remember this on those days when nothing seems to go right; your project is not working out, no one is listening to you, that rastaman pointed out your getting fluffy (fat), you don’t have anything good to eat, the current is out and it’s hot and all you want is some peace and quiet but your host family is being super loud. More importantly, remember it on those days that don’t suck, those days where you find yourself out in the middle of the bush connecting with people about change, listening to the birds sing while roasting yam on an open fire and drinking a jelly coconut or hanging out at a beautiful beach with Peace Corps friends and a cold Red Stripe. Remember that you chose to be here and you can choose to go back to America. Remember you are lucky to have choices. Remember there are ups and downs and don’t get caught up in either; ride the waves, it can be fun… I promise. You’ll look back and be grateful for all you’ve learned from those downs… I promise. You’ll also really, really enjoy those ups… I absolutely promise.   

Living in another country has been all I expected and more. I’ve been challenged in ways I never thought and learned things about myself I never knew and I’ve come to many conclusions including; one: that I’m pretty awesome and two: I’m not ready to live in the United States. As some of you already know, I will not stop calling Jamaica home quite yet. After I visit California for a month and a half I’ll be back, living in a different parish and working on different projects, no longer with the Peace Corps. Soo… 1. Who is going to take the opportunity they missed the first 2 years to come and visit me? and 2. Who is going to help me eat mountains of tacos when I’m in California??

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Bored to Death

             We all face this issue some time in our lives. It’s a dreadful thing that can hit us out of nowhere. Sometimes it makes us make terrible decisions. Sometimes it pushes us to do things we never thought we’d do. Sometimes it makes us watch shows all day eating nothing but strawberry flavored sour belt candy (terrible decisions…). Boredom.
          In the initial PC interview most, if not all, get asked something along the lines of: “During your service there will be long periods of time where you might not have anything to do; how would you deal with boredom?” I was prepared for this question and I had a long list of things that I could do running through my head. “I don’t think there is any reason to ever be bored. There are so many things that could keep me occupied if I didn’t have anything to work on. I could read, call a friend, go for a walk, meet new people, meditate, exercise, write, crochet, plant a garden, watch a movie, work on future projects…” How could anyone get so bored that they needed a plan? How could this even be a question? How idealistic you were, pre-PC Autumn.
          Boredom has seeped into my bones lately. It’s not that I don’t have anything to do. I’ve forced some structure in my life and I have things to do most days and I’ve been walking and running a lot more. If you know me then you’d know I used to hate running, but now I’m running up the mountain once or twice a week (ok, it’s more around the mountain at a slight incline, but still). Sometimes I run through that old list that I came up with long ago and end with throwing my arms out with a “ughhh… but I don’t wanna do any of that!” and then end up laying on the ground staring at the wall, wallowing in my crushing boredom. I’m trying not to complain too much, but a bored person loves to complain, am I right? TV is boring, reading is boring, talking to people is boring, living in the country is boring, traveling is boring, sunshine is boring, beaches are boring, food is boring. Boredom is cruel and sucks the fun out of things I once enjoyed.  

 I try to remind myself that this boredom isn’t permanent and to try my best to shake it off. That all these things that I listed aren’t boring at all and that I’m just in a funk that I’ve gotten out of before and can get out of again. My boredom is a privileged boredom. My time is still my own and although I am limited in what I can do right now I still have choices in how I want to direct things. There are plenty of wonderful things out there to see and do and plenty of interesting people to meet.

I wrote this blog post to fill in some of the space that the boredom created. I think it worked a bit.           

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jah Rastafari!

Last week I met Jeremiah and Empress Mel at a park down the road from the hotel. Empress Mel was
 celebrating her Earthday (Birthday) and Jeremiah was just relaxing. We talked a long while about Rastafarilivity and about the prejudices against them by the larger Jamaican community. Rastafarilivity is both a way of life (eating healthy food, keeping hair natural/in dredlocks, black pride, positive speech...) and a religion. It is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs and they believe that the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I was the second coming of the messiah and it's also a black power movement where they believe Africa is their true home and hope to return. Here's a website with some more Rasta info. Jeremiah and Empress Mel invited me to their Sabbath celebration  in the community of Middleton in the beautiful Blue Mountains.
So here we go:

When the main road ended we had to walk down a dirt path and then climbed up the steep steps laid into the side of the hill. By the time we got to the top we were drenched in sweat.
Here is the view of the Blue Mountains from the hike up.

Reaching the top. Along the way we passed houses, coffee trees and the breeze would blow by the smell of banana trees.

When we got there we were asked to wrap our heads and cover our shoulders and asked not to enter if we were menstruating.

Shrine to Haile Selassie I

Jeremiah and 3 young boys reading from the bible in front of the flame and the drums that are used during the drumming and chanting afterwards.

It turned out that Sharon and Empress Mel had a mutual friend. Sharon isn't normally rocking purple sequined hats; it was to cover her head while inside.

Empress Mel invited us back and if anyone is interested in knowing more about the Rastafarian movement and Rasta culture/religon this is a great place to visit. They love to share what they believe in and whether you believe in their movement or not it is a really interesting part of the culture and a peaceful and beautiful place to visit. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Gyal, mi luv yuh fat pumpum

Living and working in a rural community creates a very blurred line between work ethics and social fun. The common topic here constantly, every day, anywhere, all the time is sex. I used to get uncomfortable but now I just get annoyed or bored and make up stories about mind dicks and ovary goddesses. I don’t really know where I’m going with those, but they usually change the subject (for a while) because the other person gets frustrated with my stupid tangents about just wanting to dance. We are supposed to integrate and being a part of these conversations would be a great way to connect with people, but there is a little voice in my soul that wants me to stand up on my soapbox and preach about the unity of men and women and love and compassion and respect, that just won’t let me.  That voice usually doesn’t come out here because: one, I would just be called uptight and two (more importantly), that voice is usually accompanied by a more emotionally charged voice that wants to yell at men to quit being so disgusting and disrespectful to women and that talking about my pussy makes me want to punch you and spit in your face and not fuck you. See… that voice gets pretty worked up so I really try to find a balance.

Outside of the schools I work with a lot of men. The older men haven’t been toooo much of a problem, but I certainly have had to set boundaries with the younger men. I now have a bubble. No, you may not poke my belly. No, you may not grab my waist. No, you may absolutely not grab my ass. Yes, there is a time limit to how long my hand is in yours. I’m really trying to find a balance between being firm and not being a hardass that no one wants to talk to. Between having a fun or serious conversation and avoiding being uncomfortably solicited. Between being respected and being accepted.

Talking about sex doesn’t bother me. Get a group of PCVs together and most likely the conversation is going to be about food, sex or shits. What bothers me is how sex is talked about in this male dominated world and how so often I can be made to feel like a piece of whitey meat. Let me step on that soapbox to preach to the choir for a moment: I am a woman, I am a human being and I deserve respect and if you cannot provide that for me then I will still provide that for me. You are a person and you deserve respect and if you have trouble accepting it then you will have trouble giving it to others.

Bam! Thank you. I love you all.

P.S. I respect all you professional Jamaican women out there that have to put up with this stuff constantly and do it with your heads held high. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Fair is a Fair

Sunday through Tuesday was the annual Denbigh Agriculture show. It's a hot, dusty, smelly 3 day fair where each Parish shows off its talents and compete (for I'm not sure exactly what), government organizations show off what they can offer, value added products and arts and crafts are sold, and food... lots and lots of food (I'd rather not tell you how many smoothies I had). A bunch of the volunteers got together to help out JOAM (Jamaica Organic Agriculture Movement) by putting on a children's village where they could do activities and learn about the environment. Luckily we were placed in a shady spot so it wasn't waaaay too hot, but we all still ended up with a layer of grime on us by the end of each day. And even luckier, we were right by the sugar factory so when we weren't getting whiffs of the gully it would smell like warm sugar. Here are some highlights:
Creating "Barry Banana" to explain compost

How long does it take to break down?

Creative reuse

Plant, animal and insect painting

Adults joined in too

Value added product from the Portland parish

Big ups to everyone who put in lots of work to make things go smooth and many, many thanks to the Shagoury's (if any of you happen to read this) for hosting us.

      P.S. Megan and I (and my smoothie) made it in the local newspaper.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Seeking Stories

Living in a different country has put me in an almost constant uncomfortable and awkward state. I have learned to embrace these moments and do things that a friend of mine coined were my “social experiments.” Looking at the situation as a third person, just letting whatever comes to my mind flow out, greeting every person I pass (this is a good one when there is a big mixture of cultures), let myself get as awkward as I can get or see how the next person reacts if I just don’t lose eye contact (very different reactions doing this in Jamaica vs. doing this in America).These are things I’d never done in America and have adapted out of my discomfort (and growing self-confidence? growing boredom? growing “not giving a shit” ?  –refer back to ‘Everybody Seems to Think I’m Lazy’). My favorite is a mixture of making a new (usually) one time friend and going with the flow. Sometimes this turns out alright, but sometimes I end up on amazing adventures or listening to an extraordinary life story. This last one was my experience today.

I really wanted to share this man’s certain story and I started and deleted what I wrote because it’s not mine to tell and I could never share it the same way he did. All I can share is my story of hearing his story. It was one of those stories that could be made into a novel, become a part of Oprah’s book club then become a movie based on the book based on a true story and then everyone would read and question if it was real. Seriously.

Jamaica runs on route taxis that go from point A to point B and it can take several taxis and buses to get anywhere. I was at one transfer point and walked around to find an ATM to get cash for the rest of the trip. I passed what I was looking for and a man on a ledge, that I had overlooked, called out “miss, a wah yuh look for?” There it was; I had to just turn my head. I went in, got just a little cash and when I walked out I laughed with the man on the ledge about how I had missed what I was looking for because I was looking in the other direction. He had a slight Canadian accent, he had a cast and crutches and he was dressed in ragged clothing. He asked me if I could buy him something to eat (normally I don’t give out money or buy things, but I won’t go off on a tangent) and there was something about how he held himself that I felt no pity for him, despite how he looked, and I agreed to buy him something. He seemed very honest, very self-aware, very un-self-pitying, again, despite the way he looked. He told me that an accident forced him to pee through a catheter and that he was writing a book about his life. I agreed to buy him lunch if he would tell me about his book and his life story.  

He was born in Jamaica, taken to Canada as a child, got into drug trafficking then scamming and made lots and lots of money. His best friend and girl fell in love so they ratted him out and he got sent to prison and deported. He had boats and money in Jamaica and would go scuba diving and spear fishing. His oxygen tank went out at 110 feet and by the time he got to the surface, to the hospital and into a decompression chamber he had lost the use of his legs. Several years went by before he could walk and several of his organs never recovered. He now lives day by day and doesn’t know where his next meal will come from or how he will get fare to make it to the hospital to change his catheter every other week. Just recently he got hit by a car and broke his leg and when he went to follow up on the report it turned out that the man had paid off the police to get rid of the report. His life now is getting that injustice cleared, going to the hospital and living at the beach.

He neither bragged about what he had had nor pitied what his life had become. He just accepted it as it is. He told me how had been begging money at a gas station and a white man noticed his slight Canadian accent and asked where he was from and then recognized him. He was the officer that had arrested him for scamming. The man on the ledge laughed. He laughed so hard at this incredible coincidence and said that he had no ill feelings towards that man because he was just doing his job and that he respected him for that because he deserved it and because of his own experiences with corrupt police in his own country.

I believe his story and even if it is all made up it doesn’t matter because it’s a good story. Years ago he’d probably have been a horrible person to meet, but now he has something more to share than money and material things. A fistful of humbleness punched him in the face and now he has an amazing story to share and he shares it in such a real way. If anyone sees this man in or around Discovery Bay I suggest talking to him. 


I hate confrontation. I’ve never been comfortable with it and my first reaction is always to tear up, no matter if I started the conversation or the other person did. It’s really annoying, honestly, and it does nothing for my argument. In the past I would try to avoid these situations as much as possible, pretend nothing was wrong so I wouldn’t have to face that embarrassing moment of crying in front of a friend (or worse, a stranger/co-worker/acquaintance). You feel sorry for a little girl crying and maybe even want to hug her. When you see a 26 year old young woman crying it’s just uncomfortable.

Oh, boy have there been a lot of tears. You want practice in confrontation and standing up for yourself; join the Peace Corps. If you are not sure of yourself; do NOT join the Peace Corps. What keeps me grounded some days is telling myself “it’s only 2 years and after you’ll have the freedom to do what you want.” I don’t mean work by this, I have a pretty awesome job with the most freedom I will probably ever have with a job. What I mean is the way that I live. Peace Corps watches me, my host family watches me, my entire community watches me. For the most part it is comforting to have that security, but sometimes I just want to scream and leave and climb a tree and hide and breathe. “I’m an adult,” I keep telling people. Keep telling myself.

Hiding and climbing a tree isn’t a very adult thing to do and doesn’t solve anything if there is a problem. I’ve had to stand up for myself many times since I’ve gotten to Jamaica. Jamaica, yuh nah easy. From the moment we got to Jamaica they told us that Jamaica is a land of extroverts. Over and over in training we heard that and were encouraged to be loud and extroverted to be able to fit in. That doesn’t come easily to a quiet introvert like me. I thought about it (for a brief moment), that I could change who I was now that I was in a new country surrounded by no one who knows my past. That brief moment passed and I remembered that I liked how I was and that if I tried to be any other way that it would be insincere and I wouldn’t be happy. Of course, quiet-introvertness (apparently not an actual word) can be easily viewed as being uninterested, unenthusiastic, anti-social, rude… It can also be viewed as a weakness, but it’s not and I’m coming to see its strength more and more.

You are tested constantly in the Peace Corps and in a country like Jamaica where there aren’t as many physical tests there are more emotional and mental tests. Jamaica has a very high early termination rate (everything is an acronym in PC, so this is known as ETing) and it’s because it’s hard in a different way than not understanding the language very well or constantly have stomach problems due to parasites. Being in Jamaica, and possibly being in PC anywhere else, you either form tough skin or you fall apart. During a community meeting I got up in front of everyone to discuss the progress of the project that a few other community members and I had been working on and the discussion quickly turned to why didn’t I help them with planning a party, why didn’t I tell them sooner that I was going on vacation, why hadn’t I told them about the project sooner (although I was telling them about it then and had mentioned it several times…but we don’t have to get into that). I quickly answered every question as tactfully as I could despite all the negative comments and ended the meeting with my head held high and my insides knotted with anger, frustration and embarrassment. Old Autumn would have broken down and cried in front of a room full of people, but new tough-skinned Autumn kept her cool…until she got to her room and cried… just a little.

The Peace Corps and Jamaica has changed me in subtle and significant ways. I still cry at inappropriate times, but I take those moments to make my skin a little tougher and my heart a little more compassionate... or so I tell myself.