Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Year of Service: Jamaica (3)

Post 3:

Awesome and Horrible Extremes

The contrast between positive and negative aspects of Jamaica, in its culture and environment, were striking to Josh. On one hand, there was no running water, no windows (just holes in the wall), and “an outrageous amount of bugs”. The mattresses were sometimes sloped and uncomfortable. Mosquitoes and cockroaches abounded. As Josh puts it, “The floor would be crawling with cockroaches.” At the same time, he considered Jamaica a paradise. He lived on a college campus, which was heavily guarded by men with machine guns. Once past the guards, however, there was a trail which led to a quiet beach. Jamaicans hate water, leaving Josh with the beach to himself. He would sometimes buy a chicken patty and coke on the way to the beach, then sit in a hammock and watch the sun go down. There was an outcropping of coral reef with a few palm trees which were silhouetted against the sunset. He would later tell his mother, “I think I finally learned how to meditate.”


Years of missionaries giving material goods freely to locals created, over time, a culture of stealing in Jamaica. If things are left in the open, an individual feels obligated to steal it, regardless of their economic status or education. Even people one would not expect to steal, someone well-dressed and well-educated, would steal.

On another trip to Kingston while Josh waited at the taxi hub, a man blatantly attempted to pick-pocket Josh. Josh refused to hand over his wallet and the offender pulled out a knife. A second man appeared, also with a knife. Again Josh refused to give-up his wallet. Both men attacked with their knives, where were so dull that they only left temporary red marks. Eventually, Josh gave the two men his money but kept the wallet. At that point, Josh had no money to pay for a taxi back to Port Antonio. At this time several school girls around age 11 dressed in uniform approached and asked Josh if he needed money, which he desperately did. They contributed enough for him to catch a taxi back to Port Antonio.

“It’s amazing what you can get used to” Josh says when reflecting upon the dangers he was surrounded by in Jamaica. Josh’s year of service coincided with the Jamaican election year, a time of great turmoil. The party in power controlled the militia and the party wishing to be in power controlled the gangs. During another Kingston trip, while visiting the Baha’i National Center, there was a “full-out auto-machine gun fight” and the National Guard appeared to get things under control. It was like a scene “straight out of the movies”, and there was nothing to do but turn off the lights and lay down on the floor until all was safe again.

His most frightening experience, however, was not being robbed by knife-point or the political upheaval. Rather, it was his first ride in the car from the airport. The roads have no shoulder, sometimes with a cliff face on one side and a cliff drop on the other, and are riddled with potholes which drivers swerve to miss. At all times there are pedestrians and bicycles to add to the confusion. Later in his year of service he realized how blasé he had become about walking on the hectic roadsides. “Jamaicans are really good drivers” he explains, “and you just trust that they won’t hit you…most likely. An American would die trying to drive in Jamaica, but Jamaicans have become expert drivers.”

Another aspect of Jamaican culture is an aversion to water. Jamaicans don’t like to swim and only “begrudgingly take showers”. The whole of civilization shuts down if it rains in the morning and people won’t go to work. Towards the beginning of the year, Josh remembers when he still thought “everything was awesome” and the heavy rain showers captivated him. One day the “sky exploded with the biggest raindrops I have ever seen in my life”, Josh describes. He ran out into the warm rain and could barely see or hear the world around him, so thick was the downpour. He could just barely see Mr. Gary, a local friend, standing on his porch shouting and waving his arms, beckoning for Josh to come under the covered porch, as if there was some ominous danger. Josh went to the porch and Mr. Gary threw him up against the wall and shouted, “Are you mad!? You get wet up!”

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