In Defense of Jamaican Driving

This post is dedicated to newbie, Cory Enger. I don’t know you yet, but you wanted a blog post. Here is my not-so-timely and completely daft response.

I preface this by saying I do not have a death wish. I love life. Especially in Jamaica. If I died tomorrow, the me of today would be pretty bummed. The me of tomorrow would just be dead… and probably ruing the day I conceived this blog post. What a horrendously morbid digression.

[Insert butterflies, bunnies, warnings of hyperboles, and pink (beating) hearts here. Tra la.]

Traveling in Jamaica means dodging potholes the size of small craters (sometimes filling with water making them lickle ponds requiring fjording), hairpin corners taken at 100 kph, clouds of sand and dust blowing into the window and covering your entire face, never, never, never wearing a seatbelt, and suicidal (or drunk?) bus drivers who pretend they are driving roller coasters rather than 35-passenger, mostly-functioning vehicles.

JA public: where we like it fast and dirty.

So this is where my defense of the drivas, ductas, and taxi men (and sometimes women) begins.

1. Swerving to avoid potholes and nearly killing yourself, your passengers, and the goat tied to the tree on the side of the road

When we talk about potholes in Jamaica, we are not referring to the cute little divits that remind us in the states that winter is over (but man was she a bitch). No, no! These are craters with diameters of feet and depths of the same. They can easily ruin cars, buses, small artillery vehicles. So when my large, Belgium-crafted JUTC bus squeals to a stop, or my taxi driver decides to tempt fate by driving precariously close to the edge of a very tall cliff, I don’t fault them. Many of these drivers are responsible for their own vehicles. If their car or bus gets mashed up by attempting to drive over one of these abysses, they could potentially lose their ability to generate an income for days if not weeks (or longer). Yes, life is important. But what is life if you cannot care for yourself or your family? Moral: Avoid potholes like your life depends on it, even if it means perishing in the process. (Or… try to live in an area that is represented by the majority, and thus has a chance at decent roads. Hooray for politics?)

2. Driving so fast that half the minibus literally flies around narrow, hairpin corners

Imagine this: You are an honest person trying to provide for your family. You live in Port Antonio and drive a bus to Kingston and back every day. The first bus to Kingston usually fills up around 6am, the last bus to Port Antonio around 8pm. You need to get as many trips back and forth in that timeframe as possible. Are you going to drive like a happy, middle-aged New England couple out for a Sunday ramble? Hell no. You are going to try to give your vehicle wings. Most drivers do this by standing on the gas pedal for the duration of the journey. I find this to be advantageous for both the driver and the passengers. Why would I want to lengthen my time spent sitting next to a leering old woman while passing a sick child between the aisles? Drive on driva man! Get me to our destination quickly. Moral: Embrace speed.

3. Why you should have a water bottle and sweat rag with you at all times

Sitting on public for 2.5 hours with one leg numbly pressed against the side of the bus, and the other propped on an old (incredibly excited) man’s thigh makes for a hot bus ride. Window seats can be sweet little saviors when you are stuffed into buses like sardines. (Five to a row is standard, and this can increase if there are children who can “squeeze” into the negative space next to you, or better yet, sit on top of you). Window seats are your friend. Yet, beware (and surprise!) construction does happen on Jamaican roads, leaving dry, dusty piles of sand and dirt to come flying at your face as you zoom by. I once came off a bus with the entire left side of my face darkened by red dirt. For once, Jamaican men were not looking at me out of curious lust. It was more like fear. Who is this blonde girl with the half gray-brown face? Believe me, a curiously lusting leer is better. Defense & moral: Road construction = good. Windows = great. Water and sweat rag to wash face after disembarking = priceless.

4. Who needs a seatbelt when you have fluffy women?

At a recent gathering of PCVs, it was suggested that the safest place to sit on a bus is between two fluffy women. Why, you may ask? Well, dear friends, seatbelts do not exist on any kind of bus and are rarely worn in taxis. Fluffy women are they key! Perhaps a spot near the window or even the front seat might seem more comfortable, but if you are nervous about your safety, make friends with the two larger ladies smalled up in the middle of the bus. Try to snuggle right in between them, and put your bag in your lap. Say a quick “Good morning,” smile, and not only will you have your human seatbelt (there is no possibility of movement when you are packed in that tight), but perhaps a shoulder for a pillow when you inevitably nod off. Bonus: If you have no idea where to go after you reach your destination, these ladies also tend to take you by the hand and lead you to wherever you need to be. Moral: Fluffy ladies are Jamaican favorites. 

5. White rum + Human Drivers = Best New Amusement Park Attraction

The title speaks for itself, no? In all seriousness, I am not advocating drunk driving at all. If your driver is drunk, get out of the car. We learned this in high school, and just because you are in Jamaica, does not mean you are invincible. Yet, occasionally you get a driver who (if not drunk) certainly has some fun on the road. Swerving when there are no potholes, trying to mow down goats as they pass, wineing (dancing) to the Usher and Celine Dion mixes that plague the airwaves, and trying to pass a line of traffic while driving around a corner—these are telltale signs of a driver who is just a little bit bored. And why wouldn’t he be? Could you drive the same route multiple times and day, every day? I couldn’t. And this goes for the ducta too. If he wants to sing off key to a lickle bit of Beyonce while hanging out the door of the bus—enjoy it! Moral: The bus ride may be boring for you, but it is even more so for the people who do it every day. Revel in the hilarity that is provided.

So, obviously this post is meant to be slightly humorous. If you ever feel truly unsafe in a vehicle while in Jamaica (or anywhere I suppose)… get out. Nobody is forcing you to stay on board. Yet, I defend public and its zaniness. I certainly am amused whilst traveling to say the least, although I sincerely hope that this blog post does not instigate the almighty transportation gods to act against me in any way.

Walk (& drive) good.

Once Upon a time in Woodford: A Picture Book

Once upon a time, eleven people went up into the mountains. One family came down.
Our Jamaican roots are firmly planted in Woodford soil.
WoFo One Love.

Yes, we have left Woodford, but pictures and memories remain.
Sharing is caring, so I do so here.


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*Note: Not all of these pictures are mine. GI 82–in front of and behind the camera.*
*A second note: Mervin, our fearless farmer friend, is featured here. I miss him terribly.*

Nyam wah yuh grow, Grow wah yuh nyam!

Eat what you grow, Grow what you eat!

I dedicate this post to the concept of “Jamaica time.”
Meaning: The timeliness of this post is… less than prompt, but it’s here now, so enjoy.

But first, a morsel to whet your appetite:
Close your eyes (after reading this nugget). Imagine a produce farm in the United States that you know. What does it look like? What does it grow? How big is it? Are there trees? How long are the rows if there are any? What is the terrain like? What color is the soil? Is it tilled? Is it organic? What happens when it rains? How many people work the land?

Now… imagine a farm with a series of terraces cascading down a mountainside. Colorful contoured rows grow out of the terraces promising peppers, sorrel, cucumber, and other delights. Vegetative barriers of pine(apple) help secure the precarious soil structure. Individual basins are home to coffee trees, banana trees, and cassava, all creating speckled patterns across the slope. The soil is tough and tilled with a fork and one’s own strength. One wo/man may work this entire hillside by her/hisself. Irrigation comes for the “sky juice,” but when it pours (and it will)… prayer and hope come in handy. The land may “run way” as will the crops if the roots do not hold the soil. This is farming in Jamaica.

And with that, storytime: In the middle of August my superhero Green Initiative team (see previous post for the cast of characters) prepared a school garden for the Woodford All-Ages school with the help of our trusty 4-H extension officer and an assortment of wonderful, giving, knowledgeable local farmers. For one beautiful week, GI 82 got dirty, and we liked it.
The land we prepared was on a hillside, so 5 terraces were created: 3 that we cleared and prepared with rows, 2 that we left for the students to work themselves. Machetes, forks, and mattocks were used to prepare the soil. We created two seed beds for tomato and lettuce seedlings out of soil, bamboo, and banana leaves. After preparing our small school farm, we invited a group of 15 sixth grade students to plant the crops and learn about organic farm management and composting. The students created a new compost pile where the school’s incinerator used to be (who needs to burn garbage when you can compost it for your brand new school garden?!?) They learned about keeping garden records and finally planted corn, okra, cauliflower, cabbage, scotch bonnet, sorrel, and cucumber. What they plant next will be their own decision under the aid of the amazing, kind, and wise John Eddy. The following are a series of pictures from that day. Again, pictures are more descriptive than my words:

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And with this post, I say goodbye to our beloved Woodford, and the many beautiful, kind, wise friends we met there.
Walk good.

Our beloved Woodford Farmers during the Farmer Field School

“To all my friends!”

GI82 trainees. Photo courtesy of Dan Malone.

Introducing: My (haiku’d) friends.
Because everyone else is doing it, and I was once a lemming (big love to William’s 12).

Our Hawaiian
who all Jamaican men adore,
but, we love her more.
(Brie is so sweetly smart. I learn so much from her everyday).

upbeat, and still going strong.
He makes us giggle.
(Listening to one of John’s long rambles is a gift. The laughter he creates lingers and lifts our drooping energy for the rest of the day).

Feared deportation
due to hidden vibrators.
She is well-prepared.
(My PC bestie. We basically are the same person except for the fact that we are complete opposites).

Hipster chic chickie–
this girl is one hot ticket.
I want her dumplings.
(OK… I don’t want her “dumplings” but I do want her peanut butter dumplings with a little (lot) bit of freshly roasted coffee on the side. MmmMmm good).

A stereotype,
cannot be named for Kyle,
despite what he claims.
(Kyle brought his baseball glove with him to Jamaica because I asked if anyone wanted to play catch. Pretty stellar in my book).

Not just a frat boy,
this man also talks to goats
and prays like a pro.
(I’m a big fan of Mark, mainly because he surprises me on daily basis).

Adopted GI82ers:

could never be blue due to
our main man, cool Dan.
(We love Dan. He has been on island for 10 years and has so many valuable experiences that he loves to share with us. He gets us energized, surprises us with early morning patties on Saturdays, and has the cutest little girl in all of Jamaica).

Our fearless leader!
What would we do without her?
(Probably hug trees).
(GI82 is the luckiest of all the hubs because Anika is the best Program Training Specialist we could ever imagine. Word.)

Yes. That is her name.
And what a name it is for her–
a person with heart.
(Love is phenomenally sassy, smart, and so caring. Shi a help us silly Mericans learn di patwa. Shi doan laugh much whe wi twang. Shi one awesome ooman).

The Man in WoFo!
We go to him with questions
about… everything.
(Robert is our resident Woodfordian. He is a community service all-star in the community, and basically knows everything there is to know about Woodford).

“But Val,” you might remark, “your silly little haikus don’t tell us much about your friends!” You, dear home loves, would be correct. Yet, GI82 is such a quirky hodgepodge of people. How else should I describe each of these extraordinary folks but to limit myself to 17 syllables? My lovely friends are so much more than their teeny, tiny (not-so) poetic summaries, but to attempt a full illustration of them would result in a mere caricature anyway.

A final 17 syllables to close:

Is one lucky girl
to have such rock stars with her
on this small island.

*please see Sarah’s blog & Mark’s blog for other versions of our ragtag group of treehuggers*

Learning the Vernacular: A Syncopated Life

A blog post dedicated to the one and only Sarah Marshall. Just because.

Time, time, time rolls in hiccups. We have been in Jamaica for nearly a month, and I am learning to live in the syncopation that moves the island. Vibrancy dominates, and I feel like my body is silently shaken by the rhythms in the earth, in patwa, in the musical culture, and in the undulating pace of every day life. Everything is ambiguous to us now, and is unveiled to us as we live it. I feel like we are living in a “Sing Your Own Adventure” music book (if such a think were to exist). I dig it.

I wake up every morning without expectation yet full of anticipation. My life here seems to be navigated for me at this point, but at least the compass is beauty (most of the time). Whether I am flicking thumbs while greeting my neighbor, learning the latest dance hall moves from my Jamaican brother, singing along to the music ricocheting out of passing taxis, or simply enjoying a ole-eap (whole heap) of callaloo on my deck overlooking the valley below, beauty taps me on my shoulder and reminds me that I am actually living this. “Pssst,” she says, “This is your life… syncopated.”

A note on the beauty of sitting:
For the first 2 weeks on island, I lived in the hours of quiet sitting my Jamaican family and I did in the early morning and evening. Sitting with people (or alone) is an especially beautiful act. My community shows itself to me as I sit. Observation is my education. Sitting and being is not an indulgence or display of laziness. It is a valuable tool that I had forgotten how to do until I arrived on island. We live a life of “goingness” in the states. My feet burn at the thought of the constant racing around I did in my sleepy New England town. Perhaps I will crave that pace again once I am out of training, but until then, I am going to cherish my hours spent sitting.

Home. The Waiting. A fledgling blogger’s introduction.

I have been house-abundant for the past year. I have lived in my cute downtown apartment (that abruptly felt more like a  luxurious hostel than a home, friends revolving in and out, but everyone eventually leaving including myself). I have hovered in four beautiful addresses in France, heard porcupines climbing hemlocks at my dear ole Auntie’s, crashed in a cabin my coworker was desperately trying to sell, and am now currently living the proverbial dream for all 27 year olds: living in her parent’s house, feeling like a stranger in her childhood bedroom.

Wait, did I say dream?

Sarcasm aside, I have been blessed by the energies-that-be to always have an abode in which to reside. Have I been transient this year? Yes. Does that transience feel more normal to me than my previous years of happy domesticity? Absolutely.

In 95 days, I move again. This time to Jamaica. Some say 95 days is a long time. Others say it is not long enough. I say, it’s time. It too shall pass.

But on that 95th day, I will leave New Hampshire– the place that has been my home and the place that is no longer my home. I’ll find my feet walking on Jamaican soil (after a brief sojourn in Miami), and for 27 months I will be an environmental volunteer for the Peace Corps. My job description is vague as of yet; as an environmental business promoter/adviser I will focus on environmentally friendly and financially sustainable income generating activities, including eco-tourism, but with an emphasis on alternative agriculture technologies. I should expect to work with farming cooperatives, Parish Councils, non-governmental organizations, government agencies and community-based organizations. The assignment was a bit surprising– I have seven years of nonformal education experience with children, and only one year of quasi-business experience with a very small multimedia production company; however, I’m entering into this crazy adventure with an open mind and heart. Do what you will with me Peace Corps. Whomever I work with, I’m still “doin’ it for the kids.”

It is fun to think of the Peace Corps as a spontaneous, impulsive choice made on a hot summer night in my homey hostel last June. Nine months and a steadfast resolve to stick with the turtle-paced application process prove otherwise. I am joining the Peace Corps for many reasons: finally breaking up with sleepy Keene, NH, having a job that I find purpose in, helping a community be more sustainable, finding the beauty in hardship, learning, growing, sharing and perhaps starting down the path to finding a real home– one that I make for myself in a new community, with new people, in a new culture. Hopefully those reasons will come to fruition and are chronicled in this blog. Yet, reader beware! I am a nascent blogospherian who does not particularly enjoy writing or being a “publizen.” However, the Peace Corps’ third goal– helping Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries in hopes of promoting world peace and friendship– is a powerful one. This blog is a product of the third goal. I’ll do my best to record my experiences here honestly, openly, and hopefully after some reflection. Please ask questions! Post comments! Call me out on my assumptions and expectations. I would love this blog to be an exchange rather than a series of my rambling, nonsensical thoughts!

So here we are, an introduction.