New Beginnings…Take Two

“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

– Albert Einstein

As usual it’s been quite a while since I last posted. At this point I should probably stop prefacing entries with this statement as it’s become way more of the rule rather than the exception. I had kind of sworn off keeping a blog after leaving Jamaica – a travel blog is one thing but I felt like spewing my thoughts on my mediocre life would be a little gratuitous and quite frankly…boring. But, as I’ve said over and over I think there’s definitely a therapeutic aspect to writing – and with all the changes going on in my life recently I’m pretty sure I can use all the help I can get…hence this post. It’s been a couple of months now since getting back from Jamaica. I won’t bore you with the timeline of events during that chunk of time – mainly because there isn’t that much to tell – but I guess to sum it up, a lot of things have gotten easier and a lot of things have gotten much more complicated and hard in new and different ways. It’s not much of a surprise and it’s how most difficult decisions work out I suppose… whenever there are things to be weighed and considered and a lot is at stake, it’s kind of inevitable that something is going to be lost no matter what decision you reach – and with additional unanticipated repercussions to boot.

Life in the Peace Corps was pretty straightforward. That might seem pretty contradictory to what I’ve said in the past (see previous 10 posts of me griping about how complex Peace Corps is) but in the sense of your daily obligations, your source of income, where you are physically going to be for a specified amount of time – your life in Peace Corps is pretty clear-cut. There are definitely decisions to be made and a plethora of unique and unusual obstacles to overcome, but because the job is so all encompassing, it makes your world pretty confined and defined…and there is something strangely comforting about the raw and basic way in which you live in this vacuum of space and time. This is a big part of what made the process of deciding to leave so difficult – because no matter how hard a time I was having, this was the bubble of people and routines that I had grown accustomed to living in – and it was where I had told myself I was supposed to be for the next year of my life.

Clearly, the bubble has popped and the past couple of months have definitely felt anything but defined. The world is now my oyster… and it’s pretty damn terrifying. I did the whole interview process thing – got a job that I certainly enjoy but would not necessarily categorize as something I’ve dreamed of doing. Relationships have been ended, for the better for both parties but still with poignantly painful moments and challenges to this day. I’ve moved back home – reconnected with many people and unfortunately fallen out of touch with many others. I’ve gotten a handle on many emotions I struggled with while I was in Jamaica – while falling prey to a whole new set of others. There are many comforting things that the familiarity of home offers…but also just as many anxieties and a lengthy history of past issues and stresses just waiting to be triggered.

Tough decisions are pretty inevitable in life – and some people face a lot more than others. But twenty-somethings face an unusual amount of these decisions in an unusually short amount of time – and at an age when you aren’t necessarily the person you ultimately will (or want) to become. With all this change and chaos going on around us, it can be easy to cling to things that are comfortable and familiar despite our best judgment. And when something is going to be lost no matter which path you choose, many people choose the known and visible road – regardless of how downhill its slope may be – if the destination of the other path is out of view. I think that this is and will be my biggest struggle both now and for quite a few years to come – this disconcerting uneasiness and restlessness that comes from never being quite sure if what you’ve done or plan to do is the right thing. Agonizing over the balance between what you want, aspire for and feel you are worthy of – and what is practical and/or realistic for you in any number of ways. And the terrifying knowledge that any movement you make – no matter how seemingly small – could be the one touch that sends your spinning mass of clay horribly off kilter and fumbling awkwardly to the ground.

My life is good right now. I wake up every day and drive to work with a lightness I haven’t felt for a long time. I let myself get lost in the rhythm of the blasting music, singing along shamelessly as the sunrise begins to wash over me… and things feel right. A lot of things are still very hard – imminent changes and decisions to be made can weigh heavily at times… but they are not a daily burden. I’m battling new feelings of solitude very different than those I faced in the Peace Corps – readjusting and still having to remind myself regularly that certain changes were and will be for the best. I haven’t quite gotten over some of the things and people that I have lost recently… but I am basking in the friendships of the amazing people that are here with me and thankful for those that have been rekindled. Things are definitely not perfect – I’m not as fulfilled as I’d like to be and my legs are not nearly as sturdy as I hope them to be someday. But I’d like to think I’m at least starting – however cautious and unsure my footing may be – to journey down that unknown path, and trusting myself enough to believe it could lead somewhere pretty great.

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Letting Go


“How lucky I am to have someone that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

-Winnie the Pooh

This was one of the quotes I hung on my bedroom wall when I first arrived at site in Jamaica – referring to the many friends and family back home that I had said goodbye to as I embarked on my Peace Corps journey. Unfortunately, returning to these same loved ones, while comforting and cleansing in its own familiar and presently necessary way, has been no less difficult. I wrote a post back in the summer regarding goodbyes I had been forced to say to a number of close friends and co-workers that departed Jamaica at that time, and now I stand here on the opposite end of those goodbyes – breathing deep and deliberate breaths on the airplane as my family and home of the past 11 months diminishes into an unidentifiable quilted landscape before fading into wispy nothingness. I knew full well that this would be one of the hardest things I’d ever done – that there would be many deep and biting pangs of regret and doubt involved. That for a long time my ravaged, gutted insides would be filled with nothing but salty seas of grey-blue mourning, with any slight jilt of emotion spilling them from my gaping, swollen eyes.

A fellow volunteer and close friend of mine gave a very poignant speech during our swearing-in ceremony back in May, and he gave this speech in the form of a letter to Jamaica. His words resonated with all of us, and I see it now as a sort of letter between two new lovers. It was beautiful, dramatic, and hopeful – full of promises, aspirations and desires.  I have now been in a relationship with Jamaica and Peace Corps for almost a year. We have gone through many of the dramatic ups and downs that any couple does in this period, and for better or worse we have held things together for this long.

An essential part of any good relationship, however, is also knowing when to let go. Learning to recognize the signs of dysfunction, unhealthy co-dependency and unhappiness, and being brave enough and aware enough to see when the goods are no longer outweighing the bads. This is when it’s time to set one another free – to cut loose the overgrown weeds and vines that have tethered and intertwined your lives together over time, and to brace yourself for the blood, pain and regret that this open self-inflicted wound will inevitably cause you. I may not always have been the best at doing this in my personal relationships, but with Jamaica I have been able to step away.  I have held on for a long time… grasping at the good things that we still had left. But the time has come to set each other free and move on, and I am strong enough to see that now.

There are always things about a person you have truly loved that you will always love – that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, because their memory now and always will be embedded deep within that essential beating organ in your chest. And for better or worse, through smiles or scars, they have each left a permanent imprint on the malleable form of clay that is the person you are today. Unless you’ve been devastatingly hurt or damaged by this person, the bad times and remnants of resentment will silently float away over time – their creases smoothing over and slowly disappearing as life churns on. But the love that was there, the valuable lessons that were learned, and the good times that kept you hand-in-hand for so long – those are the things that you will never forget. And no matter how intangible or faint they may become, they will always linger in your psyche, waiting to be called upon given just the right trigger –a question, a place, a song even – and you will instantly be brought right back to that place they own in your heart.

The people I have met during this experience and the moments, however brief, that our lives intersected in a raw and genuine way – stripped of outside cultural, situational or ideological differences – these are the memories whose notes will forever echo deep within my heartbeat. These are the things – the honest love I have for the people I’ve met here in all its many shades and forms – I will never forget.

An enormous part of what I take away from this experience is a sort of self affirmation in the form of a condensed, not-so-neatly packaged timeline – beginning with a group of random strangers in an unfamiliar land, and ending with a cluster of people that are now nothing less than a second family to me and a country that truly does feel like a home. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably not all that likeable at first – self-doubt and insecurities seem to portray the exact opposite of my internal emotions to people that don’t know me. My journey of pushing past these barriers and mask of sullenness is usually a pretty long one (sometimes aided by situations involving beverages with inhibition-lowering properties), but there is something about Peace Corps… this bizarre snow globe of a world that we all live in here… that makes this process, and its progress, so incredibly clear and poignant once it stops shaking. As I step back from this experience – the snowflakes slowly fluttering to a still in this self-contained glass ball of a life that I have lived for the past year – I can’t help but gaze in wonder at the amazing people I was fortunate enough to have met and befriended here… let alone the fact that I think (or at least hope) that this great respect I have for them has been mutual. I can’t really put into words how much that last part has meant and affected me – or how many tears it has brought me throughout this decision to leave – but it is, and will be, many.

As the saying goes, it is better to have loved and lost. As I walk away from this, I will try never to look back on it as a regret or failure on my part. I will try to think only of the cherished memories, relationships and lessons I am leaving with, and to recognize all that I have learned and grown since I stepped foot on this island one year ago. I will tend to my fresh wounds with continued communication back and forth with those I have come to love in this country, and over time I will rebuild my bones and insides – slowly draining myself of this inner sea of sadness – with the love and support of those I now have around me. Peace Corps Jamaica will always be one of the great loves of my life, but it will never be the one that got away… it will be the one I set free.

“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.”

-Ivy Baker Priest

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Thoughts, Questions, Ramblings…

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

 – Azar Nafisi

I feel like it’s about time I write another blog post… but haven’t really had a burst of inspiration (or a particularly long chunk of internet-less spare time…) so I’m writing this with no real idea of where it’s going to go. I feel as though I have had even more introspective and observational thoughts than usual lately, as my closer friends will know from recent ramblings and overly emotional conversations… but they are a bit scattered and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to paste them together into a neatly packaged blog post. That being said, I’ve found in the past that writing down my feelings, though it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me, and striving for a unifying theme to these thoughts is both therapeutic and also helpful in sorting out and organizing these things in my own head. I began this blog as a way to document the journey of my Peace Corps experience; more in the sense of work and event-related happenings rather than my emotional journey… but over time I have become far more inclined towards the latter.

I have a somewhat obsessive habit of making detailed to-do lists for tasks in every area of my life, and although I may only end up actually doing about half of them, there is something about writing things down that seems to ease my anxiety and worry-prone mind to have them on paper rather than swirling around in my head with the potential of being forgotten. In this same vein, I hope that putting these thoughts onto paper will at least help in giving some sense of order to the weedy mess of confused worries, doubts and questions that I’ve been wading through these past few months of my service. I guess part of what I’m saying is… if you want an update on my everyday life here, my job and my growing knowledge of the country and traditions here, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. If you think these latest posts have been a little too personal, a little tedious or repetitive – going into great detail about foreign thoughts and feelings you can’t really relate to – you should probably stop reading (which I’m sure many already have). But this is what works for me…what seems to cleanse and purge my mind in a small way, and very well might be the only thing I write about for the remainder of my service. So, here it goes again…

I won’t sugarcoat the past few months of my time here – it’s been a struggle. Regardless of who is reading or monitoring these words, I think I owe it to myself and to those around me that I know have struggled with similar issues to varying degrees (both in Peace Corps and in life in general) to be honest here. A friend once told me that a person should never go to a rave (which I have never done, just for the record) unless he or she really knows who they are as a person – not putting on a guise for the benefit of others. I know the comparison of Peace Corps to a rave seems far-fetched… but I think the same advice is somewhat applicable here. Anything and everything can happen there – normal societal rules and structures are stripped away, it’s chaotic, intense and loud both literally and figuratively – which is the point. But if you’ve carefully constructed a person you want others to see you as – whether intentionally or unintentionally – this harsh and unapologetic environment has the ability to tear away the clothing you’ve crafted for yourself and leave you naked and exposed, suddenly confronted with the self you’ve hidden or tried to forget, whether in your own eyes or the eyes of others as they see you flounder and shiver in desperation and self-doubt. In a new country, especially the developing countries that Peace Corps is present in, anything and everything can and does happen. Situations force you to discard your normal habits, and plunge you into crowds, chaos and constantly unstable ground. You are forced to defend and sometimes desperately cling to the person you once were or want to be, all the while feeling this raft of your previous self drift further and further away from familiar shores that are the people and places that you once called home.

I’ll be the first to admit (see previous post) that I am not someone with a firm sense of who I am, or where the path of my future will lead. There are skills and talents I know I possess… but none of them to the extent I wish or even think I am probably capable of given more motivation than I’ve been able to muster thus far. I’m a sort of all-or-nothing perfectionist in my undertakings, but I think I’m in the process of realizing that the main problem with this attitude is that you quite often end up with the latter.

This is a difficult time in life for many people my age – out of college with a world of opportunities and possibilities ahead of you, which is simultaneously exciting, empowering, daunting and terrifying all at once. Also going on at this time is a constant shift and flux of people around you. I now have friends all over the country, the world even – and though many things about this day and age allow me to stay in touch with them or at least have the comforting knowledge that this is possible – there is something extremely saddening about knowing that a person that was once your closest friend, or that you connected with briefly but in a way that was loaded with the intangible poignant feeling of potential to blossom – whether romance or friendship – could very well have slipped away forever. And it is agonizing how powerless you are in these situations… a victim to the practicalities of job situations, family ties, and numerous other obligations or aspirations and plans on either end of the relationship.

As I’ve said before, constant goodbyes are built into the nature of Peace Corps. If nothing else, this experience has made me appreciate and hold on harder than ever to those that have a deep and rooted meaning in my life. To make that extra effort to write a letter, make a phone call or just send an email to reinforce and reaffirm myself of that tie and remember that although they may be beneath the surface, those roots are still there, and with the proper care and tending to (sorry to be cliché there), they can continue to thrive and grow through the challenges and strains that time and distance may put upon them. I think and hope that those out there – reading this or not – realize how much I value these ties, no matter how fragile or strenuous they may be at this point or may become in upcoming times. Recent events and emotions have brought on a lot of questions for me about where my immediate path should go, but I hope that no matter where I end up and what happens, those that I care about both here and abroad know how much they mean to me, whether as fresh and painful cracks in my heart, or as more distant, deeply woven threads in the fabric of my life.

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I’ve Learned…

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.” I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

I was reminded of this quote a few weeks ago and it struck me as particularly meaningful given the introspective vacuum that I exist in living alone at site here in Jamaica. While I don’t think I’ve actually changed in any dramatic way since embarking on this journey, I do feel as though I’ve become almost hyperaware of myself – what drives me, what throws me off kilter, and what seemingly insignificant ripples in the life I have constructed for myself here can churn into enormous emotional waves that shake me to my very core.

I have always been a self-reflective person, so these analytical ponderings are nothing new. But putting oneself in uniquely uncomfortable and challenging environments such as Peace Corps often teaches you more about yourself than any normal situation could, shining a light on the hidden recesses of your insides, poking and provoking feelings and behaviors never before disturbed until they lash out and reveal themselves from the dark cavernous innards of your being. These experiences have a way of cutting back the  ornamental hedges of life as you know it and revealing the raw, pulsing heartbeat of what makes us tick. And it is here in this state, with our jugular vein exposed and vulnerable, that this open wound is most sensitive to the slightest shift in the breeze, and to the way in which this wind grinds and billows up into the very crux of our nature.

I am serving in Peace Corps Jamaica. I no longer live in a house overlooking the coast, but I still live on a tropical island and self-proclaimed “Posh Corps” country. I don’t have many friends serving in other more traditional countries so my opinions here may not have much merit, but I would be willing to bet that those volunteers would agree that what makes their service challenging is not the lack of indoor plumbing or refrigeration. It is not the language barrier or the hauling of water, and it’s not the overcrowded buses or thick, sweltering heat. Rather, it is the life questions that you are forced to grapple with as an outsider – the flux of norms that are suddenly called into question, given to you and taken away on a daily basis. It is the deafening silence of isolation and vast expanses of empty time with which to think about these things, to analyze and deconstruct them, marinate in them and carry them with you on your shoulders every day. It is this burden that breaks you down and puts you on your knees, looking up at the people around you and feeling the earth at their feet – the soil and roots from which they stem. It is this position that allows you to see a person as more than just a narrow-minded thinker, a 14-year-old mother, or an illiterate parent. It is this position that lets you reach out your hand to them, not out of charity, but in friendship. And though these circumstances are by no means limited to developing countries, there is something unique and perhaps necessary about the way this all-encompassing experience tugs apart the fibers of your constructed self and forces you to take a look at the fragile seams that hold all of us together, no matter what world we come from, and confront the fact that you too might have turned out very differently had you been manufactured somewhere else. For me, at least, this is what makes Peace Corps hard.

I think that I am behind a lot of people my age in terms of figuring out who I am and what I want out of life. I’ve often tried to impress and fool all the wrong people, including myself, and I’ve looked for fulfillment in things and people I shouldn’t have. I think if nothing else this is what I hope to gain from this experience – to get out of my head. To not only recognize and reflect upon my shortcomings and flaws, but to find a course to change those that I can, and accept those that I cannot. To stop thinking of my life as some sort of preparation for something else. To accept the love from the many amazing people that give it to me, and to stop trying to prove myself to those that don’t. To just…begin.

I’ve learned that time is not linear, and it is not evenly segmented like inches on a ruler. It flexes and shivers, tangles itself up and must sometimes double back and repeat itself in order to move forward. I’ve learned that interactions with people can sometimes leave you feeling even lonelier than before. I’ve learned that failure is never as quantitative and definitive as it seems. I’ve learned that ruin almost always leads to rebirth, and that this cycle almost always repeats itself. I’ve learned that earning the respect of strangers will feed your ego for a day, but earning the respect of family members and true friends will nourish you for a lifetime. I’ve learned that until you believe in something enough to actually live by it, you might not believe in it as much as you think you do. I’ve learned that in the scheme of things, I’m not nearly as damaged and unique as I once thought, and I’ve learned that makes me lucky, not boring. I’ve learned that my journey is just beginning, and I’ve learned that for this alone I should be thankful.

– Happy Thanksgiving –

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One Big (Happy?) Family

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the
cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like
burnt paper.

– D. H. Lawrence

I spent my first weekend at site settling in, and, being so enthralled with the thought of living in one place for more than a few weeks, went on a home decorating binge in my room. The following weekend I went back to Kingston with a group of other volunteers to see the Reggae Boyz play the USA at the National Stadium.

I don’t mean to turn everything into a profound learning moment – but I think you’re almost forced to by the inherent nature of Peace Corps. You are constantly learning, growing, and being tested and challenged, even when you don’t know it – which is great! But it can also be very, very draining. Anyway, what I think I realized at that moment was just what a newcomer I still am both to the island and to this experience. Maybe this is an entirely personal thing that only holds true for myself – and maybe it is in part due to the fact that I had been living in the developed bubble of Kingston and the comforts of the Peace Corps office for the past couple of months, which is a far cry from the rest of the island. Either way, something about seeing my home country pitted against my new one brought up an unexpected surge of emotions in me.

There are a number of reasons why, compared to others here, I don’t think I am one of the best-suited people for this job. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t do it – and I’d like to think that it also might mean that I have the most to gain from it.

As I’ve said before, Peace Corps is all-encompassing. It is your whole life – your family, if you will. And in this family, I think I still see Jamaica as a new step parent of sorts. At this point in my service, I have accepted her authority (given no other choice), but when the going gets tough and my loyalty or patience is truly tested, I feel like I revert back to the juvenile habits of my angsty, rebellious teenage years and all I want to do is throw a screaming tantrum (You’re not my real Mom! YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!), slam my door, and sulk in rage/self-pity for the next few hours until I get myself together.

Family dynamics are tough. Usually, whether it’s a new person or just a new issue that comes up, it takes time to understand one another and to learn how to work together – which is why I think that the first few months as a volunteer are particularly challenging for everyone. You’re still negotiating and feeling out the dynamic, testing each other’s boundaries. Yet unlike a family, in this situation both you and the Peace Corps have the option to give up and throw in the towel at any point – which is what makes the whole thing that much more of a mind game when things get hard.

There are all sorts of family dynamic parallels that can be made here. Peace Corps is the strict parent with its COUNTLESS bureaucratic rules and regulations, whereas Jamaica is the more fun, laid back parent that can be a double-edged sword of both awesome and awful. And although I don’t have any siblings myself, I can definitely attest to the fact that many of my fellow volunteers feel like the brothers and sisters I never had.

You don’t choose your family, and none of us chose Jamaica, but hopefully this combination of parenting techniques will strike a balance – and hopefully, though I may never completely agree with her on everything, Jamaica and I will learn to love, respect, and coexist with one another while I live here under her roof.

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New Beginnings!

Two weeks ago to the day, I was shuttled from my temporary home in Kingston to my new site: Orangefield Primary School in Orangefield, St. Catherine.

Orangefield is a small inland community right off the main highway that connects Kingston and Ocho Rios – right about smack dab in the middle of the two cities. It borders the city of Ewarton, which is where the education sector of our group did their training while I was in Stony Hill.

At first, I was just thrilled to finally be at a site. Beggars can’t be choosers, and after 9 long weeks of being a homeless, jobless, volunteer refugee I was ready to go just about anywhere. Fortunately for me, not only did I get somewhere, I got somewhere great. The school I am working at is a mere five-minute walk from my home (yay for no more 2-taxi commutes!), the entire staff is friendly and welcoming, and the guidance counselor I have been partnered with is AMAZING. I will primarily be working with her – assisting with lesson plans and teaching, as well as doing some literacy training with small groups of slow-learning students in need of more individualized attention.

As far as housing goes, I am living with the family of one of the teachers at my school (I have my own bedroom and bathroom), and the family could not be nicer or more accommodating. I know I may be getting way ahead of myself here… but even if my experience turns out to be half as great as I imagine based on these first few weeks, I think I’ll be a happy camper.

Those nine weeks of waiting were definitely a huge emotional and mental challenge in more ways than one, but for each tearful goodbye I said, I made at least one new friendship that I may not have had I not been in Kingston. And for the countless days of mind-numbing boredom and endless Internet surfing (thank you, Pinterest), I also learned some invaluable lessons about volunteer life that I know will be incredibly useful during my time here. Thank you to all the staff and volunteers that put up with me and kept me sane for the past two months – I literally wouldn’t be here had it not been for you.

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Goodbyes

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Serving in the Peace Corps has this strange way of giving you the gift of an immediate connection with fellow volunteers. Despite a diversity of backgrounds, once you have lived in country for just a few months and dealt with the universal challenges of life as a volunteer, you automatically have this profoundly real and raw way in which you relate to one another. I have recently found myself instantly at ease with people I hardly spoke to during my training, falling naturally into conversations about thoughts and feelings usually reserved only for my closest of friends.

The flip side of this is the Peace Corps’ ability to rip these people from you. So far this experience for me has been a constant string of goodbyes, starting with that morning back in March when I said goodbye to everything and everyone that was familiar to me. And these aren’t just any sorts of goodbyes; these are the clenched stomach, impending hole in your heart type of goodbyes where despite anything you say to the contrary, you know may very well be a goodbye forever. A goodbye where you claw for the words to express the inexplicable bond that you both know is there, but, unable to find them, laugh through the tears, drink to chase away the thoughts you can’t make sense of, and make the last night you have together represent the good times you shared rather than a countdown to the end. You deny its damage until it builds up and finally rushes forward, breaking the floodgates and hitting you with breathless sobs of confusion. Because no matter how or where your paths may cross in the future, you know it will never again be in this surreal bubble of shared experiences and emotions that has brought you together.

Peace Corps is not only a job; it is your entire reality for whatever amount of time you serve. Your colleagues are your friends, and your friends and staff at Peace Corps are your emotional support and lifelines, your one source of stability in a world of constant stress and upheaval. Your life is a rolling gerbil ball of experiences, and no matter what you cling to or how hard you try to hold on, it will almost certainly topple out of your reach at some point as your world swirls and turns on its axis. Even though the stationary world of your life back home still exists outside this tinted ball, it doesn’t seem to matter when your immediate reality is a spinning mess of emotional uncertainty.

I’m trying not to be pessimistic and to stick to my decidedly positive outlook on my future here, but right now I am mourning the goodbyes I’ve been forced to say over the past few days. I’m trying to focus on all the amazing people and relationships that I still have here around me, and ignore the realization that these too could be fleeting. To those I have grown closest to over my months here and to those I have only shared brief but honest and true conversations with – you are cherished, loved, and missed more than these words express.

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A Few Setbacks…

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

-Mark Jenkins

I’ll start off by acknowledging the fact that it has been months since my last post (literally), so I’ll try to explain what’s been happening and why this is the case without getting into TOO many details…

The first community that I was placed in (Whitehouse, Westmoreland) was wonderful. I lived in a house that was way too nice with a GORGEOUS view (see images from previous post). I had a Jamaican roommate that was my age and incredibly welcoming, just as all of my host families have been so far – offering me helpings of her dinner and teaching me the ropes on daily tasks and life in the community, and I, in turn, provided her with plenty of laughs and entertainment as I struggled along the way. The community itself was beautiful, situated right on the water and offering picturesque sunset views each evening. In terms of other volunteers the location of my site could hardly have been any better.  Two of my closest friends whom I lived next to in sector training in Stony Hill were a mere 120J (about $1.50 USD) 30 minute bus ride away, along with about 6 other wonderful volunteers that I immediately became close with. Our “cluster” often met up on weekends for a beach day, shopping at the local market, or a tasty family style dinner, always filled with plenty of laughs and great conversation.  This Westmoreland crew was one of my biggest stabilizers as I went through many of the typical struggles that a Peace Corps volunteer faces as I adjusted to life at my site.

One thing I will say here is that I have come to the conclusion that Peace Corps training (or at least my Peace Corps training) does not really mentally or emotionally prepare you for life at site. I know that there is no possible way to fully prepare us for this experience, but I think that there are some aspects of it that could have been better designed to make the transition from trainee to volunteer life go a little bit more smoothly. I know that hub training was very different for each sector, so I can only speak for myself, but in Stony Hill I was literally surrounded by friends and support. Stony Hill is an extremely nice community, and the twelve of us spent every day and most weekends together as a group. In other words… we were very sheltered. We were surrounded by friends, taken care of by a host family, fed breakfast and dinner, given a stable, daily training schedule at the local church and occasionally shuttled off to organized, day-long practicums at nearby organizations. Not to say that I didn’t love and appreciate all of these things at the time, I definitely did, but I think that in the long run it made it much harder after swearing-in because of the drastic difference between life as a trainee and life as a volunteer. Upon arriving at site, I have to admit I definitely felt a sense of abandonment by Peace Corps. I felt confused, lonely, anxious, inadequate, sad, angry and lost all at once, full of questions and self-doubt. Although I experienced these feelings the worst during my first few days at site, I think that for many volunteers those feelings never truly go away. Maybe this will change for some (or even me) as time goes on, but I think that no matter how much you integrate in your community or enjoy your job you are always going to have some of these feelings tugging at you to some degree, and even more so in times of trial or hardship, whether at work, with people in the community, or for personal reasons or issues back home. While I know that nothing but the experience itself can truly convey all of the potential challenges, and Peace Corps (particularly Peace Corps Jamaica) has impressed me in many ways in terms of their training practices, I think that there must be a better way to simulate volunteer life (at least to a better extent) at some point in training, or to at least address more fully the mental and emotional hardships unique to the country of service. As much as I tried to come into this with no expectations, I think it’s pretty difficult not to develop some after a couple of months living and training in-country.

I won’t go into too many details about my organization/job assignment, but I will say that the people I worked with, particularly my supervisor, had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve known. She took it upon herself to help anyone and any group of people in her community in need, and I admire her greatly for all the work she is doing and all the time she dedicates to helping others both through her charity and in her personal life. Long story short, the areas where help was most needed in the community/schools were not completely in line with the expectations and requirements of my sector at Peace Corps, and other logistical and practicality issues (again, that I won’t get into) just made it very difficult for me to function within the community. I don’t know whether another volunteer might have stuck with it, but for me, after numerous meetings and failed attempts to solve the issues and words exchanged, it was the right decision for me at the time to leave the organization and change sites.

I left Whitehouse on June 21st and travelled back to Kingston where the Peace Corps head office is located. There, Peace Corps began the site change process, looking into alternate organizations and communities within Jamaica to match me with. One issue with the Youth as Promise sector in particular is that due to the state of the economy, many youth organizations have lost funding over the recent years and are either low-functioning or have completely shut down, which has made my placement slightly more difficult. Peace Corps gave me some assignments to do around the office, such as creating a database of the books available to volunteers in the office and creating a few cross-cultural activities for trainees, so I wasn’t (completely) bored out of my mind. Fairly shortly after I arrived, I identified a potential organization that was in an area nearby my previous community. I tried my hardest not to get my hopes up at first, but as it developed and seemed more and more promising, despite my best efforts, they were up. After going home to New York for a brief six-day visit, I returned to Jamaica to find out that despite everything seeming to be in place – the aforementioned assignment option was not going to work out.

I think that looking back at the timeline of my service, no matter how long that timeline ends up being, I will remember that moment as a turning point in my Peace Corps experience. Up until that point, going along with my personality, I had been trying my best to control every situation and coax out what I thought my experience as a volunteer was supposed to be like. I had made sure to express my preferences and strong suits to Peace Corps in their original site assignment process in order to get the site that was best fitted for myself, I had worked so hard to make my first assignment in Whitehouse become what I wanted and what I thought Peace Corps wanted from me, and I had put so much effort in (along with my fellow volunteers in the area) to identify what I thought would be an ideal organization and location for my new site. I’ve often heard from volunteers that one thing that Peace Corps really teaches you is how to let go, roll with the punches, and make the best of things. In that moment, sitting in the conference room and hearing that my latest efforts were once again in vain, I finally realized what they had been talking about. A sense of release washed over me, and instead of getting upset, I breathed in, accepted the situation, and moved on.

I’m still here in Kingston, and have no idea when I will get my assignment, where it will be, or what I’ll be doing – but for now, I am participating in Jamaica’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, rooting for both my countries in the Olympics, enjoying the company of my fellow volunteers, and remaining open and positive to the possibilities of the future, without trying to define or plan them. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes :)

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It’s Official!

I realize it has been a VERY long time since my last post (sorry!) so I’ll try to summarize the last month as briefly as possible:

We finished our “hub training” in Stony Hill. We did a lot of practicums at various organizations in the Kingston area as I mentioned before, and I got extremely close with everyone in my group and to my host mother I was living with. On May 6th, we returned to Kingston and rejoined with the other two sectors at the same hotel that we stayed at upon our arrival in Jamaica. It was really nice seeing everyone again especially now that we are all more comfortable in Jamaica and with one another.

The following Monday, the day had finally come that we found out our site assignments for the next two years. I was told that I will be living in Whitehouse, Westmoreland – a small fishing town on the Southwest coast fairly close to the city where I visited a current volunteer during my training (Savanna-la-Mar). The next day we all met with our supervisors from the organization at our site with which we have been assigned. Mine is an organization called KASSSI: Ken and Sadie Student Support Initiative. It is a small children’s charity that supports community development with a focus on youth in the areas of health, social welfare, and education. We are each assigned a supervisor within this organization as well as a “counterpart” who will work with us on a daily basis to help promote partnership and the sustainability of our projects and work here. My supervisor (Sadie) is a wonderful woman who has been extremely warm and welcoming from the moment I met her. She was born here in Jamaica but had been living in London for some time before returning to the country about ten years ago. My counterpart is her younger brother Robert, who was actually born in England and moved here to Jamaica more recently.

After meeting our supervisors, we all set out to our respective sites for a few days to become oriented with our organizations and towns. During my time at Whitehouse, Sadie showed me around to the various areas where I might be spending my time here – including the different schools both in Whitehouse and the neighboring towns of Petersville and Kings, the community center, health clinic, police station, and the local market. She and her brother are based out of her home just a little ways down the road from where I live, but they spend most of their time out in the community.

I will be living in a house situated on a hill off of the main road that runs along the ocean. My landlord lived on the bottom floor, and myself and my roommate (a young woman who teaches in a neighboring town) share the second floor. I have my own room and bathroom, but share the living area, kitchen and porch. Although it’s a bit of a trek up the hill and my driveway, the breathtaking panoramic view from my porch is well worth the effort. As you can see, the sea fades into the sky – and the view of the sunset each evening is unbelievable. I live in a somewhat secluded housing scheme, which may be lonely at times and hard in terms of integration – but I’m thinking that once I am working every day it might be nice to have a quiet and relaxed place to escape to.

After a brief few days feeling out our sites, we all returned to the same hotel and regrouped on Saturday.  That Monday, we again met at Powel Plaza in Kingston for some last few days of administrative sessions, followed by our final examination and interview on Wednesday. This all culminated with our swearing-in ceremony this past Friday, where our group and around 250 distinguished guests (including former Peace Corps country directors, past prime ministers, the Governor-General of Jamaica and his wife…yikes!) gathered for a ceremony at US Ambassador Pamela E. Bridgewater’s residence for a ceremony that both commemorated 50 years of Peace Corps’ presence in Jamaica as well as celebrated the official volunteer status of all of us of group 83. The event went smoothly and it was an incredible feeling knowing that we had all finally made it. We then said our goodbyes and traveled back to our sites.

Volunteers from our group have been placed all over the island, but luckily there have been an unusual amount placed in the same parish as myself, so I won’t be short of company if I ever want someone to get together with for a weekend. In fact, next weekend a number of us are planning on going to the Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, which is only about an hour east of us on the coast.

This past weekend I spend my first few days settling in to my home and unpacking. Today I will be going to Sav with my supervisor to pick up some basic home and kitchen items, and tomorrow I will begin working. The goal as of now is for me to split my time each week between two schools – working with the guidance counselor department at the New Hope Primary and Junior High School here in Whitehouse, and working on literacy training at the Kings Primary School nearby. I will also spend some time working on the community magazine that KASSSI publishes monthly and on the organization’s website. Once school lets out in July, I will most likely turn my attention to the health clinic and community center until school starts back up again in the fall.

During our first few months here, we are advised to take a step back and focus on observation at our sites instead of taking on any huge endeavors. We also have a community analysis project that we must complete in order to get a better sense of our community and its needs to best direct ourselves in the next two years. After three months, we will gather together again as a group for what Peace Corps calls “Early Service Training”, where we will prepare and plan for our future projects and consult with our program staff.

Now, (if you’re still reading…) I thought I’d just share a few random things that I’ve learned so far in Jamaica:

  • There are bugs. Everywhere. And lizards. Almost anything edible must be kept in the fridge to keep them from devouring it.
  • Jamaicans are TERRIFIED of lizards… even more so than cockroaches. The volunteer I shadowed in Sav-la-Mar got a call from the woman she lived with at 7 in the morning asking her to come down and kill a lizard for her.
  • “Unwanted attention” from men is not something only foreigners get. Jamaican women get it all the time… and laugh it off just as we are told to do.
  • I thought that Kingston was hot, but Westmoreland (the parish I now live in) is a million times worse. I’ve submitted to the fact that I will never wear my hair down again for the next two years. And it’s not even summer yet…
  • Touching my hair will be a constant point of fascination for Jamaican children.
  • When written or spoken slowly, Patois seems like a mere variation on Standard English, but when spoken quickly (as it usually is…) it is a COMPLETELY different language.
  • Aloe Vera water is amazing and dangerously (for my budget) addicting.
  • Seemingly basic food items are unaffordable on a Peace Corps budget… such as milk, cereal and peanut butter :(
  • Jamaicans are overjoyed whenever you can recite a Jamaican proverb, song or any other indication that you know something about their country that the average tourist would not.
  • Almost any elderly Jamaican woman will hug you and take you in as their adopted grandchild… great for asking for help if you’re lost!
  • Practically any Jamaican woman that has cable watches primarily Lifetime movies… and assumes that every American’s life is exactly like a soap opera, and that you either are a movie star or live next to one.
  • You can get ANYWHERE on the island using public transportation.
  • A group of Jamaican children crossing the street in matching uniforms is possibly the cutest thing on earth.
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2 Weeks and Counting…

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Time is flying – I can hardly believe I’ve been in Stony Hill for three weeks now and that it’s been almost that long since my last post!

Stony Hill has been a wonderful experience so far. I love that there is a bustling main street of shops and restaurants, but that my home is on a secluded, sleepy dirt road. The woman I live with is incredibly kind and knowledgable, and her adorable kitten helps to keep me from missing my pets back home too much. Most of all, the people in my sector that I work with and see every day are amazing. Each person is so unique and wonderful, I feel as though I learn almost just as much from them as I do from our formal sessions.

Training so far has been fairly similar in structure to that in Hellshire. We meet every day from around 8am to 5pm at a room in a local church, and have various sessions throughout the day. Some are led by people in our group, some by guest current Peace Corps volunteers, and others by our sector staff. We also occasionally go outside the classroom for practicums with schools and other local organizations.

This past Thursday and the Thursday before that, 6 of us went to Rise Kids Club, which is an after school program for at-risk youth in downtown Kingston. Our Youth as Promise group of 12 is actually divided into three sub-categories: Life Skills Counselors (Myself and 2 others), Youth and Sports (3 volunteers), and Life Skills and HIV Prevention (6 volunteers). The Life Skills Counselors and Youth and Sports volunteers went to Rise while the HIV Prevention volunteers went to do HIV prevention outreach work in another part of Kingston. Although we all train and have sessions together every day, we do occasionally split up like this for our work outside the classroom.

Rise was definitely an eye-opening experience as to what it will be like working with youth here in Jamaica. We worked with a group of about 40 9 to 14-year-old boys and girls. The first time we visited, we were mainly just trying to get to know them and do some team-building activities. Although many of our prepared activities didn’t exactly go as planned, we were able to improvise and had a good overall experience there. The activities that did prove most successful were those that really harnessed and utilized the abundance of energy the kids had, which is also something we observed in the strategies used by the Rise staff themselves.

In general, the kids were very enthusiastic and fun to work with – they were so curious and enamored with all of us.. I can’t count how many times I had my hair stroked and was asked, “Miss, is it real?” Although in the moment it seems cute and silly, it’s sad to think about the issues behind their words. The mentality of never being good enough is even more rampant here than in the United States, with young and impressionable youth being the most affected. During our second visit, we split into 3 smaller groups and did sessions on self-esteem. Some of the groups did experience some behavioral issues, but ours went fairly smoothly and I was really surprised at some of the insightful thoughts and comments that we were able to elicit from them. We will be returning to Rise one more time before we leave Stony Hill, and will also be going to the local primary school, YMCA, and women’s center.

Last week, everyone in our entire group 83 travelled around the island for 3 days for what Peace Corps calls “shadowing”. Basically, each trainee is assigned a current volunteer usually of the same sex and in the same general sector/project to follow around for 3 days. The idea is to get a feel for what life as a volunteer is like and to get a more realistic glimpse of what our time here will be like for the next two years both in terms of living conditions and work environment. We got our assignments on the Friday prior to our departure on Monday, and I was assigned to a volunteer named Malley in Savanna-La-Mar, a pretty urban city about 25 miles from Negril on the southwest coast of Jamaica.
Although I technically had the longest distance to travel, my route was actually quite simple compared to some. Myself and another volunteer from my sector took 2 public buses to a bus park by Coronation Market in downtown Kingston, and from there all I had to do was take one “coaster bus” directly to Savanna-La-Mar (more commonly referred to as Sav-La-Mar or simply “Sav”). I met up with a couple of other volunteers from the environment sector who were also traveling to Sav, and the ride took a little under 4 hours. As expected, we were asked to “small up” or scrunch together in order to fit as many as possible in each row of seats, but overall the ride was comfortable and went smoothly.

When we arrived in Savanna-La-Mar, Malley and the other hosting volunteers met us at the bus park and we all went out to lunch. The city was much more urban than I expected, but situated in a very nice location pretty much equidistant from the touristy white beaches of Negril on one side and the quaint seafront town of Bluefields on the other. We had a pretty relaxing first evening together as I picked her brain about her experience in Peace Corps so far. Malley is also a Youth as Promise volunteer and is from group 82, meaning she has been in Jamaica for about 10 months. She works at a recently opened local youth information center out of which she does a lot of traveling for outreach with unattached youth focused on sexual health and HIV prevention.

On my second day there, we spent the morning at her office at the youth information center where she explained her role there and what a typical work day was like for her. In the afternoon, we took a 15 minute taxi to the neighboring town of Bluefields and spent a few hours on the quiet little beach there that we practically had all to ourselves. Once it started to rain we grabbed something to eat at a local cook shop and then briefly visited the memorial of Peter Tosh, a famous Rastafarian and singer of The Wailers who passed away in 1987.

I returned to Stony Hill the next day (Wednesday) and again was fortunate enough to have an uneventful trip back. We had an interview with our project managers last week upon our return and everyone is extremely anxious to find our their site assignments, especially after getting a taste of the possibilities during our shadowing experiences. Although it seems as though they already have a pretty good idea of where they are going to send each of us, no one will find out where they will be placed until after we return to Kingston and regroup on May 7th, much to all of our dismay.. (Apparently this is an attempt to minimize the inevitable “site envy” amongst trainees). After we receive our placement, we will each visit our sites from May 8th-12th, after which we will return to Kingston for a few more days of training before being sworn in as volunteers on May 18th. The end is in sight!

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