Disclaimer: “The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”
By | Por: Scott Elliott
This entry serves to provide my initial impressions after my first six weeks at my final two-year site. My previous blog left off with a brief written description of a site in the mountains of St. Mary, Jamaica. On May 22nd, 2018, I swore in as an official Peace Corps volunteer. Click this link to see footage of the Swearing-In Ceremony. Immediately after the ceremony, I was driven to my site by my supervisor and welcomed by my host family and neighbors on the veranda of my living space. They first showed me my room, which I am pretty happy about overall. I get my own fully furnished flat, which consists of a private bathroom, kitchen and living room in addition to my bedroom. I set down all my things, showered, changed, and joined everyone in the veranda.
Two dogs and one cat had all just given birth the previous week. In total, there were 10 little puppies and 4 kittens running around loose. Click here and here to see video footage of them. I was asked if I wanted to adopt any of them. I declined because I don’t want to commit to taking care of them. If it were a laying hen, quail, dairy goat, tilapia pond, truffle-sniffing pig, or anything functional then I probably would have responded differently. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have two years to stay in this area. That is about enough time for a person to build an attachment to an animal and only make it more difficult for Close of Service. Adopting a puppy or kitten would have been a financial burden for me. Pet feed, medications, fleas, potty training, and teaching overall obedience are not services I am willing to exchange for the companionship and loyalty that a pet might or might not give. Sadly, all 10 puppies and one kitten perished a few weeks later due to disease and neglect.
Besides the puppies and kittens, I was introduced to a few pigeons and pigs that they held in small cages between the back of the house and the river down in the gully. They appeared to be getting enough attention to live to adulthood, but it seemed far from an optimal life. Just like my host brother in Hellshire, they were fascinated with the idea of having pet pigeons and not using their eggs. Their chickens and goats appeared to be thriving the most, since they could walk around and forage like a wild animal. There were about 25 humans there, three of whom were to be my roommates for the next two years. The rest of them had come to greet me or maybe just get some free food at my welcoming party.
Just like at my previous host stay, my site evaluation form claimed that my host father is considered a trained chef. Peace Corps gives me the option of using in-country allowances to choose between paying host families to be fed prepared meals versus purchasing and preparing food on our own. We are supposed to sign a written agreement that includes information about meal planning. When he came out of his kitchen to serve all of us that evening, I was ready to see whether I would be preparing my food for the next two years. He cooked up some standard Jamaican fair for everyone. It consisted primarily of a scoop of bony meat and a heaping mound of white rice. Each plate also came with a typical Jamaican salad, which consisted of shredded cabbage, cucumber, tomato, and carrots. The only difference from the Costa Rican salads that I have had is the absence of lemon, which I find only makes it inferior. Then he came out of the kitchen with a large cup of red liquid that people call “juus,” which is a mix of cold water, white cane sugar, and food coloring. Everything was served in styrofoam and all of the cutlery was disposable plastic. I took one sip of the juice and one bite of the rice and gave the rest to the person sitting next to me. He promptly devoured it. I found none of this to be very spectacular, but I was still not ready to decide. I was just excited to meet people and frantically write everyone’s name down so that I would not forget. People were excitedly telling me things like “im mek nais dumplin, I bad, yu afi chrai I ina di moros. Yu gwan laik I,” which I later found to mean that “he is good at frying bleached wheat flour in canola oil with imported ingredients and putting it in styrofoam. You have to try it tomorrow. You will like it.” Those who know me should know that I did not. In fact, I decided at that point with certainty that I will make my own meals for the next two years of service.
So far so good. One of my favorite things about my site is that there are about 20 coconut trees that I have access to everyday. Sometimes they fall from the trees and roll all the way down the hill to my doorstep. I have learned several new ways to use the coconut. Bringing my Vitamix blender down here was one of the best items that I packed down here. A high-powered blender and the coconut make a fantastic pair. I feel blessed to have a refrigerator and freezer that now works as of last week. I store coconut milk in there, which is known locally as coconut juice. After a couple of hours in the fridge, the oils rise to the surface and the water sinks to the bottom. Then the oils begin to solidify into a coconut cream. Sometimes I put the coconut cream into the freezer and it turns into the best ice cream I have ever had. It is so simple! It is very low in sugar, vegan, gluten-free, paleo friendly, organic, and probably even healthy, dare I say. I also discovered a wonderful use for the shredded coconut that is left over from the coconut milk extraction. I spread it out on a metal tray and put it in the toaster oven that came with my kitchen. I turn it on the lowest heat, which happens to be the only setting that works with the voltage in my house and stir it with a fork once an hour until it dries out. Just as it starts to turn a golden brown, I throw it back in the blender once more and I’m left with an extremely versatile coconut flour that seems to last forever in a sealed bag in the fridge. I sprinkle it on food to thicken it up and give it a nice coconut flavor. I made a couple of coconut-breadfruit cakes that were great too.
Almost all of the trees in my area are fruit trees, such as jackfruit, ackee, mango, breadfruit, star apple (caimito), cola nut, moringa, sweet sop, lychee, Jamaican (Water) apple, cashew, mamey sapote, niisberry, tinkin tou, and guinep. The ackee and tinkin tou deserve special attention, considering how abundant, globally unusual, and nutritious they are here. Both have very unique flavors and nutritional profiles, and both appear to be very unique to Jamaica. I see a lot of economic potential for Jamaica in processing the fruits of these two trees. However, much research and experimentation must be done on proper harvesting, handling, preparation, and marketing. Ackee has already been banned in the US due to deadly poisons it has from improper processing. Tinkin tou grows to become an enormous tree, which can make harvesting hazardous. It also has a very strong odor, which may be as offensive as durian. The only large non-fruit trees that I have identified in my community are cedar and mahogany. I purchased a copy of “Manual of Dendrology Jamaica” and had it autographed by edidtor and tree taxonomist Mr. D’Owen Grant from the Forestry Department.
What I learned in the book is that virtually all indigenous trees were removed decades ago, and used for charcoal. Bambusa vulgaris, also known as common bamboo, was planted in its place in hopes to quickly replenish charcoal stocks. However, the bamboo was found to be too low in carbon density to produce charcoal efficiently. Instead of harvesting the bamboo, it spread all over my community and has become a pest that competes with agricultural crops.
Much of what I have learned about forest management comes from botanical gardens. The Wilson Botanical Garden and Las Cruces Biological station is just as far from Finca Sylvatica as the closest botanical garden is from me. The paralleling walking distances have profound implications. In fact, today I just did the two-hour one-way walk to Botanical Gardens to get Wifi access to publish this blog entry. I have another two-hour walk back home after this. The next nearest place for me to get Wifi access would probably take all day to walk there. My phone does have a data plan, but the service is very spotty. If I hold my phone out the window, sometimes I can get enough signal to read or send out a Whatsapp message, but internet browsing or anything more advanced than that is out of the question. The most convenient way for me to do that is to use some of my limited data, walk up a really steep hill after school hours, spray on a layer of mosquito repellant, and sit down on the far north-west corner of the pavement a primary school up the hill. Today, however, I am using the Gardens’ Wifi to replenish my podcasts, download some files, and use more internet than my data plan allows. I just got accepted as a member of Technology For Development (T4D), which is a Peace Corps group that provides technology resources to PCVs. I have also been in contact with the Universal Service Fund (USF) to put together an internet program at the primary school. I hope these connections will help me become better connected as well. At the very least, this trip to the Gardens should be much easier because I just got myself a used bicycle. The only problems it has is the brakes, the chain, the back intertube, and the lack of gears and working racks. It only has one gear and is a women’s bicycle, but I don’t mind. Once I get it up and running, I will be pedaling around again somewhat like old times. It is better than attempting to maneuver the bus system here. Just look at this bus stop.
The environment is manageable. Even though I am living in the coldest place that I have ever lived in Jamaica, it is still 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. To stay cool, I keep lots of things in the freezer, like my water bottles and food and clothes. Quite a bit of what I eat and drink comes straight from the fridge or freezer. Sometimes I take numerous quick showers throughout the day. Other times I just wear a shirt after washing it and let it dry on my body instead of on a clothesline. The vegetation appears very lush and organic, but upon closer inspection, you will find garbage that has been swallowed, but not digested by the jungle. Usually after I dig down through the plastic bottles, tin cans, calcium geology, and subsurface roots to about one foot deep, I find what appears to be a very dark, silty, and fertile soil. I have dug holes to plant things in hundreds of places around here and have yet to do so without finding at least one piece of garbage. It is as if it has become incorporated into the overall humus layer.
I had the chance to visit a stone and sand quarry and see how sand is mined. It was surprisingly simple. A tractor just drives into a rocky area beside a river and picks up a load of rocky sand. It then drives about one or two minutes up to the top of a hill and dumps it over a cliff so that it lands on top of a big triangle-shaped screen. The rocks roll off the screen to the side and the sand falls straight through the screen. The tractor then drives around and scoops it up. It was as simple as I could have ever imagined.
The Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) came by the primary school up the hill a few weeks ago with a truckload of pineapple suckers. We proceeded to plant them in this humus layer on a steep hillside between the school and the road that I live on, where soil erosion has caused landslides to cover some of the road. According to RADA authorities, pineapple is good for erosion control. We made an A-frame and demonstrated how to use it with students from the school as well as local farmers and community members. We then formed a contour line with wooden stakes that we drove into the ground. We cut off the bottom end of the pineapple with machetes, which is a practice that I have never seen before. Then we made a triangle shape with some 2-foot-long wood pieces and string to measure out the distance between holes so that each contour line had two rows of alternating pineapples. We used a pick axe to make a hole in the humus-garbage and stuck a pineapple sucker in each hole. Later I came back and picked out the visible garbage by hand. I guess I just have a hard time with the concept of growing food in a place that looks like a garbage dump. Another plant that is recommended for erosion control is vetiver grass. Since there were several clumps of it growing wild, I transplanted off-shoots of it along the road border to prevent more landslides from occurring in the future. I moved the soil that had already collapsed into the road onto the lower side of the road and built a pumpkin and spinach garden with it.
My garden at Cape Clear during training is still thriving. I have gone back twice and been able to harvest bags and bags of kale, lettuce, kallaloo, and okra. It is hard to get out there to pick veggies, so the level of production is beginning to dwindle. On my first week at my final site, I started a garden with about 30 cucumber and 30 bak choi and now they are almost ready to harvest. I started a small fruit tree nursery that already has about 30 baby tinkin tou trees, 20 sprouting cashew trees, 5 mamey sapote sprouts, and 30 sprouting miracle berry trees. I planted a few trees with the primary school principal around the parking lot. Just last week, my oldest host brother let me clear out and prepare approximately 100 m2 of flat garden space on the north side of his house to plant ginger, turmeric, scallion, peppers, cerassi, moringa, tomato, kallaloo, cabbage, bak choi, and lettuce. During the soil preparation, I hauled out about 5 big rice sacks full of garbage that was buried in it. Just yesterday I looked at the garden and noticed that people had thrown a few more plastic bottles in the garden.
Getting people to stop littering is hard! I can’t count how many times people have thrown garbage at me as if to assume that I am equivalent to a garbage bin. Garbage is often just doused in kerosene and lit on fire, such as this burning mattress down the street from my house.
The agricultural department at St. Mary High allowed me to give a talk on garbage management to their sixth-grade students. I had the students participate in a group quiz activity to help increase awareness on how long it takes materials to break down. Some of these teenagers thought that an orange peel takes over a thousand years to biodegrade and that a styrofoam cup takes three days to break down. It took a great deal of persuasion to convince them otherwise. It is hard to blame these children either. The older generations, including staff that I engage with, litter nearly every time they have the chance. Even as I am on my way to put something in a waste receptacle, I have often been encountered by individuals who snatch what is in my hand and toss it deep into the bushes. They then turn to me with a smile that demands gratitude for helping me dispose of the item. One strategy that I am trying out is boycotting the use of new disposable utensils and plastic bottles. On 8 occasions since arriving here in Jamaica nearly four months ago, I admit that I made an exception to this rule. Yes, I accepted two styrofoam cups, one styrofoam plate, two styrofoam boxes, and 3 plastic bottles. However, I still have 5 out of those 8 items and continue to reuse and repurpose them. I write my name on them with a sharpie to signal to others that it is not to be thrown in the bushes or somewhere inappropriate. Two of the other three were far to mangled to be reused and the last one was thrown away without my permission by an unknown suspect. People have come to know me now as that guy who wont accept styrofoam or plastic, even if it contains their favorite Jamaican food. I have done much more difficult things with my willpower, such as being vegetarian for 7 years, vegan for 5 years, raw vegan for 3 years, 80-10-10 raw vegan for 2 years, fruitarian for a year, water fasting for three weeks, and dry fasting for 100 hours. I’d rather make my own food on a real plate, thank you very much.
Another strategy that I have worked on with my supervisor was to paint our garbage receptacles with fresh paint. They do look much nicer to me now that they have been painted. Perhaps the strategy is to just have patience, resilience, and perseverance, which are the three words that my program manager defined, printed, and laminated for me when I received my site placement. My program manager also just approved me for a three-day visit to Denbigh, the largest agricultural exposition in Jamaica from August 4-6, 2018. It will be full of environmental education programs that I hope can be transferred to my site. In the case that funding is the best strategy, I applied for a grant to the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ) and plan to apply for another one to Kusanone Grass-Roots Human Security Projects.
Education is a bit different here than what I am used to. For one, graduation is held about two weeks before the last day of the school year. Another is that graduation is a much bigger deal than what I have been accustomed to. The ceremony can last many many hours and go on all day. Speeches, awards, songs, prayers, vote of thanks, national anthems, school anthems, pledges, and guest speakers will take up the whole day. I watched a graduating class of 13 go on for 4 hours. There were about 30 gold-painted plastic trophies handed out, half of which went to two students. I am a bit excited for the summer season. It might reduce the amount of time I spend picking up garbage and give me more time to grow something in the green space surrounding the school.
Last weekend we had the first annual “Elderly Banquet” at the primary school where we honored all of the elders in our community. We went around the area for a whole month and invited over one hundred guests. It was a great way to meet the older generations and bring them together and treat them with the respect that they have earned. I designed a logo and banner for our organization. During the event, I was tasked with handling the “Certificates of Acknowledgement” for all of the attendees. I asked all of the guests what their name was and the correct spelling, which turned out to be one of the most difficult tasks that I have been given during my Peace Corps Service. About half of them seemed to know how to read. A few of them didn’t want to give me their name. One of them kept repeating the letters “bs.”
She would yell loudly, “jus rait BS!” (Just write “BS”)
I would reply, “So a dat yu firs niem? (So is that your first name?)
“And yu las niem?” (And your last name?)
“So yu niem ‘BS BS’?” (So your name is “BS BS?”)
It went on longer than that, but I had to stop because she was starting to yell and I didn’t want to give the poor old lady a heart attack. Someone later found out what her real name was and told me she was “mad.” Eventually, I managed to get about 40 names and spelled about 38 of them correctly. The rest of the attendees either didn’t get a certificate, or they walked up at the end and requested one.
It was a great way to practice my Patwa, especially since so many of these elders could not speak anything else. I was truly forcing myself to speak the language. Some aspects of the language involve a deep understanding of the Jamaican culture, even if it may just be in how it adjusts to another culture. For example, one of the biggest tourist destinations around here is a place called “Tapioca Village.” My project partner took me there and I expected to get some tapioca, but apparently the name is metaphorical. There was not a sign of cassava growing or pudding on the premises. Only one person on site, who was the owner, knew what tapioca is. He said that he tried it once or twice a long time ago. My supervisor and project partner just thought it was some name with no connection to a dessert. The owner’s reasoning for the tapioca name is that tapioca sticks together and that people with solidarity stick together. It was a stretch for me to see his vision. I wandered around the place with my project partner while we waited for lunch and we found a repurposed bus. It was an old school bus that was turned into to dormitory. My project partner laid down on one of the beds at around noon and fell asleep to my surprise. While waiting three hours for him to wake up, I chose another bed and fell asleep too. So it goes here in Jamaica.