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: Scott Elliott
I’m now approximately 1/3 of the way through this Peace Corps service, 1/3 of the way through my expected lifespan, have performed yoga for almost a 1/3 of my life, and I have now had dreadlocks for a little over 1/3 of my life. There is no turning back on Peace Corps at this point. Life can be tough here, but as we say in Jamaica, “mi kyan manaj” (I can manage). My adaptation strategy basically involves taking it easy, going with the flow, taking everything one step at a time, embracing the moment, settling into my niche, not rushing into anything, and really just enjoying my free time. Like so many of the things that I find myself doing here, this blog has nothing very urgent in it. Rather, it is a compilation of three memorable stories that should help my readers understand what makes life hard here and how I have figured out “ways to manage” here in Jamaica as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).
Story one: “Dem did mash op mi faam.” (They bulldozed my garden)
What once was my biggest project at my site has recently been bulldozed over. It started back in May 2018, just after I was first sworn in as an official PCV. Nearly all of the 15 or so regular attendees to our Scotts Hall Past Students Association (SHPSA) agreed that we needed a demonstration garden planted in a weedy area on the left side of the pic above captioned “Before (August).” They wanted an edible garden that could hold the soil on the steep hill and prevent any more landslides from occurring in the future. It was my first assignment, so I regarded it as my big chance to make a good impression on my community. In about a couple of months, I thought I had several types of useful plants well established. Dozens of huge pumpkin plants were flowering and just starting to bear fruits. About 100 moringa and castor oil plants had gotten about waist height. I planted another 100 vetiver grass plants along the road for their great erosion control properties. When the “Before (August)” pic was taken, about half of those vetiver grass plants were turning vibrant green and looked to be holding the soil well. At that point, it was apparent to me that the land slippage issue was solved. However, the Jamaican Transportation Authority somehow decided that the whole hillside needed a concrete retaining wall, a project that would cost many millions of Jamaican dollars. I did not agree with the plan, primarily due to their extremely poor timing. Summer break was just ending at Scotts Hall Primary School. Students and staff were about to start using the road again. Peak rainy hurricane season was just about to start. Bulldozers plus wet dirt equals lots of mud all over the road. Worst of all for me is that it would mean that the hundreds of hours I had spent terracing and planting that garden would get bulldozed before I could even harvest my first pumpkin. To make matters worse, the day after it was bulldozed, there was a hurricane off the coast that caused a huge landslide and mud to cover the whole road. Cars could not pass for a while. Some school time had to be canceled. The workers spent about a week just trying to clean up the road. I would estimate that this million-dollar project would have been half the price if they just did it in the dry season, a few months earlier. Rather than complain or participate in such malpractice, I found my niche in utilizing all of the soil that had so conveniently been tilled by the bulldozer to create several new gardens. I sowed them with string beans, okra, kallaloo, and velvet apple seeds. The new gardens will be even better than the previous.
Story two: The waste of abundance.
The pictures above are of two fruits that are in season currently in St. Mary, Jamaica. Neither is native, but they both thrive here as enormous and non-invasive trees. It is a good thing that I love climbing trees and picking fruit. The two fruits are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum of Jamaican awareness. Velvet apples are native to The Philippines and are virtually unknown here, whereas ackee is a part of the national dish of Jamaica. When I found the velvet apple trees, I didn’t even have to climb them. The velvet apples were all over the ground and dropping from the canopy above as I was picking them up. I collected a bag full of them and brought them to a room full of Jamaicans at the Castleton Botanical Gardens Cafe. Not a single person there had ever tried them or heard of them. Ackee, on the other hand, is a fruit that I rarely find in abundance all over the ground. They really need to be picked and collected right away because the ackee here does not fall off the tree on its own when it ripens. Unlike me, most people in my community are far too afraid to climb the towering tall trees to pick ackee along the roadside. Millions of pounds of ackee must go to waste in this way every year in Jamaica. I believe that ackee could become a booming export for Jamaica, if not another tropical country that wants to take advantage of such amazing fruit. I have only heard bad reviews of all the commercial ackee products and I think it is because they are just not preserving it correctly. My host mother and supervisor tell me it should be frozen like blueberries, not canned. Today I made ackee ice cream and it was amazing. If only I could figure out a way to make it a commercial product, I could make Jamaica rich! Here is my recipe in case any of my readers want to start up this kind of business venture. Let me know if you need any help or someone to pick your ackee tree. I just boiled some water in a pot, threw the ackee in the boiling water for a few minutes until it turns bright yellow, drained off the broth to be used for soup, froze the ackee, then blended the frozen ackee with ice, coconut milk, coconut kefir, and a little bit of honey, bitters, and apple cider vinegar. Wow, that was probably the best ice cream that I’ve ever had. Somehow it feels even more special to know that it is quite likely that no one else has ever tried such a yummy combo. Until I can make it a commercial product, I suppose I’ll just keep enjoying my recipe and sharing it with others.
Story three: Farmers, Yogis, Wrestlers, and Boxers Unite?
Think about how many people you know who can claim to be a farmer, yogi, wrestler, and a boxer? I don’t know a single person that participates in all of these physical activities on a regular basis, and I am by no means an exception. I would consider myself a farmer and yogi, but not a wrestler or boxer. When I purchased Finca Sylvatica back in 2005, I instantly became a farmer. As some of you may already know, I broke my first decade of never missing a day of yoga this summer. In the early 2000s, I used to practice a lot of breakdancing. In 2005, I attempted a head spin in the grass, which caused the worst injury of my life. My neck tweaked out and I haven’t been able to break dance ever since. Sometime back in 2006, I started doing yoga. It helped my neck and spinal column get back into place. By the summer of 2008, I was practicing yoga every day without exceptions. I remember a few occasions in which it was particularly difficult to practice yoga. One of them was while I was on a small sailboat deep in the tumbling waves of the Caribbean for three days straight. Another was on a foot of snow during my bicycle trek through a winter blizzard in New Mexico. I have done it more consistently than sleep on a daily basis for the past ten years.
On the other hand, all of the wrestlers and boxers in the community that I am living in do not practice farming nor yoga. So why would anyone who gets more than enough physical exercise through farming and yoga have any desire to start wrestling and boxing (or vice versa)? Well, I don’t, but the Project Partner that Peace Corps assigned to me happens to be a professional wrestler and boxer. He owns a gym down the street from my house and has asked me to teach yoga classes there. However, the best place to do yoga is in the wrestling/boxing ring. There are no yoga mats at the gym and I don’t want my yoga practice to morph into wrestling, boxing, or anything else that would likely cause myself any physical injury. When I learned that my Project Partner get his front teeth knocked out last month during a fight, I decided that I would rather remain a spectator in such activities. Fortunately, Peace Corps recently approved my Program and Design Management application to attend a training where I may receive funding for yoga mats and a yoga class. I’d rather people around me take care of one another than kill each other for entertainment.
Click here to watch my Peace Corps Project Partner come up on stage and perform a suplex about 100 meters from my house.
Story four: What Happened to the Water?
Here in Jamaica, we are now at the peak of the rainy season, yet nothing was coming out of any of my house’s water spigots for nearly a week. Running water came back on as a trickle for a few hours after being cut out for five days straight. It is a good thing that I have been collecting water storage containers that I find thrown out on the side of the road. People litter so many things here. In the past few months at site, I have managed to find and clean two 5-gallon buckets and three-gallon jugs, along with some other nice treasures such as a pocket knife, knife sharpener, and a lot of seedling trays. For five days, I heard my host family, neighbors, and school staff complaining about the lack of water until Yesterday. That morning, my host brother and I drove up the hill past Scotts Hall Primary School, which also has had no water for the past week. My host brother is, by the way, not an employee with any water company or the government. He is Jamaican in his 20’s that drives a white-plate (unofficial) taxi around town. We got out by a Jamaican Water Commission (JWC) facility and sign and followed the community water line up a steep hill. Apparently, the JWC workers stopped managing the water source a while back because nobody would pay them to do it. It was a good thing that we each had our machetes with us because the path to the spring was overgrown with weeds. We chopped our way down the old path and eventually reached the community water catchment tank. We looked inside this ~10 cubic meter concrete box and discovered it to be completely empty. We then followed the 3-in metal source pipe up a bit higher to the spring. There were three rotten breadfruits floating in the uncovered pool. The metal pipe coming out of the spring had a foot-long hollowed out piece of bamboo jammed in it, which was used to connect it to the rest of the metal piping. Water was spraying out where the bamboo connected with the pipe. We propped the catchment pipe up with a taller piece of bamboo so that the source pipe lined up on the ground nearby each other. A lot of water still leaked out of our jerry-rigged contraption, but we just hoped it made enough of a difference to get water to our house. Sure enough, about 10 hours later, a few droplets started coming out at my kitchen sink. It seems to take about an hour for those droplets to fill one of my gallon jugs. All I had to do then was to make sure to come back to the sink every hour or so to change out the jug so it wouldn’t overflow. The whole experience reminded me of all the times I spent fixing the spring water at Finca Sylvatica. This time, rather than fixing it for myself and whoever was living at Finca Sylvatica, I was fixing it for a large community, two schools, several shops, and a church that all seem to lack the initiative to do it themselves. And rather than the water cutting out for just a few hours, this water had cut out for five days. Living here in Jamaica makes me feel that I have taken water security for granted, especially at Finca Sylvatica, where there is some of the highest quality year-round perpetual spring water with nothing to pollute the watershed except the indigenous jungle.
I am really starting to miss Costa Rica. Thank you so much to Rio and Rafa for caring for the farm against invaders while I’m away. Thanks for maintaining and utilizing the abundance of Finca Sylvatica. Thank you for keeping the vibes mellow and peaceful. And lastly but not least, thank you for being guardians to the greatest water source I have ever had the privilege to drink from.