Friday, 23 December 2011

Happy holidays from the Christmas lizard

Downtown square in Mobay
Christmas is coming in Montego Bay! And despite the occasional flurries of orange and green election colours, people here in Jamaica make a big deal about Christmas, including all of the usual trimmings plus palm trees.

I have been having my own Christmas adventures this week.  It all started on Sunday, when I was trimming my tree, kindly lent to me by my neighbour.  It was a nice little fake tree, about 3 feet high.  I set it on the table and was putting up lights and then the ornaments.  I noticed a little brown twig and thought, "that would be a good place for an ornament".  I reached up, and the twig moved!  Upon closer inspection, I saw that there was a lizard sitting in my Christmas tree, probably wishing me season's greetings, but anxious to get to his own parties.

Couldn't quite get the focus right, but you can see him.
 I've never had a lizard in my Christmas tree before! Snow, yes, birds' nests, yes, but no lizards.  A Christmas first. A short tussle later, involving the dustpan and a reptile that was not at all convinced this was a good idea, we arrived at a relocation plan.

Santa's little helper, free to return to the wild (but probably not to the north pole.)
After all that fun, I went down to the Yacht Club for a lovely Christmas lunch, at which I not only ate turkey, but also some ham and some beef! (I was sooooo full!) After lunch, Santa Claus arrived at the YC via boat.

Here he comes...
All the kids ran down the dock to see him. (You have to imagine the pitter-patter of little feet on the planks)
"Have you been a good girl this year?"
Chantal and baby Alexa - her first Christmas.
I also attended the Flanker Peace and Justice Centre "Evening of Excellence" that same day.  This is the Centre where I was placed for the first two months of my placement, and it was nice to go back and see some of the people I knew and had worked alongside. The evening showcased the talents of the community youth.

To start it all off, the marching band toured the neighbourhood. Apologies for the poor videography. (Nate, I need some tips.)

The concert was held in the yard just outside the centre.  It included lots of enthusiastic performances - singing, dancing, and poetry recitations.

Waiting for the concert to start.
Sanika Nash, age 8, reciting a poem.
The junior youth dancers, including an energetic Santa.

On a non-Christmas note, on Wednesday my neighbour and I went to eat really good fish. The fish was served Jamaican style, which means that the fish is cleaned and then cooked and served whole.  We had ours steamed, which included the infamous Jamaican water crackers and vegetables (pieces of carrots, pumpkin and okra). It took up the entire plate.  I successfully ate the whole thing, with only minor pokes from the bones. I even ate the eyeball! (Well, sucked on it, really.) That kinda grossed me out, but it was tasty! Credit for the photos below goes to Tamara.

"Really - you want me to put WHAT in my mouth?"
"I ate the WHOLE thing."  - Good Jamaicans clean their plates!
You will note that I'm wearing a scarf because it was a little chilly.  Not chilly like "anywhere in Canada right now" chilly, but chilly like "used to a temperature range of 26-30 degrees" chilly (79-86 F for my American readers).  What can I say, 24 degrees felt cold?

Keep warm for the holidays wherever you are. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and my parents arrive in Jamaica - best Christmas present ever! I hope you will celebrate or just relax with people you love and enjoy good food and festivities.

Sending Caribbean sun your way - Julia

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Stiches and salt water

Life is moving on here in Jamaica.  Much of the newness has worn off - I feel like I've been here for ages, even though it has barely been four months.  My life is falling into a more predictable pattern, with work, having general fun with neighbours, sailors, volunteers and others.  I apologize for leaving all of you out of it - I promise to get back into sharing on the blog more regularly.

Last weekend was spent in the full enjoyment of my newest hobby - sailing! I participated in the MBYC J22 Jamin' International Regatta 2011.  I was crew on "Defender" with Jim Wilson at the helm, and we had lots of fun. Memorable moments include: winning one race against all expectations (we sailed 8 races over 2 days), flying the spinnaker without any major hitches, and sailing back to the yacht club with a glorious sunset on Friday evening after almost 8 (!) hours on the water.

Read the official race report. 
Be sure to notice Defender's rank in race #7!

Check out these great shots of the boats on the water.
It was even more spectacular to be out in the middle of all of the boats. Okay, sometimes we were in the middle, but you also have a really great view from the back ;)

Party shots which include photographic evidence I was there.
The prize giving party was hosted by Lynn and Bryan at their house, which is high on the hills outside Montego Bay. There was much food, drink and general hilarity, as you can see.

Despite a fundamental incompatibility with boats and salt water, I've also been knitting up a storm (okay, just a lot of socks).  Here are some pictures of my finished projects:

"Spring forward" pattern

"Kalajoki" pattern - based on a river in Iceland.

Now I've got to finish my Christmas shopping - everyone is getting rasta hats with fake dredlocks this year - and clean up for house guests.  Several volunteers are meeting friends and family who arrive at the Montego Bay airport so are coming up for a night or two this week, plus my own parents arrive in a week. No dirty corners allowed!

Monday, 5 December 2011

That time of year

It is my birthday this week, and I know you were going to put a large, expensive, heavy present in the mail for me. Well, I'd like to ask you to re-consider on the gifts and instead support the work of Cuso International this holiday season.

Note: For those of you paying attention, you will notice that CUSO-VSO has now become Cuso International. This shift represents internal organizational politics, but does not affect my placement or the general work of this organization.

I have been asked to raise $2000 as part of my volunteering committment. I am willing to forgo the shiney bobbles and trinkets you were going to send me for Christmas if you can dig into the pockets of your pants and send whatever spare change you have my way. 

Seriously, if you give at this time of year, please consider Cuso International.  Every dollar I raise is matched by that Canadian International Development Agency, nine to one. That means that if I reach my target of $2000, $20,000 will be available for Cuso International, which is about 80% of the cost of sending a volunteer overseas for a year.

Visit here to donate now and receive a tax receipt.

From my own experience I can say that being an overseas volunteer is a life-changing experience - my own, and the lives of others affected by the work that I do. Here in Jamaica, volunteers are making a difference with children who are victims of crime, women with husbands or sons in prison, Jamaicans facing police brutality and other human rights violations and more.  Volunteers are also helping spread alternative ways to deal with conflict, working to give youth better leadership skills and developing technology platforms to strengthen non-profit organizations. All of this happens within a framework of transferring skills and knowledge to Jamaicans - this is truly teaching people to fish, not just giving them fish.

I thank you in advance for your support!

The orchid outside my back door

Tamara, my neighbour, and myself enjoying dinner out
Thanks so much to friends and family that already supported Cuso International by making a donation and taking some of my stuff at my "garage sale"!

Monday, 28 November 2011

City mouse, country mouse

One thing I have discovered about Jamaicans is the sharp divide between those who prefer Kingston and those who strongly dislike it. Kingstonians tend to have a general sense of superiority to the rest of the island, referring to everything else as the “country” (with the connotations of backwoods or rural, as we would say at home), and loudly extolling the virtues of the entertainment and shops in the city.  People elsewhere (and my experience is with people in Montego Bay) tend to roll their eyes at this attitude and to complain about having to go down to the city and plan to keep their stay as short as possible.

Now having spent some time in both places, here is my opinion:

What I like about Kingston:
  • Has everything: better groceries, better restaurants, more places to go, more people to see
  • Has a great view of the mountains
  • All the heads of the organizations are here – most NGOs are based here, the government offices are all here
  • Anyone who is anyone lives here. If you show up at the right places, you can socialize with government ministers, tourism big shots, the Canadian High Commissioner, members of the well-known Canadian Woman’s Club, (which has been around for 50 years and has all kinds of eminent Jamaicans as members) prominent musicians, and you can even eat at Usain Bolt’s cafe (although I've been told he isn’t always there).
  • Free lectures, concerts and other events that happen frequently
  • A whole hub of CUSO volunteers and their friends who hang out regularly – there is always someone to see and someone doing something interesting
  • Buses that run frequently with a discernible schedule and a reliable taxi dispatch service

What I don’t like
  • The concrete jungle that holds the heat
  • The ferocity of the traffic and the air pollution that goes along with it
  • The stark difference between the really high-end neighbourhoods and the rough shape of the beggars in the streets – especially those that are children
  • The smelly, hot Halfway Tree commercial market, especially the hassling that goes on there
  • There is no beach access for miles, and it is hard to even see that you are near water

View looking toward downtown Kingston

Houses high up in the hills in Kingston

Sunrise over the mountains in Kingston
      What I like about Montego Bay:
  • The fantastic view out over the bay and into the hills – excellent sunsets
  •  The fact that I can walk from one end of town to the other
  • The fact that it is small enough that I often see people that I know on the streets and “everyone knows everyone”
  • The small town feel means less bars on the window and folks are generally a little bit more relaxed and a little less fearful
  • The Yacht Club – a relaxed group of people and lots of beautiful boats!
  • Easy access to the beach and the waterfront
  • Regular tourism provides fun activities and better customer services at venues like hotels and restaurants

What I don’t like:
  • Limited regular transportation (no dispatch service for taxis)
  • Regular hassle from people who think I’m a tourist and want me to buy something from them
  • Inflated prices (again, for the tourists)
  • More limited selection of shops and items in the shops – currently I am having difficulty finding a vegetable peeler, for example
  • Limited range of services – many things are based out of Kingston and so may require a trip

View of the cruise ship terminal from the Montego Bay Yacht Club

The Montego Bay harbour and lights of the city

At the end of the day, which place you prefer probably comes down to what you like to do and your general experience.  I’m glad to get the chance to be in the city this week, but I’ll be a little bit happier when I get to go home to Montego Bay. J

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Soundtrack to my life

A general update on life this week, and some random bits and pieces:

I've been working in my new placement for 3 weeks now and it's going well.  The pace continues to be slow since my primary focus is networking, which is all about calling people up and waiting for them to get back to you, but I've got some good leads.  On Thursday I was fortunate to tag along with Audrey, a Canadian working here for the Jamaican Ministry of Justice as a consultant on restorative justice.  She and her colleagues were doing a 'sensitization', basically a presentation introducing the idea of restorative justice, in a community near Montego Bay.  Granville, this community, is particularly troubled with violence, and the hope is to place a restorative justice field officer in the community centre in the new year.  It was nice to see the community and hear more about Audrey's work.

On another note, last week when I was driving to and from Negril, we heard this song on the radio several times and it got stuck in my head -"banana, banana".  The chorus is all of the things the street hawkers sell - phone cards, banana chips, and the cash for gold trade. The song is mostly talks about how hard the life of the street hawker is and gives praise to the residents of 'schemes and gullys', neighbourhoods that tend to be down and out. The video is filmed in Kingston and gives a good idea of what it looks like in some of the busier areas.

In addition, I've decided that the song below is currently the theme song for my year in Jamaica. Things have unfolded here quite differently than I imagined they would (as happens frequently) but it has definitely given me a different perspective on life. In the words of the Mick Jagger...

On the sailing front, I raced both days this weekend, and to my surprise, our boat ended up qualifying to race in the Jamin' J22 Regatta in early December!  Visit the Montego Bay Yacht Club's website and you can click through on the left for details on last year's race. In the last two weeks I've had a split lip, various bruises - including both my knees and in weird places like the inside of my elbow - blisters the size of dimes on my fingers, and a broken little toe, all from sailing.  (Well, the toe wasn't exactly from sailing, but I was on a boat when it happened...)

Battered and bruised, but having fun!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Fun in the sun

Just came back from a lovely weekend in Negril.  Kim, another CUSO volunteer, came to stay at my place for Thursday night with her daughter Samar.  Kim's friend Lauren flew in from Ottawa on Friday, and we all drove up to Negril to stay for the weekend.  (Well, I drove, but we all sang along in the car.) It was great fun. Lauren helped Kim and I remember how nice it is to be in Jamaica this time of year, as it is getting colder in Canada.  She was impressed by the scenery, plants, lizards, food, and all of the other things I, the seasoned volunteer, have started to take for granted. And Samar kept us all going with endless energy and giggles as only an eight year old can.

We didn't do too much, mostly sat on the beach in true Negril tradition. I got slightly sunburned, and Lauren turned a very light pink as she tried to catch up on the 2 months of sun that Kim and I have had. Friday night we raced to catch the sunset and just made it in time to have dinner at a very nice restaurant on the cliffs.  (For those of you with weak Jamaican geography skills, Negril is on the west-most side of the island and is therefore famous for its sunsets.)  The second night we had dinner on the beach and on our way home, as we were walking along the beach, I almost stepped on a crab the size of a dinner plate scuttling across the sand. Fortunately for both me and the crab, Lauren saw it and shrieked a warning.

Signing off with sand in strange places...

Lauren and Samar at my place on Friday. Samar must have cannonballed into the pool at least 25 times.

L-R, Kim, Samar, Lauren

Charlie said hello to us and was very interested in tasting Lauren's finger. We headed the sign, however, and kept just out of reach.

On Saturday night we had our dinner in the top level of this structure on the beach.

The required sunset picture.  You all must be tired of seeing these ones by now!

Monday, 7 November 2011

The language of honking

One thing I've noticed about Jamaica is that here you can say many things with your car horn.  When I first arrived, I was frustrated by how I would often get honked at by cars coming up behind me.  I eventually learned that it is usually a taxi wondering if I want a ride.  If I ignore it, it will pass without stopping.

The horns here have many more tones than those at home, both literally and figuratively.  At home, you honk out of frustration or as a last resort before an accident. Consider this common scenario: you're approaching a bend on a narrow road so you let off one clear blast to alert any traffic on the other side that you're coming round. Then, if on the other side you see that another car has stopped to the side to let you through, you would tap lightly on the horn as a "thank-you". 

I've also heard drivers use their horn as a greeting to people they know, to encourage the traffic in front of them to start after the light turns green, or to notify a bike or slow truck that they are coming up behind them.  The horn is a very important part of driving in Jamaica, and not just because the traffic laws are generally seen as guidelines, only to be followed if convenient. 

Of course, the first car I rented in Jamaica had no horn to speak of.  We banged in the centre of the wheel and a pathetic wheeze came out...

You will have to imagine the soundtrack to these photos.  

You can see the mountains north of Kingston

Downtown Kingston

Nice sign
Check out the pothole - I've seen worse since!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


As many people said before I arrived in Jamaica, "Your volunteer work will likely be very different from what you expect to be doing." And they were right.

After several weeks of deliberation and assessment, my placement has changed in its entirety.  Due to many circumstances, but most critically the loss of core funding for the youth program, my placement was not going to work as originally planned.  My role was to expand the Dispute Resolution Foundation youth suspension program, and as you can guess, when an entire program's future is uncertain, expansion is no longer feasible. Last Friday was my last day working out of the community centre in Flanker.

This week I have began my new role as "Youth Program Development Advisor" for CUSO-VSO. The gist of the placement is this: I am working to develop new placements for volunteers in Montego Bay and the western region. As you may recall, I am the only volunteer currently in Montego Bay; everyone else is in Kingston. In addition, CUSO-VSO Jamaica is expanding the kinds of placements for which it recruits. The aim is to place volunteers that strategically align with CUSO's goals, to build momentum in areas that will have significant impact for the country.  Up until recently, volunteering in Jamaica was primarilay focused on the theme of "Access to Justice for Women and Children".  Starting this month, volunteers in Jamaica will also be placed under the theme of "Youth - promoting social and economic inclusion." So my new position dovetails well with the development of the new theme.

All of this means I will continue to live in Montego Bay.  I am working from home, which is a bit challenging.  As the placement develops I expect I will be out and about visiting different people and organizations. For now, I have set up temporary offices in a coffee shop in town and at the Yacht Club a couple times a week, both of which have WiFi and don't seem to be bothered by me hanging around for a while.

I am really looking forward to this role. I will have the opportunity to meet with different organizations and find out about the work they are doing. If (or when) I am successful, I will get to meet the volunteers that are matched with placements that I helped develop! As well, the staff team at the Jamaica program office is very supportive, and it's always good to like the people you will be working alongside. I think it will be great, but keep your fingers crossed for me just in case!

On another note, here are some pictures I took when Wendy was here and we had a drink at the Richmond Hill Hotel - it has a patio with the best view in town, according to the guidebook.

A Canadian military ship leaving the harbour.  We think they were in Jamaica to provide assistance in the case of a hurricane.

Three catamaran ships heading back to the harbour.
The Canadians heading out to sea.
A final blaze of glory.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Houseguests and sailing success

Two CUSO-VSO volunteers, Carol and Onyka came up to visit me this past week.  Onyka arrived on Tuesday to visit offices in this region for her placement, and Carol came up on Friday night just for fun.  We rented a car and drove to Negril, where we had a great day full of adventures.

Our nice little car...
ready to go!

We had lunch on the beach...

Carol on the left, Onyka on the right

Onyka rode a camel...
I was the camel trainer for the photo

We saw the cliffs of Negril from Rick's Cafe...

Onyka checking it out

All in all it was a lovely day exploring the west-most-point on the island.

On Sunday my guests left to return to Kingston and I went sailing.  It turned out to be a great sail, as I was called on to hoist the spinnaker sail all by myself and I rose to the occasion.  We lost the race, but within a respectful distance. Once again, I've found a time when it is useful to be able to reach a little further than the average person!

Happy Halloween to you all.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Rain, thunder and lightning

Not my picture, but you get the idea - the spinnaker is the striped sail.
On Friday night, I was sitting at home, finishing knitting my sock (one down, one and 4 more pairs to go) and I hear a tiny "pop" like a light bulb breaking and then a giant "kaboom" of thunder.  Then 3 minutes later, the same thing happened.  I was too curious about what had actually happened to be scared!  It was raining at the time, so there was no danger of fire.  My neighbour texted me to ask if I was ok.  She had been sleeping and that was a rude awakening...

Turns out, the lightning hit the pole with the internet recevier and blew it up. So the internet is down again.  It was down last week in the whole region, I guess, so despite wanting to have internet at home since I moved in at the beginning of September, I've had 5 whole days of successful online access at home.  Here's hoping the track record improves.

Today I am writing you from the Yacht Club, which has wi-fi.  This morning I went sailing and we raced.  We flew spinnakers, which are big sails that you use to go downwind.

I even got to "fly" the spinnaker, which means holding one end of the line (rope) and easing or tightening it depending on the wind.  It is kind of like flying a giant kite, except you are attached to it.  Very cool! We got rained on twice, but fortunately, I've figured out to wear my bathing suit underneath my shirt and pants, so it isn't too bad.  Plus, it's still balmy at highs of 30 Celsius with cooler evenings at 25 degrees or so.

Enjoy the fall colours for me :)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Weekend with Wendy

I had a lovely weekend with Wendy Lee, another volunteer who came up from Kingston for work and took the opportunity to stay with me and have a holiday.  It was great fun and we did lots, but you'll have to read all about it on her blog, since I am having internet problems at home and work - hopefully to be resolved soon!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Reporting from the field

In Kingston last week, I was lucky enough to meet with people at several organizations that work alongside the Dispute Resolution Foundation (DRF). This included the Planning Institute of Jamaica (POIJ), who is responsible for developing policy and position papers for initiatives across government. We also met with the Peace Management Initiative (PMI), an organization I was particularly impressed by. 

A note on acronyms – There are lots of long-titled nonprofits and government agencies in Jamaica so acronyms are frequent here. Some of the time, people can’t even tell me what it stands for.  Lots of the time they are pronounced phonetically – for instance, University of the West Indies is UWI, pronounced “you-wee”.  I sometimes get lost in the acronym swamp, but will try to guide you through it.

The PMI is an organization that was started by the office of the Prime Minister several years ago.  The staff is small, about 6 people, with board members playing an active role. Their focus is to go into communities facing violence immediately after a crime has taken place, and work directly with the perpetrators (the staff call them “shotters”, as they fired the shots) and the victims and their families.  They have several social workers on staff, and the goal is to de-escalate the emotions of all involved to prevent or at least mitigate retaliatory action that has the potential to develop into a full-on community-on-community war. 

I was particularly impressed by the way the staff talked about the complexities of the situations they work in. Two of the staff grew up in communities with high levels of violence and so had very personal perspectives. One senior manager talked about how in some communities, the violence can be linked back to criminal gang activities, such as drug trafficking and extortion, where a Don, or gang boss, drives the violence as suits his business. In other cases, he said, the communities can no longer remember why the violence started in the first place.  Think the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet. A complicated mix of a retaliatory culture, strong community affiliations fostered by political corruption in the past, and poverty mean that sometimes you shoot at the boy down the road simply because he lives down the road.   

It also means that there is “geographical” discrimination in Jamaica.  For instance, Flanker, the community within which I work, is known as a “bad” community.  A gentleman came in for help in applying for a job, and when asked for his address, he said “Put Ocho Rios” which caused several of the community centre staff to speak heatedly about having pride in Flanker. 

In my opinion, the worst manifestation of this pattern has been in the retaliatory violence. The staff noted that in the past, retaliation included targeting the shooter directly.  Then it changed to targeting his friend if the shooter was not available.  Then his girlfriend or family.  Now sometimes it can be anyone in the “opposing” community, including a random person walking down the street.

As you can imagine, the cycle is intense.  However, the staff of the PMI said that they had made significant progress in several communities in the Kingston region. They had built up trust and made connections with people in the community so that they were amongst the first people on the scene if there was violence, and they sometimes received anonymous referrals that something was going to happen and they were needed to de-escalate the situation. 

As you can probably tell, I was really struck by my conversations with these people.  Not only because of the graphic, high drama nature of the work they do, but also because of their recognition of all of the people involved in the violence, be it “shotters” or victims, as real people, with the right to counseling and for their story to be heard. As one staff person said, “People in some of these communities don’t know how to be different. They want the violence to stop, but they don’t know what to do.  That is where we come in.”  

From the island of Jamaica, this is commentator Julia signing off…

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Home Sweet Home

Heading back to Montego Bay from Kingston today.  It's always nice to be in Kingston and hang out with other CUSO-VSO volunteers and friends, but I'm looking forward to my own place and the cool breezes in Montego Bay.

Since I'm heading home, here are some pictures of my place:

This is the living room - you can see out the doors the small balcony and the greenery. On the left you can see the edge of the spiral staircase which takes you to the loft bedroom upstairs.

This is the view looking away from the french doors.  The door goes out to a central walkway which isn't used too often.

This is the kitchen - a "one-bum" kitchen as we used to say.  But it's just me so that is fine.  Of course it is particularly cluttered on the day I took this shot.

My room.  There are lots of windows but I usually keep them closed since the path outside is well used. It also helps keep the room cool for sleeping.

The upstairs loft. You can see that although there are 2 single beds, it is now currently my yoga studio, which is very nice. I've been quite diligent about coming up here to do some sun salutations each day.

So now you have had the grand tour of Villa 1A.  Not so big, but certainly fits my needs.  You're welcome anytime!