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.