I Went to Jamaica, Part One: I Might Be a Better Person Now

After several days of intense emotional and physical work in Jamaica, everything looks different back home.

Feb 16, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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Tuesday morning I woke up to a flat grey sky; it’s February in New England, and usually this time of year I am dragging out my light box for a half hour of fake-sunshine therapy every morning, to stave off seasonal depression. This bleak sky was hardly out of the ordinary, but to me it looked alien, oppressive, a reminder that I’d been away for ten days, quite far away in fact -- another world.

For the past twelve years, my father has been participating in medical mission trips to a small town on the northern coast of Jamaica, a place called Port Maria. My dad is a church guy, albeit not the kind of church guy who routinely warns me that I am imperiling my immortal soul by not being a church person myself; indeed, he is the kind of church guy who thinks very deeply about religious philosophy, and who does not knee-jerkily believe things without coming to his own conclusions first.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone; I am, after all, his daughter.

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The medical mission happens in collaboration with the Saint Mary’s Parish Anglican Church, a weatherbeaten stone building, one hundred fifty years old, perched on the edge of the glimmering Caribbean. The team consists of doctors, dentists, nurses, and nonmedical folk like myself, all of whom create a pop-up clinic in the church’s function hall to provide free medical care to the people of Port Maria and its surrounding communities. 

To get from Montego Bay, into which our flights arrived, to Port Maria, one must take a bus on a two and a half hour drive along the northern coastal highway. The trip takes you past numerous all-inclusive resorts with names like Sandals and Beaches and Couples and Breezes; if you see white people, they are probably tourists on their way to these all-inclusives, all of which are surrounded by high walls with concertina wire on top and locked gates with stern guards -- they go in, and rarely do they come out again for the whole of their stay. “All inclusive” means just that; you can go and swim in a tropical blue ocean and stay in a beautiful hotel room and get all your meals and entertainment on-site, and the most you see of the Jamaica where the people serving you drinks and cleaning your shower actually live is on the ride to and from the airport.

It’s understandable; with the walls and the gates and the concertina wire, the Jamaica outside the resort seems inhospitable and dangerous enough that it must be kept out of the places where the tourists go. Tourism is Jamaica’s primary industry, and so this isn’t really a problem for most folks there -- at least it wasn't for anyone I talked to about it -- except for the fact that literally thousands of people who visit the island get only the tiniest Disneyfied sense of it all. 

The CIA World Factbook puts the racial makeup of the island at 91% black and as little as 1% white; the vast majority of Jamaica’s residents are descended from the hundreds of thousands of African slaves brought to the island back when sugar was a brand new idea, and by the late 1600s, black slaves outnumbered free white folks by a sizeable margin. It’s no surprise that American tourists in particular would find this inner Jamaica intimidating, if not frightening, and that they keep to their all-inclusive resorts with the rest of the white visitors.

On my first day there, I might have longed to join them. But I wasn't there to hang out with well-off white folk like myself; I was there to work, and to offer what paltry assistance I could to some of those Jamaicans living in poverty.

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I mostly worked in optometry, helping people to select reading glasses with the appropriate magnification, giving visual acuity tests, and fending off those who would jump the queue or otherwise try to get something for free without seeing the optometrist. The tragic truth of these medical clinics is that there is never enough care to go around; even if I turn myself inside out and wring every last drop of care from my brain, it would fall short of what was truly needed. Even working ten or more hours at a stretch, every day we turned folks away because there was no time to treat them, and it was difficult to not feel badly about that. 

There aren’t many white folks in Port Maria, if there are any at all, and there are even fewer up in the hills above the town. Being white, I can never begin to know what it is like to experience institutionalized racism; that kind of oppression is perpetrated by white folks, not imposed on them. But it certainly was curious to be one of only a few white people around for the whole of my trip; everyone noticed me, everyone watched me, and everyone remembered me. 

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More than once I would introduce myself to someone who would tell me they had seen me in the church a day ago, or out in the cemetery that afternoon -- that they were otherwise aware of me long before I was aware of them. More than once people would get my attention by calling, "Hey white lady," and I knew they meant me, because I was the only person around fitting that description.

On a visit to a rural primary school on Albion Mountain, two small kids watching me work on a nonfunctional computer (I also did minor tech support; on these trips, it seems, one goes where one is needed) whispered to each other in bewildered tones, “She’s white!” Another small child whose vision I was trying to test began curiously prodding my arm, and then feeling his own, and then reaching out to grasp mine again; after a moment’s confusion I realized he was working out whether my skin felt different than his.

The people I saw and met and worked with -- hundreds of them, literally -- live in hand-built homes and shacks, some of them comprised as much of hurricane debris as new materials. The Jamaican landscape is dotted with half-finished houses, with people living in completed first floors while they try to scrape the money together to finish a second or a third level; they rent out rooms and sections to bring in more funds; they keep goats for eating and pick their produce from the trees, or in the market, from other people who pick the trees.

While in Jamaica I ate heretofore unknown fruits; I ate goat in many forms; I ate half of a cup of soup made from the foot of a chicken, and I am sorry to say that when I found the foot resting languidly at the bottom of the cup, looking as terrifying as an unexpected soup-bloated chicken foot could possibly look, I stopped eating. I stopped eating the soup made from the goat’s head and testicles too. And I felt terrible about it on many levels. 

But there were lots of other points where I didn’t give up, as much as I occasionally wanted to. 

Many of the folks coming down from the hills primarily spoke Jamaican Patois (Patwa), an English-based creole language. English-based, but it is not English, having its own slang and idomatic phrases; this was less a barrier than I might have expected, as it is remarkable how much we can all understand of one another with soild eye contact and hand gestures. 

It wasn’t only the Jamaicans themselves with whom I had to bridge a divide. The majority of the Americans with whom I was working and traveling are churchgoing people; Christians, I suppose is the word for it. I am not. I am in fact decidedly put off by church stuff and by the vast majority of organized religion, and I have been for the whole of my adult life. This isn’t because I had a bad experience; there’s no story behind it, aside from my having failed my confirmation exam as a teen and sort of taken that as a sign that church and I were not a pairing meant to be. Who fails their confirmation exam? I do.

Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many Jamaicans; indeed, there are churches everywhere you look, with even the smallest backwater towns boasting several in various Protestant denominations, a veritable buffet of faith. Although as part of this group I had to attend morning devotionals (a series of prayers and Bible readings) and church itself (TWO SUNDAYS IN A ROW), I said nothing, believing it more important to be respectful of the thing that may have been driving my 25 colleagues to contribute to this effort. Honestly, who am I to judge if churchgoing inspires such good work? 

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I wasn’t there because of religion; I wasn’t there because I thought I was called to help the good souls of Port Maria and its environs. I was there because these trips are important to my father, and I was there because I thought it might be good to step out of my comfort zone -- all the way out -- and see how people in another place live. I acclimated to Jamaica faster than I might have thought, and I even came to handle the work -- involving an enormous amount of face-to-face contact with vast numbers of individuals whose lives could not be more different from mine -- better than I ever dreamed. I am not a people person, but I became one, for those days, for those people.

In fact, it’s been far tougher to re-acclimate myself to being home. The positive influence has been that I find myself making eye contact with everyone, a practice that is so out of character I can’t even tell you. I talk to strangers, and strangers smile and talk to me, and this is unusual as I am typically so wrapped up in my own head that I tend to give off strong GO AWAY vibes to anyone who might approach me. 

I also see and notice things I did not notice before; toilet paper in bathrooms, everything made of plastic, freshly painted walls, carpeted floors, TV screens everywhere.

It’s occasionally overwhelming. Yesterday I stood in the produce department of the supermarket, stunned by a wave of dizziness and nausea as I stared at the vast selection of tidily-arranged fruits. I didn’t want to buy anything. It seemed so absurd. There was so much, all of it scrubbed clean and featureless, although I know some of those fruits came from places where people like the people I met picked them for a few dollars a day, and then went home and slept in a shack made of corrugated steel and salvaged concrete blocks. 

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Where was the dirt? The sweat? The millions of different faces, smiling and scowling, speaking strange words in low tones so that I have to ask again and again for them to repeat themselves?

I don’t know how much this trip has changed me yet. It’s so easy to fall back into the familiar rhythms of my life, and I’m still processing so many of my feelings about it. The experience seems both far away and uncomfortably close, like my consciousness has been split in two. I have more to say about it -- lots more -- and I will probably continue to write about it for a while still.

What I can say for sure is that I feel less afraid of people for the time being, and more connected to even those with whom I have little in common, based simply on our shared humanity. I do hope that feeling sticks around for awhile.